The holiday season is here, but if you’ve been paying attention to the New Jersey Devils over the last couple weeks or so, there has been very little to be thankful for. The Devils just finished a winless week and are doing their best to make me look bad and try my patience after I wrote last week to R-E-L-A-X and that everything was fine.
Festivus might be a couple days away still, but its not too early to air out some Devils-related grievances that I have come up with during this losing streak. Rather than dive deep into one particular issue or angle as I tend to do, I’m going to touch on a variety of issues and annoyances this team is dealing with. This is an airing of grievances, after all. I got a lot of problems with the Devils, and now, you’re going to hear about it.
Mac is Back. Don’t everyone get too excited at the same time.
Mackenzie Blackwood completed his conditioning stint in the AHL and was recalled to the team on Monday. The team assigned Akira Schmid to Utica in a corresponding move. Fans were outraged that the Devils goaltender who is playing the best got demoted. The team got ratio’ed on Twitter in the process. All of this is to be expected when you’re demoting a goaltender with a .932 save percentage for an oft-injured and often-ineffective Blackwood who is at .897 since the start of the 2020-21 season.
I’m not naive as to why Blackwood is here and Schmid is not. Blackwood, despite his struggles and inability to stay healthy, is being paid $2.8M AAV. He would not pass through waivers despite years of struggles, injuries, ineffectiveness, and the laundry list of excuses made for his poor play over the last three years. Schmid can easily be sent down without clearing waivers. Anyone with a basic understanding of how waivers works and how NHL teams will opt for the conservative, “we can’t possibly lose this guy for nothing” approach 99.99% of the time could see this coming from a mile away.
That said, the Devils are on their first prolonged losing streak of the season at six games and counting and are quickly seeing the cushion they’ve built disappear. I’d be lying if I said I was confident in Blackwood’s ability to snap this skid given his track record. He might play well. He might not. Let’s hope this goal from last night, perhaps the most Mackenzie Blackwood goal he could possibly allow until the next one, isn’t a sign of things to come. Unfortunately (fortunately?), it appears that Mac is indeed back.
Noesen banks the puck in off Blackwood's shoulder pic.twitter.com/5QhIeTWiof— Main Team (@MainTeamSports) December 21, 2022
Tom Fitzgerald does know he’s allowed to make a trade, right?
I wrote a couple weeks ago about the flaws this Devils team has and it appears one that I didn’t mention is that this team might not have the requisite depth that I thought they had.
Ondrej Palat hasn’t played in nearly two months and is still several weeks away from returning. Its easy to forget that because the Devils went on a long winning streak without him and he’s already been away for so long, but smart people like me were quick to point out at the time that his loss shouldn’t be overlooked and we’re seeing that right now with this team in a rut. Nathan Bastian hasn’t played since November 26th, won’t play anytime soon, and the Devils have yet to replicate the success the BMW line was having when they were fully intact. Jesper Boqvist is pointless in his last 10 games, Alex Holtz looks lost and ineffective when he does play (more on him in a bit), and the team has mostly cooled off aside from Jack Hughes when it comes to consistently putting the puck in the back of the net, with 5 goals over their last four games after a stretch where they scored three or more in 19-of-20 games.
I get the Devils cap situation is what it is this season, but there have been 12 trades in the league since Opening Night on October 7th. Almost all of these deals have been fairly minor, meaning they cost almost nothing in terms of real, tangible assets or money owed, but they were all made for a reason....to fill a hole somewhere. The Devils currently have 2-3 holes among their forward core, depending how you feel about Jesper Boqvist and Alex Holtz on any given day, not to mention the litany of other forwards doing nothing at the moment (more on THAT in a bit).
I’m not necessarily asking the Devils to trade for Timo Meier here to replace Palat (although I’ll never say no to adding more good players), but the bottom six is now officially a hot mess. I’m sorry, but I can’t buy the excuse that its too hard or too early to make a trade. The Maple Leafs haven’t had cap space in years but that hasn’t stopped them from being one of the most active teams in the league when it comes to tinkering with the bottom of their roster. It’s time for Tom Fitzgerald, GM of the Devils, to get creative and find a solution, whether its internal (Tyce Thompson? Graeme Clarke?) or external. And no, that solution isn’t Andreas Johnsson or Mason Geertsen.
Alex Holtz should not be in the NHL right now
This ties in with the previous grievances in regards to the bottom of the roster but the Devils clearly don’t trust Alex Holtz enough to play him higher in the lineup, nor does Holtz consistently do the things bottom six NHL forwards do to carve out a role in the NHL. So what good is he actually doing in the lineup?
Mike astutely asked a few weeks ago what exactly is the plan here for Holtz when he was sitting in the press box? On the surface, it would appear the Devils plan is that......they have no plan. Their plan appears to be trying to say that Alex Holtz is an NHL player because he’s on an NHL roster and make it a thing because he’s a former first round pick. This seems to align with their ill-fated plan last year of never demoting Ty Smith despite his poor play, even though he was slow, couldn’t skate, couldn’t defend, and was ineffective when he was on the ice. All of this sounds an awful lot like Holtz, does it not?
The most frustrating part with all of this is that the Devils don’t have to repeat the same mistakes they made with Smith last year. They kept Smith up on the NHL roster throughout last season. They tanked his value (he was younger than John Marino and on an ELC, the Devils shouldn’t have had to give up a draft pick if Smith’s development wasnt screwed up). They played Smith regularly despite Smith giving them every reason NOT to be on an NHL roster. They did this all despite the fact Smith did not have to clear waivers to be sent down. They appear to be making the same mistake again with Holtz by playing him in a role he’s ill-suited to play. This may come as a surprise to Tom Fitzgerald and Lindy Ruff, but I checked the NHL CBA and rule book to confirm.....you are allowed to send Holtz down and play somebody else who might be better suited for that role! Considering one of the issues plaguing the Devils of late has to do with forechecking, compete level, and battling for pucks, its not a terrible idea to find someone better suited to do that in the short-term.
To be clear, it is WAY too early to give up on Holtz as a prospect. Holtz has yet to turn 21 years old after all. He has plenty of hockey left in front of him. But it is blatantly obvious to anyone watching the games that he is not ready for the NHL. He doesn’t belong here right now, and keeping him in this role is doing him and his development a disservice. It might have been tolerable or acceptable when the Devils were winning 13 in a row, but it’s not now.
Get Back to Getting to the Dirty Areas
Let’s play a quick game and see if we can identify a pattern (credit: Natural Stat Trick for the heat maps).
The Ottawa and Washington games were the two wins of the six games I provided. You’ll notice that there is a lot of color in front of the opposing goaltender, with a lot of red directly in front of him and a lot of greenish-yellow in the high danger areas. This is good, as it means the Devils are getting to the front of the net where high danger chances happen. More shots and shot attempts in the home plate area (draw a line from each goalpost to the faceoff dot, draw another line to the top of the circle, and then connect them in the shape of home plate) in front of the opposing net is good!
The Toronto game has a lot of red by the goaltender, which makes sense since they put the puck in the net four times even though only one counted but look at how everything else is from the perimeter. The Nashville game is closer to being what we want to see, and in fairness, its a game the Devils should have won had they not botched the final few minutes between a lackadaisical power play in the closing minutes and a penchant for surrendering late-period goals. The Dallas game is almost a carbon copy of the Toronto game, and from one look at the Florida chart, it appears they tried to avoid Aaron Ekblad at all costs. Shots from the perimeter are more likely to be blocked and never make it to the goaltender, and even if they do, they’re still low percentage shots unlikely to go in without a tip or redirection.
For the Devils to get back to where they were when they were winning games, they need to get back to getting to the front of the net instead of setting for lower percentage shots from the perimeter and from the point. I want to see more from the defensemen cheating up to get a shot from the top of the circle, and I want to see more from our forwards getting to those high danger areas to get their shot off. And while I’m ranting about shots, I’d like to see more of them actually hit the net, as it’s become a recurring theme the last few games on how often the Devils are missing the net. This is bad and the Devils should do less of it.
Right now, the only forwards who I am seeing consistently getting to the front of the net are Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, which is strange because I have been consistently told both playerrs are too small and soft to do such things. On a related note, Hughes is the only forward who is consistently scoring anymore.
No, Bastian being out isn’t why they’re losing
Nate Bastian is a somewhat important part of the Devils. He’s an NHL regular who plays a role on an effective line and does his job well for the most part. But no, his absence isn’t why the Devils are 3-5-2 in their last ten, just like how the Springfield Bear Patrol didn’t actually keep bears away.
I pointed out part of why they’re losing with the shots they’re taking (and the ones they’re not). With all due respect to Bastian as a player, having him in the fold isn’t going to move the needle a whole lot in terms of addressing any of that. Nor does it help Vanecek play better against the Isles or Rangers where he gave up 4 goals in back-to-back games. Bastian also won’t help Nico Hischier or Jesper Bratt, neither of who play on his line, put the puck in the back of the net. Maybe Bastian would help on the power play, although its not particularly likely since the power play has stunk regardless of personnel.
That’s not to say that Bastian’s contributions as a key part of the BMW line aren’t missed or should be overlooked. Bastian brings size and a little bit of sandpaper to the bottom of the lineup and has done a good job with his forechecking, puck battles and with his board work. He does the dirty work and does the little things. I get all that. But let’s not overreact thinking he has that much of an impact over this team’s fortunes over a ten-game sample size. You may be surprised to hear that the Devils were 18-37-5 when Bastian was in the lineup last year, so keep that in mind the next time someone points to his absence from the lineup and suggests that he’s an indispensable piece that the Devils can’t do without. He’s not.
Bastian is a nice role player who does a good job in the role he’s asked to play. He’s not why things have gone poorly this past week.
Your best players need to be your best players
Nico Hischier has three goals and two assists over his last ten games. He’s also scoreless in the last four games, all losses. That’s not going to cut it from the leader of this team.
Jesper Bratt, who is looking to be paid like a top line winger, has six points (2 G, 4 A) in his last 10 games. He also has zero points in the last five games, all losses. For a player who has been comically referred to as “JBITBPITNHL”, that’s nowhere near good enough.
Tomas Tatar is still one of the highest paid players on the roster and somehow has more job security on the Devils top line than US Supreme Court justices. He has two goals and an assist in his last ten games. Not good enough.
Yegor Sharangovich has two goals and an assist in his last ten, but no goals in the last nine games. I get that he has a newborn at home, but this isn’t the first time he’s gone through a prolonged slump in a season and he’s not the first player to become a father mid-season. He needs to be better and more consistent.
The Devils have one player who is consistently lighting the lamp in Jack Hughes (6 G, 6 A in his last 10), but its not enough. If you’re looking for the #1 reason why the Devils are slumping, look no further than a lineup that is doing nothing offensively right now. You can’t win if you can’t score.
Lindy Ruff was right to bench Damon Severson. Let’s see what happens next.
Damon Severson is a bit of an enigma. Advanced stats love him and insist he’s a good player, and he actually is for the most part. And then he makes a mistake like the one he made against Philadelphia that makes you want to throw all of the charts into a paper shredder and tell the analytics nerds that they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.
If you’re reading this, you know that this is a recurring trend with Severson. He has a penchant for making big mistakes that loses games. Again. And again. And again. And.....well, I could keep going, but you watch the games. You know this.
He is the living, breathing, embodiment of how you can’t evaluate things solely based on a spreadsheet. At 28 years old and with nearly 600 games of NHL experience, he is who he is at this point and you have to know there’s going to be bad along with the good. I get that its not easy playing defenseman in the NHL. Mistakes happen. Bounces go against you. Players are human. I get all that. But bad decision making is inexcusable, particularly for one of the longest-tenured players on the team. This was not the first time that a poor decision by #28 cost the team. Severson sitting a game for bad decision making was long overdue.
For what its worth, I thought he was better last night against Carolina and he did lead all Devils skaters in ice time, which went noted by people like me who look for such things.
Respect is Earned
The Devils are 0-5-1 since Jonas Siegenthaler played the disrespect card for some reason.
#NJDevils defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler today:— Ryan Novozinsky (@ryannovo62) December 9, 2022
“It’s not a fluke at all. We showed it enough. How we play, we can dominate games, win games, we can play with the lead as well... I don’t know how many times we’ve got to prove it.
"It’s time for people to respect us."
I don’t have much more to add other than if you want respect, you need to go out there and earn it on the ice. The Devils went out later that same night against the Islanders, gave away the puck left and right, and let in six goals against the Islanders. That’s not how you earn respect. Neither is losing six straight and Carolina overtaking you for first place in the Metropolitan division.
Personally, I think the Devils have played better than the record would indicate of late, but that doesn’t matter. You are what your record says you are. I don’t care about expected goals and “Deserve to win” meter charts when the Devils lose. I care about REAL goals scored and REAL goals allowed.
The Devils record since Siegenthaler only validates critics who never bought in to this team. Now, they can point and say “See, this team was never any good” and call it a fluke. I don’t know what Siegenthaler and the rest of the Devils plan on doing about it, but talk is cheap. Go out and do something about it and earn the respect they apparently so desperately crave.
The Devils Response Of Not Sticking Up for Hischier Against Florida was Unacceptable
The Devils lost to Florida 4-2 on Saturday night, but the game was only part of the story. The recurring subplot throughout the game was Panthers players making runs and taking cheap shots at Nico Hischier after he injured Florida captain Sasha Barkov late in the first period while battling on a faceoff. This would go on throughout most of the final 40 minutes of the game.
Hischier has no history of being a dirty player and I don’t think its a dirty play. It’s unfortunate that Barkov got hurt and fortunately for him, he appears to be day-to-day.
I get why the Panthers responded the way they did in the heat of the moment. Whether it was rational or not on their end is a whole other argument, but I can understand why Florida’s players would be frustrated that their captain was taken out and want to make Hischier’s life miserable for the rest of the game as a result.
The problem is that the Devils either lacked enough awareness to see what was going on in front of them with the Panthers players taking liberties with their captain, or they didn’t care. Brendan Smith noticed, even though he griped about the officials swallowing their whistles. Lindy Ruff talked about how the Devils needed to have a bigger response as a team though. He’s not wrong. The response, or lack thereof, was unacceptable.
One of my biggest grievances with this Devils team the last few years is how soft they are when it comes to other teams taking liberties and pushing the boundaries of what they can get away with. Make no mistake....other teams around the league are watching. When they see the Devils can’t, don’t or won’t respond to other teams making a run at their captain, they’ll think they can get away with the same thing. I get this is a different era than the Devils glory years, not to mention the heyday of the 70s and 80s, but this isn’t the first time this team has done nothing when opposing teams go after Nico.
I would hope that if Florida comes back for more later tonight, the Devils nip that in the bud immediately. But I do not have confidence in them doing so, as their track record suggests otherwise.
Who’s to say? The Devils sure look like the 2020-22 versions though that get questionable goaltending and routinely blow defensive assignments though. We’re now 32 games into the season, but once again, the Devils are trending in the wrong direction.
A better question might be what was too premature. The people who wanted Lindy out after 2 games, or the ones who were chanting “Sorry Lindy”.
Either way, the longer the losing streak goes, the more that Lindy’s seat should be heating up. It might not seem fair after all the good vibes earlier this season off of the 13 game winning streak, but then again, better coaches have been fired for less and missing the playoffs after building a big lead can not be acceptable.
I have listed my grievances with the Devils. Now it is time to hear from you. What are your grievances with this team? Do you agree with me on my particular choices or disagree and have a rebuttal? Did I miss anything you’d like to cover? Please feel free to leave a comment, thank you for reading, and from all of us here at All About the Jersey, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!