The New Jersey Devils entered The Week of Pity against the Philadelphia Flyers with one win in April and a nine-game losing streak. It is now a ten-game losing streak as the Devils botched a two goal lead in less than 90 seconds before the end of regulation against the Flyers last night. All of the nine losses before that one featured the Devils going down in the first half of games with significant deficits with some comeback efforts that all fell short. As the New Jersey Devils are now flirting with last place in the league standings, their futility has become increasingly noticeable. People understandably want something to blame. And the easy culprit is goaltending.
The argument is pretty clear. From April 9 to April 25, the Devils have a team save percentage of 87.92% in 5-on-5 situations (29th in the NHL) and 83.33% in all situations (31st and dead last in the NHL) per Natural Stat Trick. Therefore, the Devils goaltenders need to make more saves. Then they will win a game. Analysis done. Let’s go get a snack.
(Aside: Before jumping into the comments about how the Devils’ team stats in 5-on-5 in April are great and so the goalies need to make saves, I will highly recommend that you adjust for score and venue. The team’s 51.15% CF% in their losing streak drops significantly to 47.43% CF% when you do.)
However, that is not the whole story. Goaltending stats understandably focus on the one thing goaltenders are paid to do: make saves. The issue is that it is often surface level. Save percentages (regardless of situation and danger), expected goals models, GSAA (goals saved above average), and even GSAx (goals saved above expected) are limited to information that is recorded. There is no public data for what is happening in front of the goaltender or how the shot was created or whether the goaltender is flanked and/or needs to make a really difficult post-to-post move. Therefore, those stats do not take any of that into account. Yet, those real factors to why goals are allowed are a big reason why the Devils goaltenders have 1980s levels of save percentages during the team’s run of futility.
This is a point Gerard made back on Thursday. I want to further support his thesis as I do agree that the Devils’ skaters have often victimized their goaltenders. While there is no data to count all shots, we do have video of all goals against available at NHL.com. We do not have video of all of shots against so easily available, but given that save percentages (and GSAA and GSAx) suffer when there are goals against, we can look at what happened.
To that end, I have taken screenshots of all of the goals against at key points to show the issues that many Devils fans, like myself, have lamented throughout this losing streak. Most of them will be posted. There are legitimate reasons why fans want the defense to improve and why many want new defensemen - whether it is a top prospect in the 2021 NHL Draft Class or from elsewhere. There are also growing frustration with the coaching given how some of these goals against keep happening and there is seemingly no correction. And while the season stats may not look bad for some of them, some of these capture why fans are unhappy with players who have plenty of NHL experience and proceed to do something they would expect to see out of a rookie. This is not a fun post to go through (or make) but it demonstrates how the Devils have wrecked their goaltenders’ save percentages.
This is not to say that Mackenzie Blackwood, Scott Wedgewood, and Aaron Dell have been otherwise wonderful and could do no better. Each have let up a few bad goals during this stretch. Wedgewood easily let up the worst goal of the season; a lofted puck by Brian Dumoulin from the neutral zone that bounced past him on April 20. I am sure they would be the first to tell you they could be better. However, the Devils have allowed 42 non-empty net goals in their last nine games and only a handful were ones the goaltenders looked stupid on. If you took away the undeniably bad goals against by the goalies, the Devils would still have conceded a lot of goals against (about 36, depending on what you claim as bad) and likely still lose nine straight games regardless. My main point is that the errors by the Devils’ skaters and their systems far outweigh the mistakes by the goaltenders despite what you may think from the team’s save percentages. You will see those errors in the many pictures below.
This is also not to say the pictures are the total be-all, end-all of failures. A number of these were the results of mistakes made earlier in the play. For example, P.K. Subban’s failure in a 2-on-1 against Our Hated Rivals was caused by Michael McLeod trying and failing to get around Artemi Panarin in the neutral zone which created an easy turnover and the odd man rush. For another example, Pavel Zacha tried to chase down Cody Ceci but could not catch him in time to try to have him not shoot a puck because he and the wingers were in way too deep in the zone. But the pictures will show you how remarkably difficult the Devils have made it for their goaltenders.
Therefore, I will give you my conclusions and then you can peruse the pictures of pain caused by the Devils.
- The biggest weakness of the Devils’ defensive effort is a general unawareness of what is happening outside of the puck carrier. The Devils have often got caught on their weak side or by a player having a wide open shot simply because no one paid attention to them or did not account for them. Given that there will always be more opponents without the puck than with the puck, this is a massive problem. The Devils’ approach appears to be to try to pressure the puck carrier so they cannot find their open teammates. This has yielded a lot of games where the goaltender has to be amazing or there are going to be goals against by players who are wide open. The Devils should absolutely look to sign and/or acquire better defensemen (and forwards who can defend) this offseason. But if they are going to play this way again, it could be a waste of time and money. Given Lindy Ruff’s and Alain Nasreddine’s experience in this league, I am baffled as to how they thought this would work.
- Adding to that is that the Devils have continually left the opposition’s best players open and they have paid the price for it. For Our Hated Rivals, it was Artemi Panarin. He had zero bodies on him for his four goals in The Week of Hate. For Pittsburgh, it was Sidney Crosby. He also kept being open for shots that punished the Devils; three goals to be precise. For Philadelphia, it was (arguably) Claude Giroux. He scored two 6-on-5 goals in the final minutes of the game to turn a Devils 3-1 lead into a 3-3 tie in what should have been the end of the losing streak. He was not defended on either goal. I understand hockey is a team game and shadowing someone is a lot easier said than done. There has to be a better answer than ignoring or not accounting for the opposition’s best player.
- The passive diamond might as well be a passive cubic zirconia. Most teams run a 1-3-1 power play formation and yet the Devils have been picked apart by it because they are literally too passive in their diamond to pick up players in dangerous spots. Especially on their weakside. I know it is a shorthanded situation but someone needs to at least be aware of who is where among the opposition. Bring back the wedge plus one!
- Despite some of the experience on the blueline, two-on-one defenses have been inconsistent and costly.
- Turnovers did create problems but not all were the standard “I just threw the puck to an opponent” turnover. Some were the result of failed zone exit attempts, dump-ins not going far enough, and losing battles.
- Clearing the crease has been a meme to some. On a couple of these, the Devils doubled down on being in the crease instead of actually doing something more productive.
- Some of the goals against, well, there’s not much you can do about them.
- But on a lot of them, there was usually something the Devils could and should have done something different.
- There are plenty of issues to resolve. The answer to all of them is not: “Need more saves, goalies.”
Please leave your thoughts and reactions to the pictures of futility in the comments. I highly suggest not ignoring the pictures and telling me the save percentages are bad. I know they are bad. I am showing you how they became that bad. All the same, thank you for reading. (Note: Any markings or words on the screenshots are mine. The screenshots are all from videos available at NHL.com.)
Wait, How was He Open at 5-on-5 (and for Two of These, 5-on-6)?
Getting in the Goaltenders Way
The Passive Penalty Killers Getting Beat
Bad Breaks & Exceptional Opposition Plays
Yes, there were some bad breaks against the Devils. Some goals against were just “OK, I can’t be mad about that, actually” plays. Save percentages, expected goals, etc. doesn’t care for those, though. Still, they are here.