If March was a tough month for the New Jersey Devils, then April was an absolute nightmarish month. They began the month to turn their shootout loss at Boston on March 13 into a four-game winless streak. After winning a game, they lost ten in a row. The Devils went into the final week of their month of 16 games with just one win in April. One. And it was on the road in Western New York. At least the Devils picked up a second and third win in April before April ended. It does not take away much of the pain that comes with a 3-11-2 month. They earned eight points; only two teams in the league finished with fewer points in April. And one of those two teams was Vancouver, who only played seven games due to the Coronavirus. It was a horrible month for the Devils.
It was also a month full of endings. The Devils closed out their season series against Washington, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Our Hated Rivals all within April. The latter two were done in a 15-day range where the Devils played the Pens twice, then Our Hated Rivals four straight times, and then three more times in Pittsburgh. Familiarity bred contempt. Mostly from the fans as they witnessed the Devils lose all of nine of those games in regulation, the team weakened after the NHL Trade Deadline on April 12, and the results saw the Devils mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They were even in danger of getting passed by Buffalo in the standings. Fortunately, the Devils also ended a run of futility with two wins to end the month and nearly wrap up a four-game set with Philadelphia (which ended in May). We saw the departure of Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, Dmitry Kulikov, and Sami Vatanen with what was likely their last times as New Jersey Devils. April, in a sense, is finally over. And so is the 2021 NHL regular season. May is long enough to warrant its own month in review post, I think. But just as May begun for the Devils on the ice, let us take one look back at a month filled with losses.
The Games of April 2021
One of the major themes and recurring events in this month of 16 games is how often the Devils fell behind in the game. Not that comebacks are inherently bad or unexciting. But it is a harder way to manage a game and, for the Devils, a lot of them came up short.
Such was the case in the Devils’ first game of the month, a home game against Washington on April 2. This was a low scoring game and the Devils did tie it up after the Capitals went ahead. But the Devils fell 1-2 in overtime to begin the month at 0-1-0 and be 0-5-2 going into their eighth and final game of the season against Washngton on April 4. The Capitals went up early and never fully lost the lead as the most the Devils could do was tie it up. There was a late charge from Jesper Bratt and Travis Zajac to make it a 4-5 score. It stood for another loss, another loss at home, and an eighth winless game against the Capitals this season. Perhaps their final two games against Buffalo this season would end their slide that began the month.
Not quite. On April 6, the Devils hosted the Sabres. The good news is that the Devils scored first in this game. The bad news is that the Sabres matched the Devils’ first three goals throughout the first two periods. The worse news is that the Sabres went up in the third period and the Devils could not match those scores, so they lost to the 31st place Sabres 3-5 at the Rock. Fortunately, that would be the final loss for the first losing streak within April. On April 8, the Devils went to Buffalo for their final game of the season against the Sabres and their first game without Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac on the roster. Buffalo scored within the first minute and the Devils scored 3 in the remainder of the first. The Sabres battled back to make it 3-3 going into the third. But the Devils were able to break ahead with Jesper Boqvist’s first goal of the season, held on for a big insurance goal from Yegor Sharangovich, and tacked on an empty netter. The Devils won 6-3 to end their slide and to finish their season series with a record of 4-3-1 against the eighth place team in the East.
That win on April 8 would be the last one until April 27. A ten-game losing streak would bridge those two dates. I emphasize that this was painful to watch.
The start was not so bad. The Devils hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 9 and would do so again on April 11 before engaging in what I called The Week of Hate against Our Hated Rivals. The April 9 game was a goal-fest. Miles Wood scored first, the Pens put up two by the end of the first, Jack Hughes tied it up, and then the Penguins ran up the next three goals. The Devils did battle to make it close with some favorable bounces for Boqvist and Wood yielding goals. But an empty netter sealed a 4-6 loss to the Penguins. On April 11, there would not be a comeback effort where the Devils were down a single goal at one point in the third period. Like the previous game, the first period ended at 1-2. Unlike the previous game, Jake Guentzel got the next two goals and P.K. Subban provided an answer to just one of them. Add an empty netter for a more decisive 2-5 loss to the Penguins. It was a disappointing effort in light of the April 9 game. However, the Penguins are really good and the Devils are not this season.
After all, there were bigger stakes at hand on the horizon. Four straight games against Our Hated Rivals. With the Devils’ season effectively over, some bragging rights would do well to salve an increasingly frustrated and apathetic fanbase. I called these four games in six nights The Week of Hate. I explained why the Rangers still suck in spite of the Devils’ own season of futility. I, for one, was hyped.
The Devils’ performance managed to make more of the People Who Matter hate how the Devils have played this season than anything else. Here were the four results.
- An 0-3 loss on April 13
- An even worse 0-4 loss on April 15. This may end up being the worst performance of the season, by the way.
- A 3-6 defeat on April 17 that saw Our Hated Rivals go up 0-4 before the Devils got on the board. The comeback effort was too little, too late.
- A 3-5 defeat on April 18 where the Devils came back from an 0-3 deficit in the third period to tie it up at 3-3. Then an ill-advised penalty by Ryan Murray led to a Mika Zibanejad power play goal with just three minutes remaining in regulation. An empty net goal against sealed an 0-4-0 record in The Week of Hate.
I hated The Week of Hate. I also hated that the season series against Our Hated Rivals ended at 2-6-0 with a miserable 0-4-0 record at The Rock. There would be no time for the team to dwell on it. They had to go to Pennsylvania for their next four games; three in Pittsburgh to wrap up their season series and then one in Philadelphia.
The April 20 game in Pittsburgh featured an even worse first two periods against the Penguins in comparison to the 0-4 debacle against Our Hated Rivals on April 15. The Devils went down 0-6, which included Scott Wedgewood giving up a Vesa Toskala-like goal from the neutral zone. The team was depleted due to injuries and deals made earlier in the month. The Devils would have needed a miracle of a third period to get back in the game. Somehow, someway, they would get a miracle that night. Tristan Jarry cost his team a penalty during a Devils power play and the 5-on-3 led to Nico Hischier scoring the team’s first two-man advantage goal of the season. Minutes later, during a Devils penalty kill, Sharangovich fought through Kris Letang and tucked home a shorthanded goal. After that kill, Nathan Bastian tipped in a shot from Will Butcher. At 3-6, one starts wondering, “It’s not going to happen but...maybe?” Those hopes were dashed when Guentzel found Sidney Crosby alone down low to roof a puck past an already-down Aaron Dell to make it 3-7. But the hopes resumed when Jack Hughes scored off a tipped cross-ice pass by Janne Kuokkanen. A minute later, Nick Merkley sent a beautiful pass to Nolan Foote, who hammered in his first NHL goal on a one-timer. It was now 5-7 with over five minutes left. the Devils pulled Dell for an extra skater late and Andreas Johnsson got a huge break, sending a puck off Cody Ceci and the back of Jarry’s leg from behind the net to make it 6-7. Would there be one last dramatic goal? Unfortunately, no. The Penguins escaped. The Devils lost 6-7 and made NHL history by being the first team to score six goals in a period and still lose. But it made more fans hopeful that perhaps their losing streak would come to an end soon. After all, they battled back within 20 minutes from a six-goal deficit. Surely, they could build on that.
They did not build on that. On April 22, Pittsburgh clearly learned the lesson from Tuesday’s game. They put the Devils down 1-2 after the first period. They put the Devils down further with three goals in the second period. There would be no comeback in the third period. Jarry did not blow it. Their defense shut down the Devils. New Jersey fell limp in a 1-5 defeat in Pittsburgh. Their last chance to get a win over Pittsburgh and their next one to end a losing streak would be on the afternoon of April 24. Mackenzie Blackwood returned to the net after a minor injury. The Devils skaters proceeded to make life harder for him as the Penguins were able to take advantage and put the Devils down 0-3. The third goal against was a double deflection that went in off Bryan Rust’s pants, so that was bad luck. And Hughes provided a quick response to that one to make it 1-3. In the third period, Murray hooked up Wood with a great pass for a one-timer goal past Casey DeSmith. The Devils were now within a goal of the Penguins with nine minutes left. Would they tie it up? No. Hischier came super-close at the death of the game, only for the puck to be denied and fall to Crosby who heaved up a 200+ foot shot to the empty net that went in with 0.1 seconds left. The Devils officially lost 2-4, nine in a row at the time, and ended their season series with Pittsburgh at 2-6-0 with the last five games against them, all in April, all being losses.
With the Devils reeling, their month of games would end against another common foe: the Philadelphia Flyers. Like Our Hated Rivals, the Devils would play a week’s worth of games against them in succession. Unlike Our Hated Rivals, the Flyers’ season has also been a big disappointment. As such, I have dubbed it The Week of Pity. But it was more important that the Devils get a win. They were legitimately staring at ending the month with just one. There were three attempts to get an elusive victory.
It arguably should have happened on April 25. The Devils were a different match-up against the Flyers. The first period was actually in the Devils’ favor. They scored first and only allowed one goal against. Yes, they did not lose the first period. Even better, Miles Wood put the Devils up 2-1 in the second period and Pavel Zacha, also returning from injury, finished a play to make it 3-1 in the third period. The Devils were doing pretty well over the first 58 minutes. They had a two goal lead. All they needed to do was to hold on as the Flyers pulled Brian Elliott for six skaters. Then it all fell apart. James van Reimsdyk fired a pass to an effectively not covered Claude Giroux across the slot. Giroux scored to make it 3-2. The Devils took a time out, Bastian had a clearing attempt go off an official, and Damon Severson turned into a pylon as he saw van Reimsdyk fire a pass down low to a wide open Giroux on Blackwood’s flank to make it 3-3. Surprise: not covering the other team’s best player is a bad idea. In overtime, the Devils had a power play and utterly wasted it. In the shootout, the Devils extended it but fell short in six rounds to go 0-5 in the shootout for the season. The Devils ultimately lost 3-4 and the losing streak was extended to ten.
The streak would end on April 27. The Devils finally won a hockey game. They did their best to have it be lost again to a Philadelphia team that rose from the deficit. The Devils did quite well in the first half of the game with three goals - with two power play goals, the first time the Devils did that since April 8 (which they won) and second time they did that all season. But the Flyers tilted the ice after they got on the board in the second period. The third period saw the Devils end up with a 3-1 lead. It would be a matter of minutes before the Flyers tied it up at 3-3. Then things got weird. Connor Carrick morphed into Connor McDavid as he came down the wing and sniped a puck past Elliott to the far corner to make it 4-3. Sean Couturier fired a shot from the half-wall and scored a goal that should have been stopped at 4-4. Right after that, Elliott and two Flyers made a meal of it behind the net, leading to Kuokkanen sliding a puck to Sharangovich to wrap around the right post for a goal. At 5-4, everyone was on edge. The Devils not only held on, but Michael McLeod won a puck battle, cleared the puck out, and Mikhail Maltsev ensured it would go into the empty net. The Devils finally won a game 6-4, almost in spite of a disasterous third period. It was their first win since April 8, their first home win since March 18, and their first multiple-goal win at home since January 24. They even did it in their Reverse Retro jerseys.
The month would end with one last reason to smile. The Devils hosted Philadelphia for the final time this season on April 29. Once again, the Devils’ power play led the charge with two power play conversions. Even better, both came from Sharangovich on the second unit. The last three games of the month helped make up for the power play in April. Unfortunately, the power play would help the Flyers get on the board as a bad break for Smith yielded a Scott Laughton breakaway and a Scott Laughton shorthanded goal. The Devils would respond when Jesper Boqvist scored a lovely one-timer from a feed by Merkley to make it 3-1. Unfortunately, Justin Braun found Couturier back door on Blackwood’s flank to make it 3-2. The Devils entered another third period with a lead and an opponent that knows they can dominate the puck and get something on the board. The Flyers did pin the Devils back a lot, but the Devils were able to make the most of one of their few offensive opportunities. Will Butcher played in Pavel Zacha off the rush and Zacha torched Alex Lyon to make it 4-2. An early goal pull led to Zacha flipping the puck out and Jesper Bratt winning a race to get to it and put in an empty net goal. A Ty Smith penalty yielded Sharangovich hitting the post on a shorthanded hat-trick try and Travis Konecny scoring on the counter-attack. But it was too little, too late for Philly and the Devils won 5-3.
The two wins over Philadelphia gave the Devils some breathing room over Buffalo in the standings. That is correct. Their ten-game losing streak saw their lead over the Sabres in the standings whittled down to just one point at its lowest. The Devils have all but locked down a top-ten draft pick. They were mathematically eliminated during their ten game losing streak. They had a weaker roster on-paper and on the ice on April 29 than they did on April 2, which was not saying a whole lot. But falling below Buffalo would have been a real shock. The Devils avoided that fate - but remain 29th in the NHL as of May 1. Again, if March was a tough month, this was a month of doom with few victories - literal or figurative - to point to.
By the Numbers
For most months, I have debated removing the score and venue adjusted 5-on-5 numbers. Over a month, a team is usually not going to be behind so consistently that the numbers would get skewed. The New Jersey Devils were not having a usual month. They were behind in the majority of first periods in their 16-games. In a lot of those games, the deficit was increased. This meant the Devils had to do a lot of battling back. This also meant their adjusted 5-on-5 stats tell a very different tale of how the Devils performed.
All stats come from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com where mentioned. Stats highlighted in green ranked in the top ten in the NHL for the month. Stats highlighted in red ranked in the bottom ten (22 - 31) in the NHL for the month.
5-on-5 Stats: Again, pay attention to the score and venue adjusted stats.
It is shocking that the adjustments bumped every stat in the wrong direction and by a good amount. Seeing CF% go from a healthy-looking 52% down to just below 50% is jarring. But recall that ten game losing streak where the Devils were down in the first period in the first nine of those ten games. And how the Devils were often down further in the second period. Score effects took hold, which meant opposing teams (Pittsburgh and Our Hated Rivals) did not have to attack as much and the Devils did should they make a comeback effort on some of those nights. That made the rate stats look a lot better than what they really were when you include the order of events of the game. Same for the offensive stats. The Devils’ offense did appear pretty well, which makes sense when you consider the Devils came awfully close in their comeback efforts to get something out of some of their 11 regulation losses. Again, it is far less impressive when you know what happened in those games than if you just looked at the stats at first glance.
The stats also suggest that the Devils were really done in by their goaltenders in April. I am not going to tell you that Mackenzie Blackwood, Scott Wedgewood, and Aaron Dell were incredible. They were not. If nothing else, this month showed that this team will need to get a proper #2 or #1B goaltender in the offseason. Still, I have a pretty compelling set of evidence that showed that the big chances the Devils skaters did allow often cost them. It is from the same ten-game losing streak that was the centerpiece of this horrid month of games. It shows the skaters absolutely not helping their goaltenders out. But it is the goaltenders who carry the weight of bad goaltending stats, and, brother, that is a lot of weight to carry. In a perfect world, that weight should be carried by all of the Devils but we do not live in a perfect world.
As far as the production side of things, the month was largely carried throughout the month by the unit of Yegor Sharangovich, Jack Hughes, and Janne Kuokkanen. This unit led the way in terms of creating offense. Hughes was often targetted by the opposition as the Devils’ biggest threat in all 16 games in April. His CF% was an amazing 59.95% without adjustments and 57.67% with them. Likewise, the Devils had an expected goals for percentage of over 60% with and without adjustments whenever Hughes took a shift. Again, that unit pushed the play forward incredibly well. Unfortunately, it did not yield a lot of points in 5-on-5. While Hughes had four goals in 5-on-5 (and 40 shots to lead the team), he just had one assist. His linemates Sharangovich had two goals and five assists while Kuokkanen just had five assists. Production is needed and so I can understand some fans raising an eyebrow of praising the Hughes line for offense. But the pickings were slim. Miles Wood led the team in 5-on-5 goals and points with 5 and 8 respectively, but opponents enjoyed playing against Wood. Pavel Zacha put up three goals and two assists and his rate stats were rather good even aside from his foibles and limited ice time. Again, a lot of this offense came from the Devils playing from behind so I would keep that in mind about evaluating the team’s the 5-on-5 play in April. It dulls some of these otherwise legitimate positives that did not outweigh the negatives caused by the play in their own end of their rink in 5-on-5.
Power Play Stats: Mark Recchi should be writing a thank you note to Philadelphia for salvaging some of the power play in April.
Half of their eight power play goals came against the Flyers this month. Two were in the first win of the month against Buffalo. One was in the loss to Buffalo on April 6 and one was against Pittsburgh on April 20, which was Hischier’s 5-on-3 score. That was it. As we have seen throughout this season, there were a lot of lost opportunities and ineffective entries. Plenty of times of the Devils carrying the puck in over the blueline, only to lose it within the next five seconds to render the carry-in useless. But the Devils racked up four PPGs against the 30th-most successful PK in the NHL to turn a 4-for-35 power play (11.4%) into a more palatable 8-for-44 (18.2%). The rate stats were not too bad. However, it is easier to rack up attempts, shots, and scoring chances when the power play is not converting. And it is harder to accept the power play as “better than you think” when the Devils had more opportunities than most teams in the month. Again, like a young student rushing to finish their weekend homework an hour before class begins on Monday, the Devils power play salvaged whatever they could at the end to earn a ‘C-’ instead of the ‘F’ they may have received had the assignment been due earlier. Perhaps a ‘D’ if you recall the four shorthanded goals they allowed, tying them with Washington (!) for the most allowed in the month. 44 opportunities and a +4 differential in man advantage situations is very disappointing.
Who provided the production for this power play? Believe it or not: Pavel Zacha. Zacha has been utilized in a bunch of spots on the first power play unit when active in April. He did get three power play goals and two assists for his efforts. It remains to be seen if he will be a roaming player down low, which I think would fit him best rather than planting him in front of the goaltender such that a 5-on-4 becomes a 4-on-4. The remainder: Yegor Sharangovich scoring his two against Alex Lyon on April 29 on the second unit; Hischier scoring two from a bumper-like role that Travis Zajac served; and Jesper Bratt getting one. In terms of shots, only three Devils put up double-digit shots in man-advantage situations: Zacha and Hughes with 12 each and Ty Smith putting up 10. That Smith put up 10 shots speaks to the confusion over what this power play is working for. Is it long shots? Seam passes for one-timers across the royal road? Finding someone open below the top of the circles? Jamming it in front? Only Recchi knows.
Penalty Kill Stats: It was legitimately good in March. It returned to a legitimately terrible state in April.
I do not know if I have ever seen a month of rate stats where the Devils allowed a higher rate of scoring chances against them than shots against them. At Natural Stat Trick (and most other hockey sites), chances include missed shots so it is certainly possible. Given their very high rate of high-danger chances allowed, it does not surprise me that the Devils’ passive diamond did not keep the opposition out of the areas it should be defending the most. Either way, the PK absolutely stunk in April. Backdoor plays were rife and costly (and also sank the Devils’ save percentage). The passive diamond was arguably too passive on point men so they had plenty of space to work with. Sure, they allowed a relatively low rate of attempts; but a team does not need a lot of attempts when they are converting power plays. Making this worse is the fact that the Devils have otherwise been a well-disciplined team with just 34 shorthanded situations. It has continued to cause a lot of pain anyway.
It would be easy to just say, “Well, what did you expect after Zajac, Kulikov, and Vatanen left? The Devils are a minor league team now anyway.” It would also be false. First, the PK was historically awful earlier this season with those players regularly on the shorthanded units. Second, the Devils penalty kill was the least successful in the league in this month prior to the trade deadline. Third, the pain of shorthanded hockey was spread throughout the lineup. While Vatanen only played in six games for New Jersey in April and Kulikov only made five appearances, they were present for five and three PPGAs, respectively. No one Devil saw more than five power play goals against in April, so that is notable as well as poor. The Devils’ PK stunk with Zajac, Kulikov, or Vatanen on the roster and it stunk without them. After an actually good March performance for the penalty kill, they have sagged back to their January and February form. Repeat after me: It’s the system,
stupid Alain Nasreddine.
Additions and Subtractions
If you thought this was long enough, get ready for more because this was a busy, busy month of transactions.
First, ahead and by the trade deadline, the New Jersey Devils made moves. GM Tom Fitzgerald was not idle in the week prior to April 12. Kyle Palmieri and Zajac (who waived his no-movement clause) were dealt to the Islanders for a first rounder this season, a conditional pick in 2022, and two minor leaguers. At the time (April 7), I felt underwhelmed with the return. I felt more could have been gained had the deal been made later. Knowing now that it was one of the few deals to yield a first round pick in return this year, I am less underwhelmed by it. Right before the deadline, the Devils added a player as they sent Arizona’s third round pick to Washington for defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler. On that same day (April 11), Nikita Gusev cleared unconditional waivers, had his contract with New Jersey terminated, and then signed a $1 million deal with Florida. Gusev was put on regular waivers, went unclaimed, remained scratched, and then the two sides just ended the relationship so the Goose could head South for the Spring. Around the same time, Sami Vatanen was placed on waivers. On deadline day, Dallas claimed him before he could clear. At around the same time, Dmitry Kulikov was sent to Edmonton for a conditional fourth round pick in 2022. To summarize: Siegenthaler was added; Palmieri, Zajac, Gusev, Vatanen, and Kulikov were removed. Those five represented most of the Devils’ pending unrestricted free agents and Fitzgerald got something for three of them. The moves also further reminded the People Who Matter that, yes, this team is still re-building.
The departure of Zajac, Palmieri, Gusev, Kulikov, and Vatanen opened up the lineup for others to make their debut or re-introduce themselves back to the 2021 Devils. Jesper Boqvist and Nick Merkley were more present in the lineup as each played 14 and 13 games, respectively for the team. Will Butcher and Matt Tennyson returned to active play after being held out for a while after the two defensemen were dealt away. Siegenthaler joined them on April 13 through to April 22. Connor Carrick also re-emerged towards the end of the month. Colton White even got two games as a call-up. Combined with other absences, a number of call-ups led to NHL debuts for Tyce Thompson (six games, an assist in his first game), Marian Studenic (six games, a goal), Nolan Foote (three games, a goal), and Kevin Bahl (one game)
There were two more notable returns. The biggest player returning was the captain of the team. Nico Hischier missed the first six games of the month as he was recovering from a sinus fracture. He donned the full cage and returned to play on April 13. It took a couple of games before he could get going, but it did come to a degree. He played through the other ten games of the season without issue. Nathan Bastian also returned to the lineup after about being injured for a month. On April 17, he returned to the lineup against Our Hated Rivals and registered an assist in a bottom-six role. He has been largely kept with Wood and McLeod as a line, which has had some successes and issues.
Within the month itself, there were injuries to Kuokkanen (missed one game), Ty Smith (missed four games), Bratt (missed four games), Zacha (missed five games), and Andreas Johnsson (missed two games at the end of the month). P.K. Subban (evidence) and Siegenthaler are both on the COVID Protocol, so they have both been out. With just five games left in this season as of this writing, it is questionable if they can return. Likewise for Johnsson, who suffered a nasty and dangerous hit from Loughton on April 25.
There was one other addition although it is not really for New Jersey this season. The Devils signed 2020 first round pick Alexander Holtz to an entry level contract that will begin in the 2021-22 season. At his press conference after the trade deadline on April 12, Tom Fitzgerald stated he was working on getting Holtz to New Jersey. He succeeded as Holtz signed the contract on April 19. Holtz has reported to Binghamton, where he will play the remainder of this season. He already has a goal in his short time with the B-Devils.
However, this is a good segue into biggest subtraction of the month and the season for the team. Binghamton. On April 19, word got out that New Jersey was ending their AHL affiliate agreement with Binghamton a season early The personnel in Binghamton are unhappy and understandably so. The B-Devils have actually played all their games at the Devils’ practice rink in Newark this season. The local fans have not been able to see their team, much less wish them goodbye or, more likely, good riddance given how the squad is being pulled away from them. Per the report, that the Utica owner registered “Utica Devils” makes it likely the Devils are moving cities - which may be news to Vancouver, who has their affiliate in Utica right now. There really has not been any official word from New Jersey’s side of this, which makes it even more awkward. Nevertheless, this is a big loss and I am not a fan of New Jersey ending their deal a season early. There is not a lot of money in minor league hockey and as Jeff pointed out, the facilities weren’t really the issue. Josh Harris and David Blitzer could have (and have!) afforded another season in Binghamton to end the deal properly. I am not happy about the news. Jeff was not happy and understandably checked out early. (Especially as the B-Devils’ season has been awful.) I would not have been as kind as he was in his farewell post. Still, the milk cannot be unspilled. The Binghamton Devils are no more after this season. And they are not even in Binghamton as it ends.
The Devil of the Month
Normally, I pick players who have stood out throughout the entire month. This may shock you but there were not many consistently good players in a month where the team went 3-11-2. Two did stick out to me. I tipped my hand in revealing who they were earlier in this post, so I will get right to it.
If you wanted a reason why I given Jack Hughes the nickname of “The Big Deal,” then look at his 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats in April. With adjustments for score and venue, when Hughes was on the ice, the Devils took 57.67% of the attempts, 54.13% of the shots, 61.35% of the expected goals, 60.02% of the scoring chances, and 65.05% of the high-danger chances per Natural Stat Trick. That is just impressive, especially as Hughes played more 5-on-5 minutes than any forward in April. For most of these 16 games, if the Devils needed a spark on offense, it often came from the Hughes line. Hughes led the Devils with 54 shots on net and finished second on the team in points for the month with 11 (4 goals, 7 assists). Had Hughes or his teammates had some better puck luck or more game time where the team was not in a deep hole in April, then we would be calling this the season where Hughes became a star. Instead, he is a burgeoning as one. The Big Deal was very much one in spite of a modest level of production. I almost named him The Devil of the Month for his 5-on-5 work, but instead he is the Honorable Mention.
The actual choice is Hughes’ linemate: Yegor Sharangovich. Why? While Sharangovich’s adjusted 5-on-5 rates were not as eye-poppingly great as Hughes or even Zacha, they were well above 50% across the board except in SF%. That is not bad at all for a winger who was used quite a bit in the month. Sharangovich also received power play and shorthanded shifts in April too. While the power play rates were not amazing as he was on the second unit, he was one of the few Devils to score more than one PPG in the month and his two against Philadelphia on April 29 helped salvage a power play unit that was otherwise having a terrible month. His rates on the PK were surprisingly good in his usage and he scored the Devils’ lone one shorthanded goal of the month (and was a post away from a second on April 29). In 4-on-4 and 5-on-5 situations, Sharangovich racked up four goals and seven assists, which propelled him to be the team’s leading scorer in April with a total of seven goals and 14 points. For a Devils team that struggled with producing goals at points in the month (and struggled at producing goals before they were down by 2+), that matters. It also mattered that Sharangovich produced in most of the Devils’ comeback efforts (e.g. a goal on April 4 against Washington, an assist on April 9 against Pittsburgh, 3 points in the weekend’s games against Our Hated Rivals, the shorty and setting up Hughes’ goal in that third period on April 20) and their three wins (one goal and two assists on April 8, the game winner on April 27, two PPGs on April 29). One of the larger tasks for the Devils in this new re-building effort is to find wingers to play well with Hughes and/or Hischier. Sharangovich absolutely has done that with his performances next to Hughes in April and showed he can even kill penalties. It remains to be seen what the future holds, but for now, his April was impressive enough to me to name him the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of April 2021.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
Season-end awards are on my mind as the season will end at about 9:45 PM ET on May 10 for New Jersey. If one moment could be represent how I feel about the Devils in April and this season, then it was Hughes’ misconduct penalty on April 18. He was called for a tripping penalty and amid the frustration of the game, the Week of Hate, and how the team played this season, Hughes just unloaded his own frustration. I cannot say I condone throwing a stick in anger and lipping off to officials, but I understood it. So did head coach Lindy Ruff, who stated after the game that he did not mind that emotion.
Still, that bit of frustration boiling over was something I felt throughout this past month and many times this season. Five years after Ray Shero came in and tore everything over, his assistant GM now full-time GM Tom Fitzgerald is doing the same thing and I’m hearing the same pleas for patience and optimism about the younger players about the team. Amid observing the Devils fail the same ways over and over in their own end - committing too much to strong side defense, not paying attention to non-puck carries, not picking up players - I am hearing the same arguments about how this is a young team that needs to learn how to hold leads / defend / win even though I’m pretty sure I saw Damon Severson (26 years old, 480 games played) or Ryan Murray (27 years old, 389 games played) or someone else who has been in the NHL for many seasons make the mistake. Not to mention that even the rookies have played hockey at some level before and won some games before and so the concepts are pretty similar. Ahead of a draft class with more uncertainty than any in recent memory, I hear the calls from Sherman Abrams (he’s back!) and his disciples trying to claim that losing is actually a good thing and how an 18-year old prospect (e.g. Owen Power, Luke Hughes) will fix the future. It’s going to be six seasons from 2015-16 next season and the team may not really that further along from where they were. And the constant re-litigation of how the re-build went and what or who the real cause of the re-builds (now plural!) is as getting as grating as Daneyko wistfully recalling his days as a player and/or praising a Devils team for never quitting while ignoring that they wouldn’t need 3-goal comebacks if they didn’t go down 0-4 to begin with. Instead of looking forward to Devils games, I am looking forward to just getting through them like a diaper change or fighting rush-hour traffic. I did not expect much of the 2021 Devils, and this past month somehow delivered less. How can anyone not be frustrated with all of this?
I call this re-build fatigue. While the season is short, it has been hectic with weeks jam-packed with three-game and four-game weeks. It will be over before we know it and I can at least resume being more hopeful for the future as the offseason progresses. However, I would be lying if I have not noted that more and more Devils fans, the People Who Matter, have checked out too. And why not? The team has not made progress and you cannot call a team that went 3-11-2 in the month competitive. Against hated rivals, it is nice they have five points over the Flyers (and should have been six, but they botched that lead on April 25) but it pales when Our Hated Rivals went 4-for-4 in their pyrrhic campaign. Sure, the young players on the roster are more legit and the prospect pool is way better than what it was in 2015. But, at some point, there needs to be some tangible results to justify that the team is moving forward and watching this team may be worth your time and/or money. This past month showed that it is not at the moment. We can only hope for next season. Is hope worth your time and money? That is something only you can answer.
Now I turn this over to you. Maybe you are less fatigued by the re-building effort. Maybe you are more positive as the Devils ended a miserable April with two wins. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in April? 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 Sharangovich the Devil of the Month? If not, do you think it should have Hughes, Zacha, or someone else? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils in April 2021 in the comments. Thank you for reading.