Wednesday’s preseason opener for the New Jersey Devils was about as exhilarating as a meaningless exhibition game can be. The Devils won a barn-burner over the Washington Capitals in a see-saw battle that concluded in a 5-4 New Jersey victory. It wasn’t even so much that the Devils won this game, although that added to the vibe, it was the way that the Devils potted their five goals. You would be hard-pressed to find five goal-scorers that better represent the future hopes of this franchise than the ones who found the net. Yegor Sharangovich, Jack Hughes, Alexander Holtz, Dawson Mercer, and Nico Hischier all potted goals, pretty much all of them instances of great shooting or dynamic playmaking. Even the most jaded Devils fan had to be heartened by the display from the Devils forwards at the offensive end of the ice.
There was some red meat for the cynical Devils fan embedded in this game too, though, and it mostly showed up at the game states that helped torpedo the 2020-21 season for the Devils. I am, of course, talking about special teams, where the Devils yielded three of the four total goals they allowed to the Capitals on Wednesday. They allowed a shorthanded goal in the first period and then two power play goals in the second. The first forty minutes of competitive hockey played in 2021-22 did little to allay fears about the special teams that ranked 28th on the power play and 31st on the penalty kill in 2020-21.
A collective groan was let out in the first as a 1-0 lead was erased as the Capitals found themselves on an odd-man rush during a mostly uneventful Devils power play and John Carlson fired home himself. The shorthanded goal was not the only reminder of a rough power play in that first period, though. The Devils squandered an extended 5-on-3 opportunity right before the Carlson SHG, and then we got our first one of these familiar tweets on another power play opportunity that followed:
Not much there on that power play, we're back to even strength now.— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) September 29, 2021
“Not much there” pretty aptly describes the entire last season of power play opportunities for New Jersey, so even for a team just getting back on the ice, it was irritating to see things pick up in such a familiar place. The Devils would come up empty on each of their first four power play opportunities. They’d wind up 1-for-5 as Hischier’s game winner did technically come on the power play, though that was a play that came right off a 4-on-4 faceoff and the Devil exiting the box to give them five skaters wasn’t even in the zone yet. The Devils managed just 3 shots on goal over all of their power play opportunities and the lone high-danger chance was the Hischier winner coming off of the 4v4 faceoff.
The penalty kill for its part, also showed concerning echoes of last season’s disastrous unit, at least in the results department, allowing two goals on four Capitals opportunities. The second goal against to give the Caps a 4-3 lead in particular showed an all-too-familiar disheveled and flailing unit in front of their goaltender’s cage. Neither of the goals allowed were egregious, necessarily, but they served as reminders of the work this team needs to do in order to become truly competitive in a difficult division. To their credit, the unit shaped up and had a strong penalty kill late in the third just before the Hischier winner. Overall, though, three non-even-strength goals against put a pang of uncertainty in an otherwise highly-enjoyable preseason opener.
Obviously, though, the question of whether the Devils have progressed in their special teams play will not be answered by a single preseason game, especially in a game where the Devils were effectively running a skeleton crew on defense. Most importantly, at least with regard to the power play, the Devils did not have Dougie Hamilton on the ice, a huge difference-maker in that game state and one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. That, coupled with some nasty shots from Sharangovich and Holtz (albiet ones that did not come on the power play), give some hope that this power play unit can at least advance to semi-respectability this season.
Similarly for the penalty kill, the Devils had just one or two of their likely opening night starters (Severson and probably Seigenthaler) on defense skating on Wednesday. With so many rookies in the mix on defense and the PK forward units just trying some things out as well, it’s pretty easy to hand-wave a two GA performance in the preseason opener away. The Devils were so putrid on the penalty kill last season, though, that the multiple goals allowed just served as a reminder that there is a lot of work to do to fix that unit.
As the preseason progresses and the roster taking the ice each night gets closer to the actual units we should be expecting to see in the opener on October 15th, it will be more appropriate to assess the state of the special teams units. With the changes to the roster this offseason and a year of growth for many of the young Devils, the hope is that the Devils special teams will see major improvements over the 2020-21 editions. The fact that the same coaches continue to oversee the two units (Alain Nasreddine for the PK, Mark Recchi for the PP) certainly adds an element of “I will believe in any improvements once I see them” to this issue. Again, I don’t believe much of anything of substance can be gleaned from one bad special teams performance in the preseason opener, but it is a reminder that it remains a problem that needs fixing in Newark.