The New Jersey Devils completed the first half of their season tonight, and if the second half of the season goes like much of how the first half has gone with poor goaltending and poor defense, it’ll be a rough watch the rest of the way.
Yet again, the Devils gave up five goals to an opponent. Tonight, the Dallas Stars were the lucky beneficiaries of such poor play, and the Devils were in a quick hole before most of the sparse crowd in attendance finished their pregame nachos, ultimately losing 5-1 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.
Things got off to a tough start for the Devils as the Stars got the puck in deep off the opening faceoff. Jonas Siegenthaler lost an edge behind Akira Schmid’s cage as Jason Robertson fed the puck to Joe Pavelski. The veteran forward snapped it by Tomas Tatar who was closing in on him, and past Akira Schmid for the 1-0 Dallas lead 14 seconds into the game.
Riley Damiani went to the box at the 2:31 mark for interference giving the Devils their first power play opportunity. The Devils wasted most of the first minute of the man advantage as Dallas got a couple clears and Damon Severson turned the puck over in the neutral zone but they did finally get established. Jack Hughes sent a cross-ice pass that was deflected out of play and the second unit came on. The Stars got another clear before the Devils didn’t get any shots on net in the final few seconds of the power play. Braden Holtby, who had the easiest 36 save game I’ve ever watched, covered up a loose puck for a stoppage at the 4:46 mark as the Devils got their first couple shots on net.
The Devils got pinned back in their end after the first TV stoppage until Colton White cleared the puck out of the Devils defensive zone. Dallas turned the puck over and a streaking Jack Hughes flipped a backhander into Holtby’s chest. The teams went back and forth for a bit before Dallas got it in deep. Alex Radulov drew the attention of numerous Devils players, leaving Jacob Peterson alone in front of Schmid to put the puck in the net for a 2-0 lead. I’m not sure why almost 100 games into the Lindy Ruff era and almost 300 games into the Alain Nasreddine era that the Devils continue to play such shoddy defense and just flat out not cover a high danger spot in the ice like that, but maybe some day they’ll figure it out.
The Devils got a decent scoring chance as Hughes intercepted a pass in the defensive zone and play went the other way, but Yegor Sharangovich’s shot was deflected out of play. PK Subban delivered a bit hit on Joel Kiviranta that the Stars took exception to, as Andrej Sekera and Nate Bastian got into a scrap that sent both players to the sin bin. The teams skated 4-on-4 for two minutes with Hughes maneuvering around the Stars defenders before Subban flipped a harmless shot towards Holtby. Nico Hischier fired a wrister short-side off the post as Bastian and Sekera exited the box.
Dallas got the puck in deep with Roope Hintz nearly slipping the puck past Schmid for a 3-0 lead. The Stars finally did get that third goal moments later as Miro Heiskanen wristed it from the blueline. Joe Pavelski got a piece, with the puck bouncing past Schmid for the three goal lead and the boo-birds came out in Newark.
The Devils whacked at a loose puck and put one past Holtby well after the horn sounded to end the first period, one of the worst periods the Devils have played yet this season. Advanced stats be damned, although if you are keeping track, New Jersey had a 64.29% CF, 4-2 edge in HDCF, and a xGF% of 64.53% in the first. All that tells me is that the advanced stats models are broken if they suggest the Devils deserved any result other than what they got.
Jon Gillies came on in relief of Schmid to begin the second period. Things did not get better as Damon Severson had the puck ripped from him in the defensive zone and Roope Hintz beat an out-of-position Gillies glove-side for the 4-0 lead. Gillies got a bit of a Bronx cheer from the fans in attendance for covering up a dump-in moments later. Andreas Johnsson turned over the puck in the Devils defensive end, leading to a barrage by the Dallas top line of Robertson-Hintz-Pavelski that Gillies somehow didn’t get scored on. Dawson Mercer and Jimmy Vesey got sprung on a 2-on-1, but Mercer fired the shot into Holtby’s chest as he never telestrated to Holtby that he might ever pass the puck and Holtby saw it the whole way.
Lindy Ruff shuffled up the Devils lines, putting Zacha with Hischier and Tatar, Sharangovich with Mercer and Vesey, and Johnsson with Hughes and Bratt. Jamie Benn caught Jonas Siegenthaler in the cheek with a high-stick, giving the Devils their second power play chance, but Dallas got an immediate clear. After Bratt flipped the puck into the netting from the blueline while trying to dump the puck into the far corner, the top PP unit got another chance. Jack Hughes drew a lot of attention all night from the Stars defenders. #86 carried the puck into the offensive zone, leaving Jesper Bratt all sorts of space to fire it past Holtby to get the Devils on the board for their only goal of the night.
Michael McLeod and Luke Glendening got in a fight with 1:16 to go in the second, as Glendening trailed and stalked McLeod and goaded him into the scrap. It did not go particularly well for McLeod, who took the brunt of Glendening’s body weight while being driven into the ice and got clocked pretty good, bleeding from the face and looking a bit dazed as the referee helped him off the ice. McLeod would not return. The Devils did nothing over the final minute of the second period to threaten to pull any closer and went to the dressing room down 4-1.
The Devils started out the third not giving up a goal immediately (PROGRESS!!!!), with a couple stoppages on a puck in the bench and Holtby freezing a long-distance shot. Hintz fired a wrister wide of Gillies’s cage. Hughes made a nifty move to deflect the puck off of Holtby’s pad, but Zacha was unable to bury the turnaround goal to pull within two. The ESPN+ broadcast team of Bob Wischusen and Kevin Weekes noted that in addition to McLeod’s injury, Nico Hischier went down the tunnel holding his back. Fortunately, the captain’s injury wasn’t too serious as he returned to the bench a few minutes later.
The Devils somehow didn’t finish against Braden Holtby with roughly 9 minutes left as the veteran goaltender snow-angel’ed in the crease as Mercer couldn’t push the puck over the goal line. Andreas Johnsson went to the box as he caught Esa Lindell with a high stick with 7:19 to go. Fortunately, the Devils avoided getting scored on during the man advantage as Hintz literally passed on a point-blank opportunity and tried to feed Tyler Seguin for some reason.
The Devils decided to pull Gillies for the extra skater with 3:16 to go. Lindell fired the puck wide of the empty net for an icing with 2:31 to go. Dallas won the defensive zone draw and Jani Hakanpaa flipped it the length of the ice for the empty netter and the cherry on top. Wischusen noted that Hischier went back to the dressing room again, effectively ending his night. Tyler Seguin went to the box with 1:40 to go for tripping Pavel Zacha, but the Devils were unable to get an otherwise meaningless goal to feel good about themselves and Dallas won rather easily by a score of 5-1.
The Opposition Opinion: Visit Defending Big D if you want to read the Stars perspective on today’s game.
The Devils Braintrust Has Failed The Players and Failed the Fans With How They Have Managed This Roster
Like most of you, I woke up today to the news that Mackenzie Blackwood was headed to IR. This news shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise to anyone who has been following this story closely, and now the Devils face the very real prospect of riding out the final 41 games of the season with some combination of Jon Gillies, Akira Schmid, Nico Daws, Marek Mitens, and/or some other TBD external goaltender.
How did we get here? Poor management. And while it shouldn’t be the sole reason Lindy Ruff, his entire coaching staff, and perhaps Tom Fitzgerald should all be shown the door at the end of the year, it’s at least somewhere on the list of reasons why I’m done with this staff.
The bulk of this mismanagement goes back to training camp, when Blackwood revealed that he was recovering from offseason heel surgery. Jonathan Bernier, who was the second goaltender brought in in two consecutive offseasons in part because the Devils did not want Blackwood to play a heavy starter’s workload, suffered a hip injury in the preseason. Despite all of this, the Devils felt Scott Wedgewood was expendable enough in a COVID season (the pandemic is still a thing that is going on, last I checked) to try to sneak him through waivers to the AHL. It did not work, as Arizona claimed him, but hey, at least they kept Mason Geertsen.
Bernier started Opening Night as Blackwood was unavailable for the first eight games as he was still dealing with his heel injury. Bernier didn’t last long though, as the Devils were already on their third and fourth goaltenders by Game 4 as Wedgewood started against Washington on Oct. 21 and Nico Daws drew Buffalo on Oct. 23. Bernier was back by October 30th, and Blackwood made his debut November 5th on the California road trip.
Blackwood and Bernier split starts over the next two weeks, but Bernier’s hip was clearly a lingering concern as Blackwood drew three consecutive starts going into Thanksgiving. Bernier would only play twice more before ultimately being shut down for good as his hip deteriorated to the point where he needed season-ending surgery. By this time, the good vibes from Blackwood’s hot start were long gone, as he appeared in a stretch of 19 out of 24 games from Nov. 18 to Jan. 19. The results were poor, as he posted a .883 save percentage, gave up three or more in 13 of of those 19 games and four or more 9 times. The only games that Blackwood missed in that stretch were two games with a neck injury, one for COVID protocols, a Schmid start on the second half of a back-to-back, and a Bernier start before he physically broke down. And now, Blackwood has also broken down physically in part because he’s played far more than the Devils ever intended on having him play in the first place.
I get that Bernier and Blackwood are competitors. I get that they want to gut it out. But somebody in the Devils organization needs to be the adult in the room and protect the players if they simply, physically, don’t have it. Blackwood in particular hasn’t had it for awhile now. The proof is in the results. But yet, that didn’t stop somebody in the Devils organization from greenlighting #29 drawing as many games as he did, including one where Ruff admitted postgame that Blackwood was the sickest “of them all” when they were dealing with an illness last month. If you want to pin some blame on the medical staff or perhaps goaltending coach Dave Rogalski, have at it, but ultimately, the buck stops with Lindy Ruff as the head coach of the team and Tom Fitzgerald as the general manager.
(Side note: It would’ve been nice if any of the Devils team media bothered to ask about whether there was a direct correlation between Blackwood’s usage and his injury. But I guess it didn’t come up during his pregame media session.)
So why did I spend the last 600+ words recapping stuff that had little to nothing to do with tonight’s game (other than explaining why Akira Schmid and Jon Gillies are in net)? To illustrate my point that poor roster management has cost the Devils a lot of points in the standings in a season where they were hoping to play meaningful games in the second half.
Consider this tweet from JFresh over the weekend.
The goaltending alone has likely cost the Devils 6-7 points in the standings at the midway point. I’d argue it’s even more, and it is if you factor in the lack of finish this team has because they have exactly one winger in Jesper Bratt who is a bonafide Top Six NHL winger. And partly because the roster has been managed so poorly to this point, we, the fans, now have 41 games of sub-replacement level goaltending to look forward to
The other thing that should be mentioned is how morally deflating it must be for the Devils skaters to know if their goaltender gives up a couple goals, they have no chance. Where if they make a mistake or lose an edge or make an errant pass, it’ll probably wind up in the back of the net as a goal against. How demoralizing is that? The Devils were the second team in NHL history to give up a goal within the first 15 seconds of the first and second period tonight. The players hadn’t even broken a sweat yet and they’re in the hole. Think about that, and then think about what we have to look forward to, and you try telling me Tom Fitzgerald and Lindy Ruff are doing a good job. How do you even go about evaluating the youngest team in the NHL when you’re spotting the other team multiple goals every game?
By the way, none of this even begins to mention other areas of mismanagement on the roster. Whether its Ty Smith’s struggles before his injury or whatever they were doing with Alex Holtz earlier in the year or Hughes on the wing when he returned to the lineup or the power play struggles over the first 30 games or why Mason Geertsen continues to occupy space on an NHL roster when he brings nothing to the table of substance. But this recap is already long enough and those are arguments for another day.
I don’t know how Tom Fitzgerald and Lindy Ruff plan on fixing this mess, but there’s too much at stake long-term with the development of players to simply punt on the remaining 41 games. It’s part of the reason why I agree with John that tanking the second half isn’t an option. I expect the Devils to lose plenty of games the rest of the way. I would hope that Fitz does something to give Ruff another option in net over players he clearly doesn’t want to play in the first place.
Lindy Ruff’s Postgame Comments
If you’d like to watch Coach Ruff’s comments postgame, you can do so below.
“You’ve got to limit your mistakes.”— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 26, 2022
Hear from Lindy Ruff following tonight’s loss to Dallas. pic.twitter.com/XbIk227cz9
We did get a non-update on Mike McLeod. I guess it was too much heavy lifting to get an update on Nico Hischier as well, but hey, he’s only the captain of the team. Maybe we’ll get one tomorrow.
Re: #NJDevils Mike McLeod not returning to the game at the start of the third:— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) January 26, 2022
Medical staff held McLeod out for the remainder of the game, Lindy Ruff saying that McLeod is being further evaluated.
What did you think of the loss tonight? Are you as fed up as I am with everything? Do you agree with my opinion (or the facts) that things, are in fact, bad? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading.