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Game Preview #18: New Jersey Devils vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Coming off their first shutout loss in two seasons, the Devils look to get back in the win column against the Blue Jackets

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NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (8-8-1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (5-11-4)

The Time: 3:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN, BSOH

Last Devils Game

Arguably their worst game of the season, a 4-0 shutout loss to the Red Wings in Detroit on Thanksgiving Eve. In the recap, Caleb said right in the headline that the Devils embarrassed themselves, and I don’t disagree.

Last Blue Jackets Game

Sweet, sweet relief for the Jackets, as they snapped an epic losing streak with a 7-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Zach Werenski led the way with a four point night (all assists), while Elvis Merzlikins picked up the win, stopping 33 of 36 shots.

The Vibes Are Less Than Ideal

Devils fans are not happy right now. And why would they be? The team is below .500 17 games into the season, a place no one thought this team would be this late into the campaign (yes I know technically they are at “NHL .500”, but they’ve lost more games than they’ve won, so as far as I’m concerned they have a losing record).

Injuries have certainly taken their toll, that can’t be ignored. Losing players as good as Nico Hischier (more on him below), Jack Hughes, and Timo Meier would put a big dent in any team. But in their absence, too few players have stepped up. The Boston Bruins lost Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci and they continue to sit near the top of the standings. The Florida Panthers had to do without Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour through roughly the first month of the season and they currently sit at 12-6-1. And how many seasons did the Pittsburgh Penguins put up terrific results with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and/or Kris Letang missing significant time? The point is, the NHL is filled with examples of teams losing key contributors and being just fine. The Devils have not proven they can do that yet.

The defense is a mess, the offense just put up it’s worst outing of the season, and the goaltending is simply not giving this team a chance to win. On top of that, the coaching staff is coming under fire for a perceived lack of adjustments and not getting this team ready to play (not to mention an unacceptable amount of Too Many Men penalties). Nothing seems to be going right for New Jersey, and the Devils have to find a way to turn the ship around fast before it hits the iceberg.

The Glass Half Full Approach

I know I just said that nothing seems to be going right for this team right now, but let me at least attempt to prove myself wrong.

According to Natural Stat Trick, here are some stats and where the Devils rank league-wide in each category. All numbers are for 5-on-5 play:

Corsi For%: 55.30% (5th in the NHL)

Scoring Chances For%: 58.48% (1st!!!)

High Danger Corsi For%: 55.09% (7th)

Expected Goals For%: 53.93% (6th)

Those are...shockingly good numbers based on how things are going for the Devils.

As much as I believe in analytics though, I feel that public models such as this one overrates the Devils. New Jersey has a habit of giving up grade A+++ scoring chances against that don’t seem to be properly rated by these models. A good example is the tweet below:

I think public models are valuable tools, but they have their limitations. That being said, I’m trying to be optimistic right now, so I will say that I don’t think the incredibly rosy numbers above are complete mirages. I have been very discouraged by what I’ve seen from the Devils this season, but if I take a step back and try to look on the bright side, I would say that this is still a very good team. Once they get fully healthy they are capable of going on a run that gets them right back where they should be, and as much as the goaltending has sunk them so far, it can’t be this bad all season long...right?

Goaltending Concerns

Another game, another clunker from a Devils goaltender. Vitek Vanecek gave up four goals on 28 shots, good for a save percentage of .857%. Vanecek now sits at an alarming .886 sv% on the season, a number that is nowhere close to acceptable for a starting goalie. It’s hard to believe The Vitek is this bad, but whether this is his true talent level or not, he needs to start stacking quality starts ASAP.

With that in mind, I would guess that we will see Akira Schmid in net today. The 23-year old sports a similarly dismal .885 sv% in six games played this season. It’s safe to say the goalie play has been a huge problem to this point, and while I am not nearly qualified enough to know how to fix this, the Devils employ numerous people who are. If any one of them can find a way to start squeezing saves out of Vanecek or Schmid, that would be much appreciated.

“Honest Conversations”

The Devils held a practice on Thanksgiving, which appeared to spark what the team is calling some honest conversations:

On the surface, this is encouraging. Seeing a player like Erik Haula acknowledge that the team has been “arrogant” and that they’re “not respecting the game” is a refreshing bit of candor. However this begs two questions for me: One, why was the team arrogant and not respecting the game in the first place? And two, what are they actually going to do to fix it?

It’s great to see this acknowledgment, but as Brendan Smith said in the video above, talk is cheap. Well Brendan, I think I speak for Devils fans everywhere when I say we’re rooting for you and the rest of the team to back up your talk on the ice.

Hischier on the Horizon?

Nico Hischier returned to practice this week, which is one of the most encouraging bits of news the Devils have had in a while aside from Jack Hughes’ return to action. He didn’t play on Wednesday, but it’s possible we see his return this afternoon. The captain has missed roughly the last month after taking a headshot from the Buffalo Sabres’ Connor Clifton, and his presence has been dearly missed.

Whether he returns today or at a later date, I would assume he will be eased in for a while once he does return to the ice (though head coach Lindy Ruff didn’t hesitate to throw Hughes back into the deep end when he came back). So expectations should be tempered for a little bit. But even limited minutes of Hischier would be huge for the team.

End of an Era

It took 101 games, but the Devils finally suffered another shutout defeat. New Jersey went the entirety of the 2022-23 season without being held scoreless, a massively impressive feat for any team. Before being shut out by the Red Wings on Wednesday, the last time the Devils were blanked was...against the Red Wings. On April 24th, 2022 to be exact:

This streak obviously couldn’t last forever, but it was a great ride while it lasted. Maybe this is the wake up call the Devils need.

The Blue Jackets’ Blues

Things have been pretty awful in Columbus this season. Prior to their big win over Chicago in their last game, the Blue Jackets endured a nine-game losing streak, going 0-7-2 over that stretch. The Jackets currently sit dead last not just in the Metropolitan Division, but the entire Eastern Conference with a paltry 14 points.

Their season got off to a tumultuous start before it even began with the entire Mike Babcock hiring/firing saga. I don’t know how the organization could have expected anything different from a man with as repulsive of a reputation as Babcock, but credit to them for rectifying their mistake I suppose, though that’s damning with faint praise.

With Babcock gone, Columbus decided to tab Pascal Vincent as their next head coach. Vincent’s track record includes time as a head coach in the AHL and an assistant coaching stint with the Winnipeg Jets before he joined the Blue Jackets as an associate coach in 2021. The first time bench boss has not been afraid to run a very tight ship, benching and healthy scratching a number of key players. The healthy scratching of Patrik Laine was particularly contentious, with Laine openly saying he felt “blindsided” and “not happy” about it.

It’s been a truly dysfunctional time for the Blue Jackets organization, and even though the team did just snap their nine-game skid, the Devils should (emphasis on should) be able to take advantage of a struggling opponent.

So What Has Gone Right in Columbus?

Well not much to be honest. But if you want some bright spots, Adam Fantilli appears to be the real deal. Columbus took the Michigan product with the third overall pick in this past entry draft, and he’s put together as promising a start to his career as Blue Jackets fans could have hoped for. Through 20 games this season, Fantilli has registered four goals and 10 points, and his 5-on-5 underlying numbers have been a bit of a mixed bag but generally promising from a 19-year old rookie:

CF%: 50.29% (4th-best on the team)

SCF%: 51.25% (6th-best)

HDCF%: 47.25% (12th-best)

xGF%: 49.60% (9th-best)

Obviously he’s not a finished product, but the fact that Fantilli is this good this quickly has to be very encouraging.

Fantilli does not lead the Blue Jackets in scoring though. That honor belongs to Zach Werenski, who is up to 15 points in 18 games. Of his 15 points, only one of them is a goal however, so he’s been producing almost exclusively through dishing the puck this season.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Boone Jenner is making a serious bid for the Cy Young award with a stat line of 10 goals and three assists. His 13 points is tied for second on the team with the newly imported Ivan Provorov, who has thus far put up a Werenski-esque line of one goal and 12 assists. Quite a strange breakdown of point distribution for Columbus’ top three scorers.

The Triumphant Return Will Have to Wait

Prior to this past summer, Damon Severson had spent his entire professional career as a member of the New Jersey Devils organization. Severson was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft, made the big club in 2014, and played nine seasons with the Devils before heading to the Blue Jackets in a sign-and-trade. Credit to general manager Tom Fitzgerald for getting an asset for a player he was never going to be able to keep.

Today would have been Severson’s first game back in New Jersey as a member of another team. But this past Sunday against the Flyers, Severson suffered what the Blue Jackets are calling an oblique injury and will miss approximately six weeks. Looking at the schedule, it’s very possible we will not be seeing Severson skate in New Jersey at all this season. Columbus plays the Devils four times in 2023-24, with two of those games taking place at The Rock. After today, the only other home game against the Blue Jackets falls on December 27th. Assuming Severson doesn’t beat that six week timeline, he won’t be healthy enough to play a little over a month from now. We should see him skate against the Devils in the final matchup of the regular season between these two teams though, which would be a January 19th game in Columbus.

Severson was a polarizing player amongst Devils fans to say the least. His underlying numbers always looked great and he had a few seasons where he put up pretty big point totals. But he is also well known around these parts for his inexplicable defensive gaffes, many of them being mistakes that a player of his experience should not be making.

So with that being the case, it will come as a surprise to nobody that the Blue Jackets seem to be getting the same Damon Severson experience we have witnessed since the 2014-15 season. Prior to his injury, Severson was a victim of Pascal Vincent’s itchy trigger (benching) finger back on October 16th in a game against the Red Wings. But other than that game, Vincent apparently liked what he saw from Severson, as he’s averaged the third-highest average time on ice (20:54) this season among skaters, behind only Werenski and Provorov. And of course, living up to his reputation, Severson has continued to be an analytics darling since moving to Ohio. Here are his 5-on-5 stats via NST:

CF%: 50.64% (Best on the team)

SCF%: 51.26% (5th-best)

HDCF%: 52.24% (4th-best)

xGF%: 50.41% (7th-best)

For me personally, I was a fan of Severson during his time in red and black. Yes of course he could drive me crazy with some of his horrific defensive blunders, but I was of the opinion that the good far outweighed the bad with him. Upon being pushed down to a third pairing role last year, Severson played a big part in a franchise-record setting season by absolutely obliterating easier matchups for New Jersey. I thought Severson was a good soldier during a lot of losing years (and a couple winning years) with the Devils, and I wish him well in his recovery.

The Other Former Almost Devil

As you all probably know, New Jersey native Johnny Gaudreau reached free agency two summers ago. It was rumored that the Devils were strong contenders to sign him. He did not sign with the Devils (breaking news!), shockingly opting for a long term deal with Columbus instead. Gaudreau struggled relative to his lofty expectations last year, and he is struggling even more this year, to the tune of a two goal, eight point stat line through 20 games this season. His underlying numbers are all mediocre at best as well, with none of his 5-on-5 CF%, SCF%, HDCF%, and xGF% breaking even 49%.

I will admit, I do not share the same vitriol for Johnny Hockey as a lot of Devils fans do. It would have been cool if he signed with the club in 2022, but I do not begrudge him for his decision. But I also know many Devils fans are upset with Gaudreau for spurning his homeland, and I don’t blame those fans either. So I figure an update on how his season is going is certainly worth including.

The Tide is (Hopefully) Turning

Until last season, the Devils seemingly never won against Columbus. But after losing approximately five-trillion games in a row to the Jackets, New Jersey swept the three-game season series in 2022-23. In fact, the Devils largely demolished their division rivals last season, winning their games by scores of 7-1, 3-2, and 8-1. That 18-4 aggregate score was downright cathartic to witness. If I could make a request of the Devils, more of that please.

Your Take

I hope you all had a Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s hope the Devils give us reasons to be thankful very soon.

The Devils got embarrassed in their last game, but the club is now saying all the right things heading into this afternoon tilt against Columbus. Do you think they will back up their words? Who do you want to see step up the most? Are there any Blue Jackets you will be keeping an eye on? As always, thanks for reading!