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Game Preview #44: New Jersey Devils @ Toronto Maple Leafs

The New Jersey Devils conclude their road trip with the front end of a home-and-home against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Can the Devils find a way to muster some offense against a top tier goaltender in Jack Campbell and get a win?

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NHL: New Jersey Devils at Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews had a had trick the last time the Devils faced the Leafs
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (15-23-5, 35 points) visit the Toronto Maple Leafs (27-10-3, 57 points) SB Nation Blog: Pension Plan Puppets

The Time: 7:30 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG, SNE, SNO. RADIO - Devils Hockey Network (Access through NHL.com or the SiriusXM app)

The last Devils game

The Devils fell to the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 on Saturday night. Matt had the recap of that game and while I understand what he was saying, I didn’t think the Devils (who only mustered 3 shots on goal in the third period and never seriously threatened to tie the game) or Jon Gillies played nearly as well as he suggested.

I acknowledge Gillies kept the Devils in the game and that’s probably as well as can be expected given it is Jon Gillies we’re talking about. Personally, I think he was fortunate not to allow 4 or 5 goals since PK Subban saved a goal that was on the doorstep of being tapped. Gillies’s positioning and reaction also leaves a lot to be desired. But with a .924 save percentage over the last 4 outings, the results are what they are, and they have been good.

The last Maple Leafs game

Toronto overcame deficits of 3-1 and 4-2 on Saturday night to defeat the Detroit Red Wings. The Leafs scored five unanswered goals in the third period to win 7-4.

Michael Bunting, who has been one of the biggest surprises of the NHL season, recorded the hat trick in the win. John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Pierre Engvall, and Rasmus Sandin got in on the fun as well for the Leafs with a goal each.

The last Devils-Leafs game

This is the first meeting between the Devils and the Maple Leafs since January 14th, 2020, a 7-4 Toronto win over the Devils. That game was most memorable for a hat trick from a player on each team. Auston Matthews scored three times for his first hat trick since his NHL debut, while Blake Coleman tallied the 94th (and most recent) hat trick in Devils history (if you include Kansas City Scouts/Colorado Rockies history as well).

What will the lines look like?

The Devils skated the same forward groups in Saturday’s game against the Hurricanes while mixing up the bottom two defensive pairings.

The biggest issue for the Devils at the moment is the fact their offense has completely dried up. If you toss out last week’s Carolina game, which is obviously an outlier given who the goaltender was, the Devils have managed one or two goals in the last six games. All of those games turned out to be losses. The only players who are consistently generating anything offensively at the moment are Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt.

To underscore how much the Devils are struggling offensively to put the puck in the net, consider these lengthy droughts.

  • Yegor Sharangovich has 5 goals and 4 assists in his last 22 games, which includes a four game goal stretch. He has no goals and 1 assist in his last six games despite primarily playing on a line with Hughes and Bratt.
  • Pavel Zacha has 3 goals and 4 assists in his last 26 games despite playing primarily a Top Six role throughout most of that stretch. He has one goal in his last 15 games.
  • Andreas Johnsson has one goal and 5 assists in his last 21 games after starting the season with 9 goals and 9 assists over the first 20 when he was playing primarily with Dawson Mercer and Jesper Bratt. He simply has not produced without Bratt on his line.
  • Dawson Mercer has also suffered without Bratt on his wing, with 3 goals and 5 assists in his last 24 games.
  • Tomas Tatar has been slightly less offensive (as in “I’m offended by how little he’s doing”) in that he is at least close to a half PPG in his last 30 games with 14 points. But he also has zero points in the last eight.
  • Last but not least, Nico Hischier has zero points in his last four games and 6 goals and 6 assists in his last 20 games. I’ll preface this by saying that I think Nico gets a lot of unfair criticism for “not doing enough” when he’s one of the few guys on this roster who does the dirty work and is typically tasked with tough defensive assignments. But with that said, I need a little more offense than that from the captain who is making $7.25M a year.

I don’t point this out to pile on certain players, but those six names I’ve mentioned have all played extensively in the Top 9 throughout the season. Some of them have had stretches playing on the top power play unit. It’s not an accident that the Devils are 6-17-1 in their last 24 games, a stretch that has overlapped the offensive drought this team is on. Add in poor goaltending, which has also covered most of this stretch, and you have this.

All of this hammers home that in addition to a likely coaching overhaul, the Devils need widespread personnel changes in the near future if they want to hope to be anything other than a perennial doormat. The wingers simply have not been good enough to compete.

As for the lines themselves? I don’t know what you do with this mess. You can put lipstick on a pig, but its still a pig. If you think splitting up Hughes and Bratt fixes this, sure, go nuts. If you want to stick Tatar back with Zacha and Hischier, by all means. The players haven’t been good enough and until they play better, there’s only so much Lindy Ruff can even do with this group.

What do the Leafs Bring to the Table?

You know all about the high-end forwards who tie up roughly half of the Leafs salary cap space, so let’s start with the Vezina-caliber play they’ve gotten in net from Jack Campbell. Campbell is near the top of the list in every major statistic. He’s also proof that yes, you are allowed to go out mid-season and find a goaltender.....all you have to do is your homework with advance scouting, so Tom Fitzgerald and the Devils braintrust might want to take notes if they’re reading this and get on that. Again, history tells you its not impossible to trade for a goaltender in season (although COVID in 2022 might be a complicating factor).

Of course, that’s not to say the Leafs aren’t still top-heavy. The aforementioned Big Four of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander, as well as Morgan Rielly are all either at or flirting with a PPG pace. There are legitimate questions whether or not a team like that has enough depth up and down the lineup to win a playoff series, let alone a Stanley Cup. But with that said, this is the type of team that is certainly more than capable of pounding bad teams like the Devils into oblivion. With the Devils playing the Leafs twice on consecutive nights, I expect to see those names on the scoresheet often.

Final Thoughts

What do you think about this evening’s matchup? Can the Devils find a way to muster some offense against the Leafs, or will the Leafs have their way with the Devils and further extend this losing streak. Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!