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Passing is a Problem for the New Jersey Devils

In viewing the first three games of 2023-24, an old “friend” has reared its head for the Devils: bad passing. Is there anything the team can do to remedy this?

NHL: OCT 16 Panthers at Devils
Two guys that are capable of helping to remedy this passing malady.

For anyone who has watched all three of the New Jersey Devils games so far this season, there’s plenty to complain about all around. Jared spoke yesterday of higher expectations and that the team needs to be more accountable as a result, and I agree with that. A 1-1-1 record after facing the emerging Detroit Red Wings (who they beat), still rebuilding Arizona Coyotes and a depleted Florida Panthers team just isn’t good enough, particularly since they were all home games. So what stood out?

Well, there’s issue with chemistry, both in terms of player deployment and developing it with new lines and players. There’s the mind-numbing decision to let Brendan Smith appear in all three games because while he seems like a good guy, he has played some really bad hockey and made some really bad mistakes in all three games. The rotating carousel known is the fourth line isn’t helping either, but at least everyone who played there, for the most part, didn’t hurt the team. And then there’s one thing that I’m going to zoom in on that almost every player on the team can be held accountable for.

The passing.

Now, passing doesn’t seem to be a stat that gets as much attention anymore, and honestly probably isn’t all that easy to track either; as such, this piece will be a bit more anecdotal and based off of my viewing of the games. To start with, I’m going to call out the stretch passes, or lack thereof with strong ones. Dougie Hamilton is still doing a pretty good job with his long distance passing, but the team is missing Damon Severson here a bit. Luke Hughes is still learning, and including him, most of the other defensemen are struggling to make those long passes that spring our forwards.

It’s not only the stretch passes though; the Devils are struggling just to find someone in a jersey of the same color cleanly. Even in situations where the passes should be simple and straightforward, he puck is bobbling off of someone’s stick and moving back towards our goalie. The Devils also have looked very off (maybe going back to the line/player chemistry issue here a bit) in transition, as players are just straight up missing their teammate’s stick, leading again to a turnover. For a team with high expectations upon them, to say the Devils are not clearing the bar of achievement might be an understatement.

What’s more egregious than the above passing woes? How about the times that they put together a strong play in these first few games, only to over pass? Now in one situation, it wound up working out for them; unfortunately, the embed from isn’t working, but you can watch the video here. Essentially, Alex Holtz breaks in and puts a pass into the middle where Michael McLeod is coming across. McLeod has a good opportunity to shoot, but decided to pass to Erik Haula in hopes of avoiding the last Panthers defender. The defender does a good job to try to slide over and alter Haula’s attempt, so Haula sends the pass back into the middle; a cutting Jonas Siegenthaler, who misses it. Luckily Holtz is there to retrieve the puck...and put it over the net.

Haula would recover the puck and finally just got back to the basic idea of putting it on net with a slap shot. The puck would squeeze through to the far post where McLeod would jam home the rebound. The Devils successfully scored on this play in spite of themselves; both McLeod and Haula had strong opportunities to put the puck on net, and neither took it. It led to a play with some superfluous passes and a missed shot due to more Panthers players getting back on defense by the time the shot was finally taken.

While this one of the more egregious examples (and one of the few captured on a highlight video), this is not the only time the Devils have made one too many passes this season leading to them flubbing an opportunity. The same problem plagued them a bit last year as well. This Devils team is full of talented playmakers, we all know that from watching them; at some point, however, someone has to realize that we’re not just making the “extra pass” for an open player. Forwards with opportunities like McLeod and Haula had on the above video should be shooting; again, when Haula got the puck a second time and put the shot on net, it created a rebound opportunity that McLeod cashed in on. A little simplification from time to time can help tilt the ice in our direction, and eventually it’ll free up space against teams to make the fancy passing plays that the Devils right now are trying to make far too often.

So what can the team do?

Well, some of this will hopefully come with time and chemistry, namely the stretch passes and having better knowledge of exactly where a teammate will be. Other parts of it can and should be addressed through practicing; obviously practice should be reserved for more difficult skills, but until the team gets the basics right, maybe those should be the focus. With the amount of skill this Devils team possesses, there should be more effective execution of passing the puck to get more shots on goal, and perhaps even more rebound goals like McLeod’s. At the absolute least, moving the puck around better will result in fewer turnovers, fewer shots against, and hopefully more Devils wins.

Passing woes have affected the Devils in the recent past, more so when the team was lacking in the “skilled players” department. With the club’s improvement and with where the Devils are expected to finish, issues with basics are unacceptable. The good news is the season is still very young, and there’s more than enough time to fix this issue.

What are your thoughts on the Devils passing; is it a problem in your eyes, or do you think my analysis is overblown? If you think it is a problem, are you more worried about the missed passes or the over passing? If you’re not worried about it, what do you think is the bigger issue resulting in play being pushed more towards the Devils end and the two losses? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!