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The Several Holes the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils Dug Themselves Into

The 2021-22 New Jersey Devils might as well be called The Moles for the numerous holes they dug themselves into. This post goes into detail about several of them from the record to first periods to the coaching issues.

European mole (Talpa europaea)...
A mole. Also, an animal to represent the 2021-22 Devils.
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

The 2021-22 New Jersey Devils do not have a nickname. It is weird to give a team that already has a team name to give them a nickname. However, if they were to get one based on how this season has been going, then I would have to call them the Moles. Simply because the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils have been digging themselves into plenty of holes this season. They are in a deep one in the standings. Their performances often put them behind in games, which they have often lost. Their long-term development has not risen. While the Devils’ season may not be officially six feet under, they are definitely beneath the surface by more than just a few inches. Let us go over these various holes the Devils are in.

The Standings - Obviously a Hole

The obvious one to begin with is in the standings. Every Sunday, I put up a post that takes a snapshot of the Metropolitan Division standings and provides a summary of how each team in the division performed and who they will play next. The top three teams in the division automatically qualify for the playoffs and the remaining two wild card spots in the conference are decided by the next best two teams outside of those top three teams. In other words, it is important for anyone with playoff aspirations to pay attention to what is going on in the league beyond their own team.

The New Jersey Devils are currently in the bottom half of the division in seventh place. It is very tempting to just state that, yes, the Devils are in a slump and it has been a bad month, but they are just 8 points from a playoff spot. It is true that the Devils are just 8 points away from the team holding the second wildcard spot. That is currently Detroit, whom the Devils recently lost to, 2-5. However, it is not as simple as just earning 8 points to get back into the playoff picture. The Devils would need to earn 8 number of points more than Detroit earns; and they need to out-earn all of the teams between them and that team in question. As of this writing, the Devils (sitting at 25 points in 30 games, tied with Buffalo) would need to jump past Philadelphia (29 points in 29 games), Columbus (29 points in 28 games), and Boston (30 points in 26 games).

This is really hard to do! Boston, Columbus, and Philadelphia are certainly not going to try to stop winning. And the Devils’ own struggles means that getting a win at all has been rather difficult. They have lost six in a row and a seventh loss seems likely as they will play Pittsburgh again, but in their building. The NHL has three-point games given how they reward post-regulation play; one point for an overtime or shootout loser, two points for the winner. Even if the tie magically came back, the issue of a team in the Devils’ way earning a point on any given night would still be there. Regardless, the Devils would need to go on a hot streak of sorts to get back into the playoff picture. Plus, if they do get back into it, then they would need to not revert to their current form. All the while hoping that no one that they passed gets hot themselves. The Devils would absolutely need to beat the likes of Philadelphia (no more games this season), Columbus (0-0-1 against them now), and Boston (0-1-0 against them now). As well as beat on the few teams beneath them in the standings. And get results against better teams to keep making progress. Again, this is really hard to do! This is why by Thanksgiving, you can get a sense of who has something to play for and who does not. The 2021-22 New Jersey Devils do not and this month of December has made that abundantly clear with their 1-8-1 record so far.

So, no, those lamenting the season being lost already are not always being overly negative or quitters or haters. The Devils are in much deeper than their eight-point gap appears in the standings.

Slow(ish) Starts Putting the Devils in a Hole

One of the reasons why fans remained excited about the New Jersey Devils until about the end of November was the fact the Devils made spirited comeback attempts. They would play to the final whistle. The problem with needing to make attempts at a comeback is that they had to comeback from a deficit on the scoreboard. This has brought up the concern about how the Devils start their games. So let us look at them.

To do that, the first period is the one that matters. We want to know how the Devils are playing in the first period. Since the concern is about how they start games, then we have to include special teams as those absolutely impact how the team performs as a whole. At a glance, we want to look at Corsi (shooting attempts), shots on net, expected goals (which is driven by the location of shots, scoring chances yield higher numbers), and actual goals by and against the Devils. Those stats will give us a sense of who has the puck more often (Corsi), who is more accurate with their attempts (shots on net), who is threatening to score more often (expected goals), and who actually led after one period (actual goals). All numbers come from Natural Stat Trick. I added the comment column for special teams goals and colors to highlight what has been good (various shades of green) and bad (various shades of red) for the Devils.

New Jersey Devils vs. Opponent Stats in All Situations in First Periods as of December 20, 2021.
New Jersey Devils vs. Opponent Stats in All Situations in First Periods as of December 20, 2021.
Natural Stat Trick

Surprisingly, the Devils have only entered the first intermission 14 times while losing out of their 30 games this season. They only had one first period where they were buried by their opponent, which was way back on October 27 against Calgary. All other times, they were down by one or two goals. Obviously not good but far from non-salvageable.

However, the slow start is not just in entering the first intermission while losing but also by a lack of entering the first intermission while winning. The Devils have only had 7 first periods this season where they led.

Worse, the performances in the first period have generally been unfavorable. You can count on one hand the games where the Devils significantly out-attempted or out-shot their opponent in the first period. And they did not always lead to good final results. There have been a few more games where the Devils have doubled-up or out-done their opponent by 1 expected goal in the first period, but again, they did not lead to actual goals or winning results. And those significantly good (or even good) numbers were few and far between.

Just to twist the knife further, first periods also have been a place where special teams have certainly not helped the larger cause Thanks to a bad giveaway by Jack Hughes last night, the Devils’ power play in first periods have been out-scored 2-3 so far this season. Thank you, Mark Recchi and your inglorious system. While Janne Kuokkanen scored shorthanded against the Isles, the Devils’ PK has conceded 7 power play goals in first periods. Seven power play goals allowed in 30 first periods does not seem like a lot, but it is still a drag on what could have been more favorable scores for the Devils in five of the seven games it happened in.

New Jersey Devils vs. Opponents First Period Stats, All Situations by Month
New Jersey Devils vs. Opponents First Period Stats, All Situations by Month
Data from Natural Stat Trick

I will point out that it is not all terrible. The Devils have out-attempted their opponents in first periods, particularly in this month so far. The gap between the Devils’ combined expected goal count and expected goal allowed count is closer than it was in October. However, the harsher reality is that the Devils’ attempts often have not become shots on net - which means the expected goal count is held back and the actual goal count for those attempts is clearly zero. This is where how they play in 5-on-5, which is typically low-to-high in non-rush offensive possessions, as well as their ineffective perimeter-based 1-3-1 power play hurts them in the long run. As a result, the Devils have collectively out-attempted opponents in the first period by 22 but managed to be out-shot by 13. Not to mention out-done by xG by nearly 4. The Devils are simply not threatening as much as their opponents have done over the course of this season. And they are definitely not scoring as much given their -13 goal differential in first periods.

I will say that the Devils have not lost a lot of games in the first period alone. Again, being down by one or even two goals is still salvageable. And the Devils have done that in a number of these games. Still, the first period performances as a whole can be much better. They are not putting themselves in good positions to succeed nearly enough. How they play the game in 5-on-5 and their ineffectual power play is undercutting their chances to score. It is more than just a lack of finish, although some more favorable shooting luck would always help. Combined with a defense bleeding scoring chances and goaltending not being super enough to get all of the stops, the Devils have put themselves in a hole with their first period performances. Even if they have not as bad as you may have thought.

Playing from Behind; Trying to Dig Up from a Hole

This is something Alex pointed out just this past Saturday. He highlighted recent losses to the Islanders, Flyers, and Golden Knights where the Devils just, well, did not react well to going down in those games. The loss to Las Vegas was especially poor as the Devils went into the third period down 1-2 and registered just one shot in 13:08 of 5-on-5 play. Not one scoring chance. Not one high danger chance. One shot on net. Yes, they scored a power play and shorthanded goal. Yet in the the most common situation in hockey, the Golden Knights scored more goals in 5-on-5 than the Devils had shots on net in that period.

While it has been especially poor in recent games, it has not always been the case over the course of this season. Again, earlier in this season, the Devils managed to grab some points and some respect by trying to make comebacks in the third period of games that they were losing. However, we can look at a team’s on-ice rate stats when they are trailing in games in 5-on-5 hockey to see how they are performing while trailing. In this case, we want to leave out special teams and extra-man situations as we want to see how the team performs to the score in an even-strength situation. Logically, we would expect the trailing team to attack more, take more risks, and tilt the rink as they try to get the goal(s) they need. They are not so good for the Devils. Again, these numbers come from Natural Stat Trick:

  • CF%: 51.33% (23rd in NHL, league median is 54.88%)
  • SF%: 50.56% (22nd in NHL, league median is 53.11%)
  • SCF% (scoring chance for percentage): 49.15% (24th in NHL, league median is 52.94%)
  • HDCF% (high danger scoring chance for percentage): 49.78% (20th in NHL, league median is 53.88%)
  • xGF%: 47.66% (28th in NHL, league median is 52.55%)
  • GF%: 42.62% (26th in NHL, league median is 51.61%)

The Devils do tilt the ice a little bit in their favor from a shooting perspective when they are trailing games. However, they are giving up almost as much as they create when it comes to shots and scoring chances. Worse, the opposition has been able to threaten more, as indicated by the Devils xGF% being over 2% below the break-even mark of 50%. Even worse, the opponents actually have scored more, as indicated by their GF% being just a bit below 43%. The Devils do not really turn up the offense when they really need to in games. Opponents have been able to just dig the Devils in deeper on the scoreboard.

This is a problem because the median team, the 16th ranked team in these stats, have been more successful than the Devils. Significantly so, in some cases. And the teams at the top of these percentages while trailing, most of them are among the best in the NHL. Most teams in the NHL tilt the rink much more when they are losing. This makes sense. They’re losing. They need to score. Therefore, they will seek to attack more and take more risks to attack in order to get those goals. The Devils have tried to do this, but they have not been all that successful. The Devils’ opponents have not been too far away from matching the Devils in this sense and they have been out-scoring them. And being out-scored while trailing just extends deficits and secures more losses. To that end, the Devils do struggle when they are put in a hole on the scoreboard. This may be a result of, again, their increasing defensive miscues and how they attack combined with a very lackluster power play keeping them from making comebacks in the run of play and on the scoreboard, like they used to earlier in this season. The 2021-22 Devils may not be abjectly terrible when trailing like, say, Seattle; but they have found that digging their way out of a hole is a challenge.

The Black Hole that is the New Jersey Devils Power Play

The power play sucks. I have written thousands of words about their system, their flaws, and their struggles about a month ago. Since November 22, the Devils’ power play has scored 4 power play goals out of 38 opportunities and given up 5 shorthanded goals. Yes, they are a net-negative in scoring while up a man over the past month or so. It is a big reason why the Devils have been buried in other areas. I repeat: The power play sucks.

The Development or Lack Thereof; A Long Term Hole

The New Jersey Devils are a young team. One of the reasons why Lindy Ruff was excited to take the head coaching role back in 2020 was that he wanted to “coach young core talent.” The results may not be there, but are the young Devils developing?

Results may still vary as many are still young, but it is questionable. Jesper Bratt appears to have broken out. Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier have been important to the team. Dawson Mercer emerged to be a NHL player earlier than what was expected when he was drafted. There are some you could say are on a good path to being a good player in this league and for the Devils.

However, there are those who have hit their struggles to a point of questioning their future. Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich flourished next to Hughes throughout 2021. Sharangovich looked like he was prime to be a key goal scorer in preseason. His shooting luck betrayed him (4 goals on 45 shots per NHL.com), he has not shot the puck all that much (45 in 25 games), opponents have enjoyed playing against Sharangovich to a degree, and found his way to the scratch list a few times. The same can be said for Kuokkanen, but with some worse on-ice rates in 5-on-5 and even fewer production. Mercer has run cold ever since Ruff split up his line with Bratt and Andreas Johnsson, which was fantastic in November. Michael McLeod has been utilized a lot more than you would expect for a fourth-line player, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes because, I don’t know, and the coaches like him? He has been performing like a fourth liner, faceoff winning percentage notwithstanding. The return of Nathan Bastian has not helped the run of play, although it has been weirdly worse for McLeod and himself when the Superbuddies are apart. The call-ups from Utica have varied in usefulness, although it is a legitimate question as to whether they were/are ready regardless of how the coaches use him.

The biggest struggler among the young ones is defenseman Ty Smith. His game has basically taken the worst aspects of the other defensemen around him. The random bad moves that plagued P.K. Subban and Damon Severson. The lack of mobility of the puck that you see sometimes from Jonas Siegenthaler and Ryan Graves. He is not helping with the offense and he is almost gripping his stick so tight with the puck that he may break it himself. Smith is performing like a player who is trying to stick to close to all these instructions he is getting instead of trusting the skills, talent, and instinct that got him to the NHL to begin with. Smith’s on-ice rates at 5-on-5 are the worst among the regular top-six defensemen on New Jersey. Opponents enjoy seeing #24 on the ice. Those who have called for Smith to take a stint to Utica to get his mind increasingly have a point sometimes as Smith gets beaten for points by the opposition. I know sophomore slumps are a thing, but the Devils coaches really have not helped him figure out what has gone wrong or put him in spots to do things right. They’ve tried benching him. They’ve tried different partners. While this could all be Smith’s fault, one has to wonder what the coaches are doing to help this player out. He’s 21 and will turn 22 in March. There’s time to improve but if the coaches and Smith are not going to figure this out, then Smith’s career could be all the worse for it.

This is all part of a longer term problem because if these players do not develop to their potential, then the Devils are in real trouble in the long term. And given that the players mentioned are all NHL players, then one has to question how the coaches have been preparing them and using them in games. Accountability is more than just punishing players for mistakes. It means praising good habits. It means pointing out areas to work on. It means utilizing their talents to get the best out of them. It is unclear whether the coaches are doing an adequate job of this. Maybe they are, and the players are just showing us what they are. But based on the on-ice play this season, this larger issue of development is partially why the Devils are not a deep team and why they have struggled this season. It is absolutely worth questioning.

This is an especially larger issue because it impacts more than just this season. Players are only young for so long. As players get more experience, it is going to be harder to undo bad habits and learn better ones. The development part eventually ends. Severson’s quote about a winning culture prior to the Las Vegas loss is telling. He has went through his younger years on a team that emphasized development. In retrospect, had he had different instruction, maybe Severson would be a better player than he is today. (And he’s actually a pretty good player, miscues aside; he’s also a big reason why the penalty kill has rebounded) The core of the this team’s future may be built around Hischier, Hughes, Dougie Hamilton, and Mackenzie Blackwood. However, they need more than just four players to be talented and display that talent for the team to find any kind of sustained success in the regular season. This may not be something one can fully point the finger at Lindy Ruff and his staff. But it is a hole the Devils have for the future if it turns out that what we have seen from Smith, Sharangovich, Kuokkanen, and so forth is going to be more like what they will be as they grow.

Coaching Mistakes; Digging Holes from Behind the Bench

While I will admit it may be a bit unfair to point issues of development at the bench, there are plenty of problems to have with the current coaching staff. Lindy Ruff may be experienced, but he has increasingly shown that he is in over his head during the Devils’ slump.

In general, Ruff wants the Devils to be aggressive in all three zones. Opponents have figured that out to some degree and have preyed upon it for goals against while denying the Devils goals for them. Opposition penalty kills know exactly what to expect from the Devils. As long as they do not blow coverage or let a seam pass get through them, they know they are fine. Opposition defenses know the Devils are going to get that puck in deep and then work it to the points, so opposing forwards in the defensive zone are ready to defend the men by the blueline. Opposition defenses also know the Devils love to rush up ice on counter-attacks and tend to over-commit, so win the puck back or hope the goalie bails them out so they can rush in response. Opposition offenses know that if they pin the Devils back on defense, they will create more opportunities and deny the Devils a chance at a counter-attack. They know the Devils can overload in the corners and by the boards, so if someone is available weakside, they will have a great chance to score if the puck gets out there. They know what to expect from the Devils.

Aside: The above paragraph is why you don’t see a whole section on goaltending. I am fully aware that Blackwood, Bernier, and others have poor save percentages in this month. I understand that they can be much better. However, it is not the cure-all you may think it to be. Blackwood and Bernier each posted 5-on-5 save percentages above 92% last month (both above league median among goalies with 100 minutes played per Natural Stat Trick) and the team still went 5-5-3 with only one set of consecutive wins (three: November 6 to November 11). Given how often the Devils are getting burned in their own end and on rush plays, I am hesitant to point a finger to the goaltender and say it is mainly, say, Blackwood’s fault for not bailing the team out enough. If anything, a goalie constantly bailing out the team like this would mask these serious issues and cause no one to try and fix them before they cost the team games - like they have done all month long. It also did not help that Blackwood’s previous two starts involved him being sick and getting hurt, respectively.

The concerns go deeper with Ruff and his staff. Here is a short list of them:

  • Player utilization since Jack Hughes’ return has been odd. There have been games where McLeod’s line is getting more ice time than one centered by Mercer or Hischier. Ruff & Co. think that McLeod’s line should be a match-up line. Their recent performance against the Penguins should indicate that they are not a match-up line. But the coaches, for whatever reason, feel otherwise. There have been periods where the most dominant players in 5-on-5 have been limited to fewer shifts than others.
  • Some roster changes have been odd. Mercer’s line was broken up and not returned until several games later whilst Mercer and Johnsson struggled to find the scoresheet. (Mercer did score shorthanded in Detroit, for what it is worth.) Even with Jesper Bratt deemed healthy for the Pittsburgh game, the coaches decided against re-uniting 11-18-63 even though that was the plan against Detroit before Bratt was a late scratch due to illness. The coaches have been willing to tinker - and had to due to COVID-19 and injuries - among the remaining centers. But Vesey-McLeod-Bastian had more consistency amid this slump than a forward line that was actually productive for a month. That is strange, to say the least.
  • Due to the slump, everyone’s mindset is more fragile - something I would have expected a coaching staff with loads of NHL experience to help guard against. This was proven otherwise in my opinion when Ruff indirectly blamed Andreas Johnsson for not scoring on a breakaway as to why they lost 2-4 to the Islanders in the post-game press conference. Nothing says “I will steel resolve” by pointing a finger at a player for not scoring as if it would have prevented the Islanders from scoring in the game.
  • Speaking of post-game press conferences, he stated that you need to credit the McLeod line for frustrating Las Vegas’ top line and so Max Pacioretty was yelling at him by the end. While Las Vegas’ top line did not score, McLeod witnessed 12 attempts against him and he was out-shot 1-7 against Pacioretty, Mark Stone, and Chandler Stephenson in 5-on-5 match-ups. Ruff has a different definition of frustrating than you and I. (Also related: Why keep that McLeod matchup in that game?)
  • Mark Recchi still has a job despite the power play being objectively abysmal.
  • Alain Nasreddine still has a job despite the Devils’ defense being objectively worse as this season went on. Just look at the difference between October’s and November’s team stats. Spoiler for December’s month in review: the against rates in 5-on-5 are not much better.
  • Mackenzie Blackwood had a bad game against Philadelphia in a 1-6 loss. After that game, Ruff revealed that he (among other players on the team) was really sick but wanted to start the game, so Ruff let him. The sickness may explain why Blackwood had a bad night. Ruff’s decision to start him anyway was shortsighted at best and irresponsible at worst. It is also retrospectively odd that Blackwood had to play but when Bratt was deemed too sick to play, he was scratched in Detroit.
  • After the 2-5 loss to Detroit, Ruff stated (and the Devils Twitter account highlighted this quote) that they’ve “talked about puck management over and over and over. Until we get it, we’re just hurting ourselves.” If they’ve had discussions about their issues at maintaining possession and winning pucks (which are valid issues!) and it is not getting better (it’s not!), then that suggests to me that Ruff and the coaches are not successfully communicating to their players. Losing the locker room is never a good sign for any head coach in any sport. Ruff essentially stated that after the team lost what was their 14th game in their previous 17 at the time. This is not just me thinking this. It is a central thesis to Chris’ recap in the Devils’ loss yesterday, their 15th in their previous 18 games.

I understand that the coaches are not the ones on the ice. They are not the ones making saves or finishing passes or staying up right on their skates. They are the ones who prepare the players to play, let them know when they do good or bad, and make corrections when things go awry. The latter has not happened. That experienced players on the roster are continuing to make what appears to be basic errors points to a coaching staff that is just not getting through to their players. When the execution flaws keep happening, one has to ask what the coaches are doing about it. Either Ruff & Co. are trying and failing, or they are not trying to fix the issues adequately enough.

This is also an issue with respect to everyone’s favorite A-word when sports teams/players struggle: accountability. Ruff and his staff have witnessed players like Smith just get lost on ice and, well, keep letting him do lost with no sign of correction. Subban has been guilty of some slewfoots, Ruff said it was unacceptable, and yet Subban did it again - with no apparent recourse. Blackwood and Bernier have let in some howlers, but instead of trying to address defensive flaws to make the games a bit easier for the goalies, or trying to address offensive issues to get more goals anyway, they just let it ride and fans are left to lament Blackwood or Bernier or Schmid or Daws or Wedgewood to might not be good enough. I can keep going, but it is increasingly clear that accountability and responsibility are just words Ruff uses in press conferences instead of actual concepts in his job. This coaching staff is in over its head amid this ongoing spiral of losses.

Combined with the above points, and the team’s coaching situation is a mess. So much so that if and when the slump ends, one has to question if Ruff, Recchi, Nasreddine, Chris Taylor, and Dave Rogalski are the ones to lead the Devils to a better future. As it stands, I really do not see it. This slump as revealed their own shortcomings and I think they would hold the Devils back more than elevate them to where they want to be. From a coaching perspective, the Devils are in a hole. You did not even need to read this section to know that. Just look at other, more successful teams. Such as Pittsburgh, where Mike Sullivan has got way more out of their players and dealing with their own injury/COVID losses (e.g. Crosby and Malkin missed more than a few games this season) with more success (and just beat the Devils, 3-2) than the Devils. Or Carolina, who is bossed by Rod Brind’Amour, who did beat Detroit of all teams with less than 18 skaters in the lineup earlier this week.

Conclusions

I understand I touched on a lot of different issues that are currently impacting the Devils. And this not an exhaustive list of the team’s issues. There are more, but I think my main point is clear. That the 2021-22 Devils, like moles, have dug themselves into plenty of holes! No one single action or change is going to get them to dig their way out of it either.

However, there are some more immediate actions that they can take to at least make it possible to get closer to the surface and hopefully not dig themselves in so much in 2022-23 and beyond. A coaching change is not a guaranteed improvement, but it can absolutely help. Sitting at least Ty Smith down to explain what is going on may not make him play better immediately, but it could help him among all the other young players struggling. Reducing the aggressive tactics on offense and defense may not pay off right away, but it could reduce the number of times the Devils are getting exposed and burned. Doing literally anything else on the power play would be better than what they have done this season. Just playing the team’s best players as if they are their best players and not playing guys who are sick and/or throwing them under the bus after a loss is a plus. There are things that can be done that may not salvage this season but at least soothe a rightfully-frustrated fanbase and at least get them on track for a better 2022-23.

As I have frequently stated after the many games in December, something has got to change. There really has not been any significant changes. I am unsure why General Manager Tom Fitzgerald has been so shy about this after an offseason where he was more apt to act. Maybe he wants to but he lacks options. Or he does not think changes are warranted. Or he is unsure about what (or who) exactly he should change to. Or he is waiting for an OK from his bosses. I do not know. But something has to change and management is not doing anything. I am not sure what he is waiting for, or what more he needs to see before making a decision. At this rate, Fitzgerald’s inaction will contribute to these holes and more.

It is not really possible to dig straight up. It is possible to dig up at an angle and make progress towards the surface. This is how I would want the 2021-22 Devils to approach the remainder of this season. Make an effort. Make improvements for the future. Do not settle for staying in place and suffering. I do not want pity; I want progress. That much is do-able in the team’s remaining 52 games even if the playoffs are a longer shot than it appears. What do you want to see the Devils do to obtain that? What do you want the Devils do to avoid digging themselves in deeper? What other “holes” have the Devils stuck themselves in that you have seen? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the various holes the Devils have dug themselves into this season in the comments. Thank you for reading. As always, I wish I could make it better. But I am a mere fan with a lot of words about this team I love that is currently in the dirt.