- With embarrassing losses against the Rangers and the Red Wings, the Devils spent a Thanksgiving day practice having a few heart-to-heart conversations as they returned to Newark to host the Columbus Blue Jackets.
- Despite all the talk of change that came from the Thanksgiving day practice, the Devils seemed as disinterested in playing today as they did against the Red Wings.
- Though they tried for 3⁄4 of the third period, their attempts came forty minutes too late, and they lost 2-1.
- The season nears its point of no return.
Everyone in the pre-Thanksgiving day game thread who was hoping for a 12-6 roster for this game got their wish—sort of. In reality, the Devils’ twelfth forward was none other than Brendan Smith. Smith moonlights as a forward, but he was drafted as a defenseman and has played most of his career on the back end. So whether or not the roster listed twelve forwards and six defensemen, it’s a technicality. They once again rostered 11-7, with Smith splitting his time on forward during even-strength situations and defense shorthanded. I think that gives some insight into Ruff’s decision-making. He wants Smith on the penalty kill.
Interesting turn of events here as it appears Brendan Smith is lining up to take rushes as a forward on the fourth line. #NJDevils— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) November 24, 2023
Akira Schmid got the start in net. Spoilers for the rest of the first period summary: the Blue Jackets scored twice, neither was Akira’s fault, but those goals will still count as black marks against his stats and likely in the eyes of the coaching staff.
Our favorite Devils players, and the coaches, talked a big game yesterday and today. They had Thanksgiving day practice, which very much felt like a Herb Brooks “if you don’t work on game days, we’ll work now” sort of move. They had a well-publicized meeting at center ice, and additional meetings between players off the ice. Erik Haula and Lindy Ruff spoke to the media about the tough conversations that were ongoing between players and staff. They spoke about how they were arrogant from last season’s success and weren’t playing the right way. Well, anybody watching a Devils game this season could see that. Nevertheless, I expected them to come out with some verve. I expected them to fight back. I expected something.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice—stop fooling me, darn it! Just do it. After all the talk about them playing the right way, they did not play the right way for forty minutes. By the time they began, it was far too late.
They almost gave up an odd-man rush in the first three minutes off a blue-line turnover. There were few shots through the start, but the Blue Jackets played with sticks in passing and shooting lanes, and positioned bodies through the middle. It made it difficult for the Devils to cycle through the middle of the ice. At the other end, the Blue Jackets generated a few shots but nothing too dangerous until they started breaking through the neutral zone on the rush. Schmid made a good sprawling save on a bouncing puck but otherwise wasn’t tested with quality opportunities until later. The Devils looked scared in their own end. Scared of making mistakes, scared of the puck, scared of their own net. Except for Luke Hughes and a few notable others, they walked on eggshells in the defensive zone during the first period.
Naturally, the Blue Jackets scored first. On the rush, Hamilton and Siegenthaler both covered Johnny Gaudreau, who was streaking down the left side and truly was not in a prime scoring position. With both Devils defenders shadowing Gaudreau, it was simple for him to saucer a pass to the front of the net, which was wide open. Boone Jenner set up on the back door, snapped the puck past a stretching Schmid, and the Blue Jackets took the 1-0 lead. By the halfway point of the first, the Devils had only shot the puck four times versus the Jackets’ eight.
Then the Devils showed some life. Ondrej Palat on the forecheck forced a turnover to Alex Holtz, who showed enough presence of mind to circle back into the zone, collect the puck on the right circle, and wrist a hard shot through one of the tiniest slots in goalie coverage I’ve ever seen to briefly tie the game at one apiece.
Steals and deals courtesy for Pally and Holtz. pic.twitter.com/mIPXrFwpWF— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 24, 2023
Minutes later, Luke Hughes made a bad turnover almost in front of the net. They were lucky no real scoring chance arose from that situation. Luke needed to make that play with more urgency or not at all.
Whatever momentum Holtz generated from his goal, his double-minor penalty for a high stick that drew blood from Patrik Laine sapped from New Jersey. I’ll fault Holtz for practically standing still on a rush and not moving his feet, but it’s hard to entirely fault him for the penalty. His stick hit McLeod’s and rode up on Laine. He was unlucky that it also drew blood. On the penalty kill, they almost created a shorthanded breakaway were it not for netminder Elvis Merzlikins charging out to play the puck away from Haula. The Blue Jackets sustained lots of offensive pressure on their back-to-back power plays, but they only generated a single shot on goal. Schmid got it with the pad. The Devils’ penalty kill broke up some passes, but the Blue Jackets are also just bad.
The second goal they surrendered hurt all the worse because of the successful double-kill. Hamilton pinched into the offensive zone to make a play with the puck. But for some inane reason, once the puck made it to the other side of the zone (thereby out of his ability to affect), he never returned to his original position on the right blueline. The Blue Jackets were waiting for this exact scenario. Eric Robinson slipped behind Hamilton and Justin Danforth found him with a long pass that Hamilton dove for—but never had any shot at stopping. Robinson scored on the ensuing breakaway. It was clearly something opposing coaches have instilled in their teams: whenever a New Jersey defenseman activates, they slip a forward behind him. I don’t know why Hamilton hung out by the faceoff circle after he completed the pinch, but I also don’t know why a center or wing didn’t cover for him. It was mostly Hamilton’s fault. He should’ve returned to his spot. But it’s evident there’s no communication between players on the ice, either before the puck drops or while the play is ongoing. Who is the shotcaller on ice? Currently, it’s nobody.
The Devils entered the second period down 2-1.
The second began with more bad injury news. Curtis Lazar did not return to the Devils’ bench for the period, meaning the team was down to ten competent forwards and one Brendan Smith up front. Patrik Laine, the recipient of Holtz’s errant stick, eventually returned to the Columbus bench about halfway through the period.
With no Curtis Lazar on the ice for #NJDevils at the start of the second, some line changes happening starting with— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) November 24, 2023
I’m not going to lie, I don’t have much to write about the second. It was a snoozefest. Just two bad teams playing boring hockey. McLeod forced a pass that wasn’t there instead of driving the net, Hughes and Toffoli connected for something that might’ve resembled a scoring chance, a three-on-two ended up in Bratt’s skates, and Luke Hughes rattled a slap shot off the post. The three-on-two eventually ended up in the Devils’ zone for a scoring chance against. That was pretty much everything. Bratt could’ve had a great chance alone, but another poke check from Merzlikins stifled the scoring opportunity.
That closed-door meeting not looking like it's done much thus far.#NJDevils— James Nichols (@JamesNicholsNHL) November 24, 2023
The league’s best power play team went to work after the halfway point, and even the Devils’ man advantage unit looked like they’d loaded their pockets with metal ball bearings. They passed back and forth a lot. Beyond Hamilton mistaking a Blue Jackets defender for the net and annihilating him with a slap shot, almost nothing happened on the power play. The Devils did sustain some small pressure in the dying minutes of the period, but Merzlikins saw every puck and—though there were rebounds to capitalize on—they had no follow-through. Aside from Alexander Holtz, who I fully expect to see in the dog house in the next few games for no reason, nobody laid hits, dug deep in the corners, or looked like they cared.
The Devils looked sharper on their passes to start the third, and a power play in the first five minutes actually generated a few scoring chances. In what was a common theme throughout the day, however, shots that made their way to the net were rarely followed up on. In a game (and stretch of games) where the Devils needed to capitalize on net-front garbage goals, they showed zero tenacity in front and in the dirty areas of the ice. Merzlikins made the stops he needed to make, but his job was artificially easy. He may have made 28 stops by 14:00 in the third, but fewer than a handful were dangerous.
Another breakaway snuck behind Bahl and Marino just past the halfway point of the period, but Schmid was equal to the task and made an excellent stop on Gaudreau to keep the deficit at one. Schmid has had several subpar games this season, but he’s played overall far better than Vanecek. He deserves more starts through December. I doubt we’ll see him tomorrow for the second half of a back-to-back. But I’d give him a month as the starter, at least.
Jonas Siegenthaler took a hooking penalty on Laine, sending a Devils team that seemed like it might actually score to the penalty kill. Though the Blue Jackets weren’t able to cycle effectively enough for a scoring chance, it still broke up New Jersey’s momentum. With the goalie pulled, Jack Hughes rang one off the post and Jesper Bratt had a chance on the back door, but this was a very passive man advantage. With an offensive zone draw, the official faked a puck drop enough to throw McLeod out of the circle. He then tried to throw out the Blue Jacket too, twice, but the Jacket refused and apparently you can just do that. The puck dropped, the Jackets sent the puck down the ice, and the Devils lost 2-1.
This game sucked.
The Devils need an x-ray or else they’ll need an autopsy
Both goals were inexcusable. Full stop. They were fully preventable had the defense done their job, but they didn’t and it cost the Devils twice. The first goal saw Siegenthaler inexplicably try to swap places with Hamilton, even though Gaudreau was Hamilton’s man to cover and he should’ve shifted to guard the front of the net. Hamilton was slow on the uptake and didn’t take Siegenthaler’s spot, which meant that Jenner got one of the easier goals he’ll likely have this year. It was poor decision-making plain and simple, first from Siegenthaler for forgetting his assignment and how to play his position, then from Hamilton for not recognizing that the situation had changed and he needed to cover the front.
The second goal was almost entirely on Hamilton. Once he completed his maneuver to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone, he needed to retake his position on the blue line. Toffoli was the man back but, understandably, circled back into the zone to cut off the developing Columbus breakout. I’m sure it’s because he assumed that Hamilton was where he was supposed to be. Hamilton was so far from his expected position that he was forced to make a laughable dive to stop the pass. Of course, he failed to do so. Luke Hughes might deserve some very small slice of the blame, as he also appeared unaware that the Blue Jackets had slipped Robinson far up the ice. I am a Hamilton defender to a degree. He was excellent last season, and in the future I expect he’ll be excellent again—I hope. But today was one of his worst performances in a Devils jersey. It’s hard to overstate how lifeless and questionable his hockey decisions were when he should be a lock for the top ten in Norris voting every year.
The Devils also did not have a functioning fourth line tonight. It’s always the risk you take going 11-7. If a forward gets injured, suddenly you only have three lines and a spare. Well, Curtis Lazar only played four minutes after sustaining an injury, leaving Tierney as the only true remaining forward for the fourth line. Smith played up front today, but he’s not a forward, even if that’s where he played. Tierney and Smith each played just over eight minutes. Eight minutes of ice time is not enough to warrant rostering Smith just to use him on the penalty kill. Per Natural Stat Trick, Smith had very positive possession numbers but an awful xGF%, which I think tells the story of his game. The shots that happened when he was on the ice were low-danger chances. His actual impact on the game was negative.
Can we not give Graeme Clarke or Nolan Foot a shot?
The Bedard draft was last season, folks
A far cry from last season’s electric hockey, these Devils have all the life of an Ambien sleepwalker, and sometimes even less. They ostensibly outshot the Blue Jackets, but the possession stats were misleading. Columbus played better hockey, which isn’t saying much as they still looked bad—especially in the third period.
The record will show that Elvis Merzlikins had an outstanding game. I don’t think that is true. Rather, Merzlikins had a very busy but straightforward game. He had enough action to keep his mind present, but very few shots required him to make more than a routine save, and almost never did he need to make more than one.
This heat map looked very different after the second. After two periods, you could see white space through the entire middle of the Devils’ offensive zone. On a team with the supposed rugged stalwarts Palat and Bastion, and the skill throughout the rest of the lineup, the Devils were completely boxed out of the middle except for the third period, when they generated a few shots from the point. Their chances also largely came from sharp angles, leaving Merzlikins to square up and make a single save to earn first star of the night. There were rebounds, but the Devils weren’t there to capitalize on them. Merzlikins was good. But they were not goalied. They lost because they couldn’t force Merzlikins into difficult positions. I do not want to see a single Devils player or staff member writing this game off as an unlucky game where they faced a hot goaltender. That is a lie.
Contrast that with the Blue Jackets. Their side of the heat map shows a team that also struggles to create offense, but they painted the Devils’ net with attempts. What’s worse, they wasted a strong effort from Akira Schmid, who was perfect through the second and third periods and made several breakaway saves.
After two horrible periods, they showed up for most of the third period. Though again, they were forced from the middle of the ice and lacked follow-up on rebounds. Is Nico Hischier so crucial to the on-ice leadership that not having him on the ice or bench is catastrophic? Has the team’s minor, small success last season spoiled this group so completely that they think they can talk big to the media and that will translate onto the ice? The only two players I was entirely happy with were Akira Schmid and Alexander Holtz. Two players who, notably, did not spend all of last season with the NHL club.
Leadership and communication should not be problems. The core may be young, but there are veterans with plenty of NHL success on this team. We’ve heard countless times that Ondrej Palat won Stanley Cups with Tampa Bay. Toffoli won with LA, though he at least has led by example more often than not. Who is calling plays on the ice? Who is communicating? The answer might be nobody. Which, if true, is far more worrisome than bad goaltending or odd-man rushes. Those are symptoms of larger problems. But if there’s a disease, it permeates all the way to the Devils’ heart.
What do the Devils need to do to start winning? Where can they start against Buffalo tomorrow? Who were you happy with tonight? Let us know in the comments below.