In December, the New Jersey Devils fired John Hynes and traded Taylor Hall to Arizona. In January, the New Jersey Devils fired Ray Shero. What would the Devils do in February? They would go and trade their captain Andy Greene and one of their leading scorers and popular forwards in Blake Coleman eight days before the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline. Then the Devils traded three more players on the day of the deadline itself. All the while, the Devils were surprisingly successful on the ice. The Devils had one of the better records in the NHL in February by going 7-3-4 in 14 games. Did the team start playing that much better? No. But they had MacKenzie Blackwood, who was arguably the best goaltender in the entire league last month. Superb performances by a goaltender can make up for a lot of issues - and he did just that in February for the Devils. It may not mean much for a Devils team who was out of the postseason picture months ago, but the success cannot be ignored.
Just as the Devils have begun their final five weeks of the season, let us look back at this success and the month of February for the Devils one more time.
The Games of February 2020
The New Jersey Devils opened the month by celebrating their past. On February 1, the Devils honored the 20th anniversary of the 2000 Stanley Cup winning team. Petr Sykora got his chance to skate a lap with the Cup, something he was not able to do in Dallas back in the year 2000. The Devils appropriately hosted Dallas on this night. Unfortunately, the 2019-20 Devils played up to their reputation of making big, costly defensive mistakes. This led to a 2-3 loss in overtime. Two nights later, the Devils hosted Ilya Kovalchuk with Montreal. The Devils went up early in this one, putting up a 3-0 lead. This lead dissipated from the second period onward. The Devils needed a last-minute equalizer from Kyle Palmieri to force overtime. Overtime was not enough and a shootout was needed. Guess who won it in the shootout. Yep. The Devils lost 4-5 through a shootout. The Devils picked up points in their first two games, but how they transpired made me think that they could have won either one.
On February 6, the Devils would get their first of seven wins in the month. They traveled to Philadelphia and stunned the crowd. Despite the Flyers drilling Blackwood with shot after shot after shot, the Devils managed to score many goals on very few shots. Specifically, 5 out of 17. The home fans became increasingly irate as the Devils frustrated the Flyers, 5-0. The result was great even if the performance was not at all idea. Blackwood continued his excellent play on Saturday against Los Angeles. He faced a lot of shots and allowed nothing for a second straight game. The Devils put up three of their own to make it a 3-0 win. The Devils were on the cusp of another winning streak.
It was not to be. Despite having two days off, the Devils decided to start Louis Domingue on Tuesday, February 11, against Florida. Florida out-paced the Devils in scoring, led by a fourth line centered by a super-hot shooting Noel Acciari with two defensemen slotted at each wing. That line scored three goals in a 3-5 loss to Florida featuring a less-than-exceptional play by Domingue and continued awfulness in their own zone. Blackwood would return to the net on Thursday, February 13, against Detroit. The Devils played like hot garbage in the first two periods against the worst team in the NHL this season. Blackwood was beaten in the second period, ending his bid for a third straight shutout. However, after 45 minutes or so of bad hockey by New Jersey, the Devils exploded for four goals in four minutes in the third period. The Devils went from being behind to Detroit to managing a comfortable lead in a short amount of time. The Devils won 4-1 almost in spite of what they did in the majority of the game. That kind of performance would not hold up against better teams. And it did not on Valentine’s Day. The Devils visited Carolina and suffered a decisive 2-5 loss to the Canes.
February 16 was a shocking day for the Devils fan base. Hours before hosting Columbus, the Devils announced that they traded Andy Greene to the Islanders. They also announced that Blake Coleman was held out for precautionary reasons. He was dealt to Tampa Bay during the game itself. In the meantime, the Devils were hosting a team they have been winless against in their last nine and have not beaten since 2017. It was not pretty at times as they registered 55 shots against Blackwood. But Blackwood was more than good enough to maintain a tie going into overtime and through it. In an extended shootout, Jesper Bratt scored the decisive goal, Blackwood made one more stop, and the Devils finally beat Columbus for the first time in a long time. The 4-3 shootout win was a very pleasant surprise despite how Columbus drowned the Devils in possession and shots in regulation and without Greene and Coleman involved at all.
I mentioned Bratt in particular as Alain Nasreddine decided to make him a healthy scratch for the team’s next game in St. Louis. He was not on any trading block. It was for reasons of “consistency.” The 18 Devils skaters who did play in St. Louis on Tuesday were consistently terrible as the Blues effectively skated circles around them. Domingue played very well but he could not stop the onslaught in the Devils’ 0-3 loss to St. Louis. This would turn out to be Domingue’s final appearance as a Devil as he was scratched and placed on waivers prior to Thursday’s game against San Jose. Bratt was appropriately activated and he made a point to prove the coaching staff wrong. In a tight and ugly game where Blackwood had to be the star again, Bratt scored a beautiful breakaway goal to open the game’s scoring and P.K. Subban converted a power play. Despite their performance, the Devils pulled off a 2-1 win over San Jose. The Devils would host Washington on February 22 and put in one of their legitimately good performances of the month. Washington did not dominate this game. If they had a swell of an attack, then the Devils responded. What’s more is that the Devils went up 2-0 on Washington. While the Capitals battled back and Alex Ovechkin scored his 700th career goal, the Devils won the day. A late power play was extended by another penalty and Damon Severson converted the 5-on-4 situation. The Devils held onto the lead to win 3-2. Ovechkin’s milestone will forever be linked to a regulation loss to the worst team in the division at the time. It was a good win to end a successful if non-ideal week.
The Devils ended February with a road trip that continues into March. On paper, it was a favorable trip with the first four of the five opponents being beneath the Devils in the league standings. Three of those four would take place in this month. On February 25, the Devils went to Detroit and played their best game against them this season. It was a more complete effort with Cory Schneider - yes, really - playing well and the power play - yes, really - succeeding wildly. The Devils won decisively 4-1 to sweep the season series against Detroit. On February 27, the Devils began the California portion of their trip. This did not go so well. The Devils played one decent period in San Jose and poorly the rest of the way in a 2-3 overtime loss. On Leap Day, the Devils finished the month in Los Angeles. They had a poor first period, a somewhat better second and third periods, leaned heavily on MacKenzie Blackwood, and flopped in overtime in a 1-2 loss. It was a poor end to a month that was actually good in terms of results as the Devils went 7-3-4. However, at this point of the season, the Devils earning 18 points does nothing for them other than move up to 26th in the NHL. Or, still be among the worst teams in the NHL.
By the Numbers
I have been a big proponent of how important 5-on-5 performances have been from a statistical standpoint. It is the most common situation in hockey. Good teams typically do well in this situation. Bad teams typically do not. While much can change on a given night, over a time period like, say, a month’s worth of games, we can better understand how good (or bad) the team really is. Is it possible for a team to be successful without being good in 5-on-5 situations? Yes. You just need to be rather good or performing exceptionally well in a lot of other areas: goaltending, finishing plays (read: shooting percentage), and special teams. Believe it or not, but that is how the Devils achieved their results in February.
5-on-5 Situations: This is hideous.
I remind you, the reader, that there are 31 teams in the NHL. To finish 31st in a specific statistic for a month means the team was the very worst. That includes Detroit. While the Devils have avoided being the singular worst team in all 5-on-5 stats, but they were a bottom-five team in every category except of high-danger scoring chances. And that provides little solace given that the Devils were among the worst in scoring chances as a whole. If you watched several games in February and felt the Devils were getting out-played, then these stats support your assertion. Whether you favor attempts, shots, scoring chances, and/or the expected goals model, the Devils were just abhorrent in 5-on-5 play in February. So much so that a chart like this should be brought up anyone suggests that Alain Nasreddine should be retained as part of the coaching staff after this season. Sure, the players are the ones playing but a lot of these red-colored values are due to the team’s remarkably ineffective systems.
The only stats that were not miserable were in the percentages. The Devils’ skaters shot quite well throughout the month. Had they been able to generate anywhere close to a decent number of shots in 5-on-5, then they could have scored more than just 23 goals in February. Fortunately for the Devils, MacKenzie Blackwood was arguably the best goaltender in the world for the month of February. He made seven appearances and put up a dominant 97.1% save percentage in 5-on-5 play. That is not a typo. Here is the same link to Natural Stat Trick so you can see it for yourself. Only Cory Schneider, who played two games before the end of the month, was better as he was perfect. Blackwood’s superb play in the net and Schneider’s stellar two appearances more than made up for Louis Domingue’s poor 87.1% in his five final appearances as a Devil. The Devils had the second best save percentage in the NHL in 5-on-5 hockey. Despite giving up boatloads of attempts, shots, and chances, the Devils conceded just 24 goals. Absurdly great goaltending can make up for a lot of issues. For the Devils, it was a reason why they won seven games and took four others beyond regulation. A better team in 5-on-5 would have achieved even more.
Power Play Situations: I am not making this up: the Devils’ power play was very good in February.
Yes, the man advantage that has been such a sore spot got hot in February. Granted, the heat was on for two stretches. From February 4 through February 13, the Devils scored at least one power play goal in five straight games. In a three game stretch from February 20 through February 25, the Devils scored one, two, and then three power play goals. Still, you cannot knock the overall results. The Devils’ power play was one of the league’s best in February.
This is supported by most of the stats listed in this chart. Their rate of shots and high-danger chances were in the top ten. Despite barely being in the bottom ten in shooting attempt and scoring chance rates, the expected goals model calculated them as being a top-ten team in power play scoring - and the Devils exceeded that. The Devils’ shooters had a very good rate of converting their shots. Plus, the Devils did an excellent job in generating power play situations. The two shorthanded goals were bitter when they happened, but the power play units had a net goal differential of +10. For a Devils team that has had mighty struggles with playing up a man earlier this season, this was refreshing. It also contributed to the Devils being able to put up a more successful record in February compared with past months.
Penalty Kill Situations: The Devils’ penalty kill remains fantastic. Perhaps the biggest lesson of the 2019-20 season with respect to Nasreddine is that a player, a team, and/or a system being excellent on the PK does not mean they are any good in their own end in even strength situations.
The Devils had the league’s best success rate in this past month. The Devils had the league’s best save percentage in penalty killing situations in this past month. Per Natural Stat Trick, Domingue was perfect, Blackwood stopped 37 of 39, and Schneider stopped 6 of 7. You cannot ask for much more than just three goals allowed. The on-ice rate stats for the Devils were great across the board. Whether it was in allowing shooting attempts or high-danger chances, the Devils were better than the majority of the league in this past month. The expected goals model figured that the Devils should have allowed just under 5 goals per 60 minutes; their actual rate of goals allowed was about half of that. The Devils were shorthanded 40 times, so they were a net positive (+9) compared to their power plays - which is another plus. All that and the Devils scored two shorthanded goals. Not only was that another top-ten count, but it meant the Devils’ penalty kill goal differential was a mind-boggling -1. Just -1.
You cannot ask for a better penalty kill performance. It is amazing how well the Devils perform in their wedge-plus-one formation and yet they are so horrendous in their own end in 5-on-5. Again: being amazing on the PK does not necessarily translate to being good at defense in general.
Additions and Subtractions
As the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline was in February, significant subtractions were made in this month. The Devils have made seven trades all season and five of them took place in February. Here is a quick run down with links to each deal.
- On February 16 before the Devils played Columbus, the Devils traded Andy Greene to the Islanders for a 2021 second round draft pick and prospect defenseman David Quenneville.
- On February 16 during the Devils-Columbus game, the Devils traded Blake Coleman to Tampa Bay for prospect forward Nolan Foote and Vancouver’s conditional first round pick. The condition is that if Vancouver makes the playoffs, it’s a 2020 pick. If they don’t, it’s a 2021 pick.
- On February 24, the Devils dealt right winger Wayne Simmonds to Buffalo for a conditional fifth round pick in 2021. The pick will become a fourth rounder if Simmonds plays in at least ten games and Buffalo makes the playoffs. The Devils retained half of Simmonds’ salary.
- On February 24, the Devils sent Sami Vatanen to Carolina for prospect winger Janne Kuokkanen, minor league defenseman Fredrik Claesson, and a conditional fourth round pick in 2020. The pick will become a third rounder if Vatanen plays in 12 or more games with Carolina or at least 70% of their playoff games. No pick will be awarded if Vatanen plays fewer than five games.
- On February 24, the Devils swapped goaltender Louis Domingue with goaltender Zane McIntyre of Vancouver.
Within an eight-day period, the Devils moved two defensemen playing significant minutes, their third-line right winger, their back-up goaltender (who was sent down to Binghamton days before the deadline), and their popular useful-anywhere forward in Blake Coleman. CJ wrote that Rebuild 2.0 begun with the Coleman deal. I cannot disagree with that sentiment. The returns are about the picks and prospective forwards Foote and Kuokkanen. They are not filling in the holes left by the players the Devils traded away - and they are not meant to do so. Out of all of the moves made, only Claesson is currently with New Jersey. He was formally called up for the team’s road trip at the end of the month after spending all season with Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Charlotte.
Vatanen being traded can be seen as a surprise as he was held out since the team’s first game of the month. He was on injured reserve up through the trade to Carolina. Will Butcher got hurt early in the game in St. Louis and was ruled out for the road trip. Combined with Andy Greene being dealt, and the Devils have had to dig deep into their system for defensemen. Connor Carrick has become a regular in February out of necessity Colton White, Dakota Mermis, and Claesson have been called up and have played in this month. Mermis has been the most impressive of the three and the coaches have responded by giving him an average ice time of 18:40 in his four appearances so far. White was sent back to Binghamton before the end of the month and Josh Jacobs was recalled to be an extra defender for the remainder of the trip.
Up front, the only significant injury at forward has been for Nico Hischier. He was also injured in the Dallas game at the start of the month. Hischier did return after missing six games. Jack Hughes filled in as the top line center in his absence. Hughes was moved to wing after Hischier returned in an attempt to give him more offensive opportunities. The trades of Coleman and later Simmonds opened up more spots. Nick Merkley was recalled for the Detroit-Carolina back-to-back, made his debut in New Jersey against Carolina, and played fairly well in a depth role. He was returned to Binghamton on the day of the deadline. Michael McLeod was recalled in his place for the road trip.
In terms of scratches, the only one of note was the healthy scratch of Bratt for the St. Louis game. It was stupid then. It was right after he helped create a goal against Columbus and scored the shootout-deciding goal. It is stupid in retrospect. Bratt has been on a bit of a tear since the scratch with four goals and an assist in the team’s final five games of the month. Given that he went pointless in just five games all month and shotless in one, I would say consistency was not a real issue for Bratt in February. Good for him to succeed whilst also making Nasreddine and his staff look poor for their poor decision.
Devil of the Month
Normally, I leave some suspense in naming the Devil of the Month. Not so for February 2020. It is MacKenzie Blackwood. But first, as is tradition, the honorable mention.
I tend to value how well a player has played over all of the month. Consistency matters. Jesper Bratt was rather consistent in February. Moreso than most other Devils. Bratt finished February tied with Nikita Gusev, Damon Severson, and Kyle Palmieri by achieving 10 points. Unlike those three, Bratt had one fewer game to achieve that due to a stupid-then and stupid-in-retrospect decision by Nasreddine to healthy scratch him before the St. Louis game. The reason at the time was consistency. Per his gamelog at NHL.com, Bratt only had five point-less games whilst only going shotless on Valentine’s Day in Carolina. Bratt entered February on a point streak and he ended the month with four goals and an assist in the team’s final five of the month. The production was fairly consistent and more than most on the team. As per Natural Stat Trick, Bratt was one of the few skaters to finish February with an on-ice expected goals for percentage above 50%. While an on-ice CF% of 47.02%, a SF% of 47.31%, and an on-ice SCF/60 of 49.31% are not good, they were better than most of the other skaters on the team in February. His relative on-ice rate stats in February per Natural Stat Trick (how the stats changed with Bratt on the ice compared to when he was not) were very positive - which further points to Bratt being a positive contributor. I would argue that A) Jesper Bratt was quite consistent in February, B) Jesper Bratt was quite good in February despite some poor on-ice rates - which most of the team had in February, and C) Jesper Bratt should never be a healthy scratch ever again. Jesper Bratt is my Honorable Mention for Devil of the Month of January 2020.
Again, the Devil of the Month is MacKenzie Blackwood. This was one of the easiest ones to name in the history of this blog. No goalie who played more than a handful of games in the NHL had a better 5-on-5 save percentage in February than Blackwood. Again, Blackwood’s 5-on-5 save percentage was a ridiculous 97.1% with a similarly-ridiculous 94.3% save percentage on high-danger chances. In seven appearances, he faced a whopping 209 shots (a rate of 37.7 per 60) and allowed just seven goals. Blackwood gave up just two goals in penalty kill situations and just one in overtime. A goaltender played seven games in the 2019-20 NHL and only allowed ten goals. That is amazing. The Devils went 6-0-1 and pretty much needed Blackwood to be amazing to get those results. Somehow, Blackwood did not get more appearances than his play warranted. Somehow, the NHL did not name Blackwood as Rookie of the Month. There is no question that he is at least the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of February 2020.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
After weeks of wondering, the Devils decided to be sellers by the NHL Trade Deadline. The team’s record clearly meant that a lot more work needs to be done so the decision was to tear down a part of the roster and re-build again. The team got way better results than they have been getting this season. This was largely because Blackwood was utterly fantastic. This was supported by two great games by Schneider, the power play having a great month, and the penalty kill remaining fantastic.
Yet, I think most understand that leaning on the goalies and special teams is just masking the systemic issues that have plagued the team all season long. Look at this way: a lot of teams would have won more than seven games out of fourteen if they had a goalie stopping 97% of the shots they face at 5-on-5. For one, the team would probably play that goalie more. For another, the majority of other NHL teams would not be allowing an extremely high rate such as 37 of them per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. The skaters would do a far better job of supporting their incredibly hot goaltender. But the Devils found a way to get in their own way with their extremely poor prevention of anything by the opposition in 5-on-5 and their subsequently low rates of creation. Throw in continued faltering in overtime and so the team could be seen as overachieving for 7-3-4. For the Devils to be able to have more results like the ones in February, the roster needs further upgrades and there needs to be far, far better coaching than what the team has had.
Tom Fitzgerald is the interim general manager and it remains to be seen whether he will be the interim or not. He did the somewhat easier task of selling off pending UFAs and getting a notable return for Blake Coleman. The building part is the harder one. One could argue that the Devils picking up 18 points in February hurt that cause. They do not really help the Devils with anything other than pulling them up from 30th to 26th in the league standings. As much as one wants to see the Devils not mail it in for a month, there is not much value in saying “At least New Jersey is ahead of Ottawa.” The remaining games of the season may lead the Devils down in the standings again as they have a very tough March ahead of them.
Should that happen, at least we can say we saw some positive things in February. Seeing the power play have swells of great success is, well, great. Seeing the penalty kill continue to be great with and without Coleman is also great. Seeing the Devils finally get a win over Columbus, frustrate Philly, and put up a good performance in Washington were all positives as the Devils got results in 11 out of 14 games in spite of how they played in most of those games. Of course, the biggest positive was provided by the spectacular performances by the undoubted starting goaltender of the team, MacKenzie Blackwood. At the least, one question for 2020-21 has an answer.
Now I turn this over to you. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in February? Who impressed you the most among the Devils in the month that was not MacKenzie Blackwood? What was your favorite game? What was your least favorite game? What did you learn from this month in review? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils in February 2020 in the comments. Thank you for reading.