After getting shut out for the second consecutive time last night by their hated cross-Hudson rival, the Devils continue to break new ground in their war on the entire concept of offense in hockey. For a few years now, a common refrain when people are setting expectations for a Devils season is “Well, they probably won’t be good but I think they could at least be fun this year.” The first clause of that sentence almost invariably comes true but the real disappointment rests in the fact that they are not even in the area code of making the second clause a reality at this point.
Not only do the Devils stink, they are an utter slog to watch on a nightly basis in the aggregate. A glimmer of hope that they could be fun early this season gave way to the crushing reality of another horrendous offensive hockey team. Whether it can be partially blamed on COVID or the compressed schedule or the absence of their number one center, there is one fact that is difficult to quibble with: the 2021 Devils are not fun. They are the hockey equivalent of an Ambien wrapped in a wet blanket and shot with a tranquillizer dart.
It’s certainly not just this season. The Devils have been trotting out bad offenses for close to a decade at this point (longer, really, if you lift out 2011-12). The only thing that is keeping the Devils from being the undisputed kings of offensive helplessness since 2013 is the existence of the Buffalo Sabres. Outside of those Sabres, the Devils can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league in terms of fan punishment in the past nine seasons. The Devils not only refuse to shoot the puck with any frequency, they are also typically bad at the act of shooting whenever they do finally get around to flinging a puck at their opponent’s net. Let’s take a look at the last decade of shooting and scoring for the Devils:
The Devils don’t shoot and they are generally bad at it when they do. Put these together and you get a terrible offensive hockey team. The only time over the past decade that the Devils have managed to leap up and look like a semi-competent offensive outfit was when Taylor Hall basically single-handedly willed an average Devils offense into existence. Even for an ostensibly somewhat random team-level offensive stat like shooting percentage, the Devils have two barely-above-average seasons in nine years, and they are trending in the wrong direction on that particular front.
This is not news to anyone at this point, but the Devils are in dire need of people who are willing and able to a) shoot pucks and b) shoot them in a way that has an actual chance of beating an NHL goaltender. For all of the increased focus on territorial stats and expected goals in the NHL, there is something to be said for players who can just put the puck in the damn net. The Devils just do not have those players. They did just trade the closest thing they had to a goal-scorer in recent years, Kyle Palmieri, but even he is what you might classify as ‘pretty good’ from a pure goal-scorer perspective and one pretty good scorer does not an offense make (he also had easily his worst per-82 goal output since joining the team this season).
I know that creating an offense takes more than adding one or two snipers to the equation, but it’s undeniable that the Devils need trigger men on this team. Miles Wood has done some nice work this season, but it is a major problem for the Devils that he is the only person who would project to comfortably eclipse 20 goals over a full season. A handful of other players project to the neighborhood of 20 goals but that’s it. There have been 186 total 30-goal seasons in the NHL since 2013 and the Devils have just three of them (one each for Palmieri, Taylor Hall, and Adam Henrique).
The defense is the portion of this team that, in my estimation, gets a majority of the grumbling (at times deservedly so), but the offensive woes on this team are an equally large problem. The Devils just have nobody to reliably supply the goals when they need them, both at even strength and on the power play. Their best forwards lean much more toward playmaker/facilitator than they do towards the actual act of filling the net.
The hope is that players like Alexander Holtz and to a lesser extent Nolan Foote, Dawson Mercer, and maybe a couple other supporting players can supply the goals set up by players like Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt going forward. But is that enough? It seems far from a sure thing to me, which means the Devils need to find a way to bring in some additional scoring punch one of these days. The selection of a guy like Holtz makes a bunch more sense when you look at the Devils’ relentless problem with shooting the puck, but even if he does pan out, I don’t think you can expect him to make a huge impact in 2021-22.
Tom Fitzgerald has a lot of big questions to answer this summer, and “How the hell are the Devils going to score goals?” is definitely one of them. I think I speak for a lot of Devils fans when I say I am sick of being bored to tears by my hockey team. I would do unspeakable things just to experience a consistently top-20 goal-scoring offense. Not even good, just average would feel like a truly magical experience at this point. Bring me Patrik Laine, bring me Mike Hoffman, bring me your laziest cherry-picking floater in the world as long as they have a prayer at cracking 35 goals in a season.
I’m so desperate that I’m only half-kidding, here. Free agent splashes are rarely a good idea, and one-dimensional players are often frowned-upon in the modern game but the Devils have to spend roughly infinity dollars this summer just to get to the cap floor, anyway. Let us Devils fans live the impossible dream of rooting for a team that does not regularly finish in the bottom five in offensive output. Someday, I want to experience the sweet, sweet symphony of a team that averages out to the 17th-best offense in the league over a full three-year stretch. What a wonderful treat that would be.