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The January 2021 Month in Review of the New Jersey Devils

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For the first time since March 2020, the New Jersey Devils played a NHL game. With a new head coach, a new full-time GM, and plenty of changes in the roster, they played nine in January and went 4-3-2. This post analyzes and reviews a busy first month of a shortened NHL season.

New Jersey Devils v New York Rangers
Jacked Hughes, flexing The Fourteen Extra Pounds of Muscle(TM) in Manhattan.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For the first time in over 10 months, there is a month of New Jersey Devils hockey to review. I could be cute and just leave at that. The Coronavirus Pandemic continues throughout the world and there is no guarantee the Devils or the National Hockey League will complete the 56-games-in-fiveish-months season sprint in full. However, this is All About the Jersey and not All About the Epidemiology. The focus is on the Devils. This is about the first month of the season they just completed. It had a surprising retirement, absences, a major return, many debuts, a dramatic overtime winner, a strong start, and a not-as-successful end of January. A lot happened in Newark as the team began its 2021 campaign.

How you view this month and, likely, this season depends on your expectations. Mine are pretty low, partially due to being confident last season and seeing that confidence trashed. I expect the Devils to be more competitive and hopefully not finish last in the East. To that end, I am pleased with how the Devils performed in a month where they went 4-3-2. If yours are at least a bit higher or you think the Devils could have pulled out more results based on how they played, then I can understand being disappointed by the month. Especially from how they ended it compared to how they started it. I apologize if that seems wishy-washy but it is the most accurate description of how the month went for the Devils. It does depend on how well (or not) you expect the Devils to do in 2021. Perhaps a month in review post like this one may sway your mind one way or the other.

The games are always important and so let us summarize the games first.

The Games of January 2020

The New Jersey Devils played their first competitive game of hockey against an opponent since March 10, 2020 on January 13, 2021. They hosted the Boston Bruins at The Rock. As with the start of any season, there is a reason to be hopeful. A fan dreams of a good start. The first period was a nightmare for New Jersey. Boston wrecked the Devils and Mackenzie Blackwood was the only one keeping them alive in the game. But then the game started turning around for New Jersey. Miles Wood scored on a breakaway. After Boston tied up the game, rookie defenseman Ty Smith took a long shot and a really fortunate bounce off of Charlie McAvoy re-directed it into the net to tie it up again. The Devils dragged the game into overtime and nearly won it multiple times in the fourth period. They did not. A shootout ensued and they lost it for a 3-4 final score. After those first twenty minutes, a point earned at all felt like a win against a potential division leader.

The Devils hosted Boston again on January 15, 2021. The Devils’ schedule is filled with games against the same opponent in pairs, much like the rest of the league. As they displayed in January, they tended to do better in the second game than in the first. It started in this one. The Devils played like a NHL team in the first period and even scored first. Unfortunately, Jaroslav Halak brought his A+ game and that would be the only goal he would allow in regulation. Even more unfortunately is that Boston equalized on a shorthanded goal. But Blackwood remained excellent and so overtime was needed again. It was a back-and-forth affair. And it ended with an early candidate for Goal of the Season as Damon Severson sprung Egor Sharangovich for a breakaway with a turnaround pass as time was running out. With just under 2 seconds left to play, Sharangovich beat Halak for his first NHL goal and the first win of the Devils’ season. The final score was 2-1 and it was three points out of four against Boston.

The Devils hit the road for the first time on January 19 to visit Our Hated Rivals. This game represented a number of the issues that began against Boston and would permeate throughout the month’s games. The Devils’ veteran players struggled. The Devils took calls - some questionable, some not - that put their penalty kill under pressure. That penalty kill cracked quite a bit in the process, costing the Devils goals. However, there were good things on the night. Mackenzie Blackwood made a lot (47) of saves. Jack Hughes emerged in the second period and put up a three-point night with two goals to lead the Devils with a four goal game (an offside challenge took away a fourth point and a fifth New Jersey goal). They even scored a power play goal, albeit off of Wood’s skate. The Devils chased out the Rangers’ starting goaltender. But they pulled back within one and it was a very nervy third period, especially as the Devils took three penalties. They did survive for a 4-3 win; their first on the road, in regulation, and against Our Hated Rivals.

New Jersey followed up the rivalry win with more of a let down against New York’s more palatable team, the New York Islanders, on January 21. Blackwood was listed on the COVID-19 protocol prior to the game so Scott Wedgewood had to come in to start the game. The rest of the team did not really step it up for Wedgewood’s first start in nearly three years. Mistakes and turnovers yielded two goals against in the first period. Nathan Bastian surprised everyone with a goal in the second period - Seymon Varlamov had a long shutout streak going - to pull the Devils within one. But penalties and penalty kill issues arose again to help the Isles get two more. The Devils decisively lost 1-4 to the Isles for their first regulation loss of the season.

After some tinkering and practice, the New Jersey Devils hosted the Islanders on January 24 for their second game in a row against them. This night went so much better for the Devils that it almost resembled a different team. The Isles’ top players, whom wrecked the Devils on the 21st, were kept relatively quiet. Hughes torched the twine with a power play wrister to open the scoring. Pavel Zacha finished off a rebound from Nikita Gusev’s first dangerous offensive move of the season to make it 2-0. The defense held up well and Scott Wedgewood was fantastic in net to maintain the lead. Yes, Scott Wedgewood provided the Devils’ first shutout of the season. More importantly, the Devils as a whole played an excellent game from start to finish in the 2-0 win. Arguably, it is their best performance of this season so far.

Unfortunately, the good times from that game would not continue into their two games against the Philadelphia Flyers. The first game on January 26 was an exercise in frustration. The Devils got beaten twice on the penalty kill by the kind of tip-in in the same kind of location by the same player. One coming after Sharangovich hit the post on a shorthanded breakaway. The Devils did battle back to tie up the game in the second period. They stormed the Flyers in the third period but only had two posts to show for it. Then the team literally fell apart to give Philly an easy go-ahead goal. A heinous turnover by Smith gave the Flyers a two-goal lead. All while the Devils were getting the whistle for fouls that Philadelphia somehow avoided. An empty netter sealed the defeat, with Zacha only providing a consolation goal to make it a 3-5 loss to the Flyers.

The second game on January 28 would be much better. The Devils not only dictated the pace of play for the first 40 minutes, they also heavily out-shot the Flyers 24-8 after two periods. However, Carter Hart was locked in and only Damon Severson beat him in the first period. The Flyers even tied up the game with a free rebound shot in the first period. But the Devils could not solve Hart again despite their efforts. While the Devils drew several penalties, their power play floundered. While the Devils’ penalty kill was perfect, it did not mean a let down could not occur. A bad start to the third period and an uncalled trip on Hughes led to the Flyers going up a goal. They doubled their lead minutes later. As well as the Devils played in general, they were beaten in the manner I would think most fans would expect the Devils to win games: lean on the goaltender playing great and score in the few parts of the game where your team is rolling. The third period done in the Devils in the 1-3 loss to the Flyers.

January ended with a back-to-back set of afternoon games in Buffalo. The first one was a back-and-forth affair with the Devils and Sabres failing to capitalize on the other team’s fouls in the first period. Buffalo struck first thanks to a bad time to change players; but the Devils managed to tie it up with a late-period power play strike from the point by Smith. It was 1-1 after two and the third would be a dramatic affair. Andreas Johnsson, whose play was improving since the first Flyers game, went bar (corner?) down for his first goal as a Devil. However, the Sabres responded when Cody Eakin bodied through two Devils to set up an equalizer. It got grimmer when Buffalo got the benefit of a rather unfavorable hooking call against Smith. This led to a power play goal for Viktor Olafsson. But the Devils rose above the misfortune by giving some to Linus Ullmark. Janne Kuokkanen found Ullmark not covering the near post on play next to the net. He flung it up and in off the goalie’s body to make it 3-3 for his first goal as a Devil. Overtime was necessary but it did not decide anything. However, like in the team’s first game against Boston, the Devils fell in the shootout. The Devils lost 3-4 to begin their first winless streak of 2021.

The streak would end at three. On the final day of month, the Devils played Buffalo again without Kyle Palmieri (COVID-19 Protocol) and Nick Merkley (sent to taxi squad), with two centers Mikhail Maltsev and Jesper Boqvist recalled to play left wing, and Eric Comrie making his Devils debut in net. Surprising no one, the special teams were a net negative for the Devils with two goals allowed on the PK and nothing created for the power play. Surprising many, a new “fourth” line of Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian bashed the Sabres on just about every shift and created three goals against Carter Hutton. The 5-on-5 performance was strong and the coaches put faith in Sharangovich, Zacha, and Maltsev to even help defend the one-goal lead late. Wood sailed in a long empty net goal for his second of the afternoon and to end January with a 5-3 win. It was another set where the Devils’ performance in the second game was better for New Jersey than the first. The month ended on a high note.

By the Numbers

In my view, it is important that the Devils show improvement in 2021 compared to 2019-20. That would justify the hiring of Lindy Ruff as head coach and the decision to promote Tom Fitzgerald to the full-time general manager position among other changes to the team. I am happy to write that the Devils have not been a crummy 5-on-5 team in January. They have actually done fairly well there. I am not happy to write that the Devils have been extremely crummy on special teams in January. Let us look at the numbers from this past month and see what was measured out of the Devils’ nine games in January. All stats come from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com where mentioned.

5-on-5 Stats: Compared to last season, this is wonderful.

January 2021 5-on-5 rate stats
January 2021 5-on-5 rate stats
Natural Stat Trick

This is stunning to me. The Devils are above the break-even mark as a team in attempts, shots, scoring chances, expected goals, and actual goals. On its own, it is fine. Decent, if you will. Compared to the John Hynes Devils, it is amazing. Ruff’s system has defensemen activate more often to join the attack and allows for both defenders to swarm opponents in corners, meaning the forwards have to cover them. Both are liable to be exploited by fast, well-structured teams. But after nine games, only one team has really done that to them and it did not happen in the rematch two days later. These systems work so far for most of this roster. Dmitry Kulikov, Damon Severson, and Travis Zajac have looked revitalized on the Devils. Even some of the struggling players like Kyle Palmieri and P.K. Subban have respectable 5-on-5 on-ice rates. The only Devils who have looked really off in 5-on-5 has been Matt Tennyson and Nick Merkley, both of whom do not play a lot when they are in games. This is where I am obligated to mention my confusion at Will Butcher not getting into a game yet whilst Tennyson has been in nine. But that correction can still be made.

What I hope does not get corrected is the goaltending. The Devils have benefited big time with their play over all nine games. A team save percentage of 94.63% is both incredible and incredibly difficult to maintain. Mackenzie Blackwood has been wonderful in his three stats with only one even strength goal allowed. A 98.5% save percentage in 5-on-5 in three games is absolutely wonderful. The real surprise has come from Scott Wedgewood and Eric Comrie. On paper, going to those two should have led to the Devils getting lit up left and right for losses. In reality, they have done better than their poor AHL statlines would suggest. In four games, Wedgewood has a 91.3% which is an acceptable level of goaltending. Comrie was only beaten once in 5-on-5 yesterday and made 22 saves; which looks easier than it was. A hockey team needs quality goaltending to get results, the Devils received above and beyond from Blackwood, Wedgewood, and Comrie. How long it will last is unknown. It is highly unlikely they’ll post a collective save percentage over 94% for another month. It is worth appreciating all the same.

The only area in 5-on-5 that the Devils need to be aware of is their high danger chances allowed. They have just bled a lot of high quality chances in 5-on-5. Some of that may be due to a turnover or a mistake on offense being punished. Some of that may be due to forwards not used to protecting the slot and crease that now have to do so. Some of that may be a result of teams trying to storm back into a game against the Devils (e.g. the Rangers game, the second Buffalo game). It is a main reason why their expected goals against rate is low and the percentage could be better. Before the goaltending drops off, the Devils should seek to seal it off. The good news is that should come with adjustments as opposed to wholesale changes given that the Devils have far more respectable against rates in the other stats.

Why are the all-situation xGF/60 and xGA/60 rates so low? Three words: Special teams failing.

Power Play Stats: After looking at those 5-on-5 numbers, do you really need to be saddened by these figures? No, but here it is anyway.

January 2021 Power Play Stats
January 2021 Power Play Stats
Basic stats from NHL.com, Rate stats from Natural Stat Trick

That is a lot of red. The Devils truly had one of the worst power plays in the NHL in January. The Devils’ power play yielded a goal differential of just two. It is not like the power play goals did not help. The first one against New York stood up as the game’s winning goal. The second one against the better New York team opened the scoring in a 2-0 win. The third one tied it up against Buffalo. The issue is that there were just three goals. Three for twenty-six. That is just not going to help any team. It certainly does not tell opposing teams to not foul or take liberties with the Devils. (Neither do non-calls, looking at you, refs from the first Philadelphia game.)

Worse than that, the Devils are not even generating a good amount of offense with an extra man on the ice. It would be one thing if the Devils were hitting posts and getting robbed all over the place. But they finished the bottom near the bottom of the league when it comes to shots, attempts, and scoring chances. Their super-low rate of goals is not too far behind their super-low expected goal rate in man advantage situations. They are just not creating an even half-decent amount of offense when they have an extra skater or two on the ice. From game to game, it appeared to me that the Devils are trying different breakout concepts and methods to get into their 1-3-1 formation. Within that formation, we have shifts in positions to mix things up with very little success. (e.g. Why take Palmieri away from the Ovechkin spot, I don’t know?) I had higher hopes for assistant coach Mark Recchi to provide changes to get the Devils’ power play to be more offensive. Instead, it has been offensive to the game of hockey.

Penalty Kill Stats: What has been worse than the power play? The penalty kill.

January 2021 Penalty Kill Stats
January 2021 Penalty Kill Stats
Basic stats from NHL.com, Rate stats from Natural Stat Trick

Again, that is a whole lot of red and that is terrible. By the way, look at that goal against count. Look back at the 5-on-5 chart and then come back here. Your eyes are not deceiving you. The Devils have given up as many goals while shorthanded as they have in 5-on-5 play in January. Even a league-median success rate on the penalty kill would have yielded some more comfortable wins, if not more wins outright. More than the 11 goals allowed, the Devils have often allowed opponents to make the goaltenders sweat out the situations the Devils actually did kill.

What is shocking is that the Devils’ PK is not really different from the system used last season which was very successful. Alain Nasreddine was brought back to run the PK. I understand there has been a change in personnel, but Pavel Zacha, Travis Zajac, Damon Severson, and P.K. Subban all returned from last year’s successful units. Ryan Murray was really good with it in Columbus and while Dmitry Kulikov was not impressive in Winnipeg last season, his excellent 5-on-5 performances warrant shorthanded icetime. It is not like the Devils lack bodies for these units. The beauty of the wedge-plus-one is that it does not require special talents to run it. It is about understanding your role, rotating to help as needed, being patient when in the wedge, and applying good pressure as the plus-one. The Devils have struggled in each of those aspects and it has often made games more difficult than they need to be.

I really do think a lot of the issues come down to execution; the Devils absolutely need to work on that. Even if they do (and until they do), they would be wise to just do their best to stay out of the box - something where Subban (5 penalties, only six in the league have taken more than that), Severson (4), Smith (4, although 1 was a phantom hook in Buffalo), and the bench (multiple too many men on the ice calls) could help just by being smarter in games. Either way, the Devils’ penalty absolutely sucked in January and it needs to be a lot better if the Devils want to keep staying in games and winning them as the season goes on.

Additions and Subtractions

The New Jersey Devils were busy in this regard in January. Even before the puck dropped at the Prudential Center against Boston on January 13. Here is a summary of who came in and who left during the month.

On January 7, the Devils announced that they signed defenseman Sami Vatanen to a one-season contract worth $2 million. The Devils traded Vatanen for Kuokkanen and what would become a third round pick. They picked him up from the free agent market to bolster the Devils’ defensive depth. He has the added bonus of being familiar with several Devils already. Unfortunately due to visa issues and Coronavirus restrictions, he was not able to join the Devils in January. Early in the broadcast of the Devils game on January 31, it was announced that Vatanen has entered the COVID-19 protocol to join the team later. This means he is in the country and he should be eligible as early as February 8, provided he passes all tests.

A major subtraction soon followed the Vatanen signing. Goaltender Corey Crawford, whom the Devils signed in the offseason, was not participating in training camp that week. On January 8, the Devils announced he was on indefinite leave for personal reasons. The very next day, Crawford announced his retirement. This led to the Devils being active on the waiver wire for goaltenders as his departure meant the Devils’ depth would be Blackwood, Wedgewood / Senn, and Evan Cormier. They made two claims to bring in two goalies that may be more viable as a #2 goaltender than Wedgewood. Eric Comrie was claimed from Winnipeg on January 12 and Aaron Dell was claimed from Toronto on January 18. Between the two, Dell will likely be the backup to Blackwood given that Dell has been good in the AHL recently whereas Comrie and Wedgewood were not. We will have to wait if that happens. Comrie is currently with New Jersey; Dell is still going through the COVID-19 Protocols to join the team. Wedgewood has been the team’s backup goaltender to start the season; he is now the starter with Comrie backing him up. It has not gone badly as it could have been. Still, expect to see shifts in the goaltender depth chart in February when Blackwood and Dell are eligible to return to the team.

There was some good news a few days after Crawford’s retirement. Fans have been wondering when Jesper Bratt would be re-signed. He was not at training camp when it started. He was not even in America when it opened. The deadlock was over on January 10 as the team announced he re-signed for two season contract worth $5.5 million. It is a very favorable contract for the Devils as Bratt could have conceivably commanded more based on his role with the team. Unfortunately, the fact it was signed on January 10 meant it would be some time before Bratt could join the team. He needed a visa, he needed to travel to the United States, and he would have to go through both a Coronavirus quarantine period and protocols to join the Devils. Bratt managed to get his visa quickly and the Devils announced his return to the lineup on January 23. Ruff stated he would play immediately with the Devils in their January 24th game against Philadelphia, which was a surprise since Bratt has not played a single game or even scrimmage since March 2020. Not only did he play, he was on the first line with Hughes and Johnsson and performed rather well. Bratt is now back as a regular top-six winger.

Ahead of the NHL season starting on January 13, the Devils needed to be roster and cap compliant by 5 PM ET on January 12. They were and the team announced the opening night roster and taxi squad on the 13th. Nick Merkley cleared waivers to join the taxi squad along with Mikhail Maltsev, Nolan Foote, and Gilles Senn. This meant Sharangovich, Smith, Kuokkanen, Jesper Boqvist, Nathan Bastian, Michael McLeod, and Matt Tennyson all made the team out of camp. So far in January, the only performance-based change the team has made with the taxi squad is sending Boqvist down to call up Merkley ahead of the Devils’ game against the Isles on the 24th. When Bratt joined the team, Merkley was sent back down to the taxi squad. Merkley would return for the first game against Buffalo. He was returned as the Devils recalled Mikhail Maltsev for his first NHL game and Jesper Boqvist for the final game of the month.

There have been multiple Coronavirus-related changes to the roster in January. Blackwood was placed on the league’s COVID-19 protocol list prior to their first game against the Islanders. He has yet to rejoin the team. Wedgewood has taken his place with Comrie, now with the Devils, and Gilles Senn backing him up. Travis Zajac was also added to the list on January 29. He did not practice that Friday and did not travel with the team to Buffalo. Merkley was recalled to fill in the open forward spot. Those were two big absences. Blackwood has been fantastic to start this season and the Devils will need him back and healthy if they want to remain competitive in this difficult division. Zajac has been one of the best Devils in 5-on-5 play this season; a veteran Devil who has been actually great has been refreshing in this month. As Nico Hischier remained out with a foot injury all month long, Zajac’s play was important. Now the Devils enter February even thinner at center. Prior to the Buffalo game, Kyle Palmieri was added to the list, which led to the Devils recalling two from their taxi squad instead of just one for Merkley. Palmieri’s season has been a struggle despite some surprisingly good 5-on-5 on-ice rates. Still, that led to Nikita Gusev switching to right wing for the second Buffalo game and influenced Maltsev and Boqvist to line up at wing instead of center.

There was one positive “subtraction,” Connor Carrick, who has yet to dress for the Devils this season, also entered the protocol list on January 30. That was more for personal than health related reasons; he traveled on his own from Buffalo to New Jersey to see his wife birth their first child. Congratulations to the Carricks. There has been no recall of a defenseman to fill in his spot as a spare player.

Devil of the Month

Despite the team’s record, there are a number of players who did impress in the month. I could make cases for either the honorable mention or the Devil of the Month for multiple Devils. Blackwood’s first three games were, again, fantastic as he did not even allow an even strength goal in three games. Wedgewood’s return to the NHL has went better than expected. With Hischier out, Travis Zajac performing excellently on the ice has really helped the Devils compete, especially against the opposition’s best at home. Dmitry Kulikov and Damon Severson have been utterly great in Lindy Ruff’s systems both together and apart. Those clamoring for the Devils to see improvement on the blueline got it in those two. And I’m sure all are similarly pleased for Ty Smith putting up 8 points in his first 9 games. My point is that there is a lot of room for debate for these two categories as who has been the best Devil throughout the month.

To me, Miles Wood represents the 2021 season so far for the New Jersey Devils. Was he consistently dominant or good? No. Was he expected to be great? No. But he has played much better than I expected. Wood scored the team’s first goal of the season in a game where he took two goaltender interference penalties. He has since taken just one minor penalty since that first game. Wood’s off the puck issues have not really been issues as the coaching staff felt comfortable enough to line him up next to Zajac with some tough match-ups in the first few games of the season. In yesterday’s game, Wood was placed on a “fourth” line with McLeod and Bastian and they crushed the Sabres so well, they ended up playing only 22 fewer seconds than the first line. Wood was critical to winning that game as he scored two goals, set up the go-ahead goal in the third, and took 7 shots on net. The coaches were even willing to give some overtime shifts to Wood and the last game of the month saw Wood take a shift (and score an empty net goal) while defending a 5-on-6 situation. It has just went well. When Wood has been on the ice, the Devils have taken nearly 54% of the shooting attempts, 53% of the shots, a remarkable 59.5% of expected goals, and an even more remarkable 80% of actual goals in 5-on-5 play. As bad as the power play has been, Wood was directly or indirectly involved in two of the team’s three goals in January. Wood was kept quiet in the Devils’ three regulation losses, but he was not a detriment or a reason why they lost those games. Wood is playing great right now with 5 goals and 3 assists in nine games, and far better than I anticipated in 5-on-5. I am hoping he is able to continue it as he has been an ultimately positive surprise. Therefore, I declare that Miles Wood is the Honorable Mention for Devil of the Month of January 2021.

Is being the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month a big deal? Perhaps not in the bigger scheme of things. It does not come with a prize. Just recognition near the end of a large post of excellence at a Devils blog. Still, for January 2021, I think it should go to The Big Deal: Jack Hughes. Also known as Jacked Hughes. The bearer of The 14 Pounds of Extra Muscle(TM) has really broken out in January. While the production in terms of points was not consistent through January, Hughes was remarkably consistent in creating shots in addition to taking his own. He is either leading or among team leaders regularly per Todd Cordell’s shot-assist counts. This blew up big-time in the second period against Our Hated Rivals with two goals and an assist. But it continued in nearly every other game from then on. He scored the first non-skate-assisted PPG of the season on Sunday. Against the Flyers, Hughes’ line was constantly a threat. Against the Sabres, more of the same only they created goals in each game and they joined McLeod’s line as being a consistent threat. His on-ice rates jumped up in a big way once Kyle Palmieri and Egor Sharangovich were replaced by others like Andreas Johnsson and Jesper Bratt. The latter is another point in Hughes’ favor for this month in review award. Johnsson was absolutely lost prior to being lined up next to Hughes. He was benched in the same game against the Rangers and demoted to an actual fourth line against the Isles. Now, Johnsson is third on the team in CF% and sixth in xGF%. Bratt was thrown into the lineup right after being able to join the team in the second game against Philly. He was put to Hughes’ right. Bratt has the best 5-on-5 numbers on the team albeit with just three games played. Both of those players have Hughes to thank for those on-ice values as much as the points they have so far. The more Hughes plays like he has in January, the more it benefits everyone involved. He obviously benefits by creating more offensive opportunities and potential points for himself. He benefits his teammates by giving them opportunities and potential for points as well as helping to flip the rink to deny the opposition from attacking themselves. He benefits his team as a result, giving them a chance to stay in games at a minimum and secure results at his best. With Hischier out, there were concerns about Hughes being the team’s #1 center. There are few, if any, concerns as of the night of January 31. Therefore, I declare that Jack Hughes is the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of January 2021.

Concluding Thoughts & Your Take

Obviously, the Devils ended January on a high note and it is easy to ride the team’s recent victory to a more favorable view of how they performed. However, I think it is objectively true that this team is already making strides to be more competitive and even more watchable than last season’s team. This was a point Dan and I discussed on what should be the next Garden State of Hockey podcast. In the entire month, the Devils were never really out of any of their games save for the 1-4 loss to the Islanders. Even then, the Devils entered that third period down just one goal. Sure, they have had bad periods and poor moments and notable mistakes and some really poor starts to the season. But they have not rolled over or just accepted a defeat or a bad result. They can and have responded to get wins and/or points that the Devils of 2018-19 or 2019-20 would have not earned. It is exciting to watch. Entertainment and drama have certainly improved.

The stats cited earlier in this post are in support of that. The special teams play has been undercutting a New Jersey Devils team that has been playing well. Another flip from the past few seasons, where the Devils have done OK to great on special teams but end up in the bottom third of the NHL in 5-on-5 play. It remains to be seen how long it lasts, but Lindy Ruff and his systems appear to suit the Devils roster well since they have generally out-performed their opponents in the most common situation in hockey. This means the Devils are on track to achieving the goal that I want them to meet this season from a statistical standpoint.

What makes it more impressive is that there is a reason to think the Devils could be even better. Keep in mind that the Devils have done all of this in January without Nico Hischier, without Jesper Bratt until January 28, without Mackenzie Blackwood since January 19, without Sami Vatanen available, and without veterans like Kyle Palmieri, Nikita Gusev, P.K. Subban, and Andreas Johnsson before lining up with Hughes playing anywhere close to their abilities. If the Devils can clean up their penalty kill, get a power play reliably set-up, get Subban to cut down his errors, and get Palmieri and Gusev to play more like they did last season, then this team may be a lot better than expected. That will leads to even more improvement.

The young members throughout the lineup have not really been the consistent source of issues the team faced in January. Maybe that will not last as the season goes on, but the coaches’ faith in players like Smith, Sharangovich, McLeod, Bastian, and Kuokkanen has been rewarded. While Merkley and Boqvist bounced in and out, they were not brought in to just play eight minutes as a fill-in. Maltsev got a debut and won a puck race and battle against Taylor Hall while defending a one-goal lead against a six-man Sabres team near the end of yesterday’s game. Mistakes and rough nights will surely happen. But the emphasis on the younger players - not to mention continued use of Zacha, Hughes, and Bratt - has worked out well. They are being put into spots where they can succeed without being in over their head and the staff makes adjustments if they are. It has led to good results in this season so far and it will help set up the Devils for more in the longer term.

As one last concluding thought, eight of the nine games the Devils have played saw the Devils play the same opponent in consecutive games. The Devils have performed better in their second game against the opponent compared to their first one. The second game against Boston went better than the first one if only for not getting destroyed in the first period. The second game against the Isles was arguably the team’s best of this season, which followed what was arguably the worst game of the season so far. The second game against Philly saw the Devils dominate for two periods, something they did not do in the first game. The second game against Buffalo saw the Devils take an early lead and never lost it - it was tied but never down - on their way to a regulation win, which went better than the first game. I do not know how long that will continue. But it does show that the players and the staff are making adjustments and tweaks to make improvements in their games. It has paid off early on and it is why the Devils are in the middle of the East Division instead of near or at the bottom as one may have expected.

This is all pointing to improvement happening right before our eyes. I am very happy about that.

Now I turn this over to you. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in January? Do you think they are legitimately improving as a team compared to past seasons? What do you think they need to do to keep up the good work other than fix their special teams? Who impressed you the most among the Devils in the 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 Hughes 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 January 2021 in the comments. Thank you for reading.