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Game Preview #4: New Jersey Devils @ New York Islanders

Coming off a disappointing effort against the Florida Panthers, the Devils play their first road game, and first inter-division game, of the season as they travel to Long Island to take on the Islanders

NHL: Preseason-New Jersey Devils at New York Islanders Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (1-1-1) @ New York Islanders (2-0-0)

The Time: 7:30pm ET

The Broadcast: MSG, MSGSN, NHL Network

Last Devils Game

Back on Monday, the Devils lost in dispiriting fashion to the Florida Panthers by a final score of 4-3. New Jersey, as they have in every game to start the season, started out flat and eventually fell behind 4-0 before scoring three straight to at least make it interesting. Erik Haula, Michael McLeod, and Jesper Bratt scored the Devils goals against Florida.

Last Islanders Game

The Islanders hosted the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night, and they did what the Devils couldn’t do: Take two points against the Yotes. New York turned the clock back to the Dead Puck Era, securing a 1-0 win at UBS Arena. Incredibly, the Isles held the Coyotes to a grand total of 14 shots on net in the entire game, giving Ilya Sorokin almost certainly the easiest shutout of his career. Mathew Barzal was the lone goal scorer in the game, notching his first of the season.

Beratings, Benchings, and Blenders

Three games into their 2023-24 season, the Devils have yet to put up a full 60-minute effort. Head Coach Lindy Ruff did not raise his voice during his postgame presser Monday night, but despite the lack of volume he was about as biting as we’ve heard him during his time in New Jersey.

You can hear from a handful of Devils players in the video above, but Ruff’s postgame starts around the 6:04 mark. At one point a reporter asked him straight up if he is angry, to which Ruff replied, and I quote, “Yeah”. Doesn’t get much more clearcut than that!

That leads us to the benchings:

via Natural Stat Trick

This is a shift chart from Natural Stat Trick from Monday’s game. According to NST, Ruff planted Timo Meier, John Marino, Nate Bastian, and Curtis Lazar firmly on the bench for the vast majority of the third period. Bastian played two shifts in the third, while Meier, Marino, and Lazar each got a single shift in that period.

Most of the attention went to Meier, and with good reason. When the team’s highest paid forward (and second-highest paid player overall behind Dougie Hamilton) gets benched, it is a big deal. It was also a decision made for good reason as far as I’m concerned. Meier was obliterated in the run of play, and took two bad penalties in the second period. He was actively hurting the Devils’ cause on Monday and so onto the bench he went. To his credit, Meier responded to his benching.

Whether you feel like this was a proper response, a bad response, or somewhere in between, I’ll leave that up to you to decide. I’m certainly not panicking about Meier, although it’s frustrating that he hasn’t found the scoresheet yet while getting run over in puck possession. He’s a splendid player who will find his game eventually, and maybe this is the wakeup call he needs.

And finally, we get to the blending. The fabled Lindy Ruff line blender. The b-Lind-er, if you will (my deepest apologies). This is how the Devils lined up in practice on Tuesday:

This isn’t too drastic of a blending, as the defense pairs stay the same and the only significant change is Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes basically switching spots.

However, true to form, Ruff decided this wasn’t enough of a change. Here’s how the Devils lined up in practice yesterday:

Once again we see the defense pairs staying the same, but the forward lines got the full shakeup treatment.

You many also notice a distinct lack of Erik Haula in both of these practices. Well unfortunately it looks like he (along with Tomas Nosek) won’t be able to suit up tonight:

The word on Haula is an upper-body injury, while there’s no word as far as I can find on Nosek. Haula obviously is far from the most important forward on this team, but I would consider him a meaningful contributor. Without him, as we can see above, McLeod is the third line center. I think McLeod is a fine fourth liner, but he’s going to be overmatched if he has to center a third line for an extended period of time.

By the way, for anyone wanting to see Colin Miller draw in for Brendan Smith, that might not be an option either:


So we’ll just have to wait and see how Ruff decides to deploy his troops tonight. The lines from yesterday’s practice are probably a good indication of what we’ll see. But given Ruff’s track record, we may get a line of Hischier centering Arlette and the Mrs. Fields Cookie Racer for all we know. Stay tuned.

Goaltending Finally Falters (a little)

It’s tough to blame Vitek Vanecek for letting in four goals on Monday. As Ruff mentioned in his postgame presser, the defensive zone coverage was dreadful all night, leaving Vanecek out to dry constantly (the Niko Mikkola goal in particular is one no goalie would have a shot at). Ruff even admitted it’s tough to say whether Vanecek had a bad game or not when asked about it.

That being said, goaltending had been a source of strength for New Jersey in the season-opening back-to-back against the Red Wings and Coyotes. Vanecek put up a solid effort on opening night, and Akira Schmid was a big reason why the Devils got a point out of their game against Arizona.

Between the two netminders, New Jersey has the potential to ice one of the better tandems in the league. But while Vanecek and Schmid both have high ceilings, it can certainly be argued that they both have low floors as well. So while it was nice for New Jersey to be able to collect three out of four points to begin the year thanks in large part to their goalie play, it would be nice if the Devils could start getting wins without needing Vanecek or Schmid to put on a cape for them.

The Bright Spots

Hughes (Jack, not Luke), Bratt, and Hamilton all collected points again on Monday. Hughes and Hamilton registered assists, while Bratt potted his third goal of the season and collected a helper of his own. These three have driven the bus for New Jersey through the opening set of games, ranking top three on the team with six points (Hughes), five points (Bratt), and four points (Hamilton). Beyond the point totals, each of these players are holding their own as far as the advanced stats go as well.

Things could be much worse in Newark if not for these three delivering like the stars they are, and while the Devils can’t rely on them putting up huge numbers every single night, as of now they’ve been keeping the team afloat through this rough patch.

Islanders Info

After topping the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 in their season opener on Long Island, the Isles came away with that previously mentioned 1-0 victory over the Coyotes on Tuesday night. So far on the young season, only Brock Nelson and old friend Kyle Palmieri have multiple points (each has two, with one goal and one assist apiece).

Sorokin has gotten the call for both games the Islanders have played, and he’s picked up right where he left off last season, sporting a 1.00 Goals Against Average off a killer .952 Save Percentage. In two matchups against the Devils last season, Sorokin took a 4-1 loss on October 20th, stopping 39 of 42 shots (the final goal being an empty-netter), and came away with a 5-1 win on March 27th while making 30 saves on 31 shots. I would imagine we will see him suit up tonight, but if not, the net will belong to Semyon Varlamov, one of the most capable backups in the league.

After tangling with New Jersey twice in the preseason (a 6-5 Devils win on October 2nd and a 3-0 Devils win on October 6th), the Islanders will finally play the Devils in a game where they will ice their full lineup. To that end, here’s how the Isles lined up in practice yesterday:

After much talk about doing it, it does appear as though the Islanders will be consistently playing Barzal on the wing with Bo Horvat centering the first line. Horvat was the big trade deadline acquisition for New York last season. Upon coming over from the Vancouver Canucks, he promptly signed an 8-year, $68 million extension to stay on Long Island for the long term. After scoring 31 goals and 54 points in 49 games with Vancouver, he played 30 games with the Isles, registering 7 goals and 16 total points. New York better hope that production (or lack thereof) is simply a case of getting through the initial adjustment phase, otherwise that contract is going to look real bad real soon. Horvat has been held without a point through the first two games of this season, so he’s not off to a great start in that regard. But of course it’s still quite early.

The Horvat extension was just the tip of the long term contract iceberg for Lou Lamoriello and the Islanders though. During the offseason, New York made the following moves:

Ilya Sorokin: 8-year, $66 million contract (kicks in next season)

Semyon Varlamov: 4-year, $11 million contract

Pierre Engvall: 7-year, $21 million contract

Scott Mayfield: 7-year, $24.5 million contract

So clearly the theme of the offseason (and before that if you count Horvat) for the Isles was trading term for low AAV. Sorokin’s $8.25 million cap hit isn’t light by any means, but for arguably the best goalie in the world that number is a steal. So while the offseason was eventful on Long Island, there weren’t actually a lot of new faces brought in. It was more about securing the players they already had in-house.

Your Take

This will be the first road game of the season for the Devils. New Jersey was one of the best road teams in the league a season ago, finishing an incredible 28-9-4 away from The Rock. After struggling through their first three games of this season, all at home, maybe a change of scenery is just what this team needs to get back to their winning ways.

How do you think this game will play out tonight? What do you make of the juggling of the forward lines? How do you think the players benched (Meier and Marino in particular) will respond? What will you be looking for out of the Islanders? As always, thanks for reading!