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FanFirst Friday: Stumbling, Bumbling Edition

Last season, the Devils were a possession and statistical juggernaut. This season the team has been fortunate to start 5-2-1.

Minnesota Wild v New Jersey Devils
Vitek has been ok and the defense is giving him little help thus far.
Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

The Devils are 5-2-1 and are third in the metro despite playing one less game than the Rangers and two less games than the Hurricanes. And yet, the fanbase (which includes me, of course) has been restless. Why? Well there’s a myriad of reasons but one of the biggest is that the team simply hasn’t looked particularly great other than a few periods here and there. Their starts in games have been almost universally bad.

And it’s not the power play this season. Whipping boy Mark Recchi isn’t around to take to task any more. The Devils power play is finally taking advantage of the personnel on the ice and producing at a historic clip. Obviously very small sample size, long season to go, etc., but it’s still really encouraging. One of the most encouraging to me was this play from Jack Hughes:

The movement is extraordinary whereas I’m not sure how often a play like this happens in years past simply because the Devils, even with Andrew Brunette, did a lot more standing around, throwing the puck around the perimeter and stayed stagnant. Under Travis Green, the players are constantly taking up new ice. For anyone who has ever played hockey before, it becomes a nightmare to defend because the most universally loved hockey screed, “HEAD ON A SWIVEL!!” is a tough one to execute at all times. Especially if you don’t want the guy right in front of you just dancing by you while your attention is elsewhere. But Jack sneaking down for a backdoor slam dunk is just beautiful. And that PP is the main reason the Devils are currently 5-2-1 (writing this prior to the Wild game Thursday night).

The rest of the Devils game has taken some major adjustments. John Marino hasn’t been the stellar shut down guy he was in the early part of the season last year. He’s adjusting to Kevin Bahl as his partner and Jonas Siegenthaler and Dougie Hamilton seem like they often get stuck in their own zone for lengthy shifts. Ham and Swiss hasn’t exactly been the shutdown sandwich, either. And don’t get me started on why Brendan Smith hasn’t seen the press box yet. To me, he’s one of the major reasons Luke Hughes looks lost in his own zone at times. So yeah, the defense is struggling, as you can tell by the 30 goals allowed in 8 games. Allowing 3.75 goals against average per game will not win you anything in the NHL. Especially when you have teams like the Rangers and Islanders in your division that are playing old school-style 1-3-1 systems that will likely stifle that 5 on 5 hockey (the Rangers, in particular, have a lot of offensive weapons to support a team that is playing very defensive hockey).

Now it doesn’t help that the Devils goalies have been extremely up and down. Vitek Vanecek currently sits 49th in the NHL for goals saved above expected and Akira Schmid is currently 54th among the Moneypuck rankings. It’s not really great and gives fans enough reason to panic a little more since goaltending was the one area that most fans were clamoring for a change this offseason (waves “hi”!). Akira seems like some of his issues could be simple fixes. His butterfly form isn’t nearly as tight as it should be, even having some pucks sneak underneath his pads before he gets them splayed out like they should be. Leaky would be a good way to describe it. Part of it is just being more tight in that form and more quickly getting there.

Vitek is a mystery to me right now simply because he will have moments where he appears to absolutely stifle another team on consecutive saves and look like a top ten goalie. The second period against the Wild at home was particularly amazing. Then he will allow one that looks like he should’ve easily stopped it.

Now the power play is covering up for all of these deficiencies right now. But getting John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler to play up to their abilities as shutdown defensemen would really help the team right the ship. Possibly more than anything else. The offense could potentially struggle without Nico Hischier for the time being due to this cheap shot from Connor Clifton:

Now the Devils are rolling out Michael McLeod as their second line center. It’s not an ideal situation and something one very smart person talked about this past August as an area the Devils need to be concerned about if anything happened to either Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier. That reality is here for at least the next four games (Nico didn’t accompany the team on the four-game road swing). McLeod has been surprisingly good this season thus far, kind of carrying over his excellent playoff, but he is not a second line center, despite his first-round draft pick pedigree (12th overall in 2016). He’s a great faceoff guy who hopefully will be able to get Jesper Bratt some possession time with the puck.

Any way, it kind of feels like the Devils need to be able to weather this storm to get Nico back. Hopefully they somehow remain firmly entrenched in a good spot in the Metro and the team gets healthier as the season progresses. Even if they need to be power play merchants for the time being, until Nico is able to get healthy and the defense and goaltending show what they’re truly capable of, then so be it.

As a side note, that Clifton hit is just downright disgusting to me. Two games isn’t nearly enough and he will be back in the lineup against the Flyers tomorrow night. Meanwhile, Nico is out for probably at least five, probably more games. I understand why suspending someone based on how long a player has to miss time could be fraught with complications and loopholes (what if Connor McDavid head shots Russ Johnston - even accidentally - then you could basically have the organization take a very, VERY cautious approach to a return to action for the other player). But I just feel like the punishment should be severe. Another hit happened with Charlie McAvoy giving a blatant and cheap head shot to Oliver Ekman-Larsson:

I mean McAvoy sits for four games. What if Nico or OEL miss 40 or more games? Which may be unlikely but you never know with head injuries? Hockey players can completely derail another team’s season but only get a few games? Regardless, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and just so happened to take out the Devils captain for seemingly some decent time.

So yeah, perhaps the Devils have been stumbling and bumbling out of the gate. Yet they’re still accumulating decent points on the backs of their power play. Hopefully the rest of the game shows up soon because I’m not sure a power play over 40 percent is sustainable. In fact, I’d go out on a limb and say it isn’t. Even with two Hughes brothers on it.

Starting Thursday night, they have four games in six nights. Some answers should be coming. Hopefully they’re the answers we all want.