The New Jersey Devils completed their first month of the 2023-24 campaign at 5-2-1. They earned eleven points for a point percentage of 62.5%. By all accounts that is Good. This is positive. More so since the Devils have ended the month with two straight wins.
Yet, many of the People Who Matter are concerned. Worried. Perhaps not so pleased even with the wins. And I think they are right to feel that way. The Devils got good results in October but how they got them left something to be desired. The expectations for the Devils this season are higher than usual. The goal is for the Devils to show that they are contenders. October showed that perhaps the Devils need a little work to get there still.
The Games of October 2023
The Devils had a favorable October schedule in the sense that they had six home games out of eight and did not need to leave the Eastern Time Zone for the two road games, one of which was in Long Island. What was not so favorable was that the season began with a back-to-back set. The Devils opened their season on October 11 against Detroit. The team came out - flat. The first period was rough and the post plus Vitek Vanecek bailed them out. An odd carom led to the first goal against, which was eventually answered by Jack Hughes putting a puck off Ville Husso’s dome in for a power play goal. The two traded goals but the Devils held on top 4-2 - until a late PPG made it 4-3, which was held up for the win. The Devils hosted Arizona on the next night, October 12. Once again, the Devils came out flat. Only this time, Arizona punished the bad first period with a goal. The Devils would come back and even take a lead. But bad penalties and bad decisions led to Arizona tying it up at 3-3. Overtime solved nothing and the shootout saw the Coyotes take it. The Devils got a point but also a loss, 3-4 through the shootout. Three points out of four to start the season is not bad, but the slow starts and miscues on the ice were cause for some concern.
The concerns grew after a Monday night game against Florida. Once more, the Devils came out real slow and got out-played. Florida scored first and second to put the Devils. Worse, the Devils did not have much of an answer and they went down as much as four goals to Florida. The Devils would engineer a comeback attempt on the back of two PPGs and Michael McLeod slamming in a puck Erik Haula put through. But it fell short and the Devils lost their first game in regulation, 3-4. The slow starts surely had to end. Accountability reared its head as Timo Meier and John Marino were benched for much of the third period against Florida. They did on October 20 against the Islanders in their first road game of the season. The Devils did concede the first goal, but they had a response in an otherwise solid first period. This turned out to be a goal fest with Akira Schmid and Ilya Sorokin getting victimized by errors alike. The Isles took too many penalties and the Devils’ power play, already hot, went nuclear with four PPGs. Jack Hughes, the Big Deal was not only heavily involved in that, but he schooled Ryan Pulock and Sorokin in overtime for the 5-4 win. Exciting, but one would think some smarter play could have made it a more comfortable result.
The Devils would get one on their Frozen Frenzy Tuesday night game in Montreal. The Devils did concede the first goal, but did get a response in a solid first period. They broke through late in the second period to take the lead and never looked back. Tyler Toffoli secured the team’s first hat trick (with more lovely feeds from Jack Hughes) of the season in a 5-2 win over Montreal. Everyone in the league played on October 24. Which made it weird when, against Washington on national television on October 25, the Devils had their worst first period yet. Little energy, few passes, two shots on net, and three goals allowed. Schmid was pulled for Vanecek. While the Devils roared for four goals in about six minutes in the second period to take the lead, the Devils threw it away with poor defending and goaltending from Vanecek. The Devils lost 4-6 to the Capitals. It was an infuriating loss given that they reverted to their habits from those first four games on top of letting the game slip.
Fortunately, the Devils would come out more correctly on October 27 against Buffalo. Yes, the Devils gave up the first goal. But they got a response and really put the pressure on the Sabres. Disaster struck when Connor Clifton took out Nico Hischier with a head shot. Clifton was given a match penalty for it and, later, a two game suspension. Hischier would return in the second period but was held out after taking a heavy, more legal hit from Dylan Cozens in that same period. Meanwhile, both teams were engaged in a game of which offense could prevail. It took the third period where Erik Haula’s tip-in of a Kevin Bahl shot was enough to make it 5-4 and the Devils held on to win. The third period was dominant except for a soft goal allowed by Vanecek. On Sunday, October 29, the Devils ended their month against Minnesota. Vanecek was a bit more in form. The discipline, less so, as Minnesota’s power play was fierce. But Jesper Bratt was a star that night - and even scored the game’s first goal, Vanecek was a bit better, the Devils finished two power plays to Minnesota’s one, and the Devils held on during a late penalty kill to win 4-3.
That is how the Devils got to 5-2-1. The offense, specifically the power play, stepped up to help the Devils come back from bad first periods, early deficits in all but one game in October, and overcome questionable defense, goaltending, and gamesmanship. Were you to follow all or some of those games, I think you too may question when the Devils are going to get their acts together instead of just being pleased they went 5-2-1. Yes, good that they are banking points from incomplete efforts, but some more complete efforts would be nice. Especially as November’s more road-heavy schedule awaits.
By the Numbers
All stats come from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com where mentioned. Data was pulled on the night of October 31 so the ranks are accurate for the whole month. Stats in the top ten are colored in green; stats in the bottom ten of the league (23rd to 32nd) are colored in red. Apparent ties are rounded up to the highest rank.
5-on-5 Play: The Devils averaged 45:41 per game of 5-on-5 hockey in October, which is closer to the bottom third of the league at 22nd out of 32 teams. There was a fair bit of special teams and 4-on-4/3-on-3 situations in their games.
Despite the close scores and a liquid-hot power play keeping/winning the Devils games, the 5-on-5 rates were surprisingly good in October. While the against rate stats were not amazing, they were better than their errors let on. Even though the team mailed in first periods more often than not, the for rate stats were very good. While surpassing 50% in all categories except for actual goals is not a guarantee of success, it does mean the Devils did play better than the scores and our memories may have suggested. This bodes well for the future of the 2023-24 season if the Devils can actually bring down that goals against rate.
Statistically, it appears that the Devils have a goaltending problem. This is not incorrect. While it appears that Vitek Vanecek has taken over the main starting role, a 90% save percentage in 5-on-5 situations is not exactly worth touting. Not in a league where the top 32 goalies in October cleared 92% in 5-on-5 hockey - including Mackenzie Blackwood if you can believe it. Akira Schmid’s 87.3% is not rock bottom in 5-on-5 but he is not too far from it. That alone explains why Schmid may be the #2 guy for now. With save percentages like those, it helps explain the concerns about the team. What good is a team that can out-attempt, shoot, and chance their opponents if the goalie is going to let in goals?
The goalies - both Vanecek and Schmid - have let in their share of soft goals. However, the lack of stops has been exacerbated by some real soft plays on defense. John Marino was benched for it in the Florida loss and Jonas Siegenthaler appears to be in a defensive zone slump compared with 2022-23. But it not limited to those two defenders. The best goal against to sum up both issues would be the eventual game winner in the 4-6 loss to Washington. Here is a video of that goal. Luke Hughes and Nico Hischier both get crunched in the corner while the puck is reversed. Lindy Ruff’s system allows for defensemen like Hughes to activate. This means a forward needed to drop back to cover the point until the two can switch off. That did not happen. Obviously, Hischier was not the one to do so and Jesper Bratt went behind the net to take the puck. Ondrej Palat goes in - and that is three forwards. That is Mistake #1; a Devil did not do their job. Caps win the puck back and push ahead on a 2-on-1 with Dougie Hamilton back as the one since no one else was back to cover for Luke Hughes. Hamilton, taking a page from Damon Severson, decided to defend a pass instead of either player by flopping onto his stomach. That failed for Mistake #2. Then Connor McMichael took the pass from Anthony Mantha, went in alone on Vanecek, and tucked in a shot that somehow trickled through Vanecek. A soft goal against the goalie and Mistake #3. Two errors from the skaters led to one big one from the goalie that cost the Devil.
The good news is that those mistakes are fixable. The coaching staff really should tell the defensemen to actually pick a guy to cover in odd man situations. They can and will continue to tell forwards to recognize when an activation happens so they can cover the defenseman’s space on offense. And the goaltenders need to make those kind of stops. For the latter, Vanecek showed bit better in starts against Buffalo and Minnesota - a soft goal against Dylan Cozens notwithstanding. Mind you, this does not even include other areas of improvement such as reducing penalties, starting games off well, and not whiffing at pucks when the player needs to be blocked out (that one is a little specific to Brendan Smith).
The better news is that when those things (on-ice mistakes, starting off games, goaltending) improve, the Devils are in a position to really flip the script on that goal differential. The Devils have already demonstrated that they can out attack and out control opponents in games even with these known issues and frustrations. And this will be important when the Devils have games where they are not getting a lot of calls or the power play is not on fire. For all of the attention the man advantage has received, this is a team that threw up four even strength goals in six minutes in that same loss to Washington. The talent is still the talent. And many skaters up and down the line up from Tyler Toffoli, Jesper Bratt, and Jack Hughes to Curtis Lazar, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian have been quite effective in 5-on-5 play. The only really concerning players from an on-ice rate perspective has been Brendan Smith, Alex Holtz, and Dawson Mercer - and Holtz has been more or less a victim of circumstances (chained to a bottom six) whereas Mercer and Smith have struggled in general.
Power Play Situations: Now if you want to see what glorious dominance looks like, then check out this team’s power play in October.
All of that green is oh so glorious.
Normally, a team’s rate stats on the power play may be higher if they are not converting since they can keep shooting. Scoring a PPG ends the advantage. Hence, the barely bottom ten power play ice time rank. Not the October 2023 Devils. Oh, no. The Devils’ power play in October just bombarded opponents. Sure, you may have some nits to pick. Such as the back pass on the entry - which is a common thing now in this league. Or Luke Hughes being on the first power play unit instead of Dougie Hamilton. One cannot complain about a team converting at incredible 42%. One cannot complain about a power play that already has two Devils - Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt - with ten power play points already. One cannot complain about a power play where the goal scoring has been shared by both Hughes brothers (3 for Jack, 1 for Luke), Bratt, Tyler Toffoli (three), Hamilton (two), Nico Hischier (one), and Erik Haula (one). Even without a goal to their name, Timo Meier has three helpers and Ondrej Palat has two. Ahead of the season, the Devils said they had two powerful units. They have proven it. And it has kept them in games, with a high point being a four power play goal game against Ilya Sorokin and the Islanders in what would be a 5-4 OT win.
No, the Devils are not likely going to stay this hot. Shooting at 24.5% and converting over 40% of all situations is incredibly difficult to maintain. However, the on-ice rate stats give me confidence that they are not going to go quietly away. They will give opponents problems should they take calls against the Devils. Putting up an expected goals rate of 10.31 is really good. Being in the top ten in attempt, shot, and chance generation is really good. Short of awful luck and coldness, the Devils power play is in a position to continue to get several more goals for the Devils. Whether you credit this to new assistant coach Travis Green to unlock their potential, the Devils just have the personnel to be this lethal, the team has puck luck, or a combination of all three is up to you. It is something to marvel when you see power plays convert like the fourth goal against Minnesota. All this and no shorthanded goals.
Penalty Kill Situations: The Devils have obtained some less than desired results in October.
A success rate of 75% is not the worst in the league by any means (three other teams finished October at 75%), but it is not that great either. Similar to what I discussed at 5-on-5, goaltending has not been a positive factor. A league median save percentage on penalty kills is around 85-86%, so finishing the month at just under 82% shows room for improvement. Likewise, the Devils have had their issues against power plays that could really pick apart their strategy of a passive box. That same game against Minnesota featured two power plays almost entirely spent in the Devils’ end of the rink. It could have been three with an empty net 6-on-4 at the end, but the Devils did get a clearance or two out of that. There have been some successful kills that have been more about surviving the man disadvantage than killing it. And so opponents have been able to attack.
From that standpoint, I think the Devils would be wise to go back to a wedge plus one. Forwards like Erik Haula - owner of the one shorthanded goal the Devils scored in October - Dawson Mercer, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian can provide pressure without being out of control. Jesper Bratt, who has seen an uptick of usage in this situation, can be a brilliant counter-attacking threat. Should Marino, Siegenthaler, Kevin Bahl, and Brendan Smith improve their play, then that will help the PK as well. All three can provide the base to hold position in a wedge and rotate accordingly. Of course, the goalies playing better would help a ton.
It would also help if the Devils were more mindful. Taking 32 shorthanded situations in eight games is not an encouraging rate of penalties. I expected the Devils to be better than this what with Miles Wood and Damon Severson moving on. However, Haula, Meier, and Palat have taken four or more calls themselves. Even Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier took a couple of uncharacteristic calls. It is not something one can solely blame on Smith or Hamilton and be done with it. I can agree that some of the calls were not good ones - Dylan Larkin flopping from contact by Bratt on opening night comes to mind. However, 32 shorthanded situations is not solely due to official incompetence. The Devils have to be smarter here. Consider it another area of improvement.
And, again, improve here and this can get better as the season goes on. The underlying numbers for the Devils in October point to a team that is quite good. Even if how they got their results and some other factors suggest otherwise.
Additions and Subtractions
The lineup that took to the ice against Detroit did not make it to the game to Minnesota. The following injuries took place within the season:
- Erik Haula missed the Islanders game with a minor upper body injury. He has been active since then, even with taking some brutal-looking shot blocks in each of his last three games.
- Tomas Nosek got hurt in the third period against Arizona. He was placed on injured reserve with a “lower body injury” on October 23, retroactive to October 13. That may be related to a foot given he was seen in a boot after a practice in October.
- Colin Miller got hurt in practice when he fell into the boards during a drill. While he did not make it into a game yet, his injury ensured that he would not. He has been placed on injured reserve on October 29, retroactive to October 19. It is not known when he will return.
- Nico Hischier took a headshot in the Buffalo game by Connor Clifton. While Hischier returned to that game, he took a heavy hit from Dylan Cozens shortly thereafter. He was held out for the remainder of the game due to precautionary reasons. Hischier was also ruled out of the Minnesota game. He is officially “day to day,” which may or may not mean he could return soon.
The more significant injuries required some moves. When Nosek was out, Curtis Lazar and Nathan Bastian have been in the lineup in the bottom six since then (Bastian was a scratch on opening night). With Simon Nemec being hurt in Utica’s first game of the season, Cal Foote was called up after Nosek was put on IR. Foote has yet to play for New Jersey as Lindy Ruff has stuck with Brendan Smith on the third pairing for better and worse. When Miller was placed on IR on October 29, this allowed the Devils to call up center Justin Dowling. Chris Tierney played instead against Minnesota and Dowling was returned on October 30, a potential good sign for Hischier’s health.
The team’s depth has seen an early test. Obviously, no one likes to see anyone hurt. However, Hischier is clearly the biggest loss among those who got hurt in October. Hopefully he returns soon as that will help the Devils not need to lean on Michael McLeod, among others, playing way above his station for an extended period of time. Which McLeod did in the Minnesota game as Haula and Tierney took the other center spots.
Devil of the Month
For some months in review, this section is the easiest one to write. This is one of them.
The honorable mention is your top-ten-in-scoring-in-the-NHL forward Jesper Bratt. Sure, some Devils have stood out in October. Erik Haula has not been snakebitten at all. He has five goals, four of which that factored into wins. Tyler Toffoli has been hot with a snipe against Ilya Sorokin for his first goal as a Devil, a hat trick against Montreal, a brace against Washington, and a goal against Minnesota. Seven goals in eight games is nothing to sneeze at. Yet, I must credit the guy with six goals and a staggering 14 points in eight games. Bratt has been one of the few Devils who have not started off slowly in games. He has been a monster on the attack. He played a role in a result against Arizona, setting up three goals on Long Island, and putting up a brace against Minnesota for a win. His goal against Buffalo was one of the “THIS IS JUSTICE” goals I have seen in some time with a breakaway goal off a steal. Bratt was only held pointless in the season opener. Since then, he has been regularly on the score sheet. With three PPGs and ten power play points, he has been a big reason for the power play’s heater. This is the best Bratt can be; a winger in constant motion with a great release. Bratt’s underlying rates in October were fantastic and the 14 points alone were enough for honors. So here are his honors. Now watch that goal against Buffalo game again.
Who could surpass such a resume for Devil of the Month? It would have to be a pretty big deal. Of course, Jack Hughes is the The Big Deal. And there is a case to be made that he was the best hockey player in the entire world last month.
Seriously, Jack Hughes has 18 points. His seven-game point streak was snapped against Minnesota. No matter, he has 18 points in eight games. After the games played in October in the league, Jack Hughes leads the NHL in scoring. Not just the Devils. The whole NHL. Some of his performances in October were video game-esque: a brace and two assists, including a overtime banger of a goal against Ilya Sorokin; four helpers in a 5-2 win over Montreal; three helpers in the second period flurry against Washington; a brace in the season opener including a headshot on Ville Husso; a PPG that gave the Devils a 4-3 lead against Buffalo; and three helpers against Montreal. Did I mention three different games of six shots on net too? There, I mentioned that. Put this in perspective: the Devils as a team have scored 33 goals in October. Jack Hughes has been involved in 54.5% of all team goals. Over half of the team’s scoring has involved #86 on the scoresheet. Nevermind a few tertiary assists that do not get counted. Whether it is on the power play (three goals, ten points) or even strength (two goals, ten points) or even just shooting (team lead at 31 shots per game), Jack Hughes has been the offensive dynamo of the Devils.
And Hughes has done even more off the puck. Hughes’ backchecking has improved enough that he has taken shifts in empty-net situations. He can and has blocked shots. He even showed some snarl with a bad retaliation penalty on Jake Walman in the home opener. Even the stuck-in-the-past hockey fan had to give Hughes his kudos for that. It all points to Jack Hughes absolutely being a beast - even when the rest of the team needed a period to wake up. It also points to no better selection for the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of October 2023. Jack Hughes still is The Big Deal. Marvel at his work.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
At the end of the 2023 playoff run, Mike wrote a very good post about the next challenge for the Devils: expectations. With the first month of the 2023-24 season, I think many of the People Who Matter are still wrestling with that. It is true that starting off the season 5-2-1 is analogous to their October 2022 result of 6-3-0. Both months saw a team with great underlying numbers, questionable goaltending, and one impressive special team have a winning month. We know now that team the ended October with a couple of wins in a row went on to have a franchise-setting heater of a winning streak. This season, well, I do not think a 13-game winning streak is in the cards but I do think the team is capable of winning more often than not. The main difference between two, other than some particulars, are those expectations.
I think that explains why I think it is valid for fans to not feel so pleased with how the Devils have earned this record even though they are getting the results and playing better than it may seem. I think it is also valid for those fans who think the Devils are doing well and should keep it going provided those mistakes, miscues, and mis-preparations are resolved soon. The 2023-24 Devils are still in a position to do quite well even if October could have been better than we have liked.
I will point out that this upcoming month of November will tell us more about how good this team can be. It begins with a four-game road trip that is played within six nights of each other. There are four additional road games beyond that including two trips to Pennsylvania, a trip to Manitoba, and a trip to Detroit - which itself is part of a three-game-in-four-night grind around Thanksgiving. Some are rematches, such as the month-opening game in Minnesota, that trip to Detroit, and home-game revisits by the Caps, Isles, and Sabres. There is even a game against Our Hated Rivals. I think the Devils are more than capable of having a successful November. Even when the power play cools off a bit. Even if someone else overtakes Jack Hughes in league scoring (as of this writing, he has a three-point lead on Artemi Panarin). Even if it is not always pretty, having the skills and mindset to overcome it is part of the 82-game grind of the NHL. This is the first month of that grind after a favorable October schedule. I know this. I think you know this. But we both need to see it happen on the ice starting tomorrow in Minneapolis.
As a final point, I do have to stray a bit from the hockey, but it regards matters on this site. I will not tolerate those who do not want to treat the People Who Matter as people. I cannot be in constant overwatch of the site. I regret if I missed something that I should have spoken against or punished. If I missed something, please reach out to me and I will try to make it right. That said, I need to make this clear. No one is going to be made to feel like they need to hide in a closet or in an attic or anything like that at All About the Jersey. No one. This is the site by Devils fans for Devils fans. Period, end of. And I am not going to let someone suggest that they should hide who they want to be as they support the team that matters, the New Jersey Devils. I am not going to let someone bring their hangups and their insecurities and their fears and their rationalized hate undercut that purpose. If you are “uncomfortable” with that or want to argue it or want to question it or want to be salty about that, then I suggest going elsewhere. I can help with that. To use a phrase I’ve used in past warnings, if you cannot play nice with others here, then you cannot play here at all.
Now that is sorted, you have my review of October 2023 for the Devils, I want to know what you think. Are you pleased with how the Devils have been playing or not? Why? What do you think the Devils need to improve the most? What was your favorite (and, I guess least favorite) parts of October 2023? If you do not think Jack Hughes is the Devil of the Month of October, well, I do not know what to tell you. Please leave your answers and last thoughts about last month in the comments. Thank you for reading.