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Game Preview #14: New Jersey Devils @ Winnipeg Jets

Coming off a disappointing loss to the Washington Capitals, the Devils look to bounce back north of the border

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Winnipeg Jets James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (7-5-1) @ Winnipeg Jets (7-5-2)

The Time: 8:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN

Last Devils Game

Upon returning home after a four-game road trip during which the Devils collected two wins and two losses, New Jersey hosted the Washington Capitals last Friday night. It did not go well for Jersey’s team, as the Devils dropped a 4-2 decision to their division rival.

Last Jets Game

Winnipeg hosted the Dallas Stars on Veteran’s Day, losing 3-2 to snap a modest three-game winning streak. Special teams were the difference in that one, with the Jets allowing both a shorthanded and power play goal to the Stars.

The Winds of Change

Things have been, shall we say, less than ideal in Devils Land recently. New Jersey is still above .500, but just barely. The team is of course without their top two centers in Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, and while the offense has still been serviceable in their absence, their team defense and goaltending have been hemorrhaging both chances and goals against.

With the Devils losing three of their last four contests, the fanbase has been calling for some changes. Alexander Holtz in particular seems to be the biggest lightning rod of debate among fans, especially on this very site. For those who wanted to see Holtz given a chance higher up in the lineup, Friday’s game, in which the young winger played on the fourth line again then was benched for most of the third period, had to be discouraging.

And then suddenly, like rain in a desert...

At long last, Holtz will get a chance in the top-6. Two preseasons ago, Holtz spent just about the entire exhibition slate on a line with Hughes and Ondrej Palat, then once the regular season rolled around that line never saw the light of day. This past preseason was eerily similar, with Holtz spending a ton of time with Hischier and Timo Meier, only to be relegated to bottom-6 duties come regular season time.

How long will this Holtz on the second line experiment last? Well given what we know about Lindy Ruff and his itchy trigger finger with the line blender, it could last a period and a half for all we know. And once Hischier and Hughes return, that might push Holtz back down the lineup once again regardless of how well he’s playing at the time. But for now, those in the “Give Holtz a shot on a scoring line” camp are getting their wish.

In addition to Holtz, just about the entire lineup got a blending as well. The forward groupings received a little shuffling, but to me the headline here is the back end. For the first time this season aside from temporary in-game adjustments, Ruff has mixed up his defense pairs. I don’t know about you, but that Luke Hughes-Dougie Hamilton top pairing looks like fun to me. It could easily go horribly wrong given some of the defensive limitations those two have, but good lord if that pairing clicks we may never see the puck leave the Devils’ offensive zone when those two hop over the boards.

The Jonas Siegenthaler-John Marino second pairing is also intriguing to me. Last season, Marino paired with Ryan Graves to form a very effective shutdown pair. With Graves signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins this summer, that left a void on that second pairing that the Devils tried to fill with Kevin Bahl. I think Bahl has the potential to be an excellent defensive defensemen at some point, but that day is not today despite the promising strides he’s made. Siegenthaler, despite some uncharacteristic defensive struggles this season, has proven that he can be a terrific shutdown blueliner. So pairing him with Marino strikes me as Ruff trying to recreate some of the defensive magic of the Graves-Marino pairing from a season ago.

Return of the Jack?

I likened Holtz moving to the top-6 as rain in a desert a few paragraphs ago, but that potential move pales in comparison to this one:

I don’t have a simile strong enough for that.

Hughes is obviously a hugely important player to the Devils, and when he exited due to injury against the St. Louis Blues back on November 3rd, he took a lot of New Jersey’s offense and play driving ability with him. Based on Amanda Stein’s tweet, we won’t be seeing him tonight. But the fact that there’s a chance he meets the team in Pittsburgh is a wonderful bit of news. I would hope Hughes isn’t rushing himself back from injury, but even Hughes at partial strength would be a shot in the arm for the Devils.

As far as other injured Devils go, we did get word that Hischier won’t travel on this trip, so his return is still down the road. And we also received news that Colin Miller, who has yet to play a game this season, is back practicing with the team.

Miller was injured in practice way back on October 19th, and has been absent since. With him now healthy enough to practice with the team again, perhaps we see him sub in for a game soon.

An Observation...

I’m going to back up a little here and return to the Holtz situation. There’s a thought that’s been rattling around in my tiny little brain about this whole thing, and I would be very curious to hear what you good people think.

Do you remember last season’s opener against the Flyers, in which Lindy Ruff was asked by’s Ryan Novozinsky (in his very first game covering the team!) why Bratt got such limited ice time in the game? If not, here you go:

Clearly Ruff did not appreciate the question at the time, but over the next four games, Bratt received no less than 18:10 of ice time, including a high of 20:03 against the Islanders last October 20th. Now, causation does not necessarily equal causation here, but it is notable at least.

Fast forward to today, and now we see Ruff benching Holtz for most of the third period against the Capitals...and then giving him a promotion on the heels of that benching? That feels very odd to me. Could it have something to do with Holtz speaking to the media after Saturday’s morning skate, and letting his frustration bubble to the surface despite his attempts to stay diplomatic? Novozinsky also wrote a piece on Holtz’s deployment that ran before the game on Friday. So if you’re scoring at home, that’s two stories in two days from two different outlets on Holtz and his ice time.

Did all that media attention really persuade Ruff to finally give Holtz this chance? I’m fully aware that it feels a little ridiculous for me to think that Ruff, a man who played 12 seasons in the NHL and is now in his 23rd season as a head coach in the league, might have allowed himself to get talked into playing someone he doesn’t want to play by a couple of beat reporters. But the fact remains that Ruff gave Bratt more ice time last season after being asked about it by a beat reporter, and now Ruff is giving Holtz a shot in the top-6 after multiple reporters ran stories on it.

For years it was a point of frustration for Devils fans that the team did not have a dedicated beat reporter. Amanda Stein does a terrific job doing what she does, but what she does is work for the team itself, so her coverage is not going to include much critical coverage at all. I’d like to make it clear that I am not bashing Stein for this, like I said I think she does a terrific job in her role. I am only pointing out that her coverage is going to skew away from criticism of the team. So for his first couple seasons in New Jersey, Ruff did not have much critical media to answer to, but now it’s a different ballgame.

So my question is, how much of a tangible impact are the presence of beat reporters making on the team? We know that media entities influencing a sports team’s coaching staff/front office is at least possible, with probably the most famous example around these parts being Mike and the Mad Dog effectively bringing Mike Piazza to the New York Mets back in 1998. Would we have seen something like the two examples I cited without reporters? I genuinely can’t decide if I am making too much of it, or if folks like Novozinsky and James Nichols really are having any sort of influence. And maybe it wasn’t the media that convinced Ruff to make the change, but rather general manager Tom Fitzgerald behind the scenes instead. I suppose in the end I wouldn’t say having writers on the beat makes a huge impact, but maybe a small one, and I would love to know what you think.

Checking in on the Jets

Winnipeg has been a streaky team this season, winning three straight from October 21st to the 26th, then losing three straight right after that, and then winning three straight AGAIN right after the three game skid. As mentioned, they lost their last game to the Stars, so if history is any indication they will lose tonight against the Devils and then one more time after that before ripping off another three game winning streak. Rinse/repeat until the end of the season.

Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele (the latter of whom signed a monster contract extension on the eve of the season) currently lead the team in points with 17 apiece. Connor is far and away the leading goal scorer in Winnipeg, finding the back of the net a ridiculous 11 times in 14 games. Connor has been a premier goal scorer for a long time now, reaching the 30-goal mark in five of the last six seasons. And the one season he didn’t reach that mark was the pandemic shortened 2021 season, in which he scored 26 goals in 56 games, so if he got a full season in 2021 he would have cleared the 30-goal mark easily. Given both Connor’s goal-scoring prowess and the Devils’ defensive struggles this season, if New Jersey isn’t careful they might find themselves on the receiving end of a big game from the Jets winger.

One player you won’t be seeing tonight is Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was shipped to the Los Angeles Kings in a blockbuster trade over the summer after spending the last three seasons with the Jets. Winnipeg received a haul of Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafallo, and Rasmus Kupari, as well as a second round pick, for sending Dubois to Los Angeles. How have the new guys been fitting in? Iafallo is the leading scorer of the bunch with four goals and 12 points so far, while Kupari only has one assist to his name and Vilardi only played three games before suffering a sprained MCL.

As he has been since the 2016-17 season, Connor Hellebuyck (who was extended alongside Scheifele back in October) is the main man in net for the Jets this season. Hellebuyck has started 11 of the team’s 14 games, so in all likelihood that’s who New Jersey will see between the pipes tonight. It’s been a bit of a slow start for Hellebuyck, as he comes in sporting a Save Percentage of .892 and a Goals Against Average of 2.98. This looks bad on the surface, but according to Natural Stat Trick, Hellebuyck has actually saved 1.27 Goals Above Expected this season. So even though the numbers don’t look pretty, things could be worse for the former Vezina trophy winner.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg’s team defense has been an immovable object over their first 14 games. Natural Stat Trick has the Jets rated as the best team in the entire NHL in Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.

And NST isn’t alone:

New Jersey’s offense has been acceptable if unspectacular with Hughes and Hischier out, but tonight will be a very difficult test for them.

Your Take

What do you make of the lineup shuffling? Do you expect a big game from any Devil in particular tonight? Who will you be keeping an eye out for on Winnipeg’s side? As always, thanks for reading!