In the last two years I’ve been writing at All About the Jersey, one of my favorite go-to quotes that I like to reference from time to time is from Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells.
“You are what your record says you are.”
To me, it’s clear, succinct, and to the point. The New Jersey Devils record through nine games is perfectly fine at 6-2-1, so there’s little reason to be worried, right?
Parcells was certainly correct about your record being what it is and it being an indicator of your collective body of work as a team. But like most things, there is more to this start for the Devils than meets the eye. Some performances, individual and collectively as a group, have been exhilarating. Some have been alarming.
Before one can start making plans to fix things and trade off whatever picks and prospects to gear up for a playoff run, one needs to identify what is actually wrong with the team. And before one can identify what is wrong with the team, they need to figure out which performances they have seen to this point are sustainable and which ones aren’t. One has to be honest with oneself and be critical with their evaluations, both positively and negatively. Some things that are an issue today on November 3rd might not be an issue come March 3rd (five days before the 2024 trade deadline) and vice versa.
Let’s take a look at a bunch of stats, trends, and other general observations with the team through the first handful of games this season and determine what is real and what isn’t with this group. Doing so will give us a better idea of where the Devils actually are as a team and if concerns are valid or a giant nothingburger.
The Goaltending Isn’t Good Enough
Neither Vitek Vanecek nor Akira Schmid has really found a groove yet in net. Blame the near 50-50 split to start the season and all of the off days baked into the schedule all you want, Vanecek posting an .895 through six appearances isn’t gonna cut it. And he’s clearly been the better of the two netminders thus far.
Of course, as with most of the topics I’m going to touch on in this article, we’re dealing with fairly small sample sizes, and the goaltenders are no exception since their body of work is even smaller than the regular skaters. But the early results in 2023-24 aren’t exactly super encouraging, and it hasn’t changed the opinion of those who say the Devils need to be in the goaltender business if they want to be serious about contending for championships. The fact the Devils record is what it is with the goaltending being what it is only further reinforces that they probably need to raise the floor of what they’re getting from the position. Whether that floor is raised because the incumbents play better or the Devils make an addition from the outside remains to be seen.
Are the Goaltender’s Struggles Real: I’m going to give the worst answer I can give here.
It should be noted that Vanecek is only -0.7 goals saved above expected and Schmid is -1.3. It should also be noted that Vanecek has played better in his last few starts. For the most part, the goaltenders are close to saving what is expected, and their perceived issues might go hand-in-hand with some of the larger issues going on in front of them when it comes to defensive play. This isn’t quite the tire fire we saw two years ago when the Devils were running Andrew Hammond and Jon Gillies out there every night.
That said, goaltending is almost as much about rhythm and good vibes as it is anything mechanical. And while small sample sizes are a thing, so is putting enough small sample sizes together to tell a story. It’s not like we’ve seen enough from Vanecek to assuage fears that he will melt down like he does when he sees the ice in a playoff game, and we haven’t seen enough from Schmid to give us reason to believe he’ll be the guy when it truly matters.
The Defense Has Been Bad / The Penalty Kill Stinks
Rather than repeat myself throughout this article, I thought it made more sense to lump in the struggles of the defense with those of the penalty kill. And when I say defense, I’m not necessarily referring solely to the six defensemen who have skated every game thus far, but support from the forwards as well.
John Marino got benched earlier this season for the remainder of a game. Jonas Siegenthaler has had his struggles. Dougie Hamilton isn’t exactly a shutdown defensive defenseman in the first place. Luke Hughes is a rookie in his first full NHL season. Kevin Bahl hasn’t even played 100 games at the NHL level yet, and Brendan Smith is what he is....an ideal seventh defenseman who is playing (poorly) in a sheltered, sixth defenseman role. All of these players have had moments they’d like to forget defensively.
We knew this would be the case when the Devils (correctly) let Ryan Graves and Damon Severson leave this offseason. We thought there would be growing pains, particularly with Kevin Bahl playing a bigger role, Luke Hughes getting his first extended run in the NHL, and Brendan Smith being in the lineup at all. These are part of those growing pains. Add in some less than stellar play in the neutral zone and odd-man rushes that have found their way into the back of the net and its not exactly an accident the Devils have surrendered as many goals as they have.
As for the penalty kill, my biggest gripe with it through eight games has been the frequency at which we’ve seen it and the lack of aggressiveness when it comes to pursuing the opposing puck carrier. There needs to be more pressure on the puck-carrier where you’re actually getting clears and you’re able to change and not just holding on trying to survive for the duration of the two minutes like they did over the weekend against Minnesota.
Are the Defensive Struggles / Penalty Kill Struggles Real: Yes, with a but.
The good news is that a lot of these issues are correctible. Marino and Siegenthaler should be better and both have shown some signs of being better. Luke Hughes and Bahl are going to have better days as they get more experience. Any and all struggles are only going to be exasperated when the goaltenders aren’t making the saves. It should also be noted that the Devils did get better defensively over the course of last season with largely similar personnel, with Bahl in particular making a big leap as the season progressed.
Of course, it doesn’t take an expert to look for the one glaring spot from a personnel standpoint where the Devils could improve and that would be taking a look at Brendan Smith’s roster spot. But it’s also not written in stone that Brendan Smith will even be playing in playoff games. Ruff might have his hands tied at the moment in regards to playing Smith right now due to the injuries Colin Miller, Simon Nemec, and Santeri Hatakka sustained, but there’s nothing stopping the Devils from addressing that spot in some manner down the road. Whether that is by giving one of the aforementioned defensemen an opportunity or going out and making a trade at the deadline to beef up the blueline remains to be seen.
The one thing I would like to see from the defense though is better zone exits, and I do think this is one area where they miss Damon Severson to an extent. I think a lot of the Devils defensive issues to this point can be tied to the fact they simply haven’t done the little things like chip the puck along the wall and out or lift the puck into the neutral zone. These failed clears are leading to extended offensive zone pressure by the opposition and, as a result, goals against. But again, with the personnel the Devils have, I do believe this is a correctible issue.
Dawson Mercer’s Slow Start
Chris wrote about this very topic on Monday, so I don’t have much to add other than I agree with his assessment that Mercer needs to start being a little more selfish (for lack of a better term) and pressing the issue more. His struggles go hand-in-hand with what Alex wrote about with the Devils lacking a third scoring line at the moment, but there is simply too much of a positive body of work with Mercer at the NHL level over the previous two seasons for me to think he’s all of a sudden a bad hockey player now at age 22 when he should be about to enter his prime. There’s also no reason to think that there’s anything hampering his performance such as an undisclosed injury. Mercer needs to be more assertive and start putting pucks on net.
Of course, this is assuming Mercer’s line isn’t getting hemmed in defensively. I’m writing this while watching the Minnesota game and it’s been a struggle for the Mercer-Haula-Lazar line in terms of getting the puck out of the defensive zone.
Are Mercer’s struggles real: They might be right this second, but I view this as a situation where the player hasn’t quite found his game yet and isn’t doing enough to force the issue. I expect Mercer to be fine when its all said and done, as he has shown some signs of life in the two Minnesota games.
The Run of Play at 5v5 Hasn’t Been Good Enough
One of the complaints with the Devils has been with their 5v5 play and how it hasn’t been as good as last year, but is that actually even the case?
According to Natural Stat Trick, they’re 2nd in CF% at 56.76, 10th in xGF% at 53.03%, and 11th in HDCF% at 52.90%. They’ve also allowed the 6th fewest high-danger Corsi attempts with 65. Their PDO is .962, which would suggest that if anything, they’ve been one of the unluckiest teams in the NHL at 5v5.
Are the 5v5 struggles real: Probably not, if you want to even call it struggles.
It might feel that way in part because of just how good the Devils have been on the power play, but the Devils haven’t exactly had a shortage of 5v5 goals. But I think there’s a difference between struggling and say, a game like Columbus last year where they break all of the charts with the fancies. The Devils haven’t had a game quite like that yet where they’ve put forth a dominant effort for sixty minutes and ran the other team out of the building, but it doesn’t mean what they’ve been poor either.
Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt Have Found Another Level
One of my other favorite sayings are that your best players need to be your best players. And through the early portion of the season, Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt have not only been incredible, but they might be even better than what we’ve seen in the past.
By now, you don’t need me to sing the praises of Jack Hughes. With 18 points in his first 8 games this season, Hughes was recognized as the NHL’s First Star of the Month. After coming up just shy of the first 100-point season in Devils history last year, it appears Jack is on a mission to obliterate that mark this season and entrench himself as a Top 5 player in the world. At this point, I wouldn’t doubt anything is possible when it comes to Jack Hughes.
The more pleasant surprise might be Bratt though. Still only 25 years old, Bratt showed up to camp this season with an improved shot and looking faster than ever. With 6 goals and 8 assists through the first eight games of the season, Bratt looks like a player poised to take another step in his development, which is scary for a guy who is coming off his second consecutive 73 point season and his first 30+ goal season.
Are Hughes and Bratt’s Advancement Real: Yes.
Now, I’m not saying that Hughes will post 2 PPG over the course of the 82 game season like how Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux did back in the day. I’m not saying Bratt will continue to shoot 30%. Obviously, both players will cool off to some extent.
With that said, we’re getting to the point where its almost a disappointment if Hughes doesn’t have 2 points in any given game. But can he have a season where he plays at a 1.5 PPG pace, which would be roughly 124 points over 82 games? We’ve only seen a handful of players top 120 points in a season over the last two decades.....Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Nikita Kucherov, Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, and Jaromir Jagr. And those latter two were in that first season coming out of the lockout where offense was up league-wide. We’re talking about Hart-trophy caliber, “I am the best player in the world right now” type of seasons. This is rarefied air we’re talking about, and Jack Hughes is very much that caliber of player.
As for Bratt, the fact that a lethal shot has been added to his toolkit is an indicator that he’s probably going to top a PPG over the course of an 82 game season for the first time, and that his 30 goal campaign last year was no fluke. Like with Hughes, I don’t expect him to put up some insane total like 150 points over the course of the season, but there’s no reason to think he won’t have a monster season of his own and make his newly signed $63M contract look like a bargain.
The Power Play Is Elite
Last year’s Edmonton Oilers set an NHL record converting at 32.4% on the power play, thanks in part to having two of the three or four best players in the world on their top unit in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
The Devils entered last night converting at a 42.4% rate, which is unfathomable, even in a small sample size. And that number went up off of last night’s Minnesota game where the Devils power play found the back of the net three more times. A big part of this is Hughes and Bratt finding another level, as I pointed out, but the puck movement and player movement on the top unit is better overall with Luke Hughes on the top unit, and Tyler Toffoli has a lethal shot of his own where he can score from anywhere. Add in Timo Meier on the top unit right now using his size to create space and the Devils have the makings of something special.
Is the Power Play Success real: They’re not going to convert at 40 or even 35% for the entire season, but yes. The power play being good and being a weapon is real. Leave the top unit as is. There’s no need to fix things that aren’t broken.
To me, the Devils biggest issues at the moment are mostly correctable and of the nitpicky variety. The goaltenders should theoretically get into a rhythm the more they play, the defensemen should find a groove where they’re making the simple plays to get the puck out of the defensive end, and players who are struggling like Dawson Mercer should eventually put it together and play to the back of his hockey card.
The biggest reason why the Devils are having success right now is due to their explosive offense, which is highlighted by their lethal power play. I do think we’ll see guys like Hughes and Bratt cool off to some extent, but we’re at a point where Hughes might be the best player in the league aside from Connor McDavid and Bratt isn’t too far behind them, so its possible they keep it up and each have career years. I would be somewhat concerned that the Devils are relying on the power play as much as they are because you’re probably not getting those penalty calls in the 3rd period and overtime of playoff games, but the Devils are good enough at 5v5 where they should be able to generate offense in the traditional sense. It doesn’t take a genius to point out that 4 goals a game should be enough to win most nights (the Devils entered last night averaging 4.13 goals per game, second only to Los Angeles). You just hope the Devils tighten things up defensively where they don’t need 5 on a regular basis.
I think the two areas where the Devils can raise the floor of this group are goaltender and upgrading on Brendan Smith as the 6th defenseman. Fortunately, the Devils have several months to figure that out. That’s how I see things though. Perhaps you see them differently? Feel free to leave a comment and thanks for reading.
(Note: This story was written prior to the Devils game on 11/2 in Minnesota. Any stats referenced in this story do not include last night’s game)