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What’s Happening with the New Jersey Devils Offense Without Jack Hughes So Far

The New Jersey Devils lost Jack Hughes due to injury and have scored just five goals in the last eight periods without Hughes. What is going on with the team’s offense? This post looks at what they have been doing and what they can adjust to help it out.

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils
Working: Nico Hischier.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

On Tuesday, October 19, a terrible event occurred to the New Jersey Devils. In the first period, Jeremy Lauzon undercut the legs of Jack Hughes in the right corner of the Seattle Kraken defensive zone in the first period. Hughes slammed to the ice and went off the ice. We now know it was a dislocated shoulder. We also know that meant Hughes would be out for some time. And we know that the Devils would be worse off for it.

The good news is that the Devils did pick up two wins in their three games last week. The not as good news is that Hughes’ absence had an impact on the team. Particularly in its attack. This was noticeable in the remainder of the game against Seattle, a 4-2 win; the first loss of the season to Washington, 1-4; and an overtime 2-1 win over Buffalo on Saturday. As the Devils’ schedule will ramp up both in terms of frequency and difficulty as October ends, it is important to identify what the Devils’ attack has done well and needs improvement. This matters especially more while Jack Hughes is out as the team will still have games to play and the goal to be a more competitive team in 2021-22.

What’s Happened on Offense Since Hughes’ Injury

The Devils have played in eight full periods without The Big Deal. They have scored five goals across them. Four if you remove Pavel Zacha’s empty net goal against Seattle. This relative lack of production is essentially the biggest problem. Against an inexperienced Joey Daccord, the Devils only beat him once after Hughes left the game. It was a beautiful play finished by Jimmy Vesey. It was still one goal. Against Washington, a puck battle won during the power play freed up a puck for Janne Kuokkanen to rip one past Vitek Vanecek. All that did was deny him a shutout; the game was in the Capitals’ control. Most recently, Dustin Tokarski held a shutout until Nico Hischier knocked in a bounce off the end boards from a missed shot by Dougie Hamilton. In overtime, Damon Severson created space for Zacha with a great pass that left Zacha alone in space to torch the goalie for the goal. That’s it in eight periods. Four goals against goaltenders, two of which were not even regulars for their teams in 2021. While the Devils won two of those games, it is hard to get results with meager production like that.

Further, the Devils’ lineup has definitely been weaker down the middle with Hughes being gone. Gerard’s post on Thursday was absolutely vindicated as Michael McLeod has absolutely faltered in a top-six role in the two games he played in it. Head coach Lindy Ruff had to shuffle the forward in lines due to the poor performances of the forwards in the first periods against Washington and Buffalo. McLeod, among several others, drove that. I think it is still a fair question to ask why the Devils have not sought to bring up anyone from Utica to help the offense along. Specifically, a Swedish winger with a fantastic shot who absolutely showed in preseason it can work well in the NHL and already has 3 goals and 15 shots in 3 AHL games.

However, offense is more than just scoring goals. When you consider how the Devils have generated shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances, the picture looks very different. The Devils have been, well, good at them. In each of their four games this season, they’ve generated at least 25 shots, 30 attempts from scoring chance areas and 50 shot attempts in all situations per Natural Stat Trick. According to NST’s expected goals model, the Devils’ attempts have yielded a minimum of 2.5 in each game. Most recently, they put up 39 shots on Buffalo, 41 scoring chance attempts, and 18 high-danger scoring chance attempts in all situations. That suggests the Devils’ offense is definitely making things happen.

The evidence for that gets stronger when you consider how they stack up with other teams. I understand you may want to take team rate stats just two weeks into a season with a grain of salt. Still, they are encouraging for the Devils. In 5-on-5 play prior to Sunday night’s games at Natural Stat Trick, the Devils have generated scoring chances at a rate of 37.55 per 60 minutes and high-danger scoring chances at a rate of 17.84 per 60 minutes. (Thanks to MedicSBK for pointing out that one.) Those rates rank second and first in the league, respectively. Those high scoring chances rate have driven the Devils to have the highest expected goals rate in the NHL with Natural Stat Trick’s model with a 3.08 xGF/60. What this all means is that the Devils are creating quality opportunities and in abundance in 5-on-5 play.

But it has not yet led to actual goals as the Devils have just scored one 5-on-5 goal since Hughes’ injury - and that was back on Tuesday against Seattle.

What about the power play? Well, they scored twice. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they have been rather poor relative to the rest of the league of creating opportunities. Their rate of shot attempts, shots, and high-danger chances all rank in the lower half of the league with their CF/60 being fourth from worst per Natural Stat Trick. While the scoring chance rate is actually in the top ten, their expected goals rate in power play situations is a meager 5.72 in a league where almost half of the league is at least one better than that. These stats should not surprise anyone who had the misfortune of actually watching the power play try to break out or after they set up their statuesque (because hardly anyone moves from their position on it) 1-3-1 formation on both nights. While the Devils did score two power play goals, only one was a result of their formation and even that required a favorable bounce off a missed shot from the endboards. To say nothing of the two “man advantages” the Devils squandered earlier that night against Buffalo that the People Who Matter at The Rock deservedly booed off the ice.

Ultimately, the Devils’ offense has been flourishing in terms of creating opportunities even without Jack Hughes in the lineup in the short time he has been gone. However, the power play has underwhelmed despite two power play goals and all of those opportunities have not (yet) led to many actual goals. So what can they do about it, knowing Jack Hughes will not be available for the foreseeable future?

My Ideas: Adjustments, Not Wholesale Changes

It is tempting to see “four goals against goaltenders in eight periods without Hughes,” and conclude the Devils need to take drastic actions. Call up Holtz! And Reilly Walsh (Utica’s leader in points with four assists)! Force Nico Hischier to watch Mike Bossy videos for 6 hours straight! Hypnotize Yegor Sharangovich to remember how he played in the preseason! Give Jesper Bratt nothing but steaks and tell him to start lifting with Fabian Zetterlund on offdays! Dawson Mercer on the first and second lines!

I am being a bit silly, but I am serious that I do not think the Devils need to scrap their entire system and start from scratch. As difficult as it is to accept, the Devils are generating loads of shots and chances in the most common situation in hockey. Further, the Devils have had some bad luck. Sharangovich hit a post against Washington and Buffalo. Before that post against Buffalo, Marian Studenic was robbed of finishing a lovely move in the second period. Hischier had a PPG taken away for being deflected in 0.1 seconds after the first period ended against Seattle. He had another goal disallowed for pushing Tokarski on the jam play (and shame on Ruff for challenging it to wipe out what would have been a Devils power play). There could have been a couple more scores for the Devils than the few they have had since Hughes was injured. Between that and the underlying numbers in 5-on-5, there is an argument to be made that the Devils do not have to do much to bolster their attack while Hughes is away.

The key phrase is “do not have to do much.” It is not “do nothing.” It is tempting to change nothing, especially after a recent win. However, as I pointed out, there are issues within the Devils’ offense between a power play with better results than its process suggests and a 5-on-5 offense with worse results than its process suggests. What this means is that there are some adjustments the Devils can make to how they attack that can help them keep generating good shooting opportunities, which will hopefully lead to more goals.

First, the Devils coaches should consider keeping the lines that did work. Against Washington and Buffalo, Ruff re-shuffled the forward lines after bad first periods in each game. This did not matter so much against the Caps, who outplayed and contained the Devils for much of the game. This did matter against Buffalo as the re-shuffled lines really took over the game as time went on. Chris highlighted that in his recap of the Buffalo game and I am glad he did. It was a factor for their success. Why not start with those combinations against Calgary? It would reward the players’ efforts. If it does not work, then re-shuffle it and see how that goes. I can appreciate the coaching staff being willing to change up its lines based on performances instead of stubbornly sticking with what is not working. Even if that means Sharangovich gets banished to a fourth line for a bit, then so be it. It is more important to get the team going than to give a specific player prime minutes. At least until the player is back in form.

Related to that, the Devils should absolutely keep rewarding players who do well. Marian Studenic had a very good game against Buffalo. He should stay in the lineup for it. Frederik Gauthier may not provide a ton of offense, but he has not been a drain on the team in 5-on-5 and he has quickly become a part of the PK. It is OK to keep him in the lineup. Jimmy Vesey has had a good start to his season; so he should keep dressing too.

Second, the Devils coaches should make some adjustments to their general approaches on offense. Here is a quick run down of what each line does:

  • Bring puck into the offensive zone down either wing unless on a rush. If it is the fourth line, dump it in.
  • Take puck in deep along the sides to behind the goal line.
  • Have two or even all three forwards help usher the puck around, looking for options. Win puck battles as necessary whether behind the net, in the corners, or even back along the sideboards.
  • Pass the puck to the open player at the point, which is usually a defenseman.
  • Shot, if it is there or if the player just wants to have a try.

If this seems familiar to you, then you are right. It was a lot of what the Devils did under John Hynes. To be fair, a lot of teams have some kind of attack like this where it is very much along the perimeter. It is called “low to high,” as getting the puck in deep ensures few are caught out of position on the entry in case it goes bad and the players up atop the zone are open. The problem is that those players at the points or high up in the zone are open for a reason. Those shots from there have far less of a chance to score than shots from the slot, the circles, or around the net.

While I can understand that sometimes you have to take with what the defense gives you, it makes the Devils easy to defend. Either win that battle along the perimeter at the boards; force an outlet to the middle that is covered by an opposing player; and the exit is there. Should the man at the points attempt a shot or a pass, get in front of it. If you’re lucky, it makes a counter-attack easily possible (e.g. how Drake Caggulia got a breakaway on Saturday night). Even when the Devils work it to their plan, it is a lot of hard work spent by the forwards to create a relatively easy shot for the goaltender - assuming the puck even gets there to begin with.

As much as the Devils have generated scoring chances and high-danger chances, they have also created a lot of those low-danger ones too. This was the case against Buffalo, where 28 of the Devils’ 70 shot attempts were by defensemen (40% of all attempts, each non-Damon Severson defender had at least 4) and 13 of the Devils’ 39 shots were by blueliners (33%, and only Smith did not get one on target). There were spells of that against Washington and Seattle. This also explains why Hughes was in the corner in the first place before Lauzon’s hit injured him.

The adjustment I would recommend here is to throw in some variations to this attack in 5-on-5. Maybe try some cycling in the corners since the forwards are already there? Maybe only have two forwards go in deep and have a third hang around in the slot or at the net should the Devils win it quickly there as a closer, more dangerous option? Instead of settling to shoot the puck from distance, the defensemen should look to pass the puck off?

The latter would be my suggestion if only so that the leading shot takers on the Devils do not have a combined individual expected goals (how many goals would be generated by the Devils’ shot takers) of fewer than 0.5.

Top 11 Devils skaters by individual shooting attempts, all situations
Top 11 Devils skaters by individual shooting attempts, all situations
Natural Stat Trick

Even with Hughes in the lineup, P.K. Subban and Dougie Hamilton should not be firing the puck as much as they have. And especially not Ryan Graves and Jonas Siegenthaler. The ixG values point to how less likely their shots are going to go in compared with the forwards, who are closer to the net positionally.

As a quick aside, look at the iSCF and iHDCF numbers. Those represent the number of scoring chances and high-danger chances generated by those players alone. They further support that A) the Devils’ offense has not been totally lost without Hughes, B) Hischier has been Quite Good (vindicating Alex’s post from Saturday), and C) the Devils’ defensemen need to cut back on the firing away. This may mean fewer shot attempts and shots on net in total, but it may mean the hard work the Devils are already doing can keep yielding quality opportunities and perhaps even more that can lead to goals. Because the long shots with and without traffic in front aren’t doing it.

Third, for the power play, I would highly recommend the Devils get moving. I understand the idea of a 1-3-1 formation is for each player to take a specific spot. But the opposition penalty killers have figured out how to deny the Devils’ opportunities after the zone entry. Put pressure on the puck carrier and if/when the other four guys stop moving, hold position on them to force a bad play by the puck carrier. The Devils could at least throw the opposition off if there is some movement among the players off the puck. That could be rotating between the “bumper” player in the slot, the man in front of the net, and the player opposite of the puck carrier. That could be shifting players around their area just to get the penalty killers off balance. When they stand still, that is when the situation gets easier for the defending team as they can cut off the options for the puck carrier. Again, I’m not calling for a brand new formation or a new assistant coach. This is an adjustment they can make.

Fourth, I would encourage the skaters to be a little more selfish and simpler on the puck. There were a myriad of opportunities in the Washington and Buffalo game, particularly in the first half, where the Devils would pass their way out of a shooting situation. Often times, this was done with good intentions. A pass on a 2-on-1 can be killer. Just see Dawson Mercer’s goal against Seattle. The problem is that if the pass is not there and its forced anyway, a good shooting opportunity goes away because the defender denies the pass or the pass misses its mark. Likewise, after hard work in the offensive zone, the Devils win a puck below one circle. A lateral pass to the other side is made. Instead of one-timing it or shooting it, a third pass is made to the center point for a worse shot that does not even get on net. Why not shoot it after the first, difficult pass was made? I do not know. The Devils are not facing Dominik Hasek every night; they do not need to change the point of attack before a shot. I can understand it may catch the goalie off guard but there are times where that is appropriate. A great example was when Severson moved the puck to Zacha in OT against Buffalo. Zacha correctly elected to shoot instead of trying to move it somewhere else and he scored. More Devils should have that mindset at times and it could lead to some more goals. If there is an open player on a flank wide open, then yes, make that pass. But if that lane is not there, fire away. And if you want to be extra fancy, someone should be crashing the front of the net more often if/when the rebound comes out from that shot.

Conclusions & Your Take

These are all things that I think the Devils can do to help their offense without entirely changing how they want to play or trying to make players do something that they may not be able to do. With Hughes out, it is imperative that the Devils continue to seek improvements instead of hoping they can get by with what they have done and/or Hughes will make it all better when he returns. I am not saying this will guarantee more goals in their game against Calgary or games beyond it. But it could very well keep the good things the offense has done with and without Hughes early on in this season while improving on where the Devils have struggled. As a final point, the Devils should keep doing what has been working for them and not get frustrated if the results do not easily come. Throwing the gains away would only make the games harder for the Devils and likely still not get them the goals and points they desire. Fortunately, the 3-1-0 record to start the season should help with that for a bit.

Now I want to know what you think. What do you think is going on with the Devils offense without Jack Hughes? What adjustments or even major changes do you think the Devils should do to get more goals - if you think they should change anything at all? Please share your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ offense without The Big Deal in the comments. Thank you for reading.