I’ve had a busy week as I’ve worked to secure a pretty big interview for Athletics Nation. Yeah, if you enjoy Michael Lewis and his books at all, he gave me an hour of his time to reminisce all about Moneyball and its place in the world, since it shares that same 20-year-old birthday with the site I founded that started this little Vox Media thing. Michael helped me build AN and recruit other sites at the early part of this all. He gave me a credibility that none of my writing could do. If you’re so inclined, give it a watch.
I’m glad it came around when it did because I could use the distraction from the New Jersey Devils who have been so unbelievably terrible and awful that they’re only 1-10-1. Seriously, they only just recently won their first game and it was one they got outshot heavily by the Philadelphia Flyers...oh wait, that’s actually the San Jose Sharks. Let me double check where the Devils are at...oh 7-4-1. Hmmmmm. Yet there’s a lot of incessant hand wringing going on all over social media right now. I won’t call anyone out in particular because we’ve all had moments of this, myself included.
It’s just been hard to watch a team that seemed to figure out how to defend well while having an elite offense last season. Yes, they lost Ryan Graves and Damon Severson from the back line and Severson, for all his warts and issues, was actually really good at efficiently getting the puck out quickly. Sure he’d occasionally brain fart it to the opponent in a high danger place, but for the most part, he’d recover the puck and move it very quickly to the highly talented forwards and fueled the offense. Graves, while not being a hitter, paired nicely with John Marino with his big size and could also move the puck quickly when not facing a really hard and fast forechecking team like the Canes. Plus, Graves sheer size protected him against a lot of unnecessary games injured. This especially stuck out to me in the game against Colorado because Luke Hughes, while he’s been absolutely elite quarterbacking power play 1, hasn’t been the best at protecting himself when retrieving pucks.
Now Ross Colton absolutely shouldn’t have blasted his head into the glass here, but Luke didn’t do a great job of anticipating the body contact. In fact, I’ve seen Luke literally put his numbers to several players to get a puck in the boards now and if you think players are going to go easy and not try and annihilate a rookie then you’ve never watched hockey before. You’d think that there would be a level of protection there, but it hasn’t happened that way.
You combine missing Colin Miller thus far, John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler being somewhat mid so far this year and the Devils goalies, who haven’t been great themselves, it’s actually shocking the team has seven wins. They’ve allowed 45 goals in 12 games. That’s a 3.75 goals against average per game.
Oh and I purposely buried the lede here. Nico Hischier, our Selke Trophy candidate who finished second to Patrice Bergeron last season, is also sidelined and no one really knows how long (lots of speculation that he’s suffering from concussion after effects, but the NHL is super hush hush about that so we aren’t really sure). Hischier would clearly help not only drive offense, but he’s usually the chosen one when it comes to face top line players like Nathan MacKinnon. Sometimes his offense suffers for it, but he’s excellent at matching up against the best in the league.
And the cherry on top of this crap sundae is Jack Hughes lost an edge in St. Louis and suffered a confirmed shoulder injury. He apparently avoided something really long term, but any hockey without the player who was leading the league in pojnts at the time of his injury is also going to set you back. Jack not only produces points, but he’s also often the guy who quickly grabs the puck in his own zone and turns it into an offensive chance with his sheer skill. Teams fear guys like this because it’s really hard to stop them legally. And if you give the Devils a chance this year on the power play, 4 times out of 10 (roughly - though I anticipate that going down without Jack Jack) it will wind up in your net. So yeah, he might not have the greatest statistical impact defensively, but he’s someone I can guarantee you the opposition is always aware of when he’s on the ice. Players don’t like to be made to look like this:
We’re talking a player that was absolutely going supernova this season. And who knows when he will be back? If you believe the speculation from the Devils reporter who interviewed Tom Fitzgerald this week, maybe Jack returns in early December?
Sibling rivalry could be enough motivation, but maybe Jack heals faster. Regardless, the Devils are not nearly the same team without Nico Hischier. You throw Jack Hughes on there too and honestly, I’ll happily take 7-4-1 for now.
But how does the team make sure they aren’t buried moving forward? How do they survive missing their star defensive forward and their superstar?
Honestly, it won’t be easy, but this team now has much more depth than ever. Timo Meier is close to a $9 million a year player. Jesper Bratt makes almost as much as Jack Hughes. Dougie Hamilton is a $9 million a year player. Ondrej Palat makes $6 million for his leadership and tenacity. Dawson Mercer scored 27 goals last season and is line for a huge pay raise. They should not struggle to score goals. And to be frank, they really haven’t. While they’ve surrended 45, they’ve actually scored 46 (course that includes Jack and Nico games, of course).
I do think the team speed takes a nosedive without Jack and Nico. Both of them are quick and agile and push the pace. So the Devils need Bratt to shoulder a lot of that and Jesper came out this season absolutely flying. He was right up there with the league leaders. That’s dropped off a little bit already with Jack going down.
The biggest concern has been the backend. With Siegenthaler and Marino not looking great, you think coach Lindy Ruff might mix things up a bit and change up the pairs. But he seems hellbent on keeping Luke Hughes and Brendan Smith together. Kevin Bahl appears like the permanent partner for John Marino and the Ham and Swiss duo of Dougie Hamilton and Siegenthaler are also matched together forever. Yes, there’s a reason that Cal Foote cleared waivers and was signed on the cheap, but I can’t imagine him being more of a detriment to Luke Hughes than Smith has been. I’m just a firm believer in not having an anchor attached to a speedboat. And apparently so is Vancouver coach Rick Tocchet, who instead of giving Luke’s brother Quinn someone who will anchor him, has put Filip Hronek next to the Mighty Quinn. Quinn is loving it as he’s amongst the league leaders in points. As a defenseman. From the story:
You know who doesn’t fit the description of Hronek above? Brendan Smith. You know who does? John Marino.
I also think the Devils either need to trust and start Akira Schmid more or make a move for someone else. Ruff clearly doesn’t trust the kid right now as he’s already running Vitek Vanecek out there repeatedly. And Vitek is currently 56th in goals saved above expected. Yes, the defense hasn’t helped him, but Vitek hasn’t been nearly the difference maker he should be. Though this is still the save of the year:
So the answer to this is that the Devils need to get offense from guys they pay very well to provide offense. They need Dawson Mercer to permanently awaken from his slumber. And the defense needs to be mixed up to see if it produces better results. Luke Hughes always seems to look his best when he’s pushing the puck forward with another mobile defenseman like John Marino or even Dougie Hamilton. Simple, right?
Probably not. Just gotta survive the next three or four weeks...otherwise: