Originally, this was going to be a real short month with four games on the schedule. This month was set up to include a long Olympic break for the NHL players to go to Beijing. Then COVID-19 ran through the league. At one point this season, the number of players in protocol hit triple-digits and many games were postponed. The NHL understandably pulled out of the Olympics and used the two-and-half week break to re-schedule most of these postponed games. A four-game month for the Devils turned into a nine-game month.
It had highs. It had lows. It ended on an absolutely high note, but a 4-5-0 record for the month is still a losing record. They finished just ahead of Philadelphia in the Metropolitan Division standings to end February in seventh. Which is not really worth praising as Philly won just two games in February. More and more of the People Who Matter continue to check out of the season and/or wish it would end. Yet, there are two more months, 29 games, and a NHL Trade Deadline (on March 21) to go. Nothing is over. Onward we go. But, first, let us take a short break and look back at the month that was before the Devils play in Columbus tonight to start this month.
The Games of February 2022
The Devils ended January with a heartbreaking third-period meltdown in Toronto featuring Damon Severson literally giving up on a shorthanded 2-on-1 against the Devils that led to the game winning goal. How would the Devils follow that up in the second half of a home-and-home with the Maple Leafs? By getting their butts whipped from the get go. The Devils were absolutely creamed at the Rock by Ontario’s biggest team. They arguably did not show up from the start and Toronto made them pay. Instead of seeking revenge or wanting to make a point, they got rolled and essentially waved a metaphorical white flag. The Devils lost 1-7 in a game that generated universally negative feelings among the People Who Matter. If there was a positive beyond not being shutout, then it was that there was an All Star Weekend break before games would resume.
Which the Devils arguably lost. Jack Hughes was the team’s lone representative. He got some buzz for utilizing the son of the equipment manager in his breakaway challenge move. Hughes had a fine Sunday with three goals and assist as the Metropolitan Division won the All-Star Game mini-tournament. Where is the loss? He returned and immediately went into COVID-19 protocol. There it was. Some feared an outbreak but there was not much of one - just Jack for the Devils.
This meant the Devils were even more shorthanded going into a road trip of make-up games. This three-game week started in Ottawa, a team in similarly dire straits this season. The start of that one was fine. But a quick two goals allowed with nine seconds - seriously, nine seconds apart, mentally tough teams don’t do that - saw the game blow wide open for the Senators. The Devils limped along to a 1-4 loss, which was their tenth in the previous eleven games. Defensive miscues, a lack of focus, sub-standard goaltending, and an impotent offense. It was such a disappointing game that one had reason that the Devils could drop their next game in Montreal. The 32nd place Montreal Canadiens. This did not happen. If the Ottawa game featured the worst of this season, then the game in Montreal featured a best-case scenario. The Devils dropped a seven-spot on a Canadien team that was just miserable. So much so that their head coach Dominique Ducharme was fired after the Devils beat Montreal 7-1. The long losing streak for New Jersey finally ended. But a tough trip remained in St. Louis on February 10. The start was good, a 2-0 lead gave way to a 2-3 deficit in the second period. But with just under 11 minutes left, Yegor Sharangovich found the equalizer. A few minutes later, Nico Hischier put the Devils up. Jimmy Vesey scored a late insurance goal that proved to be important as St. Louis hit back immediately with a score. But two empty netters ended a dramatic end to a 7-4 win in St. Louis. Not only had the Devils ended a losing streak on this trip, but they beat a legitimately good team in their building for a second straight win. Feelings were good. Would the Devils win at home to keep it going?
No. On February 13, the Devils returned to the Rock to play Pittsburgh. While the game was close in its first half, the Penguins pulled away in the third period. The killing blow was Brian Boyle posting up Ty Smith - Aside: the Devils defense seems to be averse to tying up sticks. Why, I couldn’t tell you. Ask Nasreddine - for a go-ahead goal in the third. New Jersey’s offense could not strike back and the Devils lost 2-4. That loss was far more respectable than their next home game, which was against Tampa Bay on February 15. The first half of that game was great for the Devils. Dawson Mercer, Sharangovich, and Jack Hughes propelled the Devils to lead 3-1 by halfway through the game. However, the Lightning were storming the Devils on the ice in the second period. They struck fast, hard, and often once they started to beat Jon Gillies. A quick two goals allowed saw the lead evaporate. The Devils implosion continued into the third period with three more goals allowed within about three minutes timespan in the period. New Jersey lost 3-6 and the home fans left learning yet again that the Devils are Bad and the Lightning and many other teams are Good.
The Devils had to sit on that last loss to Tampa Bay for over a week. Their next pair of games would be in a back-to-back on the road. First at Pittsburgh on February 24, second at Chicago on February 25. While both teams were well-rested going into that first game, the Devils absolutely stunned the Penguins. Nico Daws had a great game all night long. Jesper Bratt scored twice and Sharangovich scored himself all within the first 6:44 of the game. The power play struck twice and a Hughes-to-Mercer goal in the second period really dampened any hopes of a comeback for the Pens. It was another night where a lot went right for the Devils in a big 6-1 win. The Devils’ many problems in 2021-22 re-emerged in the next night. The Devils did respond to giving up the first goal with scores by Hughes and Sharangovich to lead 2-1 after the first period. Gillies was lit up and some big mistakes - penalties, in this case - led to three power play goals allowed (!) in the second period. But a Bratt goal made it 3-4 going into the third period. The Devils pushed the tempo and Jonas Siegenthaler scored his first as a Devil from a bizarrely pin-point shot from the halfwall to make 4-4 with about 10 minutes left. Then Ryan Graves whiffed big on a pinch leading to a 2-on-1 rush that Kirby Dach scored on to make it 4-5. On the next shift, Ryan Carpenter was all alone as the Devils skaters were discombobulated to make it 4-6. Bratt provided another lifeline, but a decision to pull the goalie without possession ended with six Devils skaters playing more outside of the offensive zone and an ENGA. And then they did it again for a 5-8 loss that left a rather bitter taste in the collective mouths of the People Who Matter. A loss that featured bad goaltending, costly mistakes, poor special teams, and odd coaching decisions - all to waste a night where the offense absolutely showed up.
The month ended yesterday at home to Vancouver. The Hughes brothers faced off for the first time since the 2019-20 season. Vancouver and New Jersey have been involved in trade rumors. The Devils had a chance to win their first home game since January 22; they have lost their previous five at the Rock. Would they do it? Absolutely. The Devils absolutely stormed the Canucks with a three-goal first period that also included two post shots by the Devils. Hughes, Sharangovich, and Mercer did the damage in the first frame. While Vancouver responded, another three goals within a little over three minutes - scored by Jesper Boqvist, Ryan Graves, and Bratt - chased Jaroslav Halak and put the Devils up big. In the third, the Devils kept Vancouver honest, Dougie Hamilton scored to make it 7-2, which held up as the final score. The Devils ended their home losing streak with another goal explosion (the fourth of this month, fifth if you add the 5-goals in Chicago) as well as extend a long winning streak over Vancouver to 11 games. It was a great night to end what has been a disappointing month overall.
By the Numbers
As the NHL used February to make up previously postponed games, the games played within the month ranged from seven to twelve. It resulted that one game was more likely to impact overall numbers a little more than usual and rankings among the NHL were more subject to variation. For example, last night’s game boosted the team’s save percentage by a whole percentage point, bringing the Devils up from the second worst 5-on-5 save percentage to the sixth worst. That stated, it still matters to look at how the team stacks up in 5-on-5 play, power play situations, and penalty kill situations with respect to the rest of the league. Therefore, this section is a snapshot of that. Numbers in the top ten are in green, numbers in the bottom ten (23rd to 32nd). All stats come from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com where mentioned.
5 on 5 Numbers: The Devils had the highest per-game rate of 5-on-5 hockey in February with 51:14 over their nine games. It is in this month where the goal explosions stand out, the overall play was good, and the goaltending was bad.
Despite the absolute let down against Toronto, falling apart in the second periods at Ottawa and at home to Tampa Bay, and whatever the hell happened in Chicago, the 5-on-5 play in February was quite good. The Devils edged out their opponents in attempts, dominated the chance rates, and score and venue adjustments were favorable in all categories. The expected goal rates suggest that the Devils were doing quite a bit right on the ice beyond just shooting really well. The only on-ice rate concern was with shots as opponents took a lot of shots against the Devils, but even there the ratio was around league median around the 50% mark.
And I do have to highlight that ridiculous near-12% shooting percentage for the month. For past laments of a lack of finish or puck luck or whathaveyou, this past month made up for a lot of that frustration. After all, the Devils did score five or more goals in five of their nine games in this past month. We saw very productive months from The Big Deal (5 goals, 5 assists), Yegor Sharangovich (4 goals, 5 assists), Jesper Bratt (5 goals, 1 assist), Dawson Mercer (3 goals, 3 assists), Pavel Zacha (5 assists), Nico Hischier (2 goals, 3 assists), Damon Severson (5 assists), and Ryan Graves (1 goal, 4 assists). Great to see Devils hit the scoresheet many times. Will it last? I would not bet on near-12% shooting again, but it was a lot of fun to watch all the same.
Of course, this also means that the goaltending was a massive issue yet again. While last night’s game bumped up the team’s save percentage up to 88.8% and out of the bottom five, it still was a problem. This month, that problem was named Jon Gillies. I will argue that Gillies was more overwhelmed than outright terrible at times. However, a 5-on-5 save percentage of 85.8% over six appearances is just not defendable. It just is not. It is not a surprise that Nico Daws got some opportunities in Gillies’ place. That he did quite well in Pittsburgh and last night in Vancouver makes it clear that he could and perhaps should take more appearances from Gillies. It may just be a case of a “hot hand” for the young goalie, but that would be a both an improvement and a pathway for the Devils to be competitive in future games. I will continue to argue that the 2021-22 Devils have issues that go beyond just goaltending; but in February, it really was the goaltending (with an assist to some dreadful off-the-puck moments) that did a lot to have the Devils finish at 4-5-0 for the month and suffer some big losses (again: Toronto, Tampa Bay, Chicago).
Power Play Situations: The power play did not give up a shorthanded goal in February! Celebrate!
Seriously, it was a good month for the power play. They were not near the bottom in most on-ice rate stats. Compared to most teams, the power play units did not take a lot of shots. But they did take more medium and high danger attempts, leading to some strong rates there. They were able to attack more consistently to have an attempt rate above the league median. While they still gave up attempts, they did not give up a goal all month - which is legitimate progress.
Like at 5-on-5, this team shot the lights out in February. They ended the month with the league’s highest shooting percentage. One out of every four shots were in the back of the net. Great. Will it last? Probably not. How come this does not feel any more impactful? Because all it yielded was six goals since the Devils did not have very many power plays. Their great-looking success rate is a function of scoring a bunch of goals (seven other teams also scored six PPGs in February) and not having a lot of chances to do so. Great on the Devils to make it happen. It could have been more, though. That said, the high expected goal rate suggests there was more substance to their power plays beyond just a bunch of hot sticks. It also helps that only one Devil scored more than one PPG in the month - Nico Hischier has two - so it was not like one player was carrying the production. Given that one of the weaknesses of the 2021-22 Devils season was its power play being a waste at best and costly at worse for months, this is a welcome sight.
Penalty Kill Situations: The Devils’ penalty kill was not as dominant in February, but it certainly was not bad overall.
The on-ice rates fell from being among the best to partially among the best to being around the league median. I will point out that the goal-impact of this was still quite small. The PK was beaten four times. Three of those came in one game; the 5-8 loss in Chicago. I can live with eight other games where the penalty kill combined for one goal against. I can also live with the idea that improvements could still be made. While it was not costly, that the Devils finished where they did in CA/60, SA/60, etc. shows that they could have been stingier in their own end. They could allow less comfort for opposing power plays. Still, this is quite fine overall.
I will also point out that what also helped the penalty kill a lot was that the Devils were not on it so often. Sure, they took some avoidable calls - like two of the three that burned them in Chicago - but 22 shorthanded situations over nine games is not a lot. The best penalty kill is always the one you do not need to kill. Discipline was good and that also contributed to the penalty kill being effective despite what you may think of the success rate being just in the low 80’s and 17th in the NHL for the month. Given past success of shorthanded play this season, I am confident the Devils can improve or at least maintain the penalty kill as not being an issue for the team.
What this also means is that special teams were a net positive of +2 goals. This also furthers the goaltending issue since the power play and penalty kill, over the whole month, were not consistent sources of pain.
Additions and Subtractions
The New Jersey Devils did not so much have any major additions, but some major returns. The Devils did suffer from some short-term losses within the month. Jack Hughes missed the road trip in Ottawa, Montreal, and St. Louis from being in COVID-19 protocol. Andreas Johnsson and Jesper Bratt picked up minor injuries in the St. Louis game that led to them missing the two home games in the middle of the month. All three would return and would end up playing most of the games in February. The only major injury to be added to the list of hurt Devils would be a wrist injury sustained by Janne Kuokkanen. He played in the Ottawa game, did not play in Montreal or St. Louis, and was added to IR prior to the first Pittsburgh game. Kuokkanen remains on IR as of this writing.
The biggest return was Dougie Hamilton. He has been out with a broken jaw since the January 2 game in Washington. Hamilton was cleared to skate, practice, and ultimately returned to the lineup for the Devils’ game in Pittsburgh on February 24. He was in form upon returning, which is great for a team with a defense that performs well overall and on the surface and occasionally fails spectacularly.
Hamilton’s return meant that the Devils needed to make space on the active roster. Opting to keep Christian Jaros, Colton White, and Mason Geertsen, the Devils decided to place Marian Studenic on waivers for the purpose of demoting him to Utica. In turned out that there was some interest in the Slovakian winger. Dallas claimed Studenic on waivers on February 24. Best of luck to Studenic with his new team and another minor mark against management for their handling of team assets.
The only other roster change of note within February was a swap of young goalies. Akira Schmid was sent down to Utica and Nico Daws was recalled. Daws did have a great game in Pittsburgh on February 24. Unless the Devils acquire a goaltender or Blackwood returns, expect Jon Gillies and Daws to be the tandem for the time being. Do not be too shocked if Daws gets in more games in the near future as Gillies has shown why he was just worth future considerations when the Devils acquired him earlier this season.
The next few weeks will be of interest for transactions. The 2021-22 NHL Trade Deadline is on March 21. Pavel Zacha and Damon Severson are on TSN’s Trade Bait List as of this writing. P.K. Subban is a pending unrestricted free agent and has a wealth of experience; teams generally look for that in defenders. We shall see if there are more permanent changes to the lineup in weeks to come. Expect more subtractions than additions unless Miles Wood, and/or Mackenzie Blackwood make incredible strides in their respective recoveries. (I don’t know the current status of Kuokkanen, sorry.)
Oh, and Ty Smith got a healthy scratch for the Vancouver game. A move that could have been given arguably earlier this season and multiple times at that. Smith’s season has been that bad. Among other things to look for in March, some improvement from Smith would one to look for.
Devil of the Month
This month’s choices came down to three in my mind for two awards that really do not mean much outside of this post or blog. But three Devils stood out in big ways. The one left out in the cold is someone who could be deserving of a fourth-straight Devil of the Month award in Jesper Bratt. His 5-on-5 on-ice rates were the best on the team in February. He put up ten points in seven games, with seven of those in the last three games of the month. Bratt reached the 50-point plateau, he is a top-50 scorer in the NHL, he is still on track to being this team’s MVP, and he is going to get paid incredibly well. I am just more impressed with two others from this past month.
The honorable mention goes to The Big Deal: Jack Hughes. Remember that Hughes missed three games, which included the 7-1 rout of Montreal and a 7-4 win in St. Louis. Despite not being there for those games, Hughes tied Sharangovich for the team lead in points in February with 12. Five goals, seven assists, and 21 shots to be exact. Hughes was a big reason why Sharangovich had 12 points in the month as he was often involved in his surge in production. Hughes was also a big reason as to how Dawson Mercer broke out of his production slump to ultimately end February with eight points in nine games, as the rookie joined Hughes at wing. What’s more is that Hughes has a point streak since the last game in January; he scored the lone goal against Toronto, he scored one of the two against Pittsburgh at the Rock, and he put up 2+ point games in the following four games. Yes, his 5-on-5 on-ice rates were terrible, except when he was on the ice, the Devils scored goals at an incredible rate of 7.81 GF/60. If you wanted points on the board, then The Big Deal often provided it. If you enjoyed Mercer’s and Sharangovich’s last few weeks, then Hughes was very much involved. If you wanted to see Hughes break out, then open your eyes because he is literally doing it right now. Ergo, this impressive run of form is enough for me to name Jack Hughes as the Honorable Mention for the Devil of the Month of February.
However, you know I cannot claim someone with McLeod-like 5-on-5 numbers to be the best Devil of the month. But who was close to Bratt in 5-on-5? His current center: Nico Hischier. The captain put up six goals and five assists in February, finishing just behind Sharangovich and Hughes and just ahead of Bratt. His six goals were the most on the Devils in February. He was also the only Devil to score more than one power play goal last month too. Hischier did more than just produce. He won most of his faceoffs, he played in all situations, and he often won his match-ups in 5-on-5. If you want to point to someone undercut by poor save percentages, then Hischier was one of them - and even then Hischier’s own performances tended to outshine that. The captain was huge in turning the 2-3 deficit in St. Louis into a 7-4 final score. He contributed to the other three wins, all blowouts. He even scored the lone goal in Ottawa. Hischier has been the pivot of an effective trio of Bratt, himself, and Pavel Zacha. And this did not fade away entirely when Bratt missed two games. Hischier was awesome this month and his critics from earlier this season should be much quieter now. He now has the point production, he has the run of play, he continues to center a major line for the team’s forwards, and he does a lot of things well. Therefore, I name Nico Hischier as the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for February 2022.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
On February 27, the Devils held a practice that allowed some season ticket holders to attend. General Manager Tom Fitzgerald was there and made this comment to the fans:
I’m glad Fitzgerald is optimistic but at this rate he is not going to see it happen - if it does at all. This is the kind of statement to make before a season after making a bunch of notable signings for a team filled with young players who can develop into some real contributors. To say so in the midst of an 19-win season where the team entered this practice last in the division behind a Philadelphia team that won just two games all month. (They are now ahead of said Philadelphia team by a point.) It invites derision. It makes me wonder if the organization if thinks the fans - the People Who Matter - are not aware of what is happening.
If there is a larger point to this past month of games, then it is in the duality of what is possible for this team. If the Devils can generate something from their myriad of low-danger shots from distance and finish rushes, if the power play can click right away and not need to get set up, if the off the puck play does not make a lot of errors, and - most of all - if the goalie is having a good night, then the Devils can win, win big, win with a ton of goals scored, and even win against quality teams. That is the best case scenario for the 2021-22 Devils. The worst case, well, just look at those games against Toronto, Ottawa, and Chicago. Bad goaltending, bad special teams, costly errors off the puck, an ineffective offense (Chicago was an exception), a clear demonstration of a mentally fragile team (the Ottawa and Chicago games were lost due to giving up goals in consecutive shifts), and odd decisions lead to not just losses, but bad losses, crushing performances to watch, and a feeling that this team is much more than just a few players away from competing in the NHL. Much less being Stanley Cup champions, to use Fitzgerald’s term from this past Sunday. You may feel differently, especially after last night’s blowout win over Vancouver, but I did not learn a whole lot new about the Devils as a whole in this past month that I did not see in December and January. I did learn that the best and worst of this season’s squad can happen within even just 48 hours. I also learned that the best is awesome to watch with heaps of goals scored, and the worst makes me feel like a sucker for spending as much time as I do about this franchise. There’s that in terms of overall takeaways other than the obvious “Score 6 or more and you win.”
(Individual lessons? Sure. A few: Nico Daws may have some potential, Jesper Boqvist is legitimately battling for a regular spot on the roster, Mercer can absolutely be a winger, Siegenthaler is better than Graves, and those who lamented a lack of production from Hughes and Hischier should be very, very quiet.)
Does that matter, though? It is a fair question. After all, the Devils managed to play themselves out of playing any meaningful games in March before 2022 even began. And their failures are bigger than “Goaltenders are bad,” as even having league average or league median goaltending would just put the Devils on par with Detroit and Columbus. As both teams have playoff odds in the single digits, it is not like they have much more than pride to play for either. Therefore, I personally do not believe the 2021-22 Devils problems begin and end with goaltending. It is maybe a stronger argument for this month’s; but not this whole season. League average goaltending would not yield anywhere close to 22 points - which is how far away the last wild card spot currently is as of today. Still, I’d like to see the Devils try to put in some actual consistency in their performances instead of wildly ranging from showing a steely resolve in a tough situation to completely falling apart after a goal against. Or, to put it another way, be less mentally fragile.
I do understand the lament. I would absolutely love to see more competent goaltending. I would agree that a team on par with the Blue Jackets or Red Wings this season would be a lot more tolerable to watch, a lot more fun to attend games, and - most of all for Mr. Fitzgerald - a position where it is a lot more reasonable to state the team is on the right track and a little more time is needed. I get that. I do. However, we and the Devils have to live in the reality that we have and not the one we wish were in. Once again, we will have to hope that Fitzgerald does good business ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline, does well in the offseason, and apparently pray that it leads to some actual progress in the regular season in 2022-23. Because as much as I can write how much Hughes is breaking out, how excellent Bratt and Hischier were, and how there are some real fine young players seemingly figuring it out in Sharangovich and Mercer, I’m not seeing a future generation of champions being development at the moment. I’m not even seeing a generation of playoff performers even assuming that the Devils get legitimately good goaltending for more than a month and a half. Certainly not under Fitzgerald at the moment.
Now I turn this over to you. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in February? Did anyone (else) really impress you? What did you learn from this month in review? Do you agree that Hischier is the Devil of the Month? If not, who should it be and why? Where do you go from here if you’re Tom Fitzgerald other than finding a goaltender solution? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils in February 2022 in the comments. Thank you for reading.