Reality hit the New Jersey Devils hard in February. First, they had to deal with the global pandemic as an apparent pandemic swept through the team at the end of last month. The Devils had as many as 19 players on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list. They have had multiple games originally scheduled for February re-scheduled, which further compressed their season’s schedule. Second, when the Devils did resume, the good results did not last. Out of eight games, the Devils won just three of them and only one out of their last six. They finished the month of February with a record of 3-5-0 for a season record of 7-8-2. The Devils may not be last in the East Division but they are not far from it. What happened? Let us look back at the month of February to figure it all out before the Devils begin a hectic 17-game schedule in March.
The Games of February 2021
The pandemic spread throughout the team in the first week of February. The flashpoint was when Kyle Palmieri was a late scratch before the last game in January, a 5-3 win over Buffalo. While that win ended the month on a high note, the Coronavirus dampened all of that. The league postponed the Devils’ games for that week and then did so again and a then a third time. It was not until near the end of the second week when the Devils started to have a significant number of players be cleared from the COVID-19 Protocol List. Some players did have the Coronavirus. Others were there due to having contact with someone positive. The end result were changes to their schedule and the team having one full practice prior to their first game of the month on February 16.
On that night, the Devils returned to NHL action against Our Hated Rivals in Manhattan. Despite the long layoff, the lack of game sharpness, and the inability to prepare for games, the Devils played well. More than well. They willed themselves to a decisive 5-2 victory with the Devils breaking through in the third period. It was a very good performance and it remains my favorite win of the season so far. Despite all of the signs favoring the Rangers in this game, the Devils went to Madison Square Garden and left with a regulation win. You loved to see it. I certainly did.
Optimism for the Devils grew even more on Thursday night in Boston. Boston was then the best team in the East Division and arguably one of the best in the entire NHL. At that point, they have not lost in regulation at home. The Devils went to Boston and played a very good game. They took the game to the B’s. They went up 3-1 at Boston. A late power play goal allowed made a lot of fans nervous, but the Devils held on to win 3-2. The Devils, of all teams, served a well-rested Bruins team their first home regulation loss of the season. With three wins in their last three games, the spirits among the fans were high. However, they would soon crash for a lot of fans during the remainder of the month.
On Saturday, February 20, the Devils hosted Buffalo. The Sabres were unhappy with the Devils as their own outbreak occurred after losing to them 5-3 back on January 31. They wanted revenge and they got it. They took advantage of a lackluster Devils start in the first period and pulled ahead 3-0 by the end of the second period. While the Devils made a comeback to pull within one goal, it was too little too late. The winning streak was over with a 2-3 defeat. A second loss would happen that weekend when the Devils visited Washington. The Devils started off great against the Capitals by holding them shotless for about 10 minutes and scoring a goal. The Devils doubled their lead in the second period, but then the Capitals took the game over. They pulled ahead as they made the Devils’ abysmal penalty killing units look, well, abysmal. The Caps scored 3 PPGs to turn a 2-1 game into a 2-4 game by the final three minutes of regulation. While Nikita Gusev scored a consolation goal, the Devils lost 3-4 largely due to failures on special teams. The two wins after the outbreak was matched by two losses where the penalty kill was exposed yet again. Would a losing streak now emerge?
The answer came on February 23 against Buffalo in New Jersey. Unlike the February 20 game, the Devils played a much better first period. Like the February 20 game, the penalty kill was beaten again to help the opposition’s cause. Worse, the Sabres added two more goals at even strength before the Devils made any real offensive push to get back into the game. When they did, goaltender Linus Ullmark was denied nearly everything except for one late goal that denied him an otherwise well-earned shutout. Even then, the Sabres tacked on a late empty net goal to make it a 1-4 loss. The Devils then lost three in a row and had to play Buffalo yet again on February 25, only on the road. Would they suffer the same fate? Not exactly. While the Devils conceded the game’s first goal, they did answer it. While the PK was beaten twice, the Devils did score a power play goal of their own and were up 3-2 in the third thanks to then-recently-returning Nico Hischier scoring his first of the season. The PK did concede an equalizer. But the Devils prevailed in overtime when Pavel Zacha capped off his fantastic night with a brilliant shot past Carter Hutton. The Devils snapped the losing streak with a 4-3 win. Would this lead to more victories in February?
No. They would not. The Devils closed out February with two consecutive home games against Washington. In the first one on February 27, the Devils were totally lackluster to start the game. The Caps took advantage and scored three goals in the first 14 minutes of regulation. New Jersey did attempt a comeback effort and came close with a late power play goal by Hischier and a second-period goal by Zacha. The Devils were buzzing in the third, but a breakaway allowed to Petr Vrana led to a backbreaking fourth goal allowed. Despite their efforts and actually being perfect on the penalty kill, the Devils could not muster much more on their comeback and ended up losing 2-5. On February 28, the Devils did not play a whole lot better to start the game but they did score first. The Caps responded, but the Devils had a response for that. While the Devils’ penalty kill was tested and survived, they could not capitalize on power plays or even hit the net in most of their shooting attempts. Washington, meanwhile, finished a 3-on-2 to take a one-goal lead. The Devils failed to find the equalizer or put their shots on frame (4 shots on net out of 16 attempts) and so they lost 2-3.
The Devils’ truncated month of games began with two wins. It ended with two losses that followed a 1-3 run in between in it. The optimism that was present after February 18’s win in Boston gave way to frustration, disappointment, and some resignation that the Devils were not as unexpectedly good as one may have felt by the end of January and/or those two wins.
By the Numbers
I still think 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. Unfortunately, the Devils suffered more in 5-on-5 in February in addition to getting pounded on their penalty kill. That the Devils only played eight games in February in comparison to a league that mostly played 11 to 14 games also skews their stats relative to other teams. Still, let us look at the numbers from this past month and see what was measured out of the Devils’ games in February. All stats come from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com where mentioned.
5 on 5 Situations: There were some good figures in 5-on-5 play and some notably awful ones.
What was concerning in 5-on-5 play last month was with how much the Devils allowed in terms of shots on net and high danger shots on net. While they only played eight games, only one team had a worse rate of allowing shots on net than the Devils without adjustments and only two teams were worse with adjustments. In terms of high danger chances, the Devils not only allowed a lot but considerably more than what they generated. If you are looking for areas where the Devils should make improvements, then that is where I would start. Given how Washington recently counter-attacked the Devils over and over with odd man rushes from New Jersey turnovers in the neutral zone and offensive zone, that seems like a good source for SAs and HDCAs. (And why HDCA/60 was relatively high but SCA/60 was relatively not.) The high HDCA/60 rates contributed greatly to the high expected goals against rate the Devils had in 5-on-5 play.
What they cannot really address is their shooting percentage. It was awfully low last month. Whether you like to read it or not, luck does play a role in that and sometimes a team will just have some bad luck. At the least the Devils had the right idea of continuing to attack, as evidenced by their top-ten rates of shooting attempts, shots on net, and scoring chances. Unfortunately, that is all you can really do with a low shooting percentage. Had the Devils been more fortunate, then perhaps they get the goals they needed to turn some of those five regulation losses into post-regulation losses - or even wins. Better luck next month, I guess?
Related to that, I hope Mackenzie Blackwood maintains his form. The last weekend notwithstanding, he was primarily responsible for that great 92.9% save percentage in 5-on-5 play. Even with that last weekend against Washington, where Blackwood started and finished both games, the Devils’ save percentage finished just outside of the top ten. Aaron Dell only played the one game, so this stat is mostly from Blackwood’s performances. Alas, that means he gets the fault for the other situation where save percentage sticks out.
In terms of players who excelled in 5-on-5, give shout outs to Ty Smith and Damon Severson. These two defensemen played a lot and helped the play go forward a lot with strong decisions in their own end and keeping attacks going in the offensive end. Sure, the last game of the month was unkind to both of them - especially Smith - but over the whole month, they were heads and shoulders above most of the other defensemen on the team. (Dmitry Kulikov was close to their level.) While Nikita Gusev had the highest CF% on the team in February, he somehow managed an incredibly low on-ice shooting rate - which is bad for an offensive forward. As for forwards, Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier in five games, Andreas Johnsson, and Pavel Zacha all did quite well in the run of play in 5-on-5. As for concerning statlines in 5-on-5 in February, it depends on the stat. Kyle Palmieri and Michael McLeod were near the bottom among regulars in CF%. But Travis Zajac was near the bottom of the team in SF%, xGF% (one of three sub-40% players along with Janne Kuokkanen and Will Butcher. P.K. Subban almost joined this “club”); SCF% and HDCF%. Seeing Zajac this poor in 5-on-5 is shocking in part that he did so well in January.
Power Play Situations: The success rate was better than you would have thought. The on-ice rate stats was worse than you would have thought too. The former suggests the Devils’ PP is not that big of a problem. The latter matches up with the idea that Devils power plays have been wasteful and ineffective.
The Devils have played only eight games, so it is understandable that they are low in terms of goals, situations, and ice time. The Devils did well in terms of power play situations per game (3, tied for 13th in the NHL) and power play ice time per game (4:57, 13th in NHL). The issue is that the Devils really did not generate a lot of offense in man advantage situations. They were near dead last in all rate stats except for actual goals scored and shooting percentage. The Devils’ sticks were fairly hot in power play situations. The problem was creating shot attempts, putting shots on net, and getting scoring chances. If the Devils were able to get into good situations to shoot more often in February, then perhaps they would have had more goals due to their higher shooting percentage. Instead, these on-ice rate stats are consistent with fans lamenting the Devils going to the power play. They match up with a power play unit that struggles to gain the zone, get set up in their 1-3-1 when they do gain the zone, and maintain puck possession even if they are in their formation. For the love that is all that is good and lovely in the world, I would like the Devils coaches (looking at you, Mark Recchi) to change something other personnel on the power play units. It is not working.
Penalty Kill Situations: Pain. Just lots of pain.
The on-ice rate stats suggest that the Devils are doing a better job than we all may think and that the real issue is goaltending. I could not disagree any more. Do not be misled by that. For most of those nine goals against, there is usually at least one Devil skater out of position and/or making the wrong decision when they need to be right. Blackwood and Dell have been victimized for a majority of these goals. Backdoors have been left open for opposing teams to finish plays. Clearances are far from guaranteed. Faceoffs have been lost at a rate lower than most teams and that has punished the Devils as well. When teams are converting power plays, especially quickly into their man advantage situations, that is the end of the power play. So it looks like the Devils have been stingier when in reality, they have been beaten.
The harsher thing about the PK is that the Devils really do not get into shorthanded situations as much as other teams. The Devils have averaged 2.38 shorthanded situations per game, the sixth lowest rate in the NHL in February. They even avoided penalty kills entirely in their win over Our Hated Rivals. But penalties can and will and have been called and almost half of them have yielded a goal against. The Devils have to do much better to improve that. Incidentally, their PK was perfect against Washington (of all teams) in their final two games of the month. They do have something to build on as they enter March. Still, the team’s penalty kill needs to be far, far, far, far, far better than it has been this season. It has cost them games and will continue to cost them games without improvement.
Additions and Subtractions
One of the thoughts from January, especially when the team was winning, was to see how good the Devils would be if they were at full strength. The Devils did get to this point in February, and not just with the .
Defenseman Sami Vatanen and goaltender Aaron Dell finally joined the team in this past month. Vatanen was signed in January, but visa issues, traveling, and the Coronavirus delayed his debut until February 18’s game in Boston. Vatanen has been OK at best in the month. His performances by the end of the month were better than his first ones, which is a positive development. Dell was claimed on waivers in January but he did not make his Devils debut until February 21 against Washington. While he conceded four goals to the Caps, he did have a heavy workload of 41 shots against by one of the most offensive teams in the NHL. It could be argued he should have started one of the two games on February 27 and 28 to at least give Mackenzie Blackwood a rest. Still, he was picked up to be a backup and he has been a backup.
We also saw the season debuts for defensemen Will Butcher and Connor Carrick. Not everyone was available for that February 16 game in Manhattan. Carrick did not play particularly well and so he was removed from the lineup after that game. He was moved to the taxi squad and has remained there since. Butcher, on the other hand, had a better performance. So much so that he earned appearances in the next two games thanks in part to Ryan Murray being out with illness (not Coronavirus). When Murray was a healthy scratch for the last weekend against Washington, Butcher came into the lineup. After being kept out of games for all of January, it appears Butcher has earned some favor with the coaching staff just as Murray lost some.
The February 16 game also saw Matt Tennyson’s only game of the month as a Devil. Tennyson was consistently beaten in 5-on-5 play with New Jersey this season. His only saving grace was that the goalies were great behind him. That game against the Rangers would be it as he was also demoted to the taxi squad not long after Kulikov and Vatanen were ready to play.
The big addition to the lineup was Nico Hischier. After suffering a broken fibula and concerns with COVID-19, he was the last to be cleared to play from that list. Not only did his return garner a lot of attention and excitement from the fanbase, the Devils made his debut special. Right before the February 20th game against Buffalo, the Devils named Hischier as the team’s captain, the 12th in New Jersey history. It took some time for Hischier to get sharp. However, he did make an impact in his fourth game back on February 25 at Buffalo with a goal and helping Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha put the Sabres to the sword. Hischier picked up his first assist on February 27 as well as a power play goal as part of that attempted comeback against the Capitals. Unfortunately, Hischier took a deflected puck to the face (shield) near the end of that game. He was bleeding, he was knocked out of that game, and he was held out of the February 28th game. Hopefully, Hischier is available to return as soon as possible.
The only real subtraction to the roster outside of rotating players in and out from the taxi squad was Eric Comrie. With Dell joining the team, someone had to be moved to the taxi squad. The Devils waived Comrie and Winnipeg claimed him on February 18. The Devils’ goaltenders are now Blackwood, Dell, and Scott Wedgewood on the taxi squad. Comrie did well in his one appearance with the Devils at least. He was acquired to add to the Devils’ goaltending depth in the wake of Corey Crawford’s retirement. When Dell was available, either his or Wedgewood’s time was running out. The Devils chose Wedgewood and so it went.
Finally, here are the players who were involved in the rotation in and out of the lineup from the taxi squad not previously mentioned: Janne Kuokkanen (4 games, 3 assists in the win over Our Hated Rivals), Mikhail Maltsev (4 games, an empty net goal against Our Hated Rivals, a goal against Washington on February 28), and Nick Merkley (2 games, a goal and assist against Our Hated Rivals). Jesper Boqvist did not feature at all and is currently with Binghamton. Merkley was also demoted to Binghamton as the current taxi squad has Carrick, Tennyson, Kuokkanen, Wedgewood, and Josh Jacobs.
Devil of the Month
As you may expect from a month where the team went 3-5-0, there were not a lot of Devils who were consistent contributors. Even the player I chose as the Devil of the Month had some real flawed games. However, I must deal with how things are and not how I wish they happened.
The player I have selected as an honorable mention is defenseman Ty Smith. Yes, Smith. Up until the last weekend against the Capitals, Smith had an on-ice CF% of 58.1%, an xGF% of 59.9%, and zero goals against in 5-on-5 play among other stats. They were not just the best on the Devils but among the best in the entire NHL among defensemen. His pairing with Damon Severson was utterly fantastic even when the rest of the blueline was struggling. Then the last two games against Washington happened. Smith did not play as well (especially in the final game on Sunday) and his numbers did suffer a little for it. Still, he finished the month with a remarkable 57.09 CF%, 54.45% xGF%, and finishing above 50% in shots and scoring chances. As the Devils played half of their games on the road, he could not have been sheltered for all of them. And it is hard to be sheltered when playing 22 minutes per game in February. For those who wanted to see a young defenseman be the future for the Devils, you got a great glimpse of it in Smith in February. I was impressed by his quick growth and I would not be shocked if he gets even better as the season wears on.
Of course, there was only one player who was a consistent contributor throughout the month. Was he good in every game he played in? No. He was even benched in a few periods. But only one Devil has been on the scoresheet in every game in February. At the least, he can claim he did something positive for the Devils in every game. He ensured there would be no shutout, not even when Ullmark was on the cusp of one on February 23. In fact, he has been on the scoresheet in every game since January 30; his point streak is 10 games long. And he was the only Devil to put up at least one point per game in February. With 4 goals, six assists, 14 shots on net, two eventual game winners (and one in overtime) out of the three wins, just one penalty taken, and positive differentials across the board in 5-on-5 play in February, this man is Pavel Zacha. Yes, the maligned sixth overall pick from 2015. Maybe this is a hot streak. But Zacha has flourished with Jesper Bratt and Hischier towards the end of the month. He helped Nikita Gusev get two goals in his miserable campaign so far. He finished the plays that gave Hischier and Butcher their first assists of this season. Zacha may not be perfect. But he was the Devils’ best player in this past month. As such, I name Pavel Zacha the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of February 2021.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
There is no other way to spin it, February was a disappointing month for the Devils. I am glad they were able to play eight games. I am gladder that they won their first two games back after a Coronavirus outbreak that could have really wrecked the Devils’ season. But they finished the month by going 1-5-0. While they were close in a number of those losses, I cannot help but think they show how far away the Devils still are from contention. While they were home for half of their games in February, losing all of them is a real disappointment. This is a bad run leading into 31-day month with 17 games in it. Regardless of what you expected out of the Devils in 2021, it was not a good month at all.
I will state that if you think this season is more about development for the future than current success, then you are probably more OK with what happened than other fans. Not that you like the losses and how the performances went, but you can understand what the team is still aiming for. This is a team that will be centered around Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier as the team’s top centers. Hischier can be the team’s captain for a long time and Hughes is OK with that so far. A pairing like Severson and Smith is one that can function for a long time to come. Mackenzie Blackwood is still very much the long-term answer in net for the Devils. Zacha’s month further adds confidence to his role in the team’s future. As does the spurts of quickness from Jesper Bratt. In contrast, the continued disappointment of most of the veteran players adds further confidence that the Devils could move on without them. For those who prefer to look at everything with the bigger picture in mind, then this shortened month’s results and performances are just an eight-game stretch that one can move on from. It was not good, but I do not think it does not disrupt the larger view.
For the fan who thought, “Maybe this team can be part of the playoff picture after all,” then this month was a bitter pill to swallow. Dropping two out of three games against an eighth place Buffalo team hurts that cause. As does coming close in each game against Washington and coming away with zero out of six points. The division-only schedule really hurts the Devils in this situation because they cannot get a lot of help from others to move up. The Devils have to help themselves to move up. They would also hope other games do not extend the gap by going beyond regulation or winning at the same time as the teams ahead of them do. I am not saying this month killed their playoff chances. But it does set up a realistic possibility of that happening in March should the Devils continue to slide along. I am sympathetic to this. After four out of five seasons the Devils floundering under John Hynes, it is not really an improvement to see struggles come after a promising January.
Regardless of how you view it, the Devils’ areas of improvement became much clearer in February. The Devils’ penalty kill needs to be better. Simple as. It just needs to be. They have lost games this month because of it. The Devils’ power play needs to figure out how to get set up in their formation more often. If they can do that, then their power play will be a more consistent threat and can supplement the team’s overall offense. The veteran players on the team like Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, Nikita Gusev, P.K. Subban, Ryan Murray, and (to an extent) Sami Vatanen need to improve their games to contribute more positively. This is a young team and so it is expected that the more experienced players can help re-focus the team when things do not go so well, create and finish plays in all three zones, and not make critical errors that cost the team. Severson, Dmitry Kulikov, Miles Wood, and Andreas Johnsson (when he is with Jack Hughes) have done this but the others have to pitch in. If only to make Tom Fitzgerald’s decisions harder when the trade deadline approaches by April 12. Those are the three biggest issues with the team and I do not think there is much debate as to anything else.
If you want the Devils to progress either in the short term or the long term, then you would want improvements in all three of them in March. The challenge is doing that with a heavy schedule with little time, if any, for practices that the team may need. If they do not, we may see a similar set of results in March that we saw in February.
Now I turn this over to you. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in February? Do you think they are legitimately improving as a team compared to past seasons? What do you think they need to do to improve? 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 Zacha 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 February 2021 in the comments. Thank you for reading.