There is no disputing that the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils are a bad hockey team. Bad hockey teams are filled with players who are not performing to the levels we all expect or even consider to be halfway-decent. Some of these players are just having a bad season. Some are banged up. Some are not a good fit. Some still need further seasoning. And some are just not that good. Today, I want to highlight one of the Devils’ skaters as an example of the last one. This player is 25-year old right winger, John Hayden.
The 2019-20 Devils are not a good 5-on-5 team at all. Just look at the team stats at Natural Stat Trick for this season. Even with their fairly successful February, they were worse than Detroit in multiple respects in 5-on-5 situations. However, for a team to get out-performed on a consistent basis, it takes a team effort. There are a lot of Devils well below the 50% break-even percentages for attempts (CF%), shots (SF%), scoring chances (SCF%), and even goals (GF%) and expected goals (xGF%). No one skater can sink the team this low. That said, there is a huge difference between someone who is below 50% by a few percentage points and someone who witnesses the team see their percentages in those categories below forty percent when they are on the ice. There is a huge difference between someone who has been bad in 5-on-5 play and someone who is abysmal.
Hayden has been abysmal in this season. Here is how bad it looks.
John Hayden’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad 2019-20 Season
I am focusing on 5-on-5 situations because it is the most common situation in hockey, it provides a more even ground for comparison, and it has been rare that Hayden plays in any other situations. What is more is that he has provided nothing else to even mitigate his horrendous 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats. His relative rate stats, the difference in the team’s stats with and without Hayden on the ice, are similarly awful. Hayden’s production has been minimal. His discipline has been an issue. I struggle to think of anything actually tangible that makes this season any good for Hayden. I compiled his stats from NHL.com and his 5-on-5 stats at Natural Stat Trick. The numbers in red are among the worst on the whole team - regardless of how little other skaters have played this season.
As indicated in the title of the chart, it really has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season for Hayden. The most jarring number to me is that he has been in 40 games this season. Who looked at the Devils’ games and decided that John Hayden needs to make this many appearances? He has been healthy scratched multiple times, only to re-enter the lineup and be a player that opponents have enjoyed playing against. I do not understand why. I could go through each stat, but the main conclusion is the same. When he has been on the ice this season, the Devils are constantly in a butt-kicking contest as the suppliers of the butt. They are constantly in their own end of the rink and whatever offense the Devils were generating just falls off a cliff when he steps on the ice. For someone who averages less than ten minutes per game, he manages to be a huge detriment to a team that has a lot of skaters drowning in the run of play this season.
It would be one thing if this was just a handful of games or a bad ten-game stretch. But with 40 appearances, these stats suggest strongly that Hayden really does not contribute anything positive to the Devils. It is not temporary. Harsh as it may read, but I have to conclude that he adds nothing of value to the rink. Knowing that he just turned 25, it is doubtful he is going to learn to be a contributor in the future. Ken Daneyko can wax poetic on the MSG broadcast in just about every game Hayden is in about the grit, the physical presence, and so on and so forth. That he is not telling you anything positive about how he plays the game of hockey is telling enough.
How is this level of performance remotely defensible? How does this player get 40 games? Surely, either John Hynes or Alain Nasreddine would have figured out very quickly that Hayden gets bodied on the ice most of the time. (And sometimes literally, too. For all of his supposed grittiness, he’s not even good at that aspect of the game.) Sure, this is a lot of griping for a fourth-line winger who makes the league minimum; a player who was acquired in a one-for-one trade with John Quenneville, who mostly spent his pro hockey career in the AHL. But very few players put up on-ice rates, relative rates, penalty counts, and just a plain lack of production in one heinous package and play in a majority of the team’s games in this season. The latter is very likely to happen. After 40 games, I have little faith and confidence he could turn this around with more appearances. Sad to say, I do expect to see more of him. He already made 40 appearances out of 66 so far; we have seen Hayden dressed more often than not. He will lock that down with just three more appearances and I think he will very likely get those games based on what we have seen this season. Despite how poor he has been on the ice and how little he provides for the team, he continues to get minutes and be a regular in the lineup. Hayden is a special kind of bad hockey player.
I firmly believe he is the worst skater on this team that has played somewhat regularly. This raises another question in my mind. Is John Hayden the worst regular skater since the Rock opened in 2007? My first thought: he could be. Unfortunately, with further thought, there are some other contenders that come to mind for that ignoble title. Let us consider the question in more detail and attempt to figure it out.
What Do You Mean, “The Worst Regular Skater?”
How we define the worst is important. The most honest answer to who the worst player is would be someone who is not able to make the roster. Someone who is not able to get minutes on the 2019-20 Devils, for example, has to be seen as worse than the players who are on the roster. They did not even make the team regardless of its quality. However, we cannot compare an apple to something that does not actually exist so we have to at least look at players who made it to the NHL.
Also for the purposes of comparison, we have to compare players who were regulars for the Devils for at least a significant part of the season. Throughout any season, players are called up to fill in for injuries and/or to get a look at the next level. They may only play for a few games at most and then return to the AHL. With just a handful of games, they may not have enough of an opportunity to overcome some bad games that may make them worse than they actually are. Blake Coleman’s 2016-17 season, which was an extended call up, featured him doing a lot of nothing in 23 games. Subsequent seasons showed that he was actually quite good. To that end, we have to consider players who have had appeared more than just a handful of games to avoid any outliers as well as consider multiple seasons. I am not the world’s biggest Brett Seney fan, but I would not use his two games this season to proclaim that he is the worst. As a rule of thumb, I’m using 300 minutes of 5-on-5 play as a minimum except for the 2013 season, which had fewer games so I used a lower amount to include one notable player.
For the sake of ease, I am limiting this to skaters. Goaltenders are not only a different position but their judgment can be more straightforward. This may require a separate post and perhaps a different approach. I make no promises.
I want to limit this to players since the 2007-08 season. In other words, Devils who have taken a step on the ice in Newark, New Jersey at the Prudential Center. Opening this up to Devils history would make this exercise incredibly long and we would undoubtedly miss plenty of possibly deserving names. There were a lot of extremely bad players on the extremely bad teams in the early to mid 1980s as well as some negative-standouts on the far, far better teams in the 1990s and 2000s. It would even be more massive if it was expanded to franchise history, knowing that the Kansas City and Colorado teams absolutely stunk. For the sake of keeping it recent, this is kept to Devils who have played since 2007.
When I state the worst, I am looking for someone who contributes the absolute least on the ice. I can totally understand how players who do not live up to their hefty contract (e.g. Tuomo Ruutu), players who play well below their talent level or are very limited in what they can do (e.g. Michael Ryder), and those who do not live up to potential (e.g. Mattias Tedenby) would irk fans and make them think they were the worst. I would disagree. There are better terms for those kinds of players: overpaid, underwhelming to a point of frustration, and failed to live up to potential, respectively. I can agree they may be bad and detrimental to the team, but they are not necessarily the worst players. I am using John Hayden not just somehow who could very well be the worst Devil regular skater, but also as a guideline. His 2019-20 season stats (or lack there of) represent someone who just adds nearly nothing positive on the ice. Someone who you look at and cannot really recall them helping much on even a semi-regular basis. A player whom makes their team worse by what they cannot do and how they cannot keep their opponents from doing whatever they want. That is what really sticks out to me as the worst kind of player.
As one final point, this is totally open to discussion and debate. Just as we use stats, memories, descriptions, and such to argue who the best players are, we can use them to argue who is the worst. I posed a similar question to this on the site’s Twitter account on Wednesday and I received a myriad of responses. Some of which are really good answers and others were got me to think enough about this to make a whole post about it. I thank them for it.
I’m going to limit this to five really, really, really poor performing players with the Devils. Feel free to suggest any additional skaters in the comments.
Tim Sestito (Natural Stat Trick Stats) - Tim Sestito only played more than 300 minutes in that infamous 2010-11 season, but he was called up for multiple games for each of the next four seasons. His most “regular” season saw the Devils only take around 46% and 48% of shot attempts and shots on net. That would rate well on the current team but it was real bad back then. Worse than Adam Mair, which is why he is not in this group. What was astonishing was Sestito’s total lack of offense. His expected goals for rate was a minuscule 1.54, his actual goals for rate was 0.68, and he never scored a NHL goal as a Devil despite being involved in a part of five different seasons. The only ‘O’ that Sestito brought to the Devils was the last letter on his nameplate. In retrospect, it says a lot about the AHL affiliate and the Devils’ system that Sestito was called up multiple times over multiple seasons.
Krys Barch (Natural Stat Trick Stats) - Krys Barch was one of the last examples of Lou wanting to have some “toughness” on the roster. Most of these kinds of signings led to the team making it tougher on themselves when they are on the ice. Amazingly, Barch’s 5-on-5 on-ice rates were not bad on the surface. That is all I got for him. His relative rates were generally negative. He contributed no points and just four shots on net. Four in 22 games! That is a heinously low shot rate. You could argue that he was not much of a regular. While he played in 22 games, he played fewer than 128 minutes in 5-on-5 play in that shortened 2013 season. (Yes, he’s my exception to the “regular” guideline because, well, it’s Krys Barch.) He was limited on purpose. Anything more than limited minutes and you risk a horror show on the ice.
Mark Fraser (Natural Stat Trick Stats) - The first of two defensemen to be named here is Mark Fraser. He was a depth guy at the NHL level at best. He bounced around as a depth defender and returned to New Jersey for the 2014-15 season. In 34 games, his second most since his rookie season, Fraser had an on-ice CF% of just below 41.2%, a SF% of 38.9%, an xGF% of 39.8%, a SCF% of 40.1%, and a HDCF% of 37.8%. Those were all the worst percentages on that 2014-15 team, which featured a crummy season from Peter Harrold. If that was not enough, Fraser took twice as penalties (12) as he drew (6), took all of 18 shots on net, and put up three assists. Fraser was a depth guy who was in too deep in his final campaign with New Jersey and, ultimately, the NHL.
Devante Smith-Pelly (Natural Stat Trick Stats) - Devante Smith-Pelly was acquired by the Devils before the trade deadline in 2016. DSP got hot as he put up eight goals and five assists in eighteen games with the Devils. It appeared that while the run of play was decidedly against the Devils when he was on the ice, he could chip in some offense for a bottom-six (and really a team) that could always use more offense. That hot streak was the peak for Smith-Pelly. He not only would not come close to those amounts in 2016-17, but when he was on the ice, the Devils only took 40.8% of the attempts, fewer than 42.3% of the shots, 26.5% of the goals (and there were two players with worse ratios but better elsewhere), 43.9% of expected goals, and 44.7% of the scoring chances. Instead of turning out to be a guy who could help on third or fourth line, Smith-Pelly turned out to be just a guy. He was bought out after the 2016-17 season per CapFriendly. He did get another chance in Washington and the 27-year old (yes, he’s still young) is now in the KHL with Kunlan.
Steve Santini (Natural Stat Trick Stats) - I had high hopes for Steve Santini. Not because I saw him briefly at the 2013 NHL Draft and awkwardly asked him if he was ready to Be A Dude. He seemed like what the future of a defensive defenseman could be. While his offensive game was minimal, he could skate well and he seemingly knew how to play with skilled players through his experiences on the USNTDP and Boston College. The game did not go that way. Now defensemen of all kinds have to at least be competent in both ends of the rink to succeed. For Santini, the Devils offense just died when he stepped on the ice in 2017-18 and 2018-19. They spent a lot of time defending. Non-intuitive as it may seem, that is not what you want to see. Getting pinned back is never desirable. When Santini stepped on the ice, the Devils were below 43% in CF%, SF%, xGF%, and SCF% in his rookie season. In his second season, the percentages were a bit better but still well below everyone else on the blueline. He received plenty of ice time when he did get to play in these two seasons but it was quickly apparent it was not beneficial to the team. The 2019-20 Devils may be really bad on defense but they are not missing Santini.
The Worst Regular Skater in Recent Memory (So Far)
Who could have worse numbers than John Hayden and contribute even less somehow? I give you Eric Boulton.
I hated this signing back on July 15, 2011. I was rather passionate in my dislike of the signing of goons and Boulton would go on to prove me right. With the 2011-12 Devils - yes that team - Boulton played in 51 games. He averaged six and a half minutes per game in 5-on-5 so he only cleared the 300 minute mark by about 32 minutes. Boulton put up zero goals, zero assists, and 24 shots. He took 16 penalties in 5-on-5 and drew nine. That already puts him in the proverbial hole.
When he was on the ice, the numbers are actually worse than Hayden’s. Here is the whole list of skaters from that team with a minimum of 300 minutes. Boulton’s on-ice CF% was an astonishingly low 36.88%. The on-ice SF% for Boulton was a stupefying 36.67%. Boulton was on the ice for no goals scored by the Devils and the team’s expected goals for rate was a woeful 1.14. An xGA/60 of 2.19 would be great today but on that 2011-12 team, it was the worst among all qualified players. Boulton’s SCF% was a terrible 37.2% and his HDCF% was a miserable 34.4%. These were not just the worst on-ice percentages on the team, they were the worst by several percentage points. Even if I remove the 300 minute filter to include the likes of Cam Janssen and Brad Mills, Boulton was still worse than those two. If that was not enough, his relative rates are one big net negative. This means when he stepped on the ice, the Devils performed dramatically worse in 5-on-5 - the only situation Boulton played in. It is clear opponents loved playing hockey against Eric Boulton.
Looking at this as I write this post, I am still in a bit of awe that someone is actually worse than Hayden in 5-on-5. At least Hayden has two goals. Boulton did not even average a shot per game. The Devils have cratered when Hayden has been on the ice this season, and the 2011-12 Devils - an actual team of quality that had accomplishments that season - had someone who had an even worse effect. For all of his vaunted fighting, his Fight Card at Hockey Fights has him at 5-4 in fights as voted on by their community. So he was not even a dominant fighter, which was the main role he was brought in to serve. He was not even exceptionally good at throwing hands.
It is clear to me he contributed the barest of minimums with the Devils. I am confident in stating that Eric Boulton is the worst Devils skater who was a regular of some kind in recent memory. John Hayden may have a chance at “overtaking” him provided he continues to get games and the Devils continue to put up really bad performances - which is very possible. But Boulton was especially lacking in any kind of value on the ice that not even that may be enough.
Final Thoughts & Your Take
I will say this about Boulton in 2011-12. His abysmal season is proof that one fourth-liner can not drag a team completely down. When he did play, the Devils knew the bench was going to be shortened at some point in the game and the other eleven forwards were good enough to make up the difference. Once the Devils came close to playing meaningful games, Boulton was kept off the ice and the team was better for it. Eventually, Lou figured this much out for Boulton. (This did not prevent the Krys Barch signing.) He did not cost much but he had his second season on his deal - yes, it was a two-season signing - bought out in 2012 per CapFriendly.
I expect something similar to happen to Hayden. It is clear to me that he is the worst skater on the 2019-20 Devils. However, he is not the sole reason why the team is where they are right now. They have plenty of poor performing players; Hayden is just at the bottom of the proverbial barrel. As he is a pending RFA, the next general manager can simply not qualify him and move on to finding a replacement. Replacing Hayden’s spot on the roster is not that difficult and should definitely not be that expensive. Will it help the Devils get to where they want to be? Perhaps only a little bit but any progress is good progress and the Devils really need to move on from Hayden.
As a last point, I want to make it clear that none of this is personnel. I have no quarrel and intend no animosity for these players or others. I am just keeping it real about their exceptionally poor performances with the Devils. This is just about business and that business is on the ice - which is the sole focus for this post in determining who has been the worst regular skater in recent memory for the New Jersey Devils.
That all stated, I have “highlighted” John Hayden’s really bad season, defined my approach, named some contenders, and identified Eric Boulton as the worst since 2007. Now I want to know your take. Do you agree that Hayden is the worst Devil skater on the 2019-20 Devils? If not, who do you think is worse and why? Who do you think is the worst Devils regular skater since 2007-08? Why? And, just for fun, who is the worst Devil skater you have ever seen? Please leave your answers in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who responded to the tweet sent out through @AAtJerseyBlog and thank you for reading.