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Horrid Starts are Making Life Difficult for the Devils

The Devils are 3-2-0 but something has felt noticeably off over the past week, with the team putting themselves in substantial holes early and being forced to chase games from the opening faceoff. Can the Devils get their heads straight at the beginning of games before things start to spiral?

Calgary Flames v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s been a bit of a weird start for the Devils so far this season. As it stands, the team is 3-2-0, a .600 points percentage that projects to a total of about 98 points for a season. In terms of underlying stats, the team sits in the league’s top ten in share of 5-on-5 shot attempts (52.9% - 8th) and expected goals (55.3% - 4th). They’ve had good stretches of play and bad, but in the aggregate, the team has performed well enough, especially in light of some of their early injury issues. It’s a team in transition that has banked a few points and seems to be feeling things out in the early going. All in all, it should be a perfectly acceptable start for a team in the Devils’ position.

And yet... the vibes are all off in New Jersey. Angst is running high as people seem ready to jump ship on the season just five games in with the team sitting on a winning record. Why people are so jumpy about this team likely varies from person to person, but the injuries to various players, including their budding star center and both halves of their goalie tandem have something to do with it. The ghosts of catastrophically disappointing Devils teams of years past likely also play into it. The special teams, a major concern coming into the year, still stink out loud. Add in the fact that the rest of their stupid division doesn’t seem to want to lose any games, putting the team with the 3-2-0 record (again, a 98-point pace) in dead last, and it’s a bit more understandable that people are getting restless.

I think a lot of the concern may just arise from the way the past few Devils games have played out, though. Put simply, the Devils have nearly been run off the ice in the first period of all three of their games since Jack Hughes went down with an injury. Going back and looking at each of those three games, the numbers are stark out of the gate. Whereas the Devils jumped out to quick leads in their opening two games, the Devils have instead fallen behind in each of the past three, getting pummeled to the tune of 7-0 combined in the opening frame of their games versus Washington, Buffalo, and Calgary. The team played nominally better in the second and third periods of each of these games (and were arguably dominant in the final 40 versus Buffalo) but they’ve been chasing the score for the entirety of the past week of games. The breakdown of trailing/tied/leading is as follows for the past three matchups (via Natural Stat Trick):

  • Trailing: 152:44
  • Tied: 31:25
  • Leading: 0:00

They did, of course, win the Buffalo game in overtime (one of Buffalo’s two losses in seven games this season) but watching 183 minutes of hockey without having your team in the lead is inevitably going to raise an eyebrow. It would be one thing if these slow starts could be chalked up to some bad bounces or goalie letdowns but the Devils really have been getting clobbered in the opening 20 minutes of these games. Let’s take a look at the Devils’ results in the first from the opening five games and see just how limited the Devils have been out of the gate since the Washington game.

About 25% of 5v5 expected goals in the first period across the past three games
Devils’ First Period CF%, GF%, and xGF% Results So Far
Data via NatrualStatTrick.com

As you can see, there’s a pretty stark difference between how the Devils were starting games the first two nights (very well) and how they have been starting games since (horribly). This is not a huge sample of hockey, but putting up about 25% of the first-period 5v5 expected goals on three consecutive nights (to go along with 0% of the actual goals) is concerning and is definitely not going to result in a lot of fun times. Obviously, this shift coincides with the Devils’ most dynamic forward dropping out of the lineup, but if the Devils want this season to stay on the rails, they are going to have to figure out how not to get stuffed in a locker in the opening frame when Hughes is not playing.

It’s understandable that a team would take a step back when arguably their best player is not in the lineup, but plenty of teams deal with major injuries or absences and manage to not get their doors blown off out of the gate each night. Especially considering the early goaltending injury issues, they can’t expect a goaltender to keep them in the game every night while they hit the snooze button for the game’s entire first frame.

The issues have run up and down the entire lineup in these games and Lindy Ruff and his staff need to figure out how to get their players better prepared for energized opponents in the first periods of games. Dougie Hamilton and especially Ryan Graves have faltered at times since a great opening pair of games. Michael McLeod has been visibly overmatched forced into a top-six role. Other support players like Jesper Bratt and Yegor Sharangovich have struggled with some breakdowns early in games and have only been effective in fits and starts (while receiving some demotions and benchings for their troubles). The Mercer line has gotten beaten up at times. Nico Hischier has been solid enough (especially relative to his teammates) but not necessarily the gamebreaker they need him to be in the absence of Hughes.

These problems have all been particularly visible at the beginnings of games. Their top line maybe treading water while everyone else gets pantsed is not going to get it done and the Devils have been chasing each of these games from the start because of it. With a few days off and a trip on the road to help them perhaps clear their heads, hopefully we will see a Devils team that is much more prepared at the start of their upcoming games. They have admittedly run into some hot teams in this past week-plus with the Caps yet to lose a game in regulation, the Sabres being shockingly effective in the early going, and the Flames clobbering a couple of the Devils’ other Metropolitan Division rivals immediately before and after Tuesday’s game. That’s no excuse for yielding three times as many expected goals as you can muster in the opening frames of these games, though, especially with the benefit of rest between each one.

These rough starts have been noticeable enough that it has yielded a lot of audible grumbling around the fanbase and fair questions about whether this team can even remain relevant while Jack Hughes recovers from his shoulder injury. At a high level, a 3-2-0 start with generally decent underlying numbers is a good thing for this young team, but the Devils need to figure out how to start games in a hurry or that acceptable start will quickly devolve into a team staring down a lost season by the time the holidays arrive. The depth of the Metropolitan Division adds additional urgency to that situation. We know it will likely be a while before Hughes returns, so that means Lindy Ruff and this Devils squad will need to get themselves right and determine how they plan on leading games for more than 0% of the time over that period. I think they have the pieces to compete even without their star center, they just need to get better performances out of the gate from top to bottom from this roster and coaching staff.