While the New Jersey Devils came into the year as one of the predicted top teams in the Eastern Conference, few could have predicted the specific injuries they would suffer that would lead them to their current point. No, they are not a basement team, but they currently sit at ninth in the Eastern Conference. The sky is falling, and it has been falling since Jack Hughes joined Nico Hischier on the injury report. Their injuries will not last forever, and the Devils will presumably work back into the playoff spot they had with them in the lineup.
In accordance with the natural law of being hockey fans, Devils fans have been trying out new targets as whipping boys in the face of their subpar performances at even strength. Without old targets like Damon Severson, the face of defensive mistakes in the 2023-24 season has been Brendan Smith. Offensively, the players who have drawn the ire of fans have included Ondrej Palat, Dawson Mercer, and Chris Tierney.
This has stood in contrast to some of the coaching decisions made by Lindy Ruff and company. While the team tried to pull off a comeback against the Washington Capitals, Ruff had Alexander Holtz stapled to the bench. How could a bottom six winger with better production than players with far more ice time, such as Palat and Mercer, be kept on the bench down three goals? Fans asked, and Ruff answered. Fans did not like the answer.
Is Benching Holtz Justified? What About Smith?
The big source of controversy over Friday’s loss to Washington was the treatment of Alex Holtz in the third period, as he had not been given a chance to help the Devils come back against the Capitals. While I see the argument that the Devils were down and had “nothing to lose,” they came very close to tying the game up — even without Nico and Jack. On the season, meanwhile, Alex Holtz owns the worst CF% and worst shots differential on the team. The ice tilts the wrong way when he is on it, whether or not that is his fault. With a 5:9 goals ratio, the Devils are also coming out on the short end of the scoreboard when he gets even strength ice time.
For what it’s worth, Holtz does not have terrible expected defensive stats. His 2.75 xGA/60 needs to improve, but it is significantly better than Timo Meier’s team-worst 3.29. More trouble, in my opinion, stems from the team’s weak 2.11 xGF/60 when Holtz is on the ice. While this is not the worst on the team (excluding Willman and Nosek) — Chris Tierney has a 1.66 — being the 16th ranked skater on the team by expected goals for is not going to get you ice time down three goals. There is, however, evidence that Holtz will improve once Tierney is off the ice. Holtz has a 48.86 xGF% without Tierney (5:6 goals ratio) and a 22.14 xGF% with Tierney (0:3 goals ratio).
Brendan Smith, however, is a different story. If Lindy Ruff wants to say that he is punishing players for bad defensive results, Brendan Smith is making out like a bandit with all of his extra minutes. His expected goal differential per 60 is -0.98, and his real goal differential per 60 is -2.21. Only Chris Tierney, Nico Hischier, and Nathan Bastian have worse goal differentials. Only Chris Tierney has a worse expected goal differential (and only Nico, of those four, have a positive expected differential, though Bastian is very close to even). With Colin Miller joining the Devils on their road trip this week, I think Smith has earned a healthy scratch night with his even strength play — regardless of if he’s a good penalty killer.
Not convinced? Luke Hughes and Brendan Smith have had a 51.14 CF%, a 53:62 shots ratio, and a 2:7 goals ratio with a 39.48 xGF% in 126:25. In 68:55 without Brendan Smith, Luke Hughes has a 63.45 CF%, a 38:31 shots ratio, and a 5:2 goals ratio with a 71.43 xGF%. Luke Hughes’ 1.77 xGF/60 and 2.72 xGA/60 with Smith improve to 4.54 for/60 and 1.95 against/60 without Smith. Free Luke by either changing the pairs or benching Brendan Smith.
Verdict: Ruff was justified to bench Holtz, but fans are right to point out the double-standard with Smith. Ruff does need to axe Tierney from the lineup as soon as possible, as he is supposed to be more of a short-term fill-in than a long-term solution.
Ondrej Palat and Dawson Mercer’s Mixed On-Ice Results
Making a lot of money in professional sports naturally draws a lot of attention from both media and fans. In the NHL, where the salary cap is tens of millions lower than it should be, players are over-scrutinized for making $6 million — pocket change to the other major sports leagues in North America. For Ondrej Palat, that means that thousands of Devils fans view him as an obstacle to playoff contention. How can a team make the playoffs and compete in them if a six million dollar man does not produce very much in terms of goals and assists?
Top talent likes playing with Ondrej Palat. Jesper Bratt? 61.82 CF%, 3:2 goals ratio, and a 64.46 xGF% when playing with Palat. The drawback has been the less-than-stellar 5.77 on-ice shooting percentage with those two playing together. But that’s much better than dealing with the abysmal .844 save percentage and 0.0 on-ice shooting percentage that the Devils have seen when Palat has lined up without Bratt on his line. So what is this? Ondrej Palat has been on the receiving end of some rotten luck to start this year. He has not played poorly. Maybe he needs to work on his shot a bit more in practice, but he is not the reason the Devils have had bad five-on-five results.
Dawson Mercer and Timo Meier have much more to answer for. They have the worst expected defensive results at 3.27 and 3.29 xGA/60, respectively. And at 3.2 and 4.08 GA/60, their real results have been rather unpleasant, too. Timo Meier, at least, largely makes up for his defensive deficiencies with high-danger chances in the offensive end — and he is starting to light the lamp more than he did to start the year. Dawson Mercer, however, has struggled when left on his own.
With Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer has seen the opposition outscored 2 to 0, while sporting a 2:9 ratio in all other line combinations. In 62:55 with Timo Meier, Mercer has a 55.56 CF% and 51.24 xGF%, but has had an awfully unlucky .930 PDO. In 89:42 without Meier, Mercer has a 44.03 CF% and 46.55 xGF%, and an even worse .917 PDO. Looking at it objectively, Mercer has been fine at generating offense — or is at least not getting in the way. He is, however, not doing enough defensively.
Verdict: Barring any great leaps from Mercer or Holtz, Palat should stay where he is in the lineup for the time being. Dawson Mercer will likely turn it around offensively, soon, but he needs to play more impactfully in the defensive zone.
The Path Forward
For the New Jersey Devils to be a playoff contender, they need everyone in the lineup to be up to speed in the system and capable of producing. Jesper Bratt can only go so far to save everyone, and eventually players like Timo Meier and Dawson Mercer will have to start holding up their end of the bargain on both ends of the ice. However, depth players like Chris Tierney are only fleeting in the time of November, and should be supplanted by better players as the season progresses. So too should Brendan Smith be replaced by Colin Miller on a regular basis in the near future, leaving Smith in a more suitable role as a seventh defenseman. Doing this should free Luke Hughes up to be the best player he can be — and he has played like a top blueliner when apart from Smith so far this season.
But the forwards are ultimately a thinner group than the defensemen. If Jesper Bratt goes down, there is no young gun ready to step up into his spot. If Dougie Hamilton goes down, Colin Miller and Simon Nemec could, theoretically, at least stem the bleeding. If Alex Holtz is still being benched in April the same way he was benched on Friday, Ruff will have trouble mustering a cohesive effort from his forwards, unless he were to roll three lines for the entire playoffs. This is not feasible.
I do believe the goals will start coming for Timo Meier, Dawson Mercer, and even Ondrej Palat. They all have positive signs, offensively, while Palat has had great two-way expected results. These are not the Devils of the Lost Years. This team is too talented to be running .930 PDOs far past November. The season is still young, and positive regressions have not taken hold yet. Stay the course: it is not yet time to act rashly with unlucky players.
What do you think about the players mentioned in this article? How did you feel when you saw Lindy Ruff’s comments about ice time and defensive results? Do you think his frustration is justified? Do you think he should be more critical towards his defensemen? Or is he right to criticize forwards like Holtz for not doing enough on the back-end? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thank you for reading.