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FanFirst Friday: Panic Button Edition

The Devils, after a long offseason of the media and fans pumping their tires, have stumbled out of the gate. Is it time to panic?

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils
Shoddy defense and inconsistent goaltending has been an early theme for the Devils.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

You’d think Devils fans, as a whole, would realize that early season panic is probably not the best course of action, especially given last season’s “fire Lindy” chants wound up turning into “sorry Lindy” and the national media still talks about what reactionary idiots we were for doing exactly this. That being said, there haven’t been any fire Lindy chants this season. At least not yet. The season is very young. There’s still time.

Maybe instead of fire Lindy, fans at the Rock should start chanting, “START ON TIME”, since that’s what’s happening to the Devils repeatedly this year. In my mind, they’ve had exactly on decent first period in 2023-2024 and that was the game on Long Island at UBS Arena. Every other game this season, the Devils leave their skating legs in the dressing room. And then they inevitably wind up chasing the game every time. The ultimate example is the game against the Capitals. They allow 3 goals in the first period, chase the game relentlessly to bring it back to even and then take the lead. But the problem with that approach is that it leaves a hockey team with little margin for error. Any soft goal by a goal or mistake by a defenseman or a forward not successfully pushing a puck out of the zone can turn the game around.

This is an edge this team, supposedly a Stanley Cup contender, can not afford. Especially as it is a revamped defense corps and an unproven question mark in Akira Schmid as the 1B goalie to Vitek Vanecek’s 1A. I mean Luke Hughes has to go out there every game with Brendan Smith as his partner. Luke is extremely talented and will continue to only get better, but Smith is the kind of journeyman at this point in his career where he isn’t going to help a remarkable player like Luke reach his full potential. Brendan Smith is ok as an occasional spot start defenseman, but thanks to injuries to Colin Miller, Simon Nemec and even Santeri Hatakka, there really isn’t another option right now., so Smith will be suiting up for the foreseeable future. Unless Cal Foote might be the answer. Coach Ruff loves him some gritty defense though so Smith has been his choice for Luke. At least Ruff experimented with Luke and Dougie Hamilton in the last game when the defense needed tweaking in order to generate more offense. We shall see if that continues against Buffalo tonight.

The goaltending. You know the thing we were fretting about all offseason? Yeah well that’s been bad to downright bad and while it’s so very early, it is one of the biggest things that has me worried about this team. Vitek Vanecek is currently 29th in Moneypuck’s goals saved above expected with .8 and Akira Schmid is 50th with a -1.3 GSAA. It’s not a great place to be. I mean, we aren’t Pittsburgh who has Tristan Jarry signed to a lucrative deal sitting at 56th best right now, but it’s not great for a team that fancies itself a Stanley Cup contender. Vitek has been the better goalie, easily. Though the defensive breakdowns the Devils are suffering right now have been brutal on a nightly basis. It’s not surprising with the complicated defensive zone defense that Devils employ. When the team isn’t executing simple plays to get the puck out of the zone, it’s often winding up in the back of the net. Vitek’s best game was in Montreal. Schmid hasn’t even really had a game I’d call his best yet. He’s made a few timely saves here and there, but for the most part, he’s been bad. Meanwhile, don’t look now but Mackenzie Blackwood appears healthy (for now) for the San Jose Sharks and is currently 10th in the NHL with 3.4 GSAA. Not to add more salt to the wound.

I know this column seems reactionary and unjust, but it IS call FanFirst. You know, FANATIC. It’s what we do. Overreact. Thankfully, Carolina has exactly jumped out of the gate either. The Rangers have been up and down a bit too (that home loss to Nashville was about as ugly as I’ve seen). So it isn’t like the division is running off and hiding. The Metro has been pretty mid thus far. You’d like to see the Devils take advantage of it but you don’t always get what you wish for (unless someone knows Jambi from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse?).

Dawson Mercer has been absolutely atrocious and lost for the first six games of the season. He’s in a contract season where I wouldn’t be surprised at all if his representation and the Devils have been hammering away at a long-term deal. That can sometimes get in a young player’s head so hopefully, if that’s what is happening, it’s resolved relatively quickly and Dawson can get back to being a relentless and dogged competitor on the ice. I’m honestly just not used to him disappearing.

What can make us feel better? Well, at least there’s this:

So yeah that and the power play? It’s number one in the NHL, clicking at 42.3 percent. The Devils have not only one, but two groups that can score and be dangerous and create multiple opportunities to get momentum going in their way.

Jack Hughes is currently first in the NHL in scoring, is 3 points ahead of the closest guy and is on pace for 232 points this year. Do I think he will score that many? No, but it’s fun to project and the team is giving us enough headaches right now that residing in the fun is probably wise.

The fourth line with Lazar in it looks like it will be an ongoing issue for opposition all year. Lazar really added a physical, relentless forechecking-type to that line and yes, he doesn’t have Miles Wood speed, but he’s a lot smarter of a player than Wood was. He draws penalties instead of constantly taking them.

My final note here is about Lindy Ruff. When the Devils announced his extension beyond this season, I got a bit nervous. It’s nothing against Lindy, though I haven’t been his biggest fan since the Devils brought him on board. He’s gotten me to come around. I guess having a franchise best season plus ousting your most hated rivals in the playoffs will warm even the blackest of hearts. My worry is that since the start of the season, hell even last season, the Devils had a tendency of starting every game really slowly. It was as though their young legs were like a dragster that hadn’t been warmed up properly. But when it got going, it took off at breakneck speeds. The players talk about seemingly after every game. It was possibly at its worst on Wednesday against the Capitals with two shots in the first period and the most lazy defense we’ve seen in Newark since the 2021-2022 season. I am worried that the players might just be tuning out Lindy’s message. It happens with every coach in hockey. No matter who it is. There is always an expiration date. And while Jack and Jesper love Lindy and credit him for much of what’s happened to them over his tenure here, it’s entirely possible that his message is falling on other deaf ears. And it’s natural that Ruff is frustrated. Not merely because of the poor defense, but the slow starts seemingly every single game. It was captured perfectly here by former SB Nation alum Ryan Novozinsky who now writes for

Now overreacting doesn’t do anyone any good. And it’s possible that this is to be expected with the transition of two key components on defense. But with the Toffoli red hot start, the Jack Hughes going supernova storyline playing out across the league and the power play being absolutely bonkers, you’d like to think they’d see a little more results than 3-2-1. That being said, there is hope. Look at what happened last year after dropping a bad result to the Capitals:

Bright side: The Devils lost a bad one to the Capitals last season and then popped off in the best way.

Finally, let’s hope that the Brendan Smith is the new Miles Wood narrative ends sooner rather than later. In other words, I’m hoping someone, whether that’s Simon Nemec, Santeri Hatakka or even Cal Foote or Colin Miller take that spot away. Because I’m not sure I can go through another 76 games of groaning every time I see one of Amanda Stein’s beautiful handwritten lineups that includes Smith. He’s a great locker room guy and likely no one on the Devils is better with the media giving more thoughtful and insightful comments, but man watching him play hockey at this stage is needles in the eye.

Oh and one last thing: Guys named Tyler rule. See you next week.