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The Apparent Road Woes of the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils

The New Jersey Devils are 8-24-2 on the road, which is the worst road record in the NHL. They are about to go on a five-gam road trip. This post goes over their apparent woes on the road.

New Jersey Devils v Vancouver Canucks
“Who could be responsible for all of this?” - Lindy Ruff, clearly not clear about what he does.

Tomorrow, the New Jersey Devils will begin a five-game road trip in Dallas, Texas. I expect plenty of losses on this one. The Devils lost their last nine road games. All in regulation. They have not won away from the Rock since February 24, 2022. More than just a bad losing streak, the Devils have the worst road record in the NHL as of April 6, 2022 at 8-24-2. That is a points percentage of roughly 26.5%, which is just heinous. The 2021-22 Devils are a Bad Team that is apparently much worse on the road.

This lends itself to some questions. Namely, how really bad are the Devils on the road? The record speaks for itself, but it does not speak to how the Devils have performed in games. Fortunately, we can get a better sense of that by looking at rate stats and comparing them between the 36 home games they have played (I pulled the data on the morning of April 6, so this does not include yesterday’s game against Montreal. Please do not make me add in that Montreal game. You can’t make me.) and the 34 road games they have played. Are the Devils performing worse on the road? Yes, but, surprisingly, it is not as terrible as you may think.

Devils Home and Road Stats at 5 on 5

Natural Stat Trick is the main resource for on-ice rate stats for hockey teams. It has a helpful filter for home and road games. What I did was take the Devils’ on-ice rate stats for Corsi (shot attempts), shots, scoring chances, high danger scoring chances, actual goals, and expected goals for both home and road games this season. I included the rank of those stats to provide context where the Devils stack up among the rest of the NHL teams in each stat. I also included shooting percentage, save percentage, the counts of goals for and against, and expected goals for all situations as additional data. Basically, if you’re familiar with the charts I use for the month in review posts, then it is the same format. I even colored stats ranked in the top ten in green and those in the bottom ten (23rd to 32nd) in red. Lastly, since the whole point of this is to compare home and road stats, I included a column called Difference for the difference between road and home stats. Negative values for “For stats” are bad; positive values for “Against stats” are also bad.

The most common situation in hockey is 5-on-5. Let us begin there.

Devils 5-on-5 Stats Home vs. Road Games - As of morning of April 6, 2022
Devils 5-on-5 Stats Home vs. Road Games - As of morning of April 6, 2022
Natural Stat Trick

At first glance, it looks pretty straight forward. The New Jersey Devils perform worse on the road than they do at home.

Their offense is mostly worse off; the Devils take fewer shot attempts, few scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. And not by a little; their rates have dropped by a good margin. As such, their expected goals for rate dropped by 0.3, which is not nothing in a per-60 perspective. The only exception is that the Devils have taken more shots on net, their shooting percentage is better (!), and so they have scored one more goal than the Devils at the Rock, resulting in a better goals-for rate. Still, when it comes to creating offense, the Devils have been worse at it as visitors than as the hosts.

Their defense is also worse off away from home. They have allowed higher rates of attempts, shots, scoring chances, and high danger chances. Their expected goals against rate did not increase as much as I would have expected, but who cares about the expected goals when the Devils have allowed 101 actual goals on the road? The Devils’ team save percentage even took a big hit sending them from 30th in the NHL at home to dead last by a large margin on the road. Again, for the most part, the defensive aspect of this season’s Devils have been worse away from home than they are at the Rock.

However, it is not so simple when you look at the ranks of each of these stats. The Devils’ rank about the same in most of these stats on the road as they do at home. It almost does not seem to make sense. How can the Devils take 4 chances per 60 minutes less in road games and still have a top-ten rate in the NHL for SCF/60? How can the team’s CF% and SF% go from a solid 51% range to below 50% and still be ranked about the same? How can the Devils go from a really good near 53% in expected goals for percentage at home to a not-so-amazing 49.77% and improve in their rank in the NHL?

The simple truth is that the majority of the league performs worse in 5-on-5 hockey when they are on the road. In home games, 18 teams have an xGF% above 50%. In road games, only 10 teams do. Pick the stat and you will see the majority of the league’s stats shift in favor of home games compared to road games. Corsi? 17 teams are above the breakeven mark of CF% at home; but only 12 teams do on the road. High danger chances? Just 8 teams are above 50% in road games, but 22 teams are able to meet that mark at home. While the Devils’ own rate stats largely take a hit when they are away from Newark, their rankings have not shifted so much to be especially concerning. The only exception to that would be their SA/60, which goes from being around league median at home to a bottom-ten rate on the road. Given that the team has bad goaltending regardless of home or road games, giving up a higher rate of shots is problematic. But, again, the Devils are hardly alone in that as most of the NHL is allowing at least 31 SA/60 in their road games. Is that one exception a reason why the Devils just won 8 road games this season? On its own, I do not think so. So what is happening here?

I think the shift in rates represents an actual home-ice advantage. In the NHL, home teams get the last line change in most situations. This allows coaches to seek out certain match-ups and change them accordingly. How these match-ups go largely determines how a team performs on the ice and has an impact in these rate stats, if not on the scoreboard. This is what these numbers and the differences point to. A home team can “protect” a lesser player at 5-on-5 like Michael McLeod; a road team has to hope the home team does not pick on those players too badly. Which they usually do.

It also means that if a team is at least close to breaking even in shots or attempts or chances or even goals on the road, then they may be doing something right in 5-on-5. Of course, the 2021-22 Devils are showing that a team can still find ways to lose in spite of that. The goaltending problem absolutely rears its ugly head here. That the Devils allow more attempts, shots, and chances on the road has seemingly led to more goals against, resulting in a worse team save percentage away from the Rock. More goals against than the Devils scoring would lead to more losses. Enough to have the team earn twice as many victories at home than on the road? Quite possibly. Again, you probably knew that the Devils’ goaltending was and is a massive problem for this season. This is another way of showing that. Fix the goaltending and the Devils suddenly become a more competitive team at home and especially on the road. Likely not enough to be a playoff team, but enough to not be a bottom-five team with the worst road record in hockey as of April 6, 2022.

Lastly, I included all situations expected goals. As important as 5-on-5 play is, we cannot ignore special teams. Again, we see that the Devils have been around the league median in xGF% both at home and road despite the road xGF% being 4.5% worse than the home xGF%. Given that the team’s xGF/60 dropped into the bottom ten in road games while the xGA/60 only got worse by a little bit (and rose to 11th in the NHL on the road), I think we have another reason to be mad at Mark Recchi.

The Devils Power Play is Bad at Home and Awful on the Road

Again, I employed the same framework as I use for the month in review posts. I took the rate stats between home and road games at Natural Stat Trick and included their difference. Since power play conversion rate is important for this, I went to NHL.com and got the same home and road splits for more “basic” stats like success rate, number of power play goals, number of power plays, power play ice time, and shorthanded goals allowed.

Devils Power Play Stats Home vs. Road Games - As of morning of April 6, 2022
Devils Power Play Stats Home vs. Road Games - As of morning of April 6, 2022
NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick

Oh, Mark Recchi, you are not good at coaching power plays. The shorthanded goals stick out like a sore thumb. However, I went into much more detail about that in this post a few weeks ago, so go read that if you want more detail about the shorties - the thing the Devils have gave up more than twice as much on the road as they did at home.

The Devils’ power play at home was not good. Sure, their success rate is near the league median and their rate of goals and total number of PPGs is also close to the median. Yet, the home power play generated a low rate of shot attempts and shots on net as well as a low expected goals rate. If it was not for the hot shooting of 18% at home, then the rest of the stats would follow. That stated, it is far and away better than the road power play.

Goodness, gracious, a success rate of 12.5%? A league-worst 12 goals scored? Combined with 8 shorthanded goals allowed, the road power play is a mere +4 in goal differential. Pathetic. The on-ice rates point to the process even harder than anyone who has had the misfortune of recalling the power play performances away from the Rock. The Devils have been a bottom-ten team in each category except for SCF/60, where the Devils ranked just outside of the bottom ten. Their expected goals rate is a league worst 4.87 per 60 and their actual goals rate is just a hair below even that. The sticks have not been as hot as indicated by their 21st best shooting percentage, which is a bit below 12%. Their road rates and stats are absolutely worse than their home stats across the board.

This pains me. The data shows that the Devils’ power play has been much worse away from home than at home. Yet, I struggle to think of why that is. I do not think it is not as simple as a case of home-ice advantage, where the home team having the last change can have an impact. Special teams units typically do not get matched up like lines or certain players do in 5-on-5. Teams have their own PP and PK groups and typically run with them as needed based on availability. They run their own plays and systems regardless of whether they are the visitors or not. Yet, the Devils’ bad system is markedly worse away from home. So much so that I struggle to believe it is just happenstance.

What is even weirder is the other half of special teams: the penalty kill. The Devils’ penalty kill is actually better in some respects on the road (SA/60, SCA/60, xGA/60) compared to their home success.

Devils Penalty Kill Stats Home vs. Road Games - As of morning of April 6, 2022
Devils Penalty Kill Stats Home vs. Road Games - As of morning of April 6, 2022
NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick

Yet, even on the PK, the much lower PK success rate on the road still ranks outside of the top ten in the NHL among road teams. The superior success rate at home is, well, not as highly ranked. The Devils’ goaltending on road PKs is much worse, but they still allowed just 19 goals, they are still disciplined, and their on-ice rates while shorthanded are great regardless of whether they are at home or on the road. Still, the Devils’ success rate on the PK is still noticeably worse on the road. Almost as big of a drop off as the power play success rate, too. Is there a home-ice advantage for special teams that I am not seeing?

Even with my own lack of a thought about why this is happening, it is happening. The road penalty kill is defensible. Sure, a success rate below 80% is not something to champion, but giving up 19 out of 92 situations is something most teams would happily accept. The road power play is not. But, again, you probably knew that already as the Devils’ power play has been a big weakness for this entire season. Not as much as the goaltending perhaps, but still weak.

So Where Does This Leave the Devils?

OK, so the Devils do perform worse on the road in 5-on-5 hockey than they do at home. They also have less success on their special teams. However, most of the league performs worse on the road than they do at home. Therefore, relative to the rest of the NHL, the Devils’ downgrade from home games to road games is not always so massive despite their drops in rates and percentages (power play excepted). It is not good, but the Devils are hardly alone in that respect. I could say that the Devils need to play better on the road in 5-on-5 and especially on their power play. But asking the 2021-22 Devils to be among the league’s best in 5-on-5 and expecting Mark Recchi to magically figure out how man advantages work seems like too much.

Maybe there is something missing to consider. Let us go back to the main question. The Devils have the worst road record in the NHL this season. Why?

I think the team’s road losing streak has some possible answers that we could have not got from looking at rate stats. Those stats are useful, but they do not always get to why teams lose games. In their last nine road games - all regulation losses - the Devils were in the game at some point or another. A quick overview of all nine games:

  • February 25, 2022 - Devils tied it up 4-4 in the third period with 11 minutes remaining. Lost 5-8 to Chicago.
  • March 1, 2022 - Devils were within a goal late in the second period and again with under 13 minutes to play in the third. Lost 3-4 to Columbus.
  • March 4, 2022 - Devils got goalie’d against Our Hated Rivals where MSG was strangely quiet when P.K. Subban touched a puck. Lost 1-3 to Our Hated Rivals.
  • March 15, 2022 - Devils made it 2-2 at the 4:25 mark of the second period. While Vancouver scored two quick ones minutes later, New Jersey made it 3-4 about the twelve minute mark of the second period. But the Canucks pulled away in the third. Lost 3-6 to Vancouver.
  • March 16, 2022 - Devils made it 2-2 five minutes into the second period. Then Calgary dropped three goals in about three minutes in the second. Lost 3-6 to Calgary.
  • March 19, 2022 - Devils were leading 3-2 early in the third period in Edmonton. Then Edmonton took over and torched Jon Gillies while the Devils coaches watched it happen. Lost 3-6 to Edmonton.
  • March 23, 2022 - Devils scored, Toronto responded with a shorty, Devils scored, and Toronto scored after. It was 2-2 going into the third and stayed that way. Then Toronto scored a second shorthanded goal with less than five minutes left. Lost 2-3 to Toronto.
  • March 26, 2022 - Devils were leading 2-1 at 7:17 of the second period and all the way through to the third period. Washington then scored three in a row to retake the game in the third period. Lost 3-4 to Washington.
  • March 31, 2022 - Devils entered the second period down just 1-2 and then proceeded to have one of, if not the worst, second periods of the season as they allowed six goals that counted. (A seventh was taken away for offside). Lost 1-8 to Boston.

The Devils were arguably in a competitive situation at some point in these last nine road games. Maybe not a great one, but they made comebacks to tie up the game or take a lead in Chicago, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. They entered third periods with tie scores or leading scorers in Toronto and Washington. It was a one-shot game down to the wire in Columbus, entering the third period in Vancouver, and even to the end in Toronto despite the horrible SHGA. My point is that the Devils were not getting totally wrecked from minute one. Instead, they had stretches of getting lit up, moments where mistakes killed the game for New Jersey, or actions or inactions ultimately kneecapping the team. Combined with the knowledge that the Devils (and most teams) on the road are not performing so well in 5-on-5, and it makes coming back from those moments and/or errors even more difficult. Which yields losses - regulation losses to keep the Devils from getting wins that they may have pulled out at home with a home-ice advantage (read: last change) in their back pocket.

In those recaps of those losses, you can see some common themes from the Devils losses at home. Bad goaltending. Defensive mistakes. An ineffective power play - which cost the Devils dearly in two of these nine losses. A lackluster effort to respond when the opposition took bigger leads. Bad coaching. Bad goaltending. In other words, a lot of what has ailed the Devils at the Rock has ailed them away from the Rock. Again, combined with the knowledge that road teams do not perform as well as they do on the road in 5-on-5 (and weirdly, the Devils power play), trying to turn the game around is much harder - and that has led to more losses. Even when the Devils have tied up a game or pulled within one or even took a one-goal lead, the breakdowns become too much to overcome so they often do not last. Whereas at home, the 5-on-5 numbers suggest they can at least keep the opposition honest - sometimes.

I will add one more common flaw. Something I’ve taken some heat for, but something I continue to be proven right about. Basically, what you have seen at the Rock from time to time like a comeback win (e.g. the last win over Our Hated Rivals, the 5-3 win over Colorado) seemingly happened more on the road, where it is harder to fight back. A mentally tough team like Florida can do that, as demonstrated by the catastrophic 6-7 overtime loss where they came from a four-goal deficit on the road to tie it up, force overtime, and win the game. The Devils are not a mentally tough team; they are quite fragile and, like a lot of fragile things, they may be able to withstand force once in a while but they usually break. Which happened frequently in their current losing streak in road games. On the road, that can be a killer and also help explain their 8 wins in 34 road games so far this season.

Conclusions & Your Take

The good news is their major issues on the road are largely the same ones at home. Goaltending has been awful. The power play has been awful. The team is prone to errors and giving up multiple goals in succession, turning close games into more decisive scorelines. While their relatively good rankings in 5-on-5 suggest that the coaching staff’s gameplans are not working poorly at a systemic level, I do think their gameplans lend themselves to these blow-ups that lead to so many losses on the road and at home. (I also think their aggressive ways in both ends at 5-on-5 require a Shesterkin-level goalie to make it work well. Good luck finding that level of goaltender.) There does appear to be a home-ice advantage in the run of play. With so many disadvantages for the Devils, not having that in their favor just makes road games harder to get results in. As a result, they’re 8-24-2 in road games. It is not likely going to get better anytime soon. The Devils are, again, going into a five-game road trip where they will play two bubble teams (Dallas, Las Vegas), one of the best in the West (Colorado, also current owner of the best home record in the NHL at 28-4-3), and two teams that Sherman Abrams will be rooting for (Arizona, Seattle). I expect the pain to continue than any kind of turnaround. The losing streak may end but the damage will remain. As ever, I would be happy to be wrong about that.

At least the solution to the road woes should be good for what has hampered the Devils at home. Whether or not management will address it appropriately is another matter. Will Tom Fitzgerald rightfully hold the coaching staff - especially Mark Recchi - accountable? Will Fitzgerald identify a goaltender or two that can be both good and healthy? Will Fitzgerald strengthen the roster in line with what should be a new coaching staff to form a team that can better handle adversity on the road and battle against a home-ice advantage? I am sure these questions and more will be debated today, tomorrow, and throughout a long Summer by the People Who Matter who understand change and the few who strangely think everything is just going to be fine somehow. But if the issues are addressed, the Devils have a great chance of being decent at home and on the road in 2022-23.

So have at it in the comments. And feel free to point out anything I am missing about the Devils in road games versus home games this season. I would love to know how the power play and penalty kill success rates can be so different between home and road games. Still, the facts remain that the Devils are Bad at home and Even Worse on the road and the 2021-22 season is going to be mercifully over in three weeks. Thank you for reading.