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Moore-On or Moron: Quarter Season Edition

With roughly 25% of the 2023-24 season in the books, lets ponder some Devils takes and whether or not they’re good.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at New York Islanders
Nico is back. Can the Devils finally put a run together?
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Roughly eight weeks ago, I debuted a new column series aptly titled “Moore-On or Moron”, with the premise being that I would tackle some thoughts that have crossed my mind while watching the New Jersey Devils and gauge whether or not I’m on to something (hence, Moore-On) or if I’m a moron for suggesting it.

Since then, a lot has changed in regards to the Devils. Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier have missed time and have since returned to the lineup. The goaltending has been mediocre at best on its good days and Jon Gillies-level bad on its worst. The team defense as a whole has been a mixed bag, with a lot more bad than good. The team has made a habit out of not starting games on time and flat out playing lethargic, lifeless hockey. All of that makes it all the more infuriating and frustrating when you see a dominant effort like what we saw Saturday against Buffalo and wonder why we’re not seeing efforts like that more consistently.

So with 25% of the season in the books, now is as good a time as any to take the temperature of the team, throw out some takes that I’ve been sitting on the last few days and/or weeks and see which ones are worthy of being placed on the refrigerator next to my 4th grade report card and which ones might need a little more time in the oven.

The Returns of Nico Hischier & Jack Hughes Fix Everything For This Team

How’s this for a novel concept? Team loses their two best players. Team struggles without them and the other flaws with the Devils (most of which I already previously pointed out) are amplified as a result. Team eventually gets those two players back and they look like world-beaters in the first game back for the captain. Both players play key roles in the Devils comeback win last night against the Islanders as well. Everything is fixed and the team is now poised to go on a run, right?

For the most part, yes. Having Jack and Nico back fixes a lot. But there’s a catch.

I wrote a few weeks ago how the team had issues beyond missing their two best players and I still believe that. I cited bad team defense and bad goaltending as the two main culprits. Getting Hughes and Hischier back should help the former to the extent that the best defense is a good offense, Hughes’s best contribution in that regard is how gifted he is in the offensive zone, and we know how important Hischier’s two-way game is for this team’s success. And I do think there’s something to the idea of the emotional lift of getting your leader(s) back.

I’m still concerned with the latter though, as neither goaltender has really distinguished themselves. I still have reservations when it comes to the Devils defensively as a whole, and charts like this don’t exactly line up with the eye test when watching the games. I’ve seen enough mistakes from all of the defensemen and enough odd-man rushes to last a lifetime and we’re barely 20 games into the season. Color me skeptical, but this is why I say I need to see more than the Buffalo game where the Devils are so dominant defensively that they limit the opposition to 12 shots on goal and basically idiot-proof the game for the goaltender, regardless of who it is.

Again, I do think having Hughes and Hischier back will help. Once Hughes regains his early season form when he was scoring 4 points a night (which he might have with 3 points last night and 9 SOG), and once Hischier gets going both offensively and defensively (which, he looks the part offensively), that will mask these issues to where all the Devils need is “average goaltending” to be where they were a year ago.

Verdict: Moore-On in the sense that having Hischier & Hughes back fixes a lot. Moron in the sense that it doesn’t literally fix everything.

Alex Holtz Looks Like He’s Finally Starting to “Get It”

Here’s another novel concept. A talented yet inexperienced player might play better if he’s not walking on eggshells and looking over his shoulder for the coach to staple him to the bench the first time he makes a mistake. With more NHL experience, said player starts adjusting to NHL speed. He then starts to put it all together, not only when it comes to things like finishing checks, but also knowing how to get to the front of the net to show off his best asset....a lethal shot.

Who woulda thunk it?

It’s interesting that he’s probably seeing his most success to this point on a line with Erik Haula (who is now injured and hopefully is back soon) and Michael McLeod, but theoretically, Haula and McLeod are capable of playing with tenacity, winning puck battles, and doing the dirty work that doesn’t show up on a chart. I’m sure playing with a couple veterans who play that way is starting to rub off on Holtz, but more importantly, it also puts Holtz in a position to get to the high danger areas if one of his teammates can find him the puck. Even last night, I think we saw Holtz’s presence going to the net lead to the McLeod goal early and helped contribute to the Lazar goal late.

I don’t know that Holtz will finish with the 26 goals he’s on pace for, but if he can pot 20 or so in his first full NHL season and continue to improve his play away from the puck, that’ll go a long way.

Verdict: Moore-On.

The Dougie Hamilton Contract is Already a Problem

When the Devils signed Dougie Hamilton as a free agent in 2021, they knew what they were getting. They were getting one of the best offensive defensemen of his era.

The Devils were also getting a guy who isn’t known for being a stellar defensive defenseman despite playing top pairing minutes.

On the surface, it doesn’t appear that Hamilton is experiencing a dropoff in offensive production. His points/60 is down slightly from a career year last year (2.5 to 2.4), and so are his shots/60 (9.2 to 8.7) despite his CF% and xG% being up. His PDO is also .969, which is suggesting if anything, he’s been unlucky.

With that said, the eye test says he has looked brutal defensively at times. Look no further than the Columbus game last Friday and Lindy Ruff’s comments on his defensive play in the game. Hamilton has never been the fastest skater and he’s taking more penalties than he ever has before because he’s getting beat as much as he is in his own end. Hamilton isn’t necessarily already too old or washed up, as he just turned 30 years old earlier this year, but the dropoff for defenseman can be steep. Unfortunately, we might be seeing that dropoff Year 3 into a 7-year deal.

Verdict: Moron, mostly.

With four more seasons at $9M AAV remaining on his deal, Hamilton is going nowhere anytime soon. So there’s no sense in worrying about finding a way out of that deal now when it’ll REALLY be an issue in Year 7 of that deal (at which point, it’ll likely be bought out). The Devils knew what they were signing up for and its the cost of doing business in UFA.

That doesn’t mean the Devils shouldn’t consider scaling back his ice time to some extent though and try to not lean so heavily on him. Luke Hughes has already usurped him as the top defenseman on the PP1 unit, but the Devils might be better off as a team if they move the Jonas Siegenthaler-Dougie Hamilton pairing down and get them easier matchups.

This might be another instance though where the best defense is a good offense, and Hamilton can silence the naysayers if he puts the puck in the back of the net more often. It’s a skill that not a lot of defensemen have, and the Devils are paying Hamilton well to do exactly that. So if he has indeed been a little unlucky, one would figure there would be some regression at some point.

As fans, we’ll have to live with Hamilton’s shortcomings defensively. That pill will be a lot easier to swallow though if he remains an elite offensive defenseman, and he should be that for at least a few more years, health permitting. We’ll see on that front though, as he didn’t play in the third period of last night’s game due to some sort of injury.

Akira Schmid Should Be the Devils #1 Goaltender (Until They Address the Position in Some Capacity)

The Devils are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to their goaltending rotation. They have two options and neither one is great.

Unfortunately, Lindy Ruff has more often than not picked the wrong one.

Vitek Vanecek (-5.5 goals saved above expected, 55th in the NHL among goaltenders with 5 or more games) has struggled more than Akira Schmid (-2.6 goals saved above expected, 45th), but for some reason, VV has played twice as many games and minutes as Schmid. At least Schmid has looked good in three of his last four outings, which admittedly is a cherry-picked sample size, but when the goaltending is as bad as its been, you take whatever positives you can get. Either way, its more success than Vanecek has had this season. Yet, for some reason, Ruff and his staff seem to trust Vanecek more than Schmid.

I can understand wanting to give Vanecek a chance to get into a rhythm, and I can understand not wanting to overexpose the younger goaltender who they’ve talked about wanting to send to the AHL all summer and again as recently as a few weeks ago. But at some point, that all has to go out the window when you’ve left as many points on the table as you already have. Overplaying an inferior option in net is akin to punting on the season, and punting on seasons is not acceptable when we’re barely six months removed from Tom Fitzgerald saying the window is open. The best players have to play, and in this case, its probably Schmid. For now anyways.

Or at least it’s Schmid until the Devils make a trade or do something else to add another option in net. If and when they do that, we can reevaluate.

Verdict: Moore-On.

Cynics could point to what I just said about Hamilton and regression and say why can’t the goaltenders bounce back? They’re not necessarily wrong to think that way, especially with how random goaltending can be.

The difference is that the Devils aren’t really in a position to let a goaltender try to work his way out of a slump. The Devils can theoretically get by if Hamilton or any other skater goes through a cold spell and doesn’t find the back of the net for a couple weeks. It’s impossible to get by when the goaltender, regardless of who it is, is giving up 4+ goals a game. Even if it might not be entirely the goaltender’s fault, its impossible to consistently win games playing that way.

Schmid is probably the better of two less-than-ideal options. And while it would’ve been nice had Tom Fitzgerald addressed the position over the summer, this is where we are as a team.

Lindy Ruff is Holding This Team Back

Frustration over this year’s Devils team boiled over for yours truly between the Red Wings and Blue Jackets losses last week.

I don’t necessarily regret feeling the way I felt, even though both of those tweets were very reactionary and in the heat of the moment. I’m a fan, not a journalist, and I’m going to react as a fan would. There were certainly some grumblings on social media about how the Devils might’ve made a mistake with the contract extension for Ruff or how the team’s success last season was in spite of him. And if some wanted to point out that I have had an axe to grind when it comes to the coach and I’ve been wanting him fired for a few years now.....well, you’re not wrong. It’s a fair critique.

Now that I’ve had a few days to calm down and think about this more rationally, I do think its fair to critique Ruff’s performance as the coach of this team and how much blame he might deserve for them being in this position without necessarily calling for his head.

One trend we’ve seen repeatedly this season is the Devils not starting on time, and while that is generally a player issue, the fact that it continually happens makes it a coaching issue as well. It’s as much the coach’s responsibility to have the team ready to play as it is on the players to be ready to go once the puck drops. The same could also be said for players if they continue to not understand Ruff’s system. Yes, its on the players to execute, but if the players continue to make the same mistakes over and over, there is clearly a disconnect somewhere when it comes to teaching, communication, and implementation. There’s also the matter of the games where it appears the team is going through the motions on the ice. I’m not saying the coach needs to flip over tables in the locker room during intermission to rally the troops, but we’ve also seen too many listless, uninspired performances from this team already this season where it almost looks like they’ve tuned the coach out.

This is one of those things where its hard for us as outsiders to critique because we’re not in the room. I would think that a veteran head coach like Ruff knows how to communicate and get through to players, but the team seems to have these lapses where the message isn’t getting through and they move away from structured hockey to more of a wide-open pond hockey YOLO scheme. When they do that and they lose that attention to detail in their game, it leads to odd man rushes and goaltenders who can’t make a save, and that generally leads to losses. Add on top of that questionable lineup decisions like the goaltending rotation and there’s certainly enough one can critique when it comes to the head coach.

Verdict: Moron, for now.

I was prisoner of the moment when I wrote what I wrote on Twitter over the weekend, but its because I’ve seen this movie plenty of times before and I know how it ends. And my general philosophy is that its easier to get rid of the coach than it is half the roster once you’re in season. This is a sentiment shared by Wild GM Bill Guerin when he dismissed Dean Evason earlier this week.

This has not been an easy job for Ruff, as Hughes, Hischier, Timo Meier, Colin Miller, and Tomas Nosek have all missed time. It also appears Erik Haula will miss some time as well. Every team deals with injuries, but it doesn’t change the fact that when you’re missing several key cogs, and inserting new players into the lineup who are still new to the team, mistakes will happen.

Ruff probably deserves the benefit of the doubt even though he’s made his share of mistakes along the way. It’s also highly unlikely the Devils would move on the coach so soon after signing a contract extension, as it would be an admission by Tom Fitzgerald that the extension of his hand-picked coach was a mistake in the first place. The team’s success last year and the new contract buy you some time.

Final Thoughts

This is how I see things roughly 25% of the way through the season. Perhaps you see things differently. Please feel free to leave a comment below with any thoughts of the above takes.

Thanks for reading!

(all stats referenced do not include last night’s game against the Islanders unless otherwise noted)