If one were to have no idea what was happening in the NHL so far this year, but decided to start looking by only checking out some advanced stats, they might determine that the New Jersey Devils were a fairly decent team so far. Maybe not one of the best, but perhaps somewhere in the upper middle half. Despite the team’s poor record after their atrocious 2-9-1 record over their last 12 games, some of their underlying numbers are still somewhat strong. Just to showcase, here are some of those team numbers per 60 5 on 5 minutes thanks to Natural Stat Trick (ranks taken before last night’s games):
Generally, a team with numbers like that at 5 on 5 won’t be a bunch of games under 500 with a -18 goal differential (which is what the Devils currently have). Those numbers might not equate to being the best, with an expected goals for percentage at exactly 50% and middle of the road 5 on 5 team goaltending at just over 92%, but they have top 10 possession, nearly 52%, which means they are generally controlling play at 5 on 5, and that means a good amount. It shields the goaltender from being peppered, and helps to prop up that xGF% as the Devils should be controlling more offensive zone time. Of course, the Devils actual GF% is 48.24, a fair amount less than their xGF%, but the numbers say they should be much closer to even than they are.
But as well all know, the Devils are not a decent team this year, as those numbers might indicate, but are instead very close to the bottom of the standings. In fact, the only team with fewer points in the NHL right now is Buffalo. Now, one of the major reasons for that, as you might already be saying, is special teams. The Devils have been atrocious at the penalty kill especially, and not too much better on the power play either. Their special teams play has absolutely cost them some games, and is definitely a factor in their poor record.
However, that is something that has been hashed out over and over, and it is something blatantly obvious just from watching. However, it sadly is not the sole reason. Despite the decent numbers I posted there for 5 on 5 play, especially the strong possession stats, the team’s numbers at 5v5 are not all rosy. There are some clunkers in there, and specifically, one area of weakness that is quite evident is in high danger situations. While the Devils are fairly strong all around when both teams on the ice are at full strength, when the puck enters the high danger area, they are definitively inferior. Compare these high danger numbers to the ones above:
So before getting into the negatives, let’s look at the one area of positivity. The goaltending on this team has still been solid at stopping pucks that come from high danger areas. As long as it is 5 on 5, the goaltending has been pretty solid overall, whether from the high danger areas or not, keeping the Devils in a lot of games. The Devils have let in a lot more goals over the last dozen games than they did at the start of the year, so some of these numbers are belied by early season performances, but overall Mackenzie Blackwood and company still probably have been the best part of this squad in terms of on-ice performance.
Beyond that, however, this team has been fairly poor when it comes to playing in the high danger areas. Despite having very good possession numbers overall, some of the best that New Jersey has had in over a half decade, they give up way more attempts right in front of the net than they create. And it is not like they are good at producing high danger chances but stink at allowing them, or vice versa. They are just bad all around. The team ranks 18th in HDCF/60 with 9.71 attempts, and ranks 25th in HDCA/60, allowing 10.91 attempts. Neither of those are all that good.
That all adds up to really poor goal differentials in high danger situations. The Devils only score 1.15 goals per 60 5v5 minutes in high danger areas, good for 25th in the league, yet they let up 1.31 in the same situations, only good for 18th. Overall, it comes down to the fact that when it comes to playing in front of the net or in the slot, the Devils have not been good this year at all. They don’t have those guys who play well in that tight space, those gritty areas in front of the goal, whether that be in the offensive or defensive zone. Whether that requires better, quicker hands for some or more gritty play from others, in the end it is a major area of deficiency for this team, one they need to address.
In the end, is this as large of a weakness as their poor special teams? Perhaps not, but it is definitely a big area of concern. The team has coaches specifically to address the special teams, and you can say what you want about their effectiveness and whether or not they should retain positions under Lindy Ruff after this season. But the 5 on 5 high danger play is not the result or the blame of any specific coach on the staff; maybe you can blame the system Ruff has designed for even strength play, or maybe it is just that the players simply need to perform better in those areas. Whatever it is, this is something that will need to get better if the Devils want to get back to the winning ways they had at the start of this season. They can continue to be a strong possession team everywhere else on the ice, but if they cannot transition that play to the high danger areas, it means little.