The 2021-22 National Hockey League regular season began in full this month. This season is a complete 82-game season with games against all other opponents. In New Jersey, fans have been allowed to fill up the Prudential Center. While COVID-19 continues to be a concern, it is not preventing the NHL, the New Jersey Devils, or the fans from attempting to have a normal season again. Unfortunately, normal for the Devils in recent seasons have meant mixed feelings about the team’s performances. The Devils had a favorable schedule with just 7 games to start the season, 6 of them at home, and only one back-to-back set.
On the surface, their record of 4-2-1 does not seem so bad. That’s a winning record. That includes a road win over Pittsburgh, a point against Columbus, and wins over teams you could argue they should be beating like Chicago, Seattle, and Buffalo. On the other hand, you can point to losses to Calgary and Washington as evidence that this team still falters against superior lineups. This start to the season has provided reason to feel that this season will not be a repeat of 2019-20. Yet, it has not quelled the doubt in the team. Let us review this past month of games and figure it out.
The Games of October 2021
The majority of preseason took place in October. Those games went well. Except for the one game cancelled due to a partial power outage at the Rock. The bigger deal were players who picked up injuries across those games as they would miss time throughout the month.
The regular season began at the Rock on October 15 against Chicago. The Rock was packed. The excitement was there. It did not take long for the Devils to score or for Dougie Hamilton to make an impact. Hamilton scored 17 seconds into the game. The Devils were very good in 5-on-5 and put three past Chicago. However, special teams were the team’s undoing as they conceded a PPGA and a 5-on-6 goal to force overtime. Jack Hughes, the Big Deal, ensured there would be no repeat of the 2019 debacle of a home opener. He absolutely styled and profiled on the Blackhawks for an overtime winner that gained attention across the hockey world and sealed up the Devils’ first win, 4-3.
The early season took a turn for the worse in their second game, their first ever against the Seattle Kraken. The start of the game was quite good. Dawson Mercer scored his first NHL goal and The Big Deal set up Damon Severson, who returned to the lineup for his first game of the season, for a goal. Late in the first period, Jeremy Lauzon dumped Jack Hughes in the corner on a check. Hughes fell onto his shoulder and he would leave the game. The concern was real among the People Who Matter in the arena and around the world. The Devils had to play on. Seattle tried to make a game of it (and a dirty one, at that), but the Devils held on - thanks to a lovely finish by Jimmy Vesey - and Pavel Zacha sailed in an empty-net goal for the team’s first regulation win, 4-2. However, the loss of Hughes may have overshadowed the win for some.
This would be realized in the Devils’ next three games where they scored a total of six goals. The game against Washington on October 21 could be a good measuring stick for the Devils. If so, then the Devils failed to measure up. The Capitals dominated the game from the start and cruised to a win; a 1-4 loss for the Devils. On October 23, the Devils hosted a Buffalo team that has had a good start to the season. A second-straight poor showing in the first period led to a 0-1 deficit. Fortunately, the debut of Nico Daws in net combined with a Devils’ performance that woke up in the second half salvaged the night. Nico Hischier scored on a power play in the third period to tie it up. Severson hooked Zacha up in overtime for a game-winning wrist shot. The Devils won that one 2-1. Would they build on that? No. On October 26, the Devils hosted Calgary. Calgary did play the night before. You would not have known that as the Flames skated circles around the Devils in the first period and dropped four goals on them in the process. The Devils did show up in the third period - read: garbage time - to make the score closer. But the poor start and lackluster performances from the skaters yielded a 3-5 loss. The Devils had five straight home games to start the season and went 3-2-0 wherein two of the three wins required overtime and their underlying numbers belied score effects (Devils were only leading in two of the five games) and inconsistent performances (see: a lot of the forwards).
October would end for the Devils with a back-to-back set within the Metropolitan Division. Their first road game was on October 30 against Pittsburgh. Not only would this be tough, but it would be against a Penguins team itching for a win after losing their last two and getting Sidney Crosby and Jeff Carter back in the lineup. Impressively, the Devils did not have a slow start to this one. Despite conceding the first goal, Andreas Johnsson got a fortunate bounce for an equalizer in the first period. Despite taking a penalty late in the second period, Jimmy Vesey broke ahead and scored a shorthanded goal to take the lead. Despite giving up a second goal to Pittsburgh, a returning Jonathan Bernier played huge in the third period. Despite a dubious interference call and a stupid high-sticking penalty by P.K. Subban, the penalty kill shut down the Penguins. Despite Crosby, Hischier shut him down. And Jesper Bratt was able to be the hero when Crosby fouled him hard on a one-on-one with Tristan Jarry to draw a penalty shot. Bratt converted, Johnsson sailed in an empty net goal, and the Devils won 4-2 in their first road game against a divisional opponent. It was significant win, especially in light of their poor game against Calgary earlier in the week.
On Halloween’s night, the Devils hosted Columbus. You would have to go back to the 2014-15 season for the last time the Devils had a winning record against the Blue Jackets in the regular season. This one went back-and-forth. The Devils started hot with a goal by Johnsson, set up by Bratt. The Blue Jackets responded with a power play goal by Oliver Bjorkstrand and a Patrik Laine goal created off a Hischier turnover from a bad pass by Smith. This was a bad game for Smith. The Devils rebounded in the second period with a goal by Mercer and a blast by Hamilton to take a 3-2 lead. New Jersey controlled the game in the third period but Smith decided to make an even worse mistake. He literally tried to clear the puck at the lone forechecker on Columbus, Boone Jenner. Jenner took the puck and fired a shot that Scott Wedgewood should have stopped, did not, and made it 3-3. Power play foolishness and overtime dominance did not break the tie, so the Devils entered their first shootout of the season. Like last season (and many before it), they did not score and Columbus got one. So the Devils ended October with a 3-4 shootout loss. A point against a team who has had their number and with the #3 goalie in the net may have been fine on paper. But this one really should have been put away. Alas.
Again, it is in how you see it. Taking 3 out of 4 in a back to back is not bad at all. While they are sixth in the division going into November, they have a points percentage of 64.3%, which is very good. But it could have been 4 this weekend, and it could have turned a 4-2-1 month into a far more positive 5-2-0 record.
By the Numbers
Every month, I provide a snapshot of the team’s on-ice rate stats, with and without score adjustment, and their ranking among the league. I do this for 5-on-5, power play, and penalty kill situations each. With only seven games played so far, you may want to take this month’s numbers with a grain of salt. Still, to ignore them entirely is also unwise as they may point to some of the bad - and good! - things the Devils have done on the ice.
All stats come from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com where mentioned.
5-on-5 Play: The most common situation in hockey saw the Devils play just under 49 minutes per game in it in October. There was plenty to like about it over all seven games, if you ignore that the Devils were trailing for a good amount of those games (score effects) and were at home for six of their seven games.
Even when adjusting for venue and score, the New Jersey Devils were Actually Good in 5-on-5 play. Without the adjustments, they were a top-ten team in the NHL when it came to generating offense. Especially with actual shots on net; the Devils were one of the top teams in the NHL. When you do add the adjustments, it gets worse a bit, but nothing really went down into the red (bottom ten) outside of scoring chances against. That may be a weakpoint of the re-structured Devils defense. It would be something head coach Lindy Ruff and assistant coach Alain Nasreddine may want to adjust for in coming months.
A larger frustration may be with the finishing of the team. The Devils shot, as a team, just ahead of the bottom ten teams in the league. The expected goals model at Natural Stat Trick, which is driven heavily by scoring chances that the Devils generated a lot of, tabbed the Devils as one of the best in the league last month. But the finish was not there, so the actual goal scoring rate was not as high. Still, they out-scored their competition in 5-on-5. The goaltending was decent considering the third and fourth string goaltender - Scott Wedgewood and Nico Daws - saw action in this past month.
Nevertheless, despite the team’s tendency to work hard for low danger shots from the point and some really slow starts, the Devils played quite well overall in 5-on-5 play in October. Some players particularly forceful in favor of the Devils when they were on the ice, such as Dougie Hamilton, Dawson Mercer, Jesper Bratt, and Nico Hischier. While each have had some off nights (Mercer excepted?) early on, they have been massive net positives for the squad. After last season’s lackluster performances in the most common situation in hockey, I am pleasantly surprised to see 18 out of 22 players with an on-ice xGF% above 50%. We shall see if the Devils can maintain this through a busier and tougher November schedule. If they can and if the special teams shape up somehow, then we can feel more confident that this is a legitimately better team than last season. (And imagine adding an in-form Jack Hughes to this.)
Power Play Situations: Sure, the Devils got some conversions. Including a very important equalizer against Buffalo. In general, they were booed off the ice more often than not at the Rock. The stats suggest they deserved it.
The Devils finished just outside of the bottom ten in terms of success rate. It still was not good as the Devils did not draw many calls relative to the rest of the league and they scored just three times. While the Devils did only play 7 games in October, a 16.7% success rate is not good. The 1-3-1 formation instructed by Mark Recchi has not generated a lot of attempts, shots on net, or high-danger chances. The rate of scoring chances is the only metric that can be called decent and, of course, that would require the Devils to get into the zone and maintain possession to generate those chances. The Devils have been all over the place with respect to zone entries and keeping plays going. Too often, the Devils are too static or the passes are just not good, making it easier for opposing penalty killers to get clears.
The result of all of this is reflected with the goal scoring rates for both actual and expected goals. That is to say, the NST model showed the Devils would not score many goals from how they were attacking on the power play. And actual reality was actually really close to the model. In other words, this power play was not good in October. The last game of the month really highlighted how the Devils’ bungling of the man advantage held them back. I would agree and add that prior games in the month could have went far better with at least functional 5-on-4s.
At least the Devils did not concede a shorthanded goal.
Penalty Kill Situations: Sing along with me: The passive diamond sucks. The passive diamond sucks. Oh, Alain, bring back the wedge-plus one. Because the passive diamond sucks.
OK, I am being a bit dramatic with the song. However, whenever the Devils penalty killers do sit in a diamond, it has typically gone bad for them. The diamond does not cover a man in the middle and most teams have a player that can sling a pass in a seam to said man in the middle for a scoring chance. This happened last night, even. But when the Devils do seek to engage the puck carrier or chase a play, then the penalty kill has been able to do a decent job. I would go as far as to say that their forechecking after clears and blueline play against zone entries has been good. But sitting back in their formation and getting caught on overloads are why the Devils gave up seven power play goals in this past month despite some great CA/60 and SA/60 rates. What they do allow is typically in that medium danger range. If the shooter was open and/or the goalie was screened, the goal light has gone on. The low save percentage belies those issues. I do give credit to Nasreddine for using several different people on PKs to see what they can do. I really do think that switching to a wedge-plus-one as a primary formation will yield even better results.
Additions and Subtractions
While the results of preseason do not matter, the performances and injuries do. There were plenty in New Jersey’s camp that led to the opening roster they iced against Chicago on October 15. Here is a synopsis:
- Mackenzie Blackwood apparently had heel surgery in the offseason and was still in recovery. Blackwood was set to try out the heel in the final preseason game. However, that game was cancelled and Blackwood was held out due to an inconclusive COVID-19 test. He did test negative with a full lab test revealed on the following Sunday. However, he has yet to play in a NHL game this month. Due to Blackwood’s unavailability, the Devils kept Scott Wedgewood on the roster to backup Jonathan Bernier.
- Blackwood had been receiving COVID-19 tests daily as he was the only player in the Devils’ camp who was not vaccinated. In fact, he was one of the few players in the entire league who was not vaccinated. Despite the inconclusive test, he was “leaning towards” getting it. Blackwood finally got the shot - the first of two, from Pfizer - prior to the October 23 game against Buffalo. (Aside: Only He is on track of being fully vaccinated before the Devils’ first trip to Canada in early December.
- During preseason games, Tyce Thompson, Miles Wood, Ty Smith, and Damon Severson picked up injuries. This led to all four being on injured reserve to start the season. Thompson was demoted to Utica when he was healthy. Severson and Smith were not out for long. Severson made his season debut in the Seattle game. Smith’s debut was in the Buffalo game. Due to Severson and Smith being out for the first game, Colton White was kept on the roster and played in a few games (2) until Smith’s return. Wood remains out for a long time; there is no current projection for when he would be able to return.
- The Devils acquired Mason Geertsen off of waivers.
- The Devils had four players on professional try out contracts in camp: Jimmy Vesey, Frederik Gauthier, Mark Jankowski, and Tyler Wotherspoon. Vesey and Gauthier were signed to NHL contracts. Vesey has been in the lineup in every game. Gauthier, who was waived prior to the start of the season, was kept in New Jersey in light of the injury to Hughes. Jankowski signed an AHL deal with Rochester; Wotherspoon signed an AHL deal with Utica.
- In terms of prospects making the team, both Alexander Holtz and Dawson Mercer impressed in preseason games. The Devils opted to keep Mercer in New Jersey. Holtz was demoted to Utica, where has been firing away and scoring goals ever since.
That is quite a bit before the puck even dropped against Chicago. During the regular season games in October, there were other events. The most significant one was Jack Hughes’ injury from the Seattle game. He suffered a dislocated shoulder and the Devils recently announced that he will be out for at least the next five weeks. That rules Hughes out for November and possibly for the first full week in December too. In light of Hughes’ injury, Gauthier has entered and stayed in the lineup as a fourth-line center and Michael McLeod has been utilized as a top-six center. Between McLeod’s poor performances and the poor performances in general in starting games this month, head coach Lindy Ruff has mixed up the lines in games multiple times. There have not been any call ups at forward in October. The only other changes within the forwards were Marian Studenic and Mason Geertsen being swapped out when Ruff felt the team needed to be “bigger,” which did not yield many (any?) positive results. His “threat of retribution” certainly didn’t mean anything in any of the games he played in. Fortunately, the coaches realized Studenic’s performances were good enough to keep him in the lineup for the weekend ending this past month. Still, they have not yet called anyone up at forward in October. Not Holtz. Not Boqvist. No one.
Prior to the Washington game, Bernier was ruled out with a lower body injury. This meant Scott Wedgewood started against the Caps and the Devils called up Nico Daws from Utica. Daws would end up making his NHL debut against the Sabres and played very well as one of the few Devils who have played well in all three periods that night. Congratulations to Daws for winning in his first NHL start. Daws also started against Calgary, but he was pulled in the first period for Wedgewood in that loss. Ahead of the final weekend’s games, Daws was returned to Utica. Bernier returned to the ice and shined in a 4-2 win in Pittsburgh this past Saturday. Mackenzie Blackwood may play on the team’s upcoming road trip. The goaltenders are close to 100%.
The defense did get to full strength. Again, Severson and Smith returned from their injuries within the first full week of the season. White and Christian Jaros were playing in their place. White has since been demoted and Jaros has been kept as an extra.
Devil of the Month
I normally name a Devil of the Month based on who has excelled for the Devils throughout the month. This is a tougher task than usual as the Devils, as a team, can be best described as inconsistent throughout the month. That said, there were some standouts among the squad.
As an honorable mention, I will go with the rookie center, Dawson Mercer. Three goals and two assists put him just behind Andreas Johnsson, Pavel Zacha, and Dougie Hamilton in points in October. But it is more than just points for Mercer. When he stepped on the ice in 5-on-5 play in October per Natural Stat Trick, the Devils took 58.7% of the shot attempts, 63.9% of the shots, a bit above 58% of both scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances, a bit over 56% of the expected goals, and 77.8% of the actual goals. When Mercer has been on the ice, the Devils have been fantastic in the run of play. And Mercer is not just riding with good linemates. He has been doing a lot of the work himself too to help pushing play forward and keep it going. He is crashing the net as needed, he is drawing contact, and he is helping others get shots. Mercer has been getting increased opportunities for minutes in light of Hughes’ injury; he has deserved them. This is a 19-year old rookie playing well beyond his years. I knew he was good in preseason. I did not think he would be this good, this often right away. I was almost prepared to name him the Devil of the Month, but then I re-looked at the stats and it was clear who it should be instead. (Special shoutout to Jonathan Bernier, who was great in his 3 appearances in October.)
That would be the defenseman Dougie Hamilton. Sure, he did not do amazingly against Washington or Calgary. But few Devils did in those games. Other than that, Dougie Hamilton has been amazing. He has been a massive upgrade for the blueline, as indicated by those 5-on-5 team stats. Once the coaches sort out the special teams, then Hamilton will likely sparkle there too. Still, in October, Hamilton averaged 23:53 per game, took 29 shots (which may be too many, but hey), and put up two goals and four assists in seven games. Only two defensemen in the league took more shots in October and only 13 defenders in the NHL had more points. When Hamilton took to the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils had a staggering 62.4% of all shooting attempts, 62.5% of all shots, 56.6% of all expected goals, 60% of all scoring chances, 59.3% of all high-danger chances. and about 64.3% of all actual goals. Percentages above 50% are good. Beyond 60% is stupendous. And Hamilton did average over 17 minutes per game in 5-on-5 hockey; which adds to the level of impressiveness. Forget about best among the Devils defensemen, that is arguably the best set of 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats on the whole New Jersey roster. This is what you would expect from one of the best defenseman in recent years. It is wonderful and I look forward to seeing Hamilton continue to shine from the back for this season and beyond. Ergo, I name Dougie Hamilton the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for October 2021.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
Perhaps the best word to describe the Devils in October is inconsistent. From starting games to specific players (e.g. Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha) to special teams to playing without the puck, there is not a lot to expect to go the same way. Sure, it has been seven games, but you would expect some kind of reliability to start showing. Sure, players can and do have bad games. But every defenseman having a poor night at least once in the team’s first seven games combined with nearly every forward raises an eyebrow. The record may be positive and the Devils are still hanging in a super-competitive Metropolitan Division. Yet, are they any good this season? Honestly, that is to be determined.
This coming month is going to answer that last question whether we want to know the answer or not. After a 7 game October, the Devils will play 14 in 30 days. After a schedule with plenty of breaks, there is only one break over two days in November and it is just three days long. This includes a two-week stretch where the Devils will play 7 games in 12 nights. There will absolutely be more road games; November begins with a trip to all three California teams plus a trip to both Florida teams, a road game in Nashville, and a trip to the World’s Most Overrated Arena. The quality of competition will step up as the Devils will play their first games against the Islanders, Our Hated Rivals, and Philadelphia along with two games against a legitimately good Panthers team, a still-contending Tampa Bay team, a Boston team that wants to keep the good times rolling, and a Minnesota team that is not shabby at all. If the Devils are going to vary a lot with their special teams, individual performances, and even just starting off games well, then they may suffer a lot in November.
I will say this, though. The Devils did pull of some results I think recent teams would have lost. Blowing the lead to Chicago was reminiscent of their infamous home opener flop to Winnipeg in 2019. But The Big Deal ensured it would be a win and so it was. The Buffalo game was an exercise in frustration to even watch for half of the game and the Devils needed just one to tie. Instead of letting the Sabres get a second or control the game, Nico Hischier found the equalizer and Pavel Zacha won it in OT. The Devils could have fallen apart to Seattle after the injury to Hughes and the Kraken did make a game of it. But they secured the win. After two good periods in Pittsburgh, the Devils risked blowing the third period - but did not and found a way to win. Even the shootout loss to Columbus would ordinarily be a regular loss given past Devils-Blue Jacket match-ups. This is a lot to say that I think this team did show in some ways that they are a more resilient team than they may get credit for and they get something in games amid their performances. Good teams, even bubble teams, tend to do the latter. Bad teams do not.
As much as I think the best word for the Devils in October is “inconsistent,” they do have a base to build things on. Their 5-on-5 on-ice rates at a team are very encouraging despite my grumbles about the team’s scheme here and there. Hamilton has performed as advertised. Ryan Graves and Tomas Tatar have done enough to show that they belong in key roles. A healthy goaltending tandem of Bernier and Blackwood could be quite good. If the coaches can keep Bratt doing what he did this past weekend, keep Johnsson doing what he is doing, reward Mercer with more minutes, have Zacha appear more often, and get something out of Kuokkanen and Sharangovich, then the offense may be able to more than try to get by without Hughes. This is not like the last two seasons of Devils hockey where you expect pain after the first month and still feel bad from witnessing it. There is more quality in this roster.
I still think the Devils need plenty of improvement from all areas to keep them competitive as the season gets busier. We know Jack Hughes will be out for at least the majority of this month, if not all of it. We know Miles Wood is going to be out for longer. It is unknown how long he will be out, but he will be out. We can expect injuries to happen because injuries happen in a regular season. Therefore, it is up to the coaching staff and the players to get the most out of what they do have to make strides. Special teams could use a re-think; I would start by ditching the passive diamond and whatever is causing the power play units to over-think their plays. Benching bad performing players is a good idea - I’d argue it worked for Bratt - and should continue provided it is applied equally. Changing lines to get certain players going would be helpful; something the Devils understandably did in October. As much as they have generated a lot, I think the even strength offense can be a lot better with some more cycling instead of going in deep then low-to-high so often; such that the defensemen are not taking so many shots from 50-60 feet away would help cut down on the low danger shots that often do not produce goals. And, perhaps most of all, motivation to keep the players going. With how tight the division is, a few bad runs will be all it takes to put the team in a deep hole. Yes, sometimes a team will just have an off night and the slow starts seemingly ended this past weekend. But the team needs to at least be prepared to compete from the first puck drop on most nights. Compare the difference between the weekend’s games and the Calgary and Washington games for examples.
I think these improvements are possible. I think a lot of this can be done. And I think it can build on a positive record in October. Will the coaches and players do it? It is up to them.
Now I turn this over to you. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in October? Who impressed you the most among the Devils players in this past month? What was your favorite game? What was your least favorite game? What did you learn from this month in review? Do you agree that Mercer is the Devil of the Month? If not, who should it be and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils in October 2021 in the comments. Thank you for reading.