The New Jersey Devils have issues.
I wrote last week that the Devils need to tread water and survive the best they can in the interim while Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are on the shelf. I mentioned that one of the things I wanted to see cleaned up in their absence was their porous play defensively and the amount of odd-man rushes they gave up after Colorado boatraced them.
Since then, the Devils have done the exact opposite of what I wanted, losing three in a row, getting outscored 16-7 in those games, and falling to 5th place in the Metropolitan Division, with matchups against the Penguins and Rangers looming later in the week.
The Devils not having their two best players certainly isn’t helping matters, as Hughes led the NHL in scoring at the time of his injury and Hischier is a proven commodity as an all-situations top line center. It would be easy to point to the two of them being out of the lineup and suggest that they’re losing in part because they’re missing those players.
That would not be entirely accurate though. Not even close.
That’s not to say that Hughes and Hischier aren’t important pieces to what makes this Devils team go. But through 14 games this season, we have consistently seen why the Devils are falling behind in these games and why they’re ultimately losing them.
Starting with the goaltending, Vitek Vanecek has been absolutely dreadful this season. This isn’t entirely surprising considering his struggles since he won 10 decisions in a row way back in January of last season. Since then, he’s posted an .887 save percentage in regular season and postseason games. His -3.6 goals saved above expected this season ranks 45th out of all NHL goaltenders with at least 5 appearances, according to MoneyPuck. Vanecek is barely beating out Jack Campbell, who recently cleared waivers for the Oilers, and a struggling Ville Husso in Detroit. This is not good enough for a team that should be serious about contending for championships, but if you’ve been paying attention, you knew last spring that this level of goaltending wasn’t going to cut it.
I had planned to write this week about how I thought the Devils were making a mistake not playing Akira Schmid more, but after he channeled his inner Jon Gillies last night with a negative 2.64 goals saved above expected dud of a performance in a 6-3 loss to the Jets, its tough to sit here and say the Devils are definitively better with Schmid than they are with Vanecek. Maybe they are? I THINK they are. That said, I don’t know how anyone can say that with confidence at this moment. I also do not see Erik Kallgren or Keith Kinkaid being a better alternative than the incumbents on the NHL roster currently, nor do I see a trade anytime soon to bail the Devils out of this mess. I’d probably give Schmid a little extended run anyways since he’s the higher upside play between him and Vanecek at this point, but it’s beginning to look like a Vanecek-Schmid tandem was a big mistake.
But again, the Devils issues go beyond nobody being able to get a save. They have been dreadful defensively all season, regardless of personnel and regardless of which zone they’re in. It’s the odd man rushes, defensive zone giveaways, bad defensive positioning, bad pinches, bad structure, bad puck management, and their inability to clear the puck out of the defensive zone. All of these have ultimately led to the same result, which is the puck winding up in the back of the net. Yes, I get neither goaltender can stop a beach ball right now and that is exasperating the problem. Yes, the Devils have gotten a little bit unlucky in these games, such as Jonas Siegenthaler losing an edge on the 4th goal against last night or Josh Morrissey bodying Kevin Bahl prior to the 5th goal against. But when it continually happens night after night, its not luck so much as its a trend, and its not a trend so much as it is who you are as a team. Add in selfish decision making, such as Tyler Toffoli taking an unnecessary cross-checking penalty that led to a power play goal against or the trio of Nathan Bastian, Luke Hughes, and Dougie Hamilton all being caught below the goal line on the Jets third goal with Nikolaj Ehlers having half of an open net to shoot at, and rinse and repeat. It’s the same issues we have seen every game, except we’re just changing the names of the guilty parties every game night.
The biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s team is that last year, we at least occasionally saw dominant defensive performances. Yes, we did see bad defensive performances as well, but there was good in there over the course of 82. We saw competent, “league average” goaltending after begging for years just to be average in net. We saw games where the Devils would step on the opposition’s throat at 5v5 for sixty minutes and never let up. Have we seen a full, sixty minute effort ONCE this season? In any of those aspects? I’d argue that outside of maybe the Chicago game (and that’s debatable), the answer is no.
It is almost impossible to win in this league consistently when you are constantly surrendering 4+ goals a game. The Devils are at 3.92 goals against per game, with only Minnesota and San Jose surrendering goals at a higher rate. I don’t care how explosive the Devils offense is with or without Hughes and Hischier. It is not easy to score 4 goals a game, let alone 5. And let’s be clear.....the Devils should not have to score 5 goals on any given night to win. Even if you take out the empty net goals against (6 ENG in 14 games), the Devils are still being scored on at an alarming rate of nearly 3.5 goals against per game. I don’t think its asking too much to make three Devils goals stand up and be enough to win on most nights.
It’s at this point where I’m not even sure what the Devils can do to tighten things up. Presumably, Lindy Ruff and the coaching staff are aware of these deficiencies and preaching this during practices, morning skates, and between periods. The problem is that between this being a recurring issue and the Devils propensity to get off to slow starts, the message just isn’t getting through. I’m not saying “Fire Lindy” is necessarily back on. He’s not the one out there on the ice making these mistakes night in and night out.
There is some sort of disconnect where the players just aren’t getting it, and every mistake is amplified by the fact the puck will likely wind up in the back of the Devils net. If that last sentence sounds familiar, its because I wrote some variant of it in plenty of game recaps while the Devils played out the string in 2021-22 with some combination of Andrew Hammond, Jon Gillies, and Nico Daws in net. And these games look awfully similar to those games. Again, I’m not saying it’s time to fire the coach. Just keep in mind that its easier to jettison the coach than half the roster and the Devils will have to decide at some point if they’re going to need to do something drastic to try to salvage the season. Either way, the team clearly has an issue starting on time, and even when they do manage to start on time, they still fall behind in these games....last night in Winnipeg being a prime example.
Of course, Tom Fitzgerald shouldn’t be let off the hook either when it comes to criticism. This is the roster he assembled, and there have been enough instances with personnel where I’m wondering if the Devils might have made major mistakes with some of the big deals they’ve handed out whether its Hamilton, Siegenthaler, or Ondrej Palat. I’m wondering if the Devils added too many players who are slow and ineffective to fill out their bottom six such as Tomas Nosek, Curtis Lazar, or Chris Tierney. Again, it’s probably way too early to panic on any of those players in particular, and it’s probably too early to suggest they made a mistake letting Ryan Graves and Damon Severson walk. After all, its not like Graves and Severson didn’t each have moments where they both looked lost defensively (which only further bolsters my theory that this is a coaching and/or execution problem). But I do wonder how long Fitz will stand for this. Eventually, the Devils are going to have to start winning games again. Unless they plan on punting this season (which is unacceptable, ask Connor McDavid if he’s happy the Oilers have wasted this many seasons of his prime), time is ticking for them to win games and stay in the playoff race.
Yes, the Devils will be better when Hughes is back. Perhaps he’ll be back as soon as Thursday in Pittsburgh or this weekend against the Rangers. And while Hischier’s timeline is murkier, any NHL team would be better with him than without him in the lineup. But until the Devils clean things up defensively in their own end, make things easier on their beleaguered goaltenders, and make it so Jack Hughes doesn’t have to be Superman just for them to potentially win games 5-4, its tough to take the New Jersey Devils seriously as contenders.