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The Devils Need to Shore Up The Slot

Recently, the Devils have struggled to maintain pace in the Metro. One reason for this has been some poor high danger defense, which has hurt them badly.

New Jersey Devils v Florida Panthers Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Over the last two games, games in which the New Jersey Devils have lost, one in regulation badly and one in a shootout, they have showcased a major weakness that has led to copious goals against. Against New York, they let up 3 goals, and they let up 4 against Florida. 7 goals against in two games is not going to lead to a lot of wins. Why are they letting up lots of goals?

Well, as always, there are multiple answers to that, and all of them are correct. There is no one specific reason. Mackenzie Blackwood was bad against Florida, so goaltending was an issue. Mediocre-to-bad possession led to more time in the defensive zone than they would have liked, which led to more chances against, and invariably more goals against. However, the one thing I want to touch on today is specifically their high danger defense, which over the last two games, was not great, to say the least. Check out the shot heat maps from the last two games, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick:

You can check out what the Devils managed to do on offense if you’d like, but I want to focus on what was happening defensively. Look at the heat in front of the net in both games. It was horrible, it looks like no one was playing defense in the slot. New York scored all three of their goals directly in front of goal, and half of Florida’s goals came in the same location. And it’s pretty clear why: the Devils just left that area wide open.

To back up those maps, the numbers show lots of high danger attempts against. NY managed 13 high danger attempts on Sunday, and Florida managed 16 on Thursday. To put that in comparison, the Devils only had 9 on Sunday and 11 on Thursday. If you are going to allow around 5 extra high danger attempts against each game than you are producing, there is a strong likelihood that you aren’t going to win many games.

Now, what defenders were struggling at keeping the opposition from the slot? Here are the team’s high danger numbers over the last two games, from Natural Stat Trick:

So each game, a different pairing was really disastrous in front of the net. On Sunday, it was Severson and Smith who were absent in front of the net, allowing 8 high danger attempts against each. But on Thursday, it was the pairing of Siegenthaler and Subban, who let up 9 each. Those are unacceptable numbers for any defensive pairing, and cannot happen. Defenders have to be present and physical in front of the net, protecting their goaltender and keeping viewing lanes clear. That was not happening over the last two games. Even the star pairing of Hamilton and Graves were not excellent on Thursday.

I did not include the forwards there, one because it would make the chart too bulky, but also because it normally is the defenders job to shore up the front of the net and play down low in the defensive zone, whereas the forwards play up high or on the side boards. However, just to spread blame around to everyone, some of them had some atrocious high danger numbers too. Against Florida, Janne Kuokkanen was on the ice for 0 high danger attempts for and 10 against. That is as bad as it gets. He wasn’t much better against New York, with 0 attempts for and 8 against. When he was out there, nothing was happening in front of the opposition’s goal, but everything was happening in front of NJ’s net. That is really bad. But let’s not also forget Jesper Boqvist, who was 0 for and 5 against on Sunday and 0 for and 7 against on Thursday. Not quite as bad, but still awful nonetheless.

If the Devils want to avoid quickly falling into irrelevance in the brutal Metropolitan division, they will need to shore up their high danger defense, and do so quickly. In the team’s last win, against the Isles, the team overall had a 56.52 HDCF%, produced a goal of their own in front of the net, and was definitely better at protecting the slot. Feel free to check out the Natural Stat Trick page on that game to see the difference. That is something this team needs to focus on, as if they continue to struggle here, teams will keep scoring goals against at a high clip, and this offense just won’t be able to keep up.