The second month of the 2023-24 season has concluded last night. The good news: the New Jersey Devils won their last three games. The bad news: the team went 6-7-0, earning 12 points and looking up in the wrong end of the division. November was filled with injuries, bad goaltending, bad defensive zone play, slow starts, and anguish somewhat eased by a winning end of the month.
Can the New Jersey Devils turn this season around? Of course. The issue is that they pretty much have to keep winning right now to do that. I mean right now. They have the bulk of November to thank for the current non-playoff position that the team is in. To better understand what happened, let us look back at the month.
The Games of November 2023
The month began with the team’s first proper road trip of the season. They were to play four games in six nights, all quite a ways away from New Jersey. Did it go well? Well, sort of. The first game went well. The Devils went to Minnesota and Jesper Bratt was the ace. He had a four-point night in a 5-3 win over the Wild. It was close at the end thanks to a bizarre misplay by Vitek Vanecek but the Devils held on for the win. Disaster would strike the next night in St. Louis. Jack Hughes toe-picked while driving to the net and careened into the end boards shoulder-first. The Big Deal would be ruled out due to injury. The Devils were stunned, St. Louis pulled ahead, and the Devils could not solve Jordan Binnington outside of a Curtis Lazar put-back. A pair of empty netters yielded a disappointing 1-4 loss. On November 5, the Devils went into Chicago. Despite giving up an early score to an uncovered Taylor Hall, the Devils rose up to prevail. Dawson Mercer got his first goal of the season, Max Willman scored on a breakaway in his call up, Lazar scored again, and Michael McLeod put away an empty netter. The Devils won 4-2 - another dramatic end but held on for the win. The trip ended in Denver. The Devils played fast but the Avalanche were just as quick if not faster. While the Devils matched the Avs goal for goal, the Devils made too many errors in and outside of the net. They fell to Colorado 3-6 to split the trip at 2-2-0.
The Devils returned home against Washington on November 10. The Devils had a terrible start to their last meeting and head coach Lindy Ruff said the team played soft. In this rematch, the Devils did pretty much the same thing. A miserable first period, a three-goal deficit, and a comeback that fell short in what would be another loss to the Caps, 2-4. Defensive miscues were on display already in the season. They hit a nadir in Winnipeg on November 14. The Jets rolled through the Devils 3-6 wherein all five goals against Akira Schmid featured some kind of lax or lack of coverage. Even with Hischier and Hughes out due to injury, a team does not need stud forwards to tie up sticks or pick up opposing players. The Devils seemingly fixed some of their own fixable errors on November 16 in Pittsburgh. The third period, in particular, was brilliant as the Devils surged past the Pens to win 5-2. The Penguins were then the hottest team in the NHL with five straight wins. An impressive feat in that moment of time for the Devils.
Unfortunately, the Devils would not build on that against Our Hated Rivals. Despite Jack Hughes coming back and flexing all over New York with an eight-shot night. Despite Igor Shesterkin, who also returned, giving up two of the worst goals of his career to keep the Devils in the game. Despite the fact it was a 3-2 game in the third period, the Devils found a way to lose it. A 3-5 loss featuring two Jimmy Vesey goals where someone in red just had to tie up a stick. It would get worse from there. After three days off, the Devils visited Detroit on Thanksgiving Eve. The Devils lollygagged through the game. The Red Wings scored three goals within the final five minutes of the first period, tacked on a power play goal, and the Devils failed to even put 20 shots on Alex Lyon. They also failed to score for the first time in over a whole season in the 0-4 loss. After Thanksgiving and a heap of quotes about accountability and working hard, the Devils had another bad start on November 24 against Columbus. A last-place in the division Columbus. A Columbus team that then recently ended a nine-game slide. The Devils were once again too little, too late in their effort in what would be a 1-2 loss to the Blue Jackets. Something had to give.
The answer would come along with the captain’s return. Nico Hischier was cleared to play for the November 25 game against Buffalo. The Devils took out a whole lot of frustration out on the Sabres. The one who took out Hischier in the last Devils-Sabres game, Connor Clifton, was dominated all night long. The Devils dominated the whole game as they kept the Sabres to just 12 shots on net. The Devils went up 4-0 in the first period, chased Eric Comrie from the net, and then put three more past Devon Levi. It was a 7-2 beating. The Devils would follow that up with a surprising and invigorating third-period come back against the Islanders on November 28. The Devils went up 2-1 in the second period and the toxic combination of lazy defense and bad goaltending saw the Devils enter the third down 2-4. But the Devils pushed back, controlled the rink, and chipped away at the deficit. Jack Hughes made it 3-4. A pair of penalties gave the Devils a 4-on-3 power play and Hischier converted it. Within the final minute, a great entry by Michael McLeod led to a Kevin Bahl shot. Curtis Lazar shoveled the rebounded puck toward the net and Alexander Romanov clattered it into the net before Alexander Holtz could do so. The Devils took a 5-4 lead with 23 seconds left and held on for the regulation win. A great result. Would there be more?
There would be one more in Philadelphia on November 30. The start of a back-to-back set. And it would be earned in dramatic fashion. The Devils took an early 2-0 lead thanks to Alexander Holtz and The Big Deal. The Flyers decided that the Devils’ defense was optional tonight and fired puck after puck on Akira Schmid. While Schmid was great, there was nothing he could do about a power play put back. The Devils hit back with a PPG of their own by Tyler Toffoli. But a seeing eye shot and a long penalty kill - thank you, retalitatory slash by Brendan Smith - gave the Flyers two goals within the final five minutes. Thankfully, the overtime was short. A missed pass by Philly, a pass up ice by Nico Hischier, a 2-on-1 led by The Big Deal, and a pass to Luke Hughes - who was nearly knocked out of the game by Garnet Hathaway - hammered the puck past Carter Hart for the 4-3 win. A 2022-23 style victory to end the month with a three game winning streak. One the team needed because of how the month went before those wins. And a streak they really need to extend as much as possible.
By the Numbers
All stats come from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com where mentioned. Data was pulled as of this morning the ranks are accurate for the whole month. Stats in the top ten are colored in green; stats in the bottom ten of the league (23rd to 32nd) are colored in red. Apparent ties are rounded up to the highest rank.
5-on-5 Play: The Devils were actually quite good at 5-on-5 in November. Far better than what you would expect from a 6-7-0 team. Except in a couple of crucial ends.
Those crucial ends being finishing shots and getting saves. I have a brand new section just for the goalies. But the People Who Matter who are demanding just to have some saves made have a point. Last night’s shot fest in Philly bumped the Devils up above 90% for overall team save percentage but it is still quite low for the month. The Devils’ sticks were not so hot in October and while they got warmer in November, they were relatively low compared with the rest of the league. Good thing the Devils owned the volume to score 26 goals. Even so, that was on the lower end. I certainly did not expect to look at the 5-on-5 numbers for November and conclude, “If only the Devils scored more.” The Devils’ own struggles in the crease and in their own end did not cause them to bleed substantially more goals in 5-on-5 than most NHL teams. I suppose you can chalk up the absences of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Timo Meier, and others to the lower amount of goals.
You can also chalk up the loads of numbers in green to the coaching staff. I think this team played a lot like Damon Severson’s career in New Jersey. In a big picture, a lot of good stuff happened and few feel that way because they are still baffled at the costly mistake made. Great that the Devils are owning it in NST’s expected goals model and putting up a great rates of attempts and scoring chances. Not so great that what they gave up just handed the opponent goals and victories. Still, this vindicates the idea that Lindy Ruff and his staff have something good happening even if the results are not there and the frustration has mounted in November. I also still think if the Devils can clean up their acts, fix their own controllable errors (picking up men, tying up sticks, starting games on time), and get some decent goaltending, then they can really get back to the form that won them a lot last season.
By the way, your 5-on-5 scoring leader for November: Alexander Holtz. Followed by a three-way tie between Dawson Mercer, whom finally scored a goal; Tyler Toffoli; and a shortened month of The Big Deal. In terms of on-ice rates, it is not a shock that a handful of games of Nico Hischier were that awesome. Or that Jesper Bratt ended up this high on this list. Dougie Hamilton, Ondrej Palat, and Colin Miller - well that is a bit more surprising. At the other end, Mercer, Nathan Bastian, and Holtz finished November with a sub-50% xGF%. But Holtz got better when he got away from the Bastians and the others at the bottom like Chris Tierney and Max Willman.
Power Play Situations: The Devils’ power play was awesome in October. It was still quite awesome in November!
Sure, you may be grousing by the Devils getting nothing out of a five-minute major power play in Philly. A 30% success rate is nothing to sneeze at. Going 12-for-40 is excellent. It helped supplement a Devils offense that struggled at times to score in 5-on-5. While the Devils could stand to get more of their attempts on net, top-ten rates in attempts and scoring chances support the idea that the New Jersey power play is still a strength. I may not be so confident that the team’s near-22% shooting percentage in the month will be sustained. But they generated plenty of offense - even without The Big Deal, Hischier, and Meier for multiple games. That is something that does give me confidence.
One thing I would like to see more of in December: More power plays. 40 situations is not a lot to get. Given how strong the Devils have been at generating offense in 5-on-5, I am surprised opponents have not been called more often. Insert a lament about referees here. But, seriously, I think opponents know that fouling the Devils is asking for further punishment. Such was the case in November.
Penalty Kill Situations: Conceding two power play goals to Philly helped the Devils fall into the red for success rate in November. Not that the PK was doing a great job before that last game.
Similar to the 5-on-5 situations, the Devils penalty killers are not so much doing a bad job systemically in terms of allowing shots. The top-ten rates of SCA/60 and HDCA/60 speak to that. Their CA/60 and SA/60 rates did not finish too far away from the top ten fewest either. Sure, there have been a couple situations where the Devils just survived the man disadvantage. There have also been situations where the Devils killed the call with little drama. The issue: goaltending! A league median team save percentage on the PK is usually around 86%. The Devils fell short of that by a good amount. I agree that some of the support the goalies have received has not helped on at least a few of those 11 PPGAs. And a couple of those 44 PK situations were entirely avoidable - looking at you, Brendan Smith, as well as Dougie Hamilton. Still, the penalty kill could be better and better goaltending would help rise this boat along with the 5-on-5 play.
Goaltending: New for the month in review, I have decided to pull goalie stats from Natural Stat Trick for the month. I am still working out what to present, what ranks make sense, and what is worth noting. Here is what I have for November, knowing that goaltending has been an issue and a talking point of concern among the People Who Matter.
In short: Vitek Vanecek stunk in November. Akira Schmid was much better, although I think his 47-save game in Philly on November 30 really pumped those numbers up. Population size is going to be a factor for these numbers. A bad game or a really good game can skew things. That said, I cannot defend Vanecek’s November. He really was among the leakiest goalies in the entire league last month. Conceding about 5 more goals than expected in 5-on-5 and about 8 more goals than expected in all situations is far from what the Devils needed. I can absolutely agree he has been given a raw deal on some nights, but a sub 89% save percentage in 5-on-5 and a sub-87% (!!) save percentage in all situations is definitely on the goaltender to some degree. I think Vanecek knows he needs to be better. The issue is whether the Devils coaching staff want to continue to have him work through it. They did that in November and you can see the results. For the moment, Akira Schmid has to be the main man and Vanecek has to prove himself in more spot duties.
And Schmid should be. While the Philly game may have inflated his stats, he put up what decent-to-good goaltending looks like from a statistical basis. Those who want the Devils to have at least decent goaltending and those who want a goalie who can make a save, here is your man. The Playoff Hero of 2023. The Torpedo, Akira Schmid. Now the Devils - coaches and management - have to trust him. Of course, the pressure will be on Schmid to perform. Should he tumble, the pressure will be on GM Tom Fitzgerald to get a goalie of some kind. A team can hardly contend with Vanecek’s level of performance; they cannot afford to have Schmid match it and just roll through it.
Additions and Subtractions
Plenty of movement took place with the organization in November. Most of it by necessity due to injuries. First, let me point out a few transactions:
- Cal Foote, who was called up as a spare defenseman, was returned to Utica on November 9. He did not appear for the Devils during his call up. Was he able to play forward, perhaps that would have been a different story.
- Max Willman received a call up and actually played in some games. He was brought up on an emergency basis on November 5 for a game in Chicago, where he made his New Jersey debut. He scored a goal, which was cool. He played in three other games. He was just kind of there. He was sent down on November 12, recalled on November 13, and then sent back down on November 28.
- The Devils signed Samuel Laberge to a NHL contract on November 25; a two-way deal for a season for the NHL minimum. He was previously on an AHL contract with the Comets. The main reason why a player would get a NHL deal in the season would be to play him at some point in the NHL. Sure enough, Laberge was called up to New Jersey on November 29. He made his NHL debut against the Flyers and played 4 minutes. He was touted for his work ethic, his hard work, and working hard. The one goal, two assists, and six shots on net in eight games certainly did not get him to New Jersey.
- A trade was made on November 26: The Devils sent Tyce Thompson to the New York Islanders for forward Arnaud Durandeau. Thompson has received some cups of coffee with the Devils, but has been relegated to a fourth-line role in Utica. Durandeau has seen a little time on Long Island but mostly has been kept to Bridgeport in the AHL. Both needed a change of scenery so this deal gave them one.
Then there were the injuries. Goodness, the injuries. I hope I am not missing any of them but here was what happened in New Jersey.
- Jack Hughes, The Big Deal, crashed into the boards shoulder first on November 3 in St. Louis. He was ruled out week-to-week. The Big Deal ended up missing two weeks; returning against Our Hated Rivals on November 18. His absence was massive, as evidenced by the three goals, nine points, and 40 shots on net in the 6 games he played since his return. Yes, The Big Deal has averaged over six shots per game.
- Tomas Nosek returned to the lineup on November 10 after recovering from injury. Nosek played in four games and was knocked out of the fourth one due to a headshot by Jacob Trouba on November 18. There is currently no timeline for Nosek’s return. Trouba was never penalized or punished for the hit.
- Colin Miller, who was hurt in practice back in October, was cleared on November 14 and made his New Jersey debut on November 16 against Pittsburgh. Miller has primarily played alongside Luke Hughes and both have been great together.
- Timo Meier was hurt in the loss to Winnipeg on November 14. He was held out of the Pittsburgh game with a “day to day” status. While he has been skating, Meier missed the rest of November. He could return for the San Jose game to begin December, though.
- Curtis Lazar picked up an injury in the loss to Columbus on November 24. He was held out of the Buffalo game the next night. Lazar returned to action against the Islanders on November 28 and became a hero of the night.
- Nico Hischier recovered enough and returned to the lineup on November 25 against Buffalo. His return has been massive as well. Two goals and five points in his three games back from what I presume was a concussion. I mean, Connor Clifton did head-shot him.
- Erik Haula left the Buffalo game early due to a lower body injury. He has yet to return to the lineup.
- In the win over the Islanders, defenseman Dougie Hamilton missed the third period due to an upper body injury. It is not known how long he will be out for. Given the call up of Samuel Laberge, a forward, it is expected that Brendan Smith will go back to being a defenseman after playing as a winger in the previous games. And so it was in Philadelphia.
To sum up, the injury list for the Devils as of today includes Meier, Nosek, Haula, and Hamilton. Not an ideal situation as the Devils’ depth has been tested. Smith was slotted as a winger in recent games on a fourth line now centered by Chris Tierney. At least Hischier and Hughes are no longer out at the same time. Although it was close as Hischier missed some shifts in the third period in the win over Philadelphia after he fell straight down to the ice as Toffoli scored. And Luke Hughes got crushed by an illegal hit by Garnet Hathaway, but he returned as well. After a 2022-23 where the injuries avoided the top players, this campaign has them impacting the team throughout the lineup.
Devil of the Month
For some months in review, this section is the hardest one to write. This is one of them. This is a section to highlight players who have been consistently good for the month. Has anyone actually excelled for the entire month of November? It is a stretch.
I would say Dougie Hamilton best represents the Devils for the month of November. In some respects, Hamilton did quite well. He’s paid for offense and he has provided two goals, eight assists, and 34 shots in 12 games. Half of his November points are at even strength and half are on the power play. The Devils have done a great job in 5-on-5 when he took a shift in November. And little of that may register with you all because Hamilton’s “highlights” include missing coverages, picking up the wrong men, taking no one in 2-on-1s, and taking eight penalties because he had to or was beat. Had Hamilton scored an own goal, then the People Who Matter would stop wondering if the Devils were missing Damon Severson because they would recognize Hamilton as a rich man’s version of the former Devil defender. Because of those errors that make you wonder if he “gets defense” at this level, I cannot give him honors.
I will give honorable honorable mention to The Big Deal for putting up 11 points in 8 games in November. Were there some quiet games? Yes. Was he lucky that Igor Shesterkin gifted him a goal in his return game on November 18? Yes. Do the Devils beat the Isles and Flyers without him? No, as evidenced by his multi-point games against them. The Big Deal is back up to being in the top ten league scoring and he missed games and had a couple of zero-point nights. Jack Hughes is indeed The Big Deal.
So who gets the honorable mention? How about a hardworking player who finally got a legitimate opportunity and ran with it? Alexander Holtz, take a bow. Earlier in the month, he was getting benched along with other fourth liners. Lindy Ruff gave Ryan Novozinsky a gruff “He needs to not get scored on” as far as why he does not play for - as if Holtz was causing GAs anymore than Nathan Bastian (who had more at the time) or Brendan Smith (who was more involved with some of them). This in spite of Holtz hustling in all three zones, working to win pucks along the boards, and those other things that have eluded him in his young career. Holtz received more of a fair shot on November 14 at Winnipeg. More minutes and better linemates than Chris Tierney. While pointless and held to one shot, he did well enough to get more minutes in Pittsburgh. Then he got a goal and put up three shots. The shifts kept coming. Holtz got paired with Michael McLeod and Curtis Lazar and it just kept working. Holtz scored the lone goal against Columbus, got the first against Buffalo, and the first in Philadelphia to end the month with 4 goals and 2 assists. He went from a lot of nothing on a fourth line to just one game past the night in Winnipeg without a shot on net. While his monthly 5-on-5 on-ice rates were not amazing over the whole month (48.1% xGF%, 52.4% CF%), they were very good past November 14 once he got elevated from the fourth line (52.8% xGF%, 57.3% CF%). Holtz is now getting regular shifts and looks like a player with a future. Others may have produced more, but Holtz had his working skates on when a lot of other Devils did not in this past month. I will give him Honorable Mention for Devil of the Month as a result.
The actual Devil of the Month is a player I did not expect to ever write up as one. He has not done much as a Devil other than be a bottom-six forward. A high-ish first round draft pick should be a bit more than just a depth player. Especially if his assets are either not terribly valuable over a whole season or can be replaced. But Michael McLeod, take a bow. McLeod was moved up in the lineup to replace Nico Hischier at center since the October 27 game. With Jack Hughes being out hurt from the St. Louis game, there was even more pressure on McLeod to perform. Was McLeod the best fill-in option ever? No. But even when the Devils were struggling for most of November, McLeod was low on the list of causes of the goals against or the losses. If he was a cause at all.
No, in November, when McLeod took a shift in 5-on-5 play, the Devils had a CF% of nearly 60%, a SF% of 61.6% with a SA/60 of 25.4, a xGF% of 63.74% with an impressive on-ice xGF% of 3.81 (third to Bratt and Meier), and an actual GF% of 76.9%. With better linemates than Miles Wood and Nathan Bastian, McLeod was able to hang in the run of play even against tougher competition. He has also upped his production with three goals and four assists in the month. (He also finished fourth on the team in shots on net with 32.) Did other Devils score more than him in November? Sure. Given he had all of four goals and 22 assists last season, that is a very good rate of production for McLeod. Obviously, when Hischier and Hughes returned, McLeod was moved down. But to a third line given Haula’s absence. The relatively good times have kept rolling for McLeod alongside Holtz and Curtis Lazar. McLeod was still cooking in Philly and his set up for Holtz capped off what has been a very strong month for those players. All this and he was still strong at the dot with an outstanding 65.6% winning percentage out of 192 faceoffs in November. So those who love the faceoffs can still love McLeod for that.
No, McLeod is not going to make Hischier or Hughes worry about their jobs. But he has shown he can be an adequate substitute. More importantly, he showed he can do more than be an “energy guy” who kills penalties. McLeod may revert back when the roster gets fully healthy - whenever that will be - but he stepped up in November. That along with his performances impressed me enough to give Michael McLeod the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of November 2023.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
This month was a big reality check for the New Jersey Devils and the People Who Matter. Myself absolutely included. Concerns about the goaltending were legitimized. Concerns about the defensive zone play were legitimized. Slow starts continued to plague the Devils in more games than not in November. Mistakes either on the puck, off the puck, or with discipline hurt the Devils more than it helped them. In biggest obvious statement possible, the Devils absolutely struggled without their two best players. What was not so obvious were that the issues often did not involve Hischier or Hughes.
Doing the Devil in the Month for this month was hard because so many Devils players just had bad games or really unclear performances as to say they were good. Obviously, the goalies were out of contention early. Jesper Bratt and Dougie Hamilton, statistically, were great. But the games saw Hamilton make heaps of costly errors and Bratt be nullified on offense. Good to see Dawson Mercer and Ondrej Palat score goals, but were they the impact players needed when Hischier and Hughes were gone? Some nights, I wondered what in the world happened to John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler. They understood defending well last season, but November 2023 saw each look out of place on multiple nights. I expected Luke Hughes to be the one to struggle a lot in his own end. Not the veteran defensive minded defenders! Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier cannot simply make guys pick up opponents or tie up sticks or put in the effort just by being there. Of course, their return has helped big-time. But that justifies their value, not that they were the standout players for the month. Holtz and McLeod may seem like protest picks but I really did think they elevated themselves in a month where others I expected to do so did not.
There is that magic word: expected. I expected better even with the injuries. I expected the talk to lead to action and not just more losses and me wondering if or when the Rock was going to chant “Fire Lindy.” Columbus was really close to that, by the way. As undercut as the roster was, that earned the Devils no sympathy. Our Hated Rivals kept winning without a Norris-caliber defenseman and a Vezina-caliber goalie. As statistically good the Devils looked in November in some respects, there was plenty of reason to wonder if the issues were made worse by the Devils’ systems and tactics. One that does not hold up when you look at the stats, but the shift-to-shift feeling overrode the bigger picture. Of course, the last three games answered that wins can still be had - provided the team is smart about it and the goalie can be decent.
In a sense, the November 2023 Devils struggled to even get to that point for most of the month. Compare this to last season. Then, the Devils came back to win a lot of their 52 games. They took a lot of games beyond regulation to win them. That last bit was missing in almost all of their games in November. The one game that went into overtime was against Philly and that required the Devils to lose a two goal lead due in part to bad fortune and bad discipline and penalty killing. That really hurt the Devils in the standings and it makes this current winning streak essential instead of just ideal.
Grouse about the NHL’s standings system as much as you want, but getting those one-point games really do help a collapse to last place. The Devils entered November in a playoff position. At their worst, after Black Friday, the Devils were in seventh place and just a point ahead of a Columbus team who just beat them. The Devils fell hard in large part to just either winning occasionally or losing outright. Other teams that now sit ahead of the Devils - the Islanders, the Flyers, the Hurricanes, the Capitals - staved off their own losing efforts by going to OT or a shootout. It makes it harder to catch up in this league and the Devils are finding this out the hard way.
I want to believe that December will continue to reveal who teams really are. I want to believe that the over-achieving Flyers and Capitals will stop. I want to believe that the Isles will stop grinding out results in spite of their territorial disadvantages. I want to believe Carolina will continue to have goalie issues. This will make it possible for the Devils to rise up in the Metropolitan. But they need the health. They need the work ethic. They need to keep finding ways to win games even if they blow a lead (like in Philly) or have to work from behind (the Islanders). They need to show that this winning streak is not a fluke but a sign of things to come. If they can, then a 6-7-0 month can be overcome. And it will have to be done on the road too: December begins with a four-game road trip to Western Canada & Washington after tonight’s game against San Jose.
Now that is sorted, you have my review of November 2023 for the Devils, I want to know what you think. Can the Devils overcome what has been a bad month for the team? Can they stay mostly healthy with respect to their most important players? What do you think the Devils need to improve the most? What was your highs and lows of November 2023? If you do not think Michael McLeod is the Devil of the Month of November, then who would you pick and why? Please leave your answers and last thoughts about last month in the comments. Thank you for reading.