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R-E-L-A-X! The Devils Will Be Just Fine

The Devils are “struggling”, if you think this team is one that at one point was on a 138 point pace. More likely, these are the normal ebbs and flows hockey teams go through in a season.

NHL: New York Islanders at New Jersey Devils
As long as the Devils keep putting the puck in the net, like Nico Hischier did here, they’ll be ok.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

“We can’t have anyone freaking out out there, ok? We gotta keep our composure. We’ve gone too far. There’s too much to lose. Just....keep our composure.”

No, those aren’t the words of Tom Fitzgerald. Lindy Ruff didn’t say that after a recent loss. Neither did Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Damon Severson, Miles Wood, or anyone associated with the 2022-23 Devils.

Those are the words of Frank “The Tank” Ricard, portrayed by Will Ferrell in the 2003 film Old School.

You remember the general premise of the movie and that particular scene, right? A bunch of middle-aged guys started a fraternity. They became wildly popular and successful. They became the talk of the town? Unfortunately, there was a big bad dean who didn’t like them very much and threw obstacles in their way to ultimately get them removed them from campus and his life in general. The fraternity rallied together through the first series of challenges the evil Dean Pritchard threw in their way, only to hit a speedbump when Frank accidentally set himself on fire while trying to jump through a flaming ring? That series of events led to the quote above once our heroes had a chance to reset and regroup.

Now you’re asking yourself “What does any of this have to do with the Devils?”, assuming you think I haven’t totally lost it in the first place. Let me explain....

One of my greatest strengths (and greatest weaknesses, quite frankly) is that I see, hear, and read everything pertaining to this team. The downside of that is seeing people, and particularly, The People Who Matter, react like Frank the Tank did the second something didn’t go according to plan. This leads to freaking out, irrational heat of the moment takes, and outbursts posted in 280 characters or less on other websites.

“The Devils are struggling!” Yes, they’re ‘struggling’ to the tune of 5-2-2 in their last 9 games going into the Dallas game last night. This team was never going to continue playing at the pace they were when they were 16-3. For those keeping track at home, that’s an .842 points percentage over the course of an 82 game season. A mark that no team has EVER done over a full season. This is why it was important for the Devils to bank those points then when they had the chance during their winning streak. Now they have that cushion when this team inevitably drops 2 in a row or three out of five.

“They’re not dominating offensively. They’re not scoring at the same rate they were earlier!” No, they’re probably not going to dominate a team in one game like they did Columbus, a game where they had the second biggest xG differential in a single game since Evolving Hockey kept track of such things. Nor are they likely to continue playing at that pace over the course of an 82 game season.

The offense hasn’t been the problem though. Since that Columbus game, which was 20 games ago, they’ve AVERAGING 3.78 goals per game. Only once in that stretch have they scored fewer than 3 goals in a game.....the Toronto home loss on Thanksgiving Eve where three Devils goals were taken off the board. If I include the entire season, only Boston, Buffalo, and Dallas are scoring at a higher pace than the Devils. And keep in mind....the Devils offense is doing this WITH Erik Haula not scoring. WITH Jesper Boqvist not scoring. WITH Alex Holtz not scoring. WITH (insert random name) not scoring. I’ll be concerned if/when Jack Hughes (8G, 5A in last 8 games), Nico Hischier (4G, 3A in last 8), and Jesper Bratt (2G, 4A in last 8) stop scoring. That time hasn’t come yet.

“The goaltending hasn’t been as good of late”. No kidding! Vitek Vanecek, a career .908 goaltender, was at .918 on the season before that Toronto loss. Did you expect something that probably wasn’t sustainable to continue?

Well, it hasn’t, as he’s been a .902 over seven games since then. Maybe he’s coming back down to earth a little bit, or maybe we’re just dealing with smaller sample sizes and overreacting, but I would’ve thought he would’ve built up a little more goodwill where a random seven-game rough patch wouldn’t be so quickly criticized. Heaven forbid this team still had last year’s goaltending.

“The team is making more defensive mistakes that are winding up in the back of their net.” A valid critique! Defensive zone turnovers, losing guys in coverage, and giving up odd-man rushes at the frequency the Devils do is a recipe for failure. A big part of the reason why this team won 13 straight games at one point was because they weren’t doing that, and if they were, they were able to get a save or two to bail someone out for their miscue. Of course, the Devils are well aware of this and have made an emphasis of trying to get back to the way they were playing. Hopefully they have better results than what we saw in the last few games against the Islanders and Rangers, but we know this group has it in them to play sound defensively in their own end.

“The special teams haven’t been very good.” Another legitimate gripe! Of course, the power play wasn’t very good either when they were winning games, so its easy to point to their failures in losses and say “If they could’ve just gotten a goal here....”. More importantly, the Devils continue to be arguably the best 5v5 team in the NHL, and since most of any given NHL game is played at 5v5, that matters. A lot. It’s not that special teams don’t matter as a result, but let’s keep things in proper context.

I hate being the bearer of bad news, but it does appear that the Devils have some flaws. Shocking, I know. You might be stunned to hear that I wrote about some of these flaws last week and have mentioned already them again here this week.

I didn’t quite expect The People Who Matter to take to heart what I wrote at the tail end of that article about raising the bar and holding this group to a higher standard. I agree with those people and think its great that we, collectively as a fan base, are doing exactly that. What I neglected to write last week that probably needs to mentioned now is that, well.....

These are the normal ebbs and flows of an 82-game season. No team is going to be ‘on’ every night for sixty minutes for 82 regular season games plus playoffs. No team gets through the course of an entire season with no injuries. These things happen when you’re playing a physical sport like hockey. The Devils have managed to overcome the losses of Ondrej Palat and Mackenzie Blackwood to this point. I think we can avoid freaking out over the loss of Nate Bastian, even though his contributions in his 13:43 of ice time do matter. The bounces won’t always go your way. Officiating sometimes calls phantom penalties which further stacks the deck against you and keeps an inferior team in the game longer than they should. Sometimes, you’ll do everything right and get “goalie’d”. Sticks break. Goals sometimes go in off of somebody’s rear end or skate. It happens.

It doesn’t make it any less annoying when you lose to Nashville in the manner that you did. It doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you drop a winnable game against your biggest rival. It sucks, and I get that. Losing in general sucks. It was awesome when the Devils weren’t doing that and I can’t recommend enough going back to when they weren’t losing selected games here and there. Minor annoyances in the grand scheme of things.

That doesn’t mean its time to press the panic button.

That doesn’t mean the league has all of a sudden “figured out” the Devils. If they had, they probably still wouldn’t be averaging damn near four goals a game.

That doesn’t mean the good the Devils have done to this point is a mirage. Maybe the Devils aren’t “best team in the NHL” good quite yet, but you don’t win that many games in a row, or play that well for this long a stretch, by accident.

That doesn’t mean we should be dismissive when the Devils find ways to win games when they don’t have their A-game. The Devils just won in Philadelphia a few weeks ago with an effort I’d describe as an ‘F’. Completely unacceptable, garbage effort that the Devils were fortunate to come out of with two points. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be critical when they play poorly, like they did in that game. This is what I’m referring to when I talk about holding this group to a “higher standard” and “raising the bar”. It’s great they can find a way to win with an F-level effort. That’s what good teams do. Now stop having F-level efforts. That’s what GREAT teams do.

The foundation of what the Devils do well is still in place. They’re still one of the fastest teams in the league with high-end skill. They still have several dangerous forwards who are capable of putting the puck in the back of the net. They still have a very good blueline and goaltending that at a bare minimum is ‘solid’, if not outright spectacular some nights. As long as the Devils have those pieces in place, they’re going to be a threat to win on any given night against any opponent. A couple of losses in December against the Predators, Islanders, and Rangers doesn’t change that or undo the goodwill this team has built up.

With that said, while we don’t want the Devils to have these setbacks from time to time, its important that they learn from these experiences so blips on the radar don’t become trends and trends don’t become patterns. You don’t want to go unchallenged or face zero adversity over the course of a season, otherwise how are you ever going to learn how to overcome said challenges or adversity when the games really matter? It doesn’t mean its ok that the Devils failed to clear the proverbial ring of fire and accidentally set themselves ablaze. It’s not. Again, we should be about raising the bar with this group. Setbacks and failures should and must be addressed for this team to get to where they want to go, and if the answers aren’t in the room, then an external addition or two might be what the doctor ordered.

I would implore The People Who Matter to continue holding this group accountable. I would also advise taking a deep breath, counting to ten, and be patient. Relax. Literally, spell the letters out! R-E-L-A-X. This Devils team will be just fine. Their body of work to this point says so.

You’ve heard enough from me though, so now, I turn it over to you. Are you with me that these are just the normal ebbs and flows that teams go through over the course of the season? Or are you concerned about potential bigger issues with this group? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading!

(This article does not include stats from the Devils game on 12/13 against Dallas)