One of the biggest cliches you’ll hear hockey players parrot on a regular basis is that things are never as bad or as good as they seem when they’re going well or poorly. I think that cliche works well for fans too. Admittedly, it’s certainly much easier for us to say, ‘screw it, I’m not watching this crap’ than it is for the players (something I’ve admittedly done a handful of times this season, including last night after the first period). Still, some days I’m much more successful at not getting caught up in the emotions around the team’s current play than others. Right now is not one of those times.
Let’s go back a decade or so. For those of you not yet able to rent a car, believe it or not, things weren’t always this way. There was a time when the GM of the Devils saying the goal for the season was playing competitive games at the end of the year was unthinkable. It used to be that greatness was the expectation. There was no question of whether or not the Devils would make the playoffs. For me it was more like, ‘let me know when the playoffs are here.’ If they went out in the first round of the playoffs, the season was a failure. But a decade of losing and terrible hockey tends to change your perspective. You know things are bad when they’re looking up at mediocre.
The worst part is, everything went right this offseason. All the boxes were checked. I went into this season the most optimistic I’ve been about this organization since, well... maybe ever (you don’t need that much optimism when the expectation is Stanley Cup or bust). This year should’ve been exciting and fun and captivating. It should have been the start of something special. The start of a turn around for this organization. That’s obviously not been the case. If you had told me at the start of the season that Hughes and Bratt would be at a point per game halfway through the season and Siegenthaler would be having a breakout year defensively, I’d have felt great about the Devils chances to make the playoffs. Sure, if you told me their goaltenders at the same point in the season would be Jon Gillies and Akira Schmid, I might’ve reconsidered that position. But having watched this play out, I’m not sure it makes a ton of difference whether it’s Blackwood or Schmid or if they brought Brodeur out of retirement, because it’d still be crappy goaltending. Not that this has all been on the goaltending.
The Devils have mediocre underlying numbers, decent offensive chance creation and poor defence. But combining that with poor finishing and awful goaltending is a recipe for a basement team. #NJDevils https://t.co/4ENih76jyM pic.twitter.com/nhTNvYeUKI— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) January 30, 2022
As JFresh so succinctly put it, they can’t finish on their chances and they can’t defend. So it’s not like they’ve done much to help their struggling goaltenders out. But, it’s the biggest and most obvious area of need moving forward. From MoneyPuck, here are the numbers of the 5 goaltenders the Devils have used this season.
I do have some hope for Schmid and Daws given what we’ve seen from them in Utica, but it doesn’t appear either are ready for the NHL right now. Therefore, the short-term future (meaning next season) at the position remains very uncertain. It isn’t obvious what Fitzgerald’s solution should be, either. A lot depends on how much of Blackwood’s poor play management believes is due to injury, and how much is simply where his game is at right now. It might be that there just isn’t any great alternatives. Unless there’s a team out there with too many good goalies that I’m forgetting about, there isn’t a quality goaltender available through the trade market. So the Devils could very well try to roll with the duo of Blackwood and Bernier again next season and hope that they have more luck in the health department or one of the two young goalies in Utica is ready to push for an NHL job. There’s always free agency, but I don’t see anyone worth writing home about. I suppose it can’t get any worse.
The cause of the poor defensive numbers is harder to pin down. It’s some combination of coaching and personnel, sure, but weighting how much the blame to place in either place isn’t a simple task. Let’s start with coaching. I can’t see Ruff coming back after this season. I appreciate Ruff’s up-tempo system in transition and offensively, but whatever is going on in the defensive zone and with the power-play needs an overhaul. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I know what the Devils are trying to do defensively. Be aggressive and attack the puck-carrier. But they don’t have the personnel for it, in my opinion. If I had to subjectively throw a percentage on it, I’d say coaching gets between 60-70% of the blame, in part for their inability to make timely adjustments when things aren’t working. After this season Fitzgerald can’t come back with the same coaching staff. I do mean after this season. There’s no point to making a change right now. This season is over and done with and frankly, if I have to pick between Ruff and interim coach Nasreddine for the rest of the season, I’d rather have Ruff.
In terms of the personnel, they get the remaining 30-40% because it’s a group that overall, is just careless in their own zone. Some of it is youth and inexperience, sure, but some of it is just that they aren’t very good. The forward group is especially weak in this area. Dom Luszczyszyn’s player cards that he put out for The Athletic recently, lists Hischier and Bastian as the only two Devil’s forwards who have a positive defensive impact this season. That has to change, whether it’s through roster moves, development, or coaching, preferably a combination of the three.
That leaves finishing. I don’t think things here are as dire as the 27th place rank would suggest, but it’s still not great. On the positive side, I think Mercer just hit the rookie wall, but he flashed enough talent that I think his shot will have a big impact in the coming seasons. Hughes, Hischier, and Bratt all are capable of finishing to one degree or another. Zacha and Sharangovich are more streaky, but certainly have very good shots. Finally, there’s Holtz, who should fit like a glove with one of the Devils top centers. On the other hand, Jesper Bratt leads the team with 14 goals, and Hughes is second with 12. Hughes has missed 17 games. Lately, it seems that if one of those two isn’t generating offense for the Devils it isn’t happening. In fact, in the last month, without those two on the ice the Devils xGF% drops from over 60% to just over 47%. It’s undeniable that the Devils need another high-end forward, preferably one that can both put the puck in the net and also help prevent it from going in their net. Whether that’s Holtz, someone outside the organization, or both, is yet to be determined.
It’s fair to be angry, frustrated, and disappointed at this team. I certainly am. It is also easy to say the Devils need to make changes, but change just for its own sake is how you end up making mistakes. It may be hard to see how things could get much worse than they are now, but certainly it is possible, just ask Buffalo or Arizona. Most of the key players on the roster are under 24 and still developing. If Fitzgerald can figure out the coaching and goaltending, that is the lion’s share of the remaining work. At that point, it’ll just take some luck and tinkering with the roster and the Devils might just actually have something special. Or not. Who knows? None of this matters and we’re all just guessing anyway.* As always, leave your thoughts and comments below and thank you for reading!
*That paragraph sounded too positive so I thought it needed a more nihilistic tone.