clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

New Jersey Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald is Right to Criticize the Skaters over the Goalies

After a 3-6 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, Tom Fitzgerald pointed out how the New Jersey Devils need to fix their issues in front of the goaltenders to This post agrees with the GM by going through data, video of the goals allowed from the recent road trip, and more.

2023 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7
Same, sir. Same.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Technically on early Wednesday morning in the Eastern time zone, the New Jersey Devils lost to the Colorado Avalanche, 3-6. It was 3-3 going into the third period and, well, a 0-3 period followed. Two goals allowed with an empty netter. Colorado clearly had the speed, the pace, and the quality to match the Devils’ own skills. What gave the Avs the edge in that game was just how often they broke through to the net. Even the announcers on TNT were flabbergasted at how many odd man rushes the Devils gave up. And the goals allowed by Vitek Vanecek were similar in that they made the People Who Matter lament about A) wanting a save and B) wanting the team to defend better than this. From what I have seen here and elsewhere, the latter point is sticking a lot more.

It is not just the People Who Matter who are writing and saying this. Someone who especially matters stated a similar sentiment after last night’s game: General Manager Tom Fitzgerald. Ryan Novozinsky reported this from the GM at ($):

“I think we’re doing a lot of good things, but there are areas that we’re still working on. Our puck management, our D-zone, assignments. But that takes time,” Fitzgerald told NJ Advance Media earlier this week. “People want to say things, or evaluate our goaltenders, blah, blah, blah – we’ve got to play better in front of them! Give them a chance to stop pucks. You can’t keep giving up high-quality chances and ask for miracles. And we’ve got a couple.

“Vitek made a couple huge saves over the last couple of games that the game could have got away, but he kept us in the game. We need to clean that stuff up in front of him for me, personally, to evaluate our group.”

I agree with the GM here. Yes, Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid need to combine for better 5-on-5 save percentage than 89.71%, which currently ranks 26th in the NHL prior to the games on November 9 per Natural Stat Trick. Coincidentally that puts them in between Colorado and Minnesota in that category. The point remains: If your lament is “I want some dang saves,” then there is reason to support that. Gerard’s post from yesterday has merit and this post is not an argument against it. But I agree with Mr. Fitzgerald. That team save percentage can also increase if the Devils can improve their actual effort on defense. And I do mean effort. Although showing that off will take some work.

Let’s Start with Some Data & Show Why I Can’t Only Use That

What makes some people outside of the People Who Matter scratch their heads about the Devils is the simple fact that they are legitimately good at preventing opportunities. Really. I showed this in the October month in review. There was a whole lot of green in 5-on-5 stats; and while the penalty kill was not great, it was also not terrible either. After four straight on the road, here are the Devils’ team stats in 5-on-5 play when it comes to what their opponents have done to them according to Natural Stat Trick before last night’s games:

  • Corsi (shot attempts) Against per 60: 52.66, 5th in the NHL
  • Shots Against per 60: 29.41, 15th in the NHL
  • Scoring Chances Against per 60: 24.44, 3rd in the NHL
  • High Danger Scoring Chances Against per 60: 10.81, 11th in the NHL
  • Expected Goals Against per 60: 2.49, 10th in the NHL
  • Goals Against per 60: 3.03, 25th in the NHL

From this perspective, it appears that Fitzgerald and I are wrong. These team stats show the Devils are either top-ten or above the league median in allowing attempts, chances, shots, and even what is expected to be scored against them. Or, in other words: Make some saves, Vitek and Akira! Or get a goalie who will, Tom!

Further: look at the Devils’ individual on-ice rate stats in 5-on-5 play. Among the defensemen, no one has any rate that sticks out especially badly. Sure, Jonas Siegenthaler has the highest on-ice CA/60 at 58.72 and SA/60 at 32.83. Both are also far from the worst among NHL defensemen, though. Siegenthaler ranks 108th and 174th out of 247 NHL defensemen this season in each stat. A similar conclusion can be found with the other stats. Brendan Smith has the worst xGA/60 at 2.83 - and is also far from the worst in the NHL. Kevin Bahl has the highest SCA/60 and HDCA/60 rates at 26.90 and 12.49, respectively. No one on this blueline can be close to being terrible. Room for improvement, sure, but no one has a rate stat that makes me go “Here’s your problem.”

This also applies to the forwards, too. They matter. After all, this a site for the New Jersey Devils. The Devils have made everyone contributing to defense a big part of their identity for two plus decades. Not to mention the current NHL game practically forces all skaters to play at both ends to succeed. Are there any forwards with some bad on-ice against-rates? A couple: Timo Meier, Dawson Mercer, and Alexander Holtz. However, even that has mitigating factors. The Devils out-attempt and out-chance their opponents when Meier is on the ice. Mercer is (hopefully) crawling out of a slump to start this season. Holtz plays fewer than 10 minutes per game in a bottom six role he is trying to make chicken salad out of you know what. As with the defensemen, there is no forward with a stat line that makes me think, “This is terrible, take him out and/or reduce his minutes and the problem is solved.” Sitting Holtz, for example, is not going to solve these defensive issues Fitzgerald, I, and probably you are pointing out.

This leads to a question: Does this mean this is an overreaction to a poor loss to a really talented Colorado team? Well, not so fast. The rate stats are good to know that the Devils are not getting run over by opposing offenses repeatedly. Like last season’s team, this team can keep the opposition at bay relative to other teams. The data supports that, yes, the Devils can defend and they are better than plenty of teams at it this season. The systems in play by Lindy Ruff and Ryan McGill is not fundamentally broken - although it needed adjustments against Colorado. There is not a big need to break up a John Marino-Kevin Bahl pairing after a terrible night in Denver. Or even launch Brendan Smith anywhere from a suite at the Rock, Utica via waivers, or San Jose. Given how much I support the use of this kind of data, why not leave it there? What is the issue?

The issue is that these stats really do not point out what has been ailing the Devils so far in 2023-24. This data is good to know at one level but the issues the Devils are having are not going to be reflected in what is recorded. A scoring chance or high danger chance is based on a shot’s location more than anything else. It does not tell us anything about the situation: not whether the shooter was wide open, whether the goalie had to make a move, or what the Devils were or were not doing. I went through the data to show that the complaints, whether it is from me, the People Who Matter, or Fitzgerald, need further evidence. Fortunately, that is pretty easy to find online:

Better Data in Video: Let’s Look at the Goals Allowed from the Road Trip

The Devils allowed 12 goals on their recent road trip. Three were empty net goals: two in the 1-4 loss to St. Louis and one in the 3-6 loss to Colorado. The other nine goals are easily found in the various highlight videos of the game you can find online. They show enough to see what went wrong for each goal against. Here are my notes for those nine.

Game 1: Devils at Minnesota, 5-3 win - Link to Video Reviewed

  • GA #1: The Devils were killing a penalty and were set up in their passive diamond. Calum Addison (now a Shark; sorry, bro) made a pass across to Kirill Kaprizov above the right circle. Jesper Bratt moved up to try to get in his lane while two Wild players (Matt Boldy, Joel Eriksson Ek) and John Marino were in front of Vanecek, moving to the goalie’s right. The shot went by all four players and went to the far left post. Of all of the goals allowed, this one had the least amount of mistakes. It was a seeing-eye shot past a triple moving screen in front of the goalie during a minor penalty.
  • GA #2: Kaprizov got a pass to move the puck beyond Meier in the neutral zone and he led a zone entry, 3 on 4. Kaprizov passed it to his right, Bratt tried to pick it off past Boldy, but he missed so the puck went in deeper. Bahl was first to the puck at the half wall and tried to clear it. Boldy batted it down and recovered possession. Boldy passed it to Jonas Brodin as three Devils converged on his location - Bratt from the NZ, Meier and Tyler Toffoli from the DZ. Brodin took a few steps up, saw Boldy did the same, and made a wide open cross ice pass. Meanwhile, Marco Rossi was in front of Vanecek with Bahl occupied with Kaprizov and Marino focused on the puck. Brodin’s pass to Boldy was tipped by Meier but still got to Boldy. Bahl broke away to try to block Boldy’s shot and he did. Boldy recovered the rebound, shoveled to Vanecek, and Rossi pounced on that rebound to score. A lot of little mistakes led to this GA. Bratt trying to pick off a pass - fail. Bahl’s clearing attempt - fail. Three forwards focused on Boldy at the point puck - fail. Marino focusing on the puck and not Rossi at the net - fail. Meier not getting enough stick on the cross-ice pass - fail. Marino not tying up Rossi until it is way late - fail. Add them all up and that was how Rossi scored from behind the goalie. Can’t fault Vanecek here.
  • GA #3: You can fault Vanecek here. The beginning of this play was not fun either. Boldy and Erik Haula were down, which slowed up Curtis Lazar. This allowed the Wild to win a puck on the halfwall back to Boldy. Boldy stumbled and flung a pass to Jacob Middleton before Jonas Siegenthaler got there. Middleton saw Dougie Hamilton and Kaprizov in front so he took a shot. Lazar slid to try to block it and he did block it down with his stick. Vanecek reached out, ready cover the puck beyond Kaprizov in the way. He misjudged the shot (Hamilton also looked like he whiffed it but he is not the goalie). The puck hit off the shaft of Vanecek’s stick and snuck into the net from between his legs. This was just bad from Vanecek. A soft goal. The board play from Haula and Lazar was not good and I am still wondering why Siegenthaler went that far away.
  • Conclusions: One soft goal and a bunch of errors that were not facepalm-worthy but enough to have done some damage. Keep in mind that this does not include any moments where Vanecek straight up bailed out the Devils. Like when Ryan Hartman got lost and Vanecek had to go post-to-post to deny an equalizer from the right corner in the first period and Luke Hughes had to be careful to move it away from the net without hitting it off his own goalie.

Game 2: Devils at St. Louis, 1-4 loss (2 ENG) - Link to Video Reviewed

  • GA #1: The play began with Marino making an exit pass from the lower right circle. He was hoping to find Timo Meier. He missed. Meier tried to boot the puck to a place to recover it, but the puck was lost to Nick Leddy. He fired the puck up ice to Oskar Sundqvist. Sundqvist stopped by the Devils’ bench while Bahl stopped hard several feet in front of him. This gave Sundqvist the lane for an entry pass to Blais, who took the pass and skated towards the left side. Blais went past Bahl’s stick and drew Marino’s attention whom was kneeling with his stick on the ice. Meanwhile, Jake Neighbours was skating down the middle of the open ice. Blais made a pass over Marino’s stick to Neighbours. He took a touch and fired a shot past Akira Schmid. A failed exit pass by Marino led to an even worse defense on Blais. Bahl did hustle to try to recover but he got beat. And Marino’s assignment should have been to cover the man going down the middle. It was Sammy Blais at an angle. Let him be, man. Alas, that was how Neighbours was all alone with Schmid.
  • GA #2: St. Louis won a faceoff in the Devils’ zone. Leddy received the puck and passed it to Jakub Vrana. Vrana unloaded a slapshot from the center point. Schmid stopped that. The rebound went into traffic in front and hit off Kevin Hayes, who was briefly tied up with Brendan Smith. The puck squirted behind both and Leddy jumped in - past a diving reach from Meier - for a backhanded shot. Schmid stopped that. Then Smith and Siegenthaler briefly stopped. Which was enough time for Hayes to roof that rebound. Losing the faceoff was not the issue. Smith and Siegenthaler doing a bad job after the Vrana shot; that was the issue. Add an additional demerit for Meier being late on Leddy - pick up a man, dude. Give Ruff credit for this: he essentially benched Smith and Siegenthaler for the remainder of the second period after this goal. Each received just one (1) shift afterwards.
  • Conclusions: While the other two were empty netters (whatever), these two better reflect the complaints about the defensive effort. A not good play led to an even worse decision which led to a goal against. Lack of attention was on full display for Hayes’ only goal against Schmid. If I were Fitzgerald, I would be peeved about this since Schmid otherwise played quite well in this game and Novozinsky’s article suggests Fitzgerald is not yet convinced Schmid is ready yet. I do not agree with that, but the point remains, clean this up!

Game 3: Devils at Chicago, 4-2 win - Link to Video Reviewed

  • GA #1: The play began with Chicago breaking out of their end. Jason Dickinson made a zone entry with Tyler Johnson barely standing onside. Taylor Hall was at the far left wall and took a pass from Dickinson upon entering. Hall settled the puck, waited until Timo Meier came over, and flung a long cross-ice pass to Tyler Johnson. The puck hit Toffoli’s stick, but still got through to Johnson at the left faceoff dot. Johnson curled, drew Siegenthaler closer, and made pass back to Wyatt Kaiser at the point. Meanwhile, Dickinson is in front of Hamilton above the crease. Hall was going down the left side of the slot - unnoticed. Toffoli went toward Kaiser, who passed the puck back to Johnson above the left circle. All Devils eyes are on the puck - and no one is on Hall. Johnson turned, fired a shot toward the left post, and forced a pad save from Vanecek. Hall was right at the side of the crease to pounce on the rebound and he scored. Forgetting about a player in 5-on-5 is bad. Forgetting Taylor Hall so he can sneak behind everyone is really bad.
  • GA #2: The play began with Ryan Donato dumping a puck in from the red line. Dickinson and Smith gave chase as the puck bounced off the left corner. Smith was stick-checked by Dickinson and forced into a battle. Luke Hughes came to help but the puck got away. It was recovered in the right corner by Andreas Athanasiou, who was ahead of Dawson Mercer. Meier was by the net, focused at the play, and was not paying attention to Donato in the slot. But this worked out as Athanasiou lost the puck and Meier took it to go around the net. He stopped to reverse direction to try to get away from Athanasiou, but that did not work. Meier tried to pass it to Smith behind the net. But Dickinson took Luke Hughes in its way and the puck popped out. Athanasiou pounced on that and made a quick pass to Donato, who was heading to the net once more. Shot, save, rebound, goal.
  • Conclusions: Both goals allowed were by Blackhawks who were unnoticed even though it was a 5-on-5 situation on defense. Both examples of a lack of focus. Both goals made me wonder whether the Devils even talk to each other on the ice to call out these open players. I do not know what would be worse: not calling for help or calling for help that does not happen. By the way, this was the game where Vanecek made that awesome diving save on Dickinson. Do not forget that it was a make-shift two-on-one with Smith covering nobody that led to Dickinson getting the puck to begin with.

Game 4: Devils at Colorado, 3-6 loss (1 ENG) - Link to Video Reviewed

  • GA #1: The power play goal against. A not so hardworking call on Meier led to this 4-on-5. The Devils’ passive diamond, well, was beaten here. Artturi Lehkonen was fed in front of Vanecek by Mikko Rantanen for a big save in front. Marino got the rebound first, but moved the puck out to Nathan MacKinnon by the left wall. He passed it up to Cale Makar, who was above the high slot. Makar made a feed toward Rantanen, who re-directed the puck in. While Kevin Bahl was turned around a bunch on this one and Marino sent the rebound to MacKinnon, this one was more or less a good power play picking on a shorthanded team. Do not worry, other goals will draw or remind your ire.
  • GA #2: The Devils won a faceoff in Colorado’s end of the rink. Kevin Bahl got the puck and decided to fire a shot. It was blocked by Logan O’Connor and puck went out past Bahl into the neutral zone and right in a place where Miles Wood could get it. Wood took the puck in and Bahl did get back for the 2-on-1 situation. And Bahl stayed in the middle, went down on his stomach like he was Damon Severson, and tried to poke the puck away. Wood smartly toe-dragged the puck around Bahl, and sent a low backhander on net just before Chris Tierney engaged him. Bahl, meanwhile, slid into the corner. The third man into the zone was Ross Colton who was all alone to take the rebound and slam it past Vanecek. A play that made Bahl look stupid and the other non-Tierney Devils for not supporting him. You could also argue the rebound by Vanecek was a bit too huge.
  • GA #3: The first shorthanded goal of the year. TNT focused on this one. Hamilton dumps the puck in (?!?!!) hard around the corner. The puck went by Alexandar Georgiev (he may have touched it off) and Makar hit the puck behind him to keep it moving past Ondrej Palat behind him. The puck went past Timo Meier at the halfwall and Valeri Nichushkin recovered. Hamilton, who was at the center point, decided to move towards Nichushkin. That opened up a massive lane for Miles Wood to skate ahead for the zone exit - and a get a shorthanded breakaway. Wood scored. TNT criticized Hamilton for his movement to the right point, which I agree was a mistake. But there should have been some more criticism about a dump in the Devils were not ready to battle for. It was a 7 minute power play, it would have been OK to walk it back if the entry you wanted was not there. Further: Vanecek, you let up a breakaway goal to Miles Wood? Bro.
  • GA #4: The play began with Makar attempting a long pass through the middle of the neutral zone to Rantanen. The puck hit off Rantanen for a zone entry but went to the right boards. Marino stretched for it and then collided with Rantanen. Devon Towes came into the zone to collect the puck past both of them while Ryan Johansen was heading down the middle of the ice. Unnoticed as Chris Tierney and Bahl were focused on the play. Tierney swooped in to hit Toews and get the puck. Then Tierney attempted a pass to Alexander Holtz in the slot. That pass did not connect at all - it went right to Johansen. He took the gift and beat Vanecek glove side. The goal was officially listed as unassisted but you and I know better. And perhaps Fitzgerald, Ruff, and others too. Definitely Tierney.
  • GA #5: The play began with Marino attempting to skate the puck out and away from Nichushkin. Marino clumsily handed the puck off to Max Willman in the neutral zone. Willman ran into Curtis Lazar and lost the puck at the blueline to Makar. Makar recovered the puck, everyone turned, and Rantanen and MacKinnon were already turning up their speed. Makar to Rantanen allowed him to get past Lazar. Marino took a huge turn so he ended up on the right side. This left Rantanen leading a 2-on-1 against Kevin Bahl with MacKinnon in support. Bahl went toward Rantanen, who made a pass through the big defender to MacKinnon. MacKinnon had the space to get past Bahl’s stick (he did a quick turn after the pass) and get around Vanecek’s sprawled out right leg before Marino could engage.
  • Conclusions: Not only did this game have the most goals allowed by a goalie on this trip, it had all kinds of mistakes that hurt the Devils. Turnovers both big and small. A lack of hustle or effort to magnify the issues. Getting caught puck-watching. Bad position decisions. Was Vanecek good in this game? He could have been better. Mean as it seems, I did not like that huge rebound Colton scored on or Wood’s breakaway goal. But there were also no Devils on either to help the situation and Vanecek had to work his tail off to avoid giving up more than five goals. Colorado really skated all over New Jersey in this one. Imagine if Ross Colton did not pull a Marchand and crack Meier’s face in this one.

Overall, I think just looking at what cost the Devils on the scoreboard when a goalie was in the net in the last four games justifies Fitzgerald’s point about how the Devils need to clean up their play in their own end. Most of the goals allowed were not because Vanecek or Schmid just faltered. Most of them featured a skater - defenseman or forward - doing something they should have not done or not doing something they should have done. The opposition punished that. It does not matter if it is Jake Neighbours, Ryan Donato, or even Nathan MacKinnon, if you let them have the space and into dangerous areas, then they may score! Which they did! It does not matter how many hits you throw or what your reputation is, if you do not pay attention to players without the puck, the opposition may find them and that can lead going down in the game. Which did happen on this trip! You can replace Vanecek with a goalie of your choosing - Juuse Saros, Connor Hellebuyck, MacKenzie Blackwood, prime Martin Brodeur, your imagination’s idea of Chico Resch, whomever - and a lot of these goals against probably still happen. A better goaltender only masks these errors. While that would be great to turn some of these close wins into bigger wins and maybe a loss into an overtime/shootout loss (or a win), the problems persist.

And if you want to point some fingers, you will need both hands. I think I tagged every defenseman save for Luke Hughes - and he was tangentially a part of the Donato GA in the Chicago game. It is possible he made some errors that the goalie helped him out on. This weirdly lines up with the data that shows no one single defenseman is exceptionally bad. You have had bad moments from Smith, Siegenthaler, Hamilton, Marino, and Bahl. Bahl was especially bad in Colorado but not so much in the other three games. Hamilton can at least say he produces a lot of offense to make up for his error in Colorado. As much as I thought Marino did well, he had more rough moments than I expected.

As for the forwards, I am surprised I had to type Timo Meier’s name as much as I did. For a guy who has been in this league for a while and had more than enough time last season to learn New Jersey’s way, he was surprisingly “involved” in these goals against. Whether it was not picking someone up until it is too late or losing a battle or not being in a position to help out, I really do think it is fair to be more annoyed with this big money forward in recent games. Something I know some of the People Who Matter have picked up on

Ultimately, a look at what has damaged the Devils in the run of play will show that the team has a lot to work on still. Which is a growing concern in my opinion.

Additional Assorted Thoughts Tangentially Related to All of This

I can already imagine someone reading this (or not reading this, whatever) just rolling their eyes and saying, “What’s the deal, the team is 7-4-1 and third in the division.” I do not know about you, but this Metropolitan Division and this league is too tight to just assume things will work themselves out. The expectations are higher for 2023-24 and so the lack of attention to detail is an actual problem. I prefer my team to win as much as they can; how they are losing or getting close to losing is a concern. I cannot tell you how to feel but I cannot ignore that this is not an issue even with the team owning a better record than, say, Tampa Bay. Criticism and concern is not the same panicking or claiming all is lost or losing one’s mind. Pointing out the elephant in the room is not an extreme act. It is pointing out what is happening and why it is an issue. Even with the data suggesting that this is not a big deal, the video tape is not lying when it shows Devils skaters letting their own goalies down in just these past four road games alone. Games where Ruff cannot easily shelter a player or a pairing or a line. Games where the Devils had to play over half of them without The Big Deal and all of them without Nico Hischier. But I think you and I can agree that you do not need superstar or first line talents to do things like pick up open men on defense or fight for a loose puck or not drift from your position or assignment among other fixes that could have helped on this trip.

Further, this is now 12 games into the season. October is in the distance and the Devils are going to be playing more games more often from here on out. Games within the division. More trips. Weeks of three and four games. There is not going to be a ton of time to practice or sit everyone down to fix these kinds of issues. Not when rest is needed amid a The start of the season is over, any rink rust is pretty much a memory, so it is fair to question when is it going to get fixed.

What about the new faces on the team? The youth? Well, what about them? The new faces on the Devils are: Tyler Toffoli, Tomas Nosek (who just returned to practice after being injured in Game #2), Colin Miller (who has yet to debut), Chris Tierney, and Max Willman (who was just called up). Given that Toffoli is 31 with 745 games played in the NHL (and counting), it would not be fair to say he is inexperienced. Ditto Nosek, Miller, and Tierney. Despite his heinous turnover to Johansen, Tierney is not a name I had to keep typing over those nine goals against either. And I barely had to mention Willman save for the last one allowed to MacKinnon. If you want to add Lazar as a newer face, OK, but like Toffoli, he is 28 and has 464 games played in this league. He really is not a newbie! Everyone else at forward is return from at least a couple of months with the team last season to longer. Luke Hughes is indeed a rookie but he was on the team last season and figured out the systems to play in the playoffs in the Spring. Even so, the other five defensemen you have seen were Devils last season. This is not a team full of people figuring things out. Most of them know what the coaches expect, who also largely returned from last season. There is the exception of Travis Green replacing Andrew Brunette. Unless Brunette was helping on D, I do not think that change matters much here. Also: The Devils’ average age of 26.64 years is on the younger end of the NHL at 26th oldest, but I doubt the key to playing competent defense for 60 minutes is having an average age of 27 or 28. Both the age and experience arguments are not really well-founded or good ones to explain the Devils’ issues here.

Further, when it comes to things like the defensive effort or slow starts to games (which happened again in St. Louis and Chicago), I start to wonder about what the coaching staff and the leadership group is doing. I cannot imagine that the players do not know what is going on. Or the coaches. Management certainly thinks there is a problem in that end. Ruff has been good to point out bad starts, soft play, and has been willing to bench some rather notable names for poor performances. On this trip, Siegenthaler and Smith sat for most of a half-period on the second half of a back-to-back in a losing effort. Earlier in October, Marino infamously got a seat with Meier. Good. But has that led to better play? Would I be writing this post if it did? Does there need to be more benchings? Or some adjustments to the gameplan, particularly when playing against teams as fast as them like Colorado? (Aside: I would love it if McGill and Ruff tell the players, just pick a man to cover in 2-on-1s instead of this attempt to deny the space between them. That has been painful for years.) At some point, something has to change beyond a lineup card, and I think Ruff & Co. know this. Likewise: When do leaders on the team - official or otherwise - just call the issues for what they are? Again, I do not think this is the sort of thing that just works itself out.

Lastly: No, more physical play would not have helped out in any of these cases. You want to lament a lack of intimidation? Let me tell you: NHL teams are not going to fear any team that cannot play the game well, no matter how beefy or willing to get nasty they are. Just ask Toronto about Ryan Reeves. Or Philly about Nic Deslauriers. Or Montreal about Arber Xhekaj. Or Ottawa and Mark Kastelic. By the way, the Devils have a better record than all of those teams. (Aside: And the only entity the Devils have not “stuck up for” this season are the boards in St. Louis. Cam Janssen does not need to come back to throw a missed hit to give them a what’s-for)

Final Thoughts & Your Take

I wrote this part-rant, part-train-of-thought to explore the Devils issues on defense. As I stated way at the beginning of the post, I do not disagree with those who want the Devils goalies to be better. They do. But my response to “goalies have to make more saves” is “Yes, but...” for a reason. I ultimately agree with GM Tom Fitzgerald’s assessment that there is a lot for the Devils to clean up out there. Players not being picked up, pucks not being handled properly, players caught out of position. The team and player on-ice rates may not point to those being issues, but the video tape of the goals against absolutely do. And these issues would still be costly regardless of who is in net for the Devils. I think it is a concern that we are bringing stuff like this up 12 games into a season with actual, legitimate expectations. And that veterans like the Meiers, Siegenthalers, Marinos and others on the squad are just as guilty as found on video. It is not just the younger and/or less experienced players hurting the cause. It is not something Hischier or The Big Deal can fix beyond scoring a bunch of goals to make it not hurt so much.

I do believe these are fixable errors. I do not think new players or new coaches or new personnel are needed to pick up men in the defensive zone, call out anyone who is open, and maintain focus with and without the puck. A lot of this boils down to the Devils cleaning it up because, well, they really need to do so. I know this is a lot of words to get to that simple point, but this time the simplest answer is right here. Clean it up and Fitzgerald will get some clarity as to whether his goalies are victims or problems. Clean it up and the Devils may win some more games by more than one empty-net goal. Clean it up and the reality will better reflect what the team on-ice rates show: a team that can really keep opponents from styling and profiling night-in and night-out. Clean it up and the Devils may look more like the contenders many hoped they would be in 2023-24.

Now that you got my take on all of this, I want to know yours. Do you agree with GM Tom Fitzgerald? If not, why not? If so, what do you want to see cleaned up first? Related to the review of goals allowed: Why do you think players are not being covered? Or why turnovers are happening? Or why the Devils tend to cover no one in a 2-on-1? If the Devils pay more attention to detail, then do you think Vanecek and Schmid will perform better - or will they give Fitzgerald (more) reason to go looking for a goalie? Could we see improvement as early as tonight? Please leave your answers and thoughts about the Devils’ defensive effort (you are the People Who Matter, I do not need to tell you that defense is everyone’s job in New Jersey) in the comments. Thank you for reading.