Everything has been going swimmingly for the New Jersey Devils in this simulated season in Eastside Hockey Manager. Despite his tendencies, general manager Sherman Abrams and his charges were in first place in the East by the end of November. This was documented in Part 3 of this series, ending with a massive exclamation point provided by Kyle Palmieri dropping four goals on Our Hated Rivals in a big 6-3 win. What would December yield? More presents of victories? While there were those, they came with the lumps of coal in the form of injuries.
Ahead of documenting what happened in December, GM Abrams and I would like to thank those who commented from the previous post and offered their suggestions on what to do. Thank you to luozhen, EliasStillRocks, alslammerz, OfManNotMachine, and smelph. Abrams read all of the comments and concluded that he should not waive anyone or make that deal for Jake Bean. As alslammerz put it, the team was in first place so Abrams did not feel he needed to put anyone away. Unfortunately, he did not need to do that to make roster space. He did tweak the tactics of the fourth line as per smelph’s comment.
As a quick aside, Eastside Hockey Manager could be getting a new version in the future. The game initially came out in 2015 and it is currently in version 1.4.1. As per his Twitter account, Risto Remes is still working on the game and he has been making progress for what would be version 1.5. It is efforts like that and from the community - namely, The Blue Line - why a game from five years ago still is active today. I look forward to seeing what is on the change list for version 1.5.
The Games of December 2019 in EHM
Fresh off a glorious win by the New Jersey Devils over Our Hated Rivals, the Devils visited Buffalo. Abrams wanted to see the same lineup that prevailed over New York in the hopes of seeing a repeat upstate. That did not happen. Buffalo tied up the game 2-2 in the second period, Kyle Okposo scored early in the third period, and they held on. The Devils lost their first game in December, 2-3. It would not take long for the Devils to rebound. They returned to New Jersey on December 3 to host Las Vegas. They opened up the game with three power play goals within the first six minutes; two by Nico Hischier and one by Wayne Simmonds for an early lead. Max Pacioretty cut the lead to 3-1, but Jesper Bratt restored it early in the second to make it 4-1. Alas, the Devils struggled in the second as Mark Stone scored two goals within one minute and the home fans were stunned the score became 4-3. The Devils at least kept it at 4-3 going into the third and a hero emerged to widen that lead: Taylor Hall, who scored on a power play early in the third to make it 5-3. Nikita Gusev got the home fans honking with another PPG to make it 6-3. Las Vegas kept taking calls and the Devils kept answering them as they went 5-for-11 on the power play. The visitors tacked on a consolation goal, but the Devils won their first of the month 6-4.
On December 6, the Devils started another back-to-back set. This game was in Newark against Chicago. Jack Hughes scored first for New Jersey to tie up the game after an early 0-1 deficit. But the hero of the night was Travis Zajac. He scored minutes later to put the Devils up 2-1. While Andrew Shaw scored on the following shift to make it 2-2, the game held even through regulation. Within the first minute in overtime, Zajac came off the bench, found a puck sent up ice by Palmieri, collected it behind the Blackhawks, and finished the play with a goal past Robin Lehner. The Devils won 3-2. But it came with a massive cost.
Nikita Gusev only played in 8:42 of the Chicago game, so it is believed he suffered this partially torn ACL injury during the second period. It is a significant loss. Gusev was the team’s second line left winger and one of the team’s best players with an average rating of 7.79. In 28 games, he put up 11 goals, 13 assists, and 76 shots mostly next to Hughes and Blake Coleman. With a game in Nashville the next night, Abrams had to scramble. Jesper Bratt was switched over to the left wing opposite Coleman on the second line. The now-not-suspended Miles Wood entered the lineup on the fourth line as Jesper Boqvist was not getting much done.
Abrams took a look at who was doing well in Binghamton. While Michael McLeod was on a goal streak, Joey Anderson and Nathan Bastian were having better seasons based on their ratings. Abrams decided to bring up Anderson to strengthen the bottom six. He would make his season debut in Nashville on December 7.
How would the Devils respond to their missing Goose? Simply by pounding the Preds with pucks. They put up 44 on Juuse Saros and four past him. The first period itself was a back-and-forth affair with Hall and Bratt scoring first and Duchene and Bonino responding. Blake Coleman scored his first of the month in the final minute of the first to make it 3-2. Magnus Arvidsson tied it up early, but Bratt struck again - finishing a feed by Hughes - to make it 4-3. The Devils shut the game down, tried to crack Saros again, and instead settled for an ENG to make it a 5-3 win. There would be success without Gusev.
There were some initial struggles. The Nashville game was the start of a four-game road trip. On December 10, the Devils had a big second period to turn a 0-2 game into a 3-2 lead. they lost that lead early in the third period and lost in overtime to Dallas, 3-4. Another injury came out of that one. Defenseman Ty Smith, who was in the lineup ahead of Nick Holden as the seven-defenseman experiment ended with the loss in Buffalo, would be out for about ten days. Abrams put him on injured reserve but did not call anyone up since they had seven defensemen already.
On December 13, the Devils could not figure out Philippe Grubauer. He had an utterly fantastic game with only one shot by Hall getting past him. Meanwhile, Colorado struck gold against Blackwood with three of their own. An empty netter sealed a 1-4 loss. But the Devils did end the road trip on a positive note. On December 14 against Arizona, Hughes and Coleman scored in the second period to make it 2-1. Brayden Burke tied it up in the second and the game held even - until Lawson Crouse took a cross-checking penalty with less than five minutes in regulation. Just as it was about to expire, Simmonds finished a great cross-slot pass by Bratt for a power play goal. That broke the deadlock and the Devils won 3-2.
The Devils’ home schedule resumed on December 18 as they hosted Anaheim. The NHL roster freeze for the holiday would start the next night. Abrams hoped for no injuries and a good performance. He got the former but not much of the latter in the first two periods. Anaheim went up 0-2 thanks to a goal by Kase scored in the first 41 seconds and Silfverberg adding another near the halfway mark of regulation. Someone needed to step up. Coleman was the one. After taking a pass from Hughes in the neutral zone, Coleman powered into the middle from the right wing, got past Lindholm and Del Zotto, and scored to make it 1-2. With time running out and the net empty, Hughes found Coleman at the Anahem blueline. Coleman took the pass, beat Fowler, found himself one-on-one with Gibson, took a shot, and buried his own rebound for the equalizer that surely sent the Rock into ecstasy. On the second shift in overtime, Gibson stopped Coleman one-on-one and his rebound for a freeze. The Devils won the ensuing faceoff, Coleman found Holden from the corner, Holden passed it up to Coleman in front of the net, Coleman took a shot and buried his own rebound top-shelf for a hat-trick and a 3-2 OT win. It was astounding and the Devils went into the freeze with another win.
The freeze did not go so well for the Devils. On December 20, the Devils took on Washington. It looked like New Jersey was going to take another commanding lead. After an early goal by Tom Wilson, Zajac, Hischier, and Hall (on the power play) all scored to put New Jersey up 3-1 just before the thirteen-minute mark. But the Caps chipped away at that and erased that lead within the same first period with goals by Vrana and Orlov. Ovechkin put the Caps up a goal in the second period, Hagelin added an insurance goal in the third, and the Devils had no answer. They lost 3-5 to four unanswered goals. The next night, the Devils visited Columbus. Ty Smith returned to action for this game. But his return did not help much in a not-so-good team performance that yielded a 1-3 loss to Columbus. On December 23, the Devils visited Chicago. Chicago would get their revenge. DeBrincat answered Bratt’s game-opening goal; Perlini provided the answer to a Hughes goal in the second period; and Chicago scored twice in the third to take the lead and secure it. The Devils lost 2-4. The Devils went into Christmas with a three-game losing streak.
The Christmas holiday itself yielded two bad surprises. On Christmas Eve, Joey Anderson was ruled out for ten days due to a thigh contusion.
Abrams put him on IR but did not call up anyone since the freeze was on and the team had enough wingers as-is. There was a larger concern on Christmas. Taylor Hall, the team’s best player, got hurt in practice. Abrams does not believe in days off and so he had the team practicing during the holiday. I am shaking my head at that too.
The good news is that it was considered to be minor. Despite the report, he was day-to-day and resumed practice in a few days. The bad news is that the Devils had Toronto, Ottawa, and Boston coming up to finish 2019. Being without Hall and Gusev and even Anderson for all of them would make those games harder. Abrams shuffled the lines further. Bratt basically took over Hall’s spot in the lineup. Pavel Zacha was moved up. Boqvist was now set as the third line left winger, with Miles Wood now back in at left wing. Boqvist, Wood, Noel Acciari, and Kevin Rooney kept on rotating in and out as they have done all season so far. Two of them were not set for minutes.
Sometimes, things just get out of hand in an 82-game season. For whatever reason, the December 27 game between New Jersey and Toronto just blew up. It requires bullets:
- It featured a six-goal first period where the Devils ended it 4-2 with two goals by Zajac, a goal by Boqvist, and a goal by Coleman. Toronto goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo was replaced by Joseph Woll in the second period. He received a ‘4’ rating for six saves out of ten shots.
- Miles Wood scored a goal to make it 5-2 in the second period.
- Toronto responded to the Wood goal by going on a four-goal rampage in fewer than ten minutes. Mackenzie Blackwood was replaced by Jake Oettinger after Matthews scored to make it 5-4. He too received a ‘4’ as a rating. Oettinger was beaten one minute into his performance by Jake Muzzin, which made it 5-5. Muzzin would score a few minutes later to make it 5-6. This is still the second period.
- Roughly ten minutes after Toronto started their rampage, Will Butcher scored a power play goal to make it 6-6.
- John Tavares scored a PPG early in the third period to make it 6-7. Three minutes later, Noel Acciari scored his second goal of the season to make it 7-7.
- Within the final minute in overtime, Holden took a turnover from Barrie in the neutral zone and lofted a puck into the Toronto zone on Coleman’s side. Coleman beat Johnsson to the puck, took a hit from Matthews and lost the puck, recovered the loose puck at the top of the crease, and went around Woll to score. Coleman’s OT heroics made it an 8-7 win.
- Abrams was somewhere between overly frustrated and jubilant in the box watching all that.
Hall was able to be put back in the lineup as he was truly day-to-day. But with his condition still below 100%, Abrams did not want to re-insert him into the lineup so quickly and risk a more severe injury. The Devils returned to something resembling normalcy on December 29. The team remembered they lost to the hapless Sens earlier in the season. In Kanata, they had a better time. Bratt scored with four seconds left in the first period to open the game’s scoring. Zajac, following his four-point game against Toronto, made it 2-0 early in the second. Bratt scored on a power play four minutes after Bobby Ryan scored to make it 3-1. Simmonds scored an elusive even strength goal early in the third. While Pageau scored on the very next shift, Ottawa was not making any comeback and the Devils shut them down for a 4-2 win.
Abrams was tempted to bring Hall back for the team’s final game of 2019 against Boston. He was still at 90% condition so Abrams relented. The Devils hosted Boston and went up big-time early on. Zajac, Rooney (!!), and Coleman scored the game’s first three goals and within eight minutes of each other. Boston did make it close to end the first with goals by Heinen and Marchand. However, Bratt - still in Hall’s spot on PP1 - scored on the power play to make it 4-2 in the second period. In the third period, Krug brought the B’s within one early. But about a minute later, Zacha scored a lovely goal to restore the two-goal lead. At 52:17 into the game, Coleman finished a killer cross-slot pass from Zacha. It was Coleman’s tenth goal of the month and it would be the final goal in 2019 for the New Jersey Devils in this EHM season. The Devils won 6-3. They ended the month with a three-game winning streak and Hall’s condition was back to 100% and resumed practice following the game so he could return in January.
However, there would be one final parting shiruken from the Injury Ninja.
Abrams only sighed. So did I. Coleman was sent to IR and so ended the month.
The Devils & NHL at a Glance After December
Despite all of the injuries, it was another successful month of results for the Devils. They went 8-5-1 and remain atop the Eastern Conference as of January 1, 2020 in the simulation.
Buffalo and Our Hated Rivals are right on the tails of our favorite hockey team for the top spot in the conference. The latter is the closest team in the Metropolitan Division as the Isles cooled off and there is a battle between Toronto, Pittsburgh, and Washington for wild card spots and, in the case of Pittsburgh and Washington, the Isles’ spot. Ottawa remains as a total mess while Columbus is securing eighth in the division.
In the league standings, New Jersey is third only to Winnipeg and Las Vegas. Technically, they are also behind Colorado and St. Louis in terms of total points but since they are not leading their divisions, they are behind New Jersey and Buffalo. Edmonton also has 55 points. Needless to say, there is a lot of strength atop the Western Conference in this simulated season.
Leon Draisaitl is the league’s leading scorer at the turn of the calendar year. He has a five point lead on MacKinnon and Marchand, so he could start to pull away. Also, note his 8.1 average rating. This makes him one of the best in the NHL; far, far better than Valeri Nichushkin (13 points, 7.21 average rating). Kyle Palmieri and Jack Hughes are tied with a few others at 39 points at the bottom end of the top twenty scorers. Taylor Hall has 37 points, which placed him 28th; and Nico Hischier is tied with others with 34 points so he is 35th in league scoring.
Draisaitl and his teammate Kailer Yamamoto are both leading the league in goal scoring with 24 goals each. Blake Coleman’s hot December ended with 19 goals. That puts him in a tie for twelfth in the entire league. Hischier is close behind with 18, tying him with others at 16th; and Palmieri is tied with many with 17 goals, which places him in 24th. Three Devils among the top fifty in goals scored is great to see.
Jack Hughes did not win the Rookie of the Month award again. However, he is well ahead of all of the other rookie skaters in terms of scoring. He is doing it mostly with assists, but points equal goals and Hughes has been very involved in New Jersey’s production. He is eight points ahead of Kaapo Kakko; Hughes has the inside track to continue to lead the NHL in rookie scoring.
Sami Vatanen is still ahead of Dahlin, Girard, Faulk, and Petry for the league lead in points by a defenseman. What is stunning is that Vatanen has all of one goal this season. He receives a lot of minutes; he averages nearly two shots per game; and he has just one goal. Only 11 of his 30 points come from the power play too, so this is really a function of Vatanen being involved with New Jersey’s top scorers a lot. P.K. Subban has not shot the puck nearly as much as you would expect, but he keeps providing successful passes for 23 points to be tied with many for 12th overall in points by defensemen. I suppose the other surprise is that Will Butcher, despite his minutes, is not on this list. Oh well.
Goaltending remains unimpressive from a save percentage standpoint. Blackwood returned to the sub-90% realm and even fell a bit behind the #2 goalie in New Jersey. Oettinger improved slightly (0.4%) to be close to the realm of 90% save percentage. Both are deeply below league median in terms of save percentage. Strangely, both are still averaging above a ‘7’ rating. Fortunately for them, the Devils’ offense continues to be a machine so they can allow a lot and still be in games to win.
Lastly for the league stats, here are the top players in terms of average rating:
Taylor Hall may have not had a super-productive December and missed the last three games, but he remained as New Jersey’s most consistently impressive player and one of the best in the entire league. Only Mikko Ratanen can claim to be a more valuable player on the ice. Only twelve players in the entire NHL have an average rating above ‘8;’ it will be interesting to see if this is maintained after another month of games. In terms of other Devils in the top 50 by average rating, Palmieri is tied with Panarin, Pastrnak, and Gibson at 7.9 for 22nd place. Despite being out for most of December (and will be out for January and February) Gusev’s 7.79 is still good to put him tied for 41st in the NHL. The Devils’ top wingers remain among the very best in the NHL. When Gusev returns, the Devils should be an even more formidable team.
As far as the Devils themselves, here is the roster by points:
Hughes and Palmieri are ahead of Hall, but just by two points by the end of 2019. Hischier is also not too far behind, which is expected as he is the #1 center. All told, the Devils have four players averaging at least one point per game. That is excellent. Coleman’s ten-goal month shot him up to 29 points. Unfortunately, he will have to sit for two weeks while injured. Travis Zajac had a big December too. While his four-point night in the Toronto game boosted him a lot, he did finish the month with eleven points. That is quite good for someone who is behind Hischier and Hughes in 5-on-5 hockey. Bratt and Simmonds chipped in as well.
On the opposite end, Joey Anderson has done little of consequence since his callup. While Rooney, Acciari, Boqvist and Wood had their moments in the month, they remain on the low end of production and in average rating.
As they are among league leaders, Hall, Palmieri, and Gusev lead the roster in terms of average rating. It is very good to see three other Devils maintain an average rating above 7.5: Vatanen, Subban, and Hischier. Coleman just missed that mark too; that suggests he has been quite good beyond the plethora of goals in December. An average rating of 7.5 means the player is consistently good to very good, night-in and night-out. Good teams need plenty of those players. It also means they are missed when they are out injured. Hughes, Butcher, and surprisingly Simmonds also have very solid average ratings. Simmonds is a surprise given that several of his linemates have not been good. Perhaps his power play work is helping his performances? On the opposite end, Zajac being a straight 7 is not bad but I expected more given how productive he was last month. Nick Holden had some not so impressive performances and so he joins Andy Greene in the sub-7 club. Among that club includes Rooney, Acciari, Anderson, Wood, and Boqvist. No wonder that fourth line changes so much. So much so that Abrams is thinking that suggestion of seven defensemen with Greene relegated to penalty killing may be worth trying.
Still, the team has been successful, they continue to score, they continue to pull out wins, and they did so while suffering without some players during this month. January awaits and soon after, the all-important Trade Deadline.
With the end-of-month injury to Coleman and continuing faltering of bottom six forwards, another call-up may be in the cards to start January. Abrams wants the opinions from the People Who Matter as to what they think he should do:
- As Coleman is a right wing, the initial thought is to bring up Nathan Bastian. Michael McLeod is listed as a center only; he is just “competent” as a right winger. While Anderson will be able to come off IR soon, his performances in the NHL do not suggest he will do well. Should Abrams call up Bastian now that Coleman is on IR for two weeks?
- Should the Devils return Anderson when he is healthy or wait and see how Bastian performs?
- Should the Devils send Boqvist down? While he is not relegated to fourth line duty, he has not played particularly well or productive hockey in New Jersey. Just like in real life, he may benefit from playing in the AHL. And he can be sent down without penalty.
- Given that Rooney is the least effective player on the team, should Abrams try to sneak him down through waivers and call up McLeod anyway? No one wants Rooney anymore, so a trade may be asking too much.
- Lastly, since Part 5 will cover January, Part 6 will be for February. But that NHL Trade Deadline is an important date. Should we break up February into two posts to allow for trade feedback?
As ever, please leave your answers and other suggestions about what you think Sherman Abrams should do with the 2019-20 Devils for January in the comments. Even doing nothing is an option. After all, the team is 25-9-5 after three months of this simulated season. Part 5 will cover what happened in January 2020. I will likely simulate January’s games on Thursday night, so do not hesitate to get your suggestions and comments in. Thank you for reading.