After a decade filled with a lot of changes, a new decade began with another one. Mid-way through January, general manager Ray Shero was fired hours before the team would take on (and beat) Tampa Bay on January 12. The GM responsible for constructing the team for the past five seasons was gone. Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald was named the interim and it remains up in the air what the team’s aim actually is for the future. As for the month of games, the results in January ended up being similar to last month. After a 5-7-2 December, the Devils went 4-5-2. Is it more fun than before? Possibly.
Before we get in too deep into what should be a busy month of February, let us look back at the month that was one more time.
The Games of January 2020
As the Devils ended December on a high note, the Devils began the first month of 2020 with an achievement. On January 2, the Devils visited and prevailed 2-1 in regulation over the Islanders. The win was not just the first of the decade, but it was the team’s third win in a row. It was something they have not accomplished in well over a season. For a team as poor as New Jersey has been in the last two seasons, that is saying something. The winning streak would not last long. In their next game, the Devils hosted Colorado and were decisively defeated in a 2-5 loss. The officiating in that one was suspect but the comeback fell well short of what was needed.
On Tuesday, January 7, the Devils hosted the Islanders and the decision was made for them to wear their heritage jerseys. The same uniforms they have not been successful in for quite some time. The winlessness in the red, white, and green continued as the Devils lost 3-4 in an overtime to the more tolerable NYC NHL team. Two days later, the Devils visited Our Hated Rivals. An embarrassment of a defensive performance led to another big loss to Our Hated Rivals, 3-6.
With three straight games without a win, the Devils were looking at a incredibly nasty back-to-back in the coming weekend. First, they had to go to Washington D.C. to play the Capitals, who then had the league’s best record. Then, they returned to the Rock to host Tampa Bay, who were then the league’s hottest team. Amazingly, the Devils won both games. Louis Domingue was fantastic all weekend. The offense caught fire in D.C. in a 5-1 pounding of the Caps. Just after the news came out that Shero was fired, the Devils players put in a great effort to snap a then ten-game winning streak by Tampa Bay in a 3-1 win. Yes, the Devils actually beat the Capitals and Lightning on consecutive nights. Perhaps the Devils were to catch fire on their own.
No. The exact opposite happened. The Devils were on the road for their next three games and lost them all while giving up a lot of goals. On January 14, the Devils went down huge to Toronto and then battled to make the score look more respectable in a 4-7 loss. On January 16, the Devils went back to Washington to play the Caps. This time, the home team obtained a measure of revenge and the Devils lost 2-5 to them. On January 18, the Devils visited Ohio to play the Blue Jackets - a team they have lost the previous eight games against them. That streak increased to nine as the Devils were odious in a 0-5 loss. After three crushing losses, it was a relief that the Devils had their bye week and were off until after the 2020 NHL All-Star Game weekend.
The Devils closed out the month with two more games after that break. On January 27, the Devils prevailed in a thrilling shootout win over Ottawa. Despite giving up two shorthanded goals on a single two-minute power play and running into a super-hot opposition goaltender, the Devils found a way to win 4-3 through a shootout. There were even more goals in the month’s final game for New Jersey. The Devils hosted Nashville, who hired John Hynes earlier in January. In Hynes’ return to the Rock, the goals were flowing freely on both sides. The Devils built up small leads but they could not maintain them. Similar to the Ottawa game, a shootout was needed to decide the winner. Unlike the Ottawa game, Nashville would own the shootout. The Devils ended the month with a 5-6 shootout loss to their former head coach. It was a somewhat sour note to end January for a team still mired near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
By the Numbers
This section might as well be summed up here. The 5-on-5 offense saw a big boost save for the goals. The 5-on-5 defense cratered and the goaltending became far less effective. As a result, the Devils were once again bodied in 5-on-5 play and were outscored by nine. The power play did a little better than last month and the penalty kill went way down in terms of success rate. All together, it was not pretty. As if it would be for a team that went 4-5-2 in the month.
5-on-5 Situations: The Devils were much more offensive in January. And they gave up way, way more than what they created.
That the Devils were near or at the the bottom in every against rate stat in the month is remarkably bad. The interim head coach was the assistant who was responsible for the defense. I know Peter Horachek was made an assistant and Mike Grier saw his responsibilities increase after Alain Nasreddine was made the interim head coach. If they are involved with this then they need to be not involved with this ASAP PDQ. The team has gone from defending poorly outside of the slot from a stat standpoint to defending poorly all over their own zone. The team’s against-rate stats at least reflect what most fans have observed and lamented all season long. It is still uglier than a Philadelphia hockey jersey. As great as it is to see the Devils’ offense actually create a lot, it does not mean anything good as they still gave up even to their opponent. I guess this makes them more “fun,” as per Mike’s recent post. Whether or not you agree is up to you.
What also hurt the cause was that the Devils’ percentages went south in January. While they took a lot more shots and had nearly as many scoring chances, the team’s finishing left a lot to be desired. They converted a not-really-nice 6.69% of their shots, yielded just 19 goals. Mackenzie Blackwood absolutely cooled off in January and his injury meant appearances by Louis Domingue and Cory Schneider. Outside of that one weekend by Domingue, they were all bad as the team allowed a lot of goals. The expected goals model sugggested that they were due to give up quite a bit anyway. The Devils “exceeded” the model in reality.
On an individual basis, few Devils looked good in 5-on-5. Jesper Bratt was one of the exceptions with a dynamite on-ice xGF% of 64.7% along with the best on-ice CF%, SF%, and HDCF% percentages among skaters in January per Natural Stat Trick. On the defensive side, Will Butcher had an awesome statistical month after a few where the numbers pointed out that he was gretting creamed. Hopefully for him, his season is turning a corner. Other Devils that looked good or at least OK in 5-on-5 were Blake Coleman, Nikita Gusev, Nico Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri. The rest of the team looked poor to really bad. Down in the bottom end in many of these categories for the month were Kevin Rooney, John Hayden, Jesper Boqvist, and defenseman Andy Greene. Greene’s decline was very much on display in January with an on-ice CF% of 43.77%, an on-ice SF% of 44.32%, and an on-ice xGF% of (a woeful) 38.03%. Given that his partner, P.K. Subban, did not come close to such low on-ice rates in 5-on-5 play, this past month could support the idea that Greene’s time in New Jersey should be up soon.
As a whole, a lot of Devils could be doing much, much better. And it has to start by limiting the opposition’s offense instead of just letting them do whatever they want and selling out for blocks or planning on cleaning up rebounds. Given how the goaltenders did in January, that plan yielded a lot of goals against.
Power Play Situations: Similar to the 5-on-5 offense, there were plenty of attempts and shots. Not so much in the way of scoring chances or goals.
I do not know who can look at this can call it good. It was good that the Devils generated a high rate of shooting attempts and shots in man-advantage situations. But look at the scoring chance rates. That they were so low points to how the Devils have been firing away on their power plays. A lot of their attempts have come from the point or from behind the dots on the sides of their 1-3-1. Those shots are not particularly dangerous or historically successful given their distance and angle. I think that contributed to the low shooting percentage of roughly 10.7%. While six goals in a short January did not rate poorly on its own, the goal scoring rate was definitely not high. Add the three shorthanded goals allowed - two on one power play in Ottawa on January 29 was a nadir - and man advantages yielded a net positive of just three goals for the month. That is not good.
I will give this bit of credit to the Devils coaching staff. They did try a few changes in personnel for different looks. Miles Wood has become a screener on the second power play unit for a few games. There were a few games where the Coleman-Zajac-Gusev line were the forwards on the second power play unit. P.K. Subban has been used both as a point man and as a winger. Ditto for Damon Severson on a few occasions. Perhaps most of all, the Devils’ breakout do not frequently involve a drop-pass or a backwards pass from the neutral zone to their own zone. With nothing much to play for and not a lot of success on their power plays over this whole season, the Devils can absolutely afford to experiment. Maybe they will get lucky and find something that clicks.
Penalty Kill Situations: The success rate took a big hit in January.
The main suspect for the Devils’ penalty kill rate falling below 80% in January is easy. The goaltending did it. Again, Blackwood got cold, Domingue was only good for two games, and Schneider was, well, Schneider. As much as the skaters can do, the goalie is typically a main reason why a team can kill a penalty. They have to make the save. Not enough of them did. As a result, the Devils gave up eight - which, in a short month, was a lot - and they exceeded the expected goals model in a bad away.
That stated, the skaters could have been better in some regards. While the team had an OK xGA/60 rate, the shot attempt and scoring chance rates against were close to being in the bottom ten of the league. While the team did well - or the opposition’s inaccuracy helped out - to keep the shots against rate low, there could be more improvement in terms of keeping the opposition at bay from firing the puck. The skaters can also help out by taking fewer penalties for fewer shorthanded situations. However, the skaters did redeem their PK work by scoring a staggering five shorthanded goals in the month of January. Coleman had three of them, Zacha had one, and Rooney had one. This meant that the shorthanded situations only cost the Devils a net of three goals in the month - which is actually quite good. In that sense, I can understand if you think the Devils’ penalty kill was not a problem in January despite a relatively low success rate, a relatively high number of PPGAs, and poor goaltending.
Additions and Subtractions
As stated in the beginning of this post, there was another massive change off the ice for the New Jersey Devils organization. GM Ray Shero became ex-GM Ray Shero just hours before the puck dropped on January 12. Clearly, there was a difference in opinion in how things were going between Shero, the owners, and perhaps even others in management. In a roundtable discussion, we discussed several questions coming from this news a few days later. Even to this day, it is not clear why the move was made now or what the team is going to do in the rest of this season. Fitzgerald was kept on as an interim GM. This implies that ownership may want to see who is available to be a full-time GM. Until that and a new permanent head coach is hired, it remains to be seen what the Devils are going to go for in the future.
There was plenty of activity in the active roster throughout the month. Multiple players sustained injuries that kept some out for a couple of games. The most notable one was for Mackenzie Blackwood. He suffered a concussion in the game against Our Hated Rivals and he would not be cleared for return until the January 18 game. Blackwood did get into that game as relief. With Blackwood out, Cory Schneider was recalled to back up Louis Domingue, who was recalled at the beginning of the month after a short conditioning stint with Binghamton. Schneider would make two appearances in relief of Domingue before getting the start in Columbus, where he was replaced by Blackwood. After that game and as the bye week began, Schneider was demoted back to Binghamton. The Devils’ goaltending as a whole in January was not good. Both Domingue and Schneider showed again that they were not good. I know I missed Blackwood when they were in net. It shows that even if Blackwood is legitimately the goalie to lead the Devils in net for the next several seasons, the position is still a weakness in the organization.
At forward, there were also a number of notable absences at points. Jack Hughes missed the first five games of the month due to an upper body injury in the game against Boston that ended 2019. Jesper Bratt sustained a lower body injury in the first game against the Islanders. He would return for the first game against Washington after missing four games. His absence led to a call up for Ben Street, who was then named as Binghamton’s representative for the AHL All-Star Game. Street played in three games and got hurt in the January 7 game against the Isles. He remains on injured reserve. Kyle Palmieri suffered a foot injury shortly after the news came out that he would represent the Devils at the NHL All Star Game. This injury took place in the first game against Washington on January 11. Nico Hischier was named as Palmieri’s replacement for the All Star Game and he made it to and from St. Louis in one piece. Michael McLeod was called up as coverage and made one appearance in the game against Columbus. McLeod was sent down to Binghamton afterward and has remained there since. Other than Street, no one missed more than five games in January but the timing of the injuries led to lines and such being shuffled around.
Speaking of demotions, there was one more notable one made at the bye week. Jesper Boqvist was sent down to Binghamton after the Columbus game. Apparently, Boqvist’s European assignment clause expired in December. This meant he could be sent down to the AHL; the Devils did not have to decide between Boqvist playing in the NHL or the SHL. Boqvist has not been recalled after the bye week ended. I suppose the thinking is that it is better than he hone his offensive game in the AHL than play limited minutes alongside Kevin Rooney and John Hayden for very little success. As the Devils do not have much to play for in 2019-20, I would anticipate Boqvist returning to New Jersey before the season’s end. If only to see how much he has or has not improved.
Devil of the Month
Typically, I use this section to highlight a Devil who consistently excelled in the month. No one really did that well throughout all of January. The ones who stood out to me had a flaw or two that made me think of someone else. There are a couple of different directions that you could go in for this one. (Think: Nikita Gusev (if I named three people, he would be the third), Will Butcher, and Jesper Bratt if only for his on-ice rates in 5-on-5.) Here are the two I settled on for honors.
You need to score goals to win games. As much as I respect what the expected goals model does in terms of how it represents what happens on the ice to give one an idea of whether it is good or not, the actual goals are the ones that count. And Blake Coleman continued his torrid season with a team-leading seven goals in eleven games in January. To put that in perspective, only eight players in the entire NHL scored more than seven goals in January. Production is not everything but they are not nothing either. High amounts need to be highlighted. He also continued to be the team’s leading shot taker with 49 - twelve more than P.K. Subban. In terms of achievements, Coleman put up a hat trick in the Toronto game as well as scored three shorthanded goals. In 5-on-5 play, Coleman was one of the few Devils where when he was on the ice, the Devils out-shot and out-attempted their opposition in January. His on-ice rates for the penalty kill in January were great or at least greater than most of the regulars. That stands out in a month where the Devils’ PK was anything but great. The offensive efforts forced the coaches to even give Coleman a little power play time, which has been uncommon for the team’s leading goal scorer. To that end, Coleman is my Honorable Mention for Devil of the Month of January 2020.
As for the actual Devil of the Month, I am going to go with the team’s All-Star representative: Nico Hischier. Coleman had the benefit of having a set line together all month. Gusev-Zajac-Coleman continues to work and work pretty well. Once again, Gusev and Coleman had very productive months while posting some solid 5-on-5 rate stats on a team lacking in that regard. Hischier had to go through a couple of games with Bratt, who was outstanding with Hischier in January, and Palmieri, who was having a good month in his own right. On top of that, the Devils faced plenty of opponents with serious firepower up front. Hischier had some really tough match-ups in January. He also played nearly twenty minutes per game on average per NHL.com. Despite these challenges and heavy workload, Hischier still finished the month as one of the few Devils with an xGF% over 50% (Gusev and Coleman fell short), a CF% over 50%, and a SF% over 50% in 5-on-5 play. Hischier still managed to put up four goals and four assists to tie Gusev in points for the month, which featured some great plays and individual efforts. It was not a coincidence that he was the team’s representative first for the Last Man Standing fan vote for the All-Star Game and then the replacement for Palmieri in the All-Star Game. He’s a blossoming star. Give him more games with Bratt and Palmieri and he’ll shine. And without them, he can still shine. Therefore, I declare that Nico Hischier is the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of January 2020.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
The Devils entered 2020 as the 30th place team in the NHL and 15th in the Eastern Conference. The Devils ended the first month of 2020 as the 29th place team in the NHL and still in 15th in the East. I cannot really say the Devils really made much progress. I do not know if anyone honestly expected any progress. They are still very much a Bad Team. They may be different as a Bad Team. Perhaps you think they are more fun or battle back more. Fine. The larger point is that they are still Bad. With Shero gone and Fitzgerald only in the GM role on an interim basis, there is a lot of uncertainty for the future. Even for the upcoming NHL Trade Deadline on February 24, what is the approach? Will they be sellers? Stand pat until the new GM comes in? Who knows.
As Devils fans like myself have become more or less veterans of witnessing lost seasons, I have learned to try to appreciate the positives when they happen. Such as winning the first game of the month to make it three straight wins for the first time in seemingly forever. Such as seeing the Devils struggle against a hot goalie in Ottawa only to see the Devils torch them in a shootout for a win after a bye week plus the All-Star weekend break. The peak of the month was obviously the stunning back-to-back wins over Washington and Tampa Bay. Few expected one win that weekend, nevermind two. But they did it. The objective observer in me needs to point out that winning weekend was bookended by two three-game winless streaks. However, what is the point? To underscore the fact that they are a Bad Team? But I know that. You know that.
So we grasp towards the silver linings where we can. At least the team is seemingly more offensive. At least Gusev-Zajac-Coleman works. At least Hischier gets elevated when he is with Bratt and/or Palmieri. At least Will Butcher does not seem to be a lead weight in 5-on-5 play in this past month. At least Domingue had those two awesome games. At least Wayne Simmonds ended his goal drought. At least Coleman had his hat trick. At least the Devils are not total doormats like, say, Detroit. It is not much but they are somethings. And those somethings help keep us invested in a team after another month where the team could not even win half of their games in the month, they remain near the bottom of the standings, and the biggest change in the organization involved personnel who was not an active player. Hopefully there will be more somethings to hold onto in this month of February; and perhaps an idea of the team’s short-term future by the night of February 24.
Now I turn this over to you. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in January? Who impressed you the most among the Devils in the month? What was your favorite game? What was your least favorite game? What did you learn from this month in review? Do you agree that Hischier is the Devil of the Month? If not, who should it be and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils in January 2020 in the comments. Thank you for reading.