Despite the Devils’ very positive record when both Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes are playing, it seems many are still worried that this is not a playoff team. This tendency to win when both top centers are healthy has continued in spite of horrific goaltending numbers, and the Devils are currently just three points out of second place in the Metropolitan Division, having gone 6-2-0 since Nico Hischier returned from injury. This continued success would not have been possible without a strong western road trip from the Devils, who got six out of a possible eight points from away games in Vancouver, Seattle, Calgary, and Edmonton. Today, we’re going to dive a bit into some trends, both team-wide and individual, that we can look to as positive signs for the rest of the season.
Winning Games at Even Strength: What Has Been Changing Recently?
Early in the season, the New Jersey Devils made a habit of winning games with unsustainable power play success, as still rank at the top of the league with a 32.6% efficiency rate despite failing to convert on their last eight opportunities. The Devils have had work to do on the penalty kill, however, which ranks 26th in the league at 75.3%. Below, in the Devils’ 5-game rolling chart for 5v5 goals differential, you can see that the Devils sprang back to being good at even strength about when Nico Hischier returned from injury. However, after the San Jose game, I think some were expecting a rougher road trip than they ended up with. Instead, the Devils stayed strong at evens and are re-establishing themselves as a legitimate force to contend with.
A big part of playing up to their standards at even strength has been shooting the puck better. The Devils have done that, to the extent that they may have veered into unsustainable even strength shooting. To that end, it puts yesterday’s 4-1 loss to Edmonton into a more understandable light. They had been getting a lot of their chances to go into the net lately, and they were bound to have a less fruitful game.
Despite their improvement in shooting percentage, the Devils are still not beyond the pale of PDO-related success. As you can see below, their fast upswing in shooting percentage has not been joined by an increase in save percentage. Yes, much of that recently is because of Vitek’s late-game collapse to Vancouver, but the Devils still have room to improve at the goaltender position. Whether that answer comes in-house or from a trade, I do not know — but they need to start playing more games like they did against Seattle and Calgary to make up for their earlier failures.
Winning When Jack Is and Isn’t Producing
Jack Hughes had three points on the latest four-game road trip, but all of those points came against Vancouver. And the Devils are thankful for his performance there: in a 6-5 win, every goal mattered. But then, against Seattle, Calgary, and Edmonton, Jack had 0 points. It was not for a lack of effort: he had 16 shots, and his lack of a goal in that span brought his season shooting percentage down to 9.7%. Even with this three-game stretch, Jack is on pace to finish the year with about 121 points: a ridiculous total for a 22-year old.
What is important about these wins is that they are very unique to this point of the season as the second and third times this season that the Devils have won the game when Jack Hughes failed to record a point. Before the road trip, they were 1-3-0 with him pointless in the lineup, and 3-6-0 when including the games he missed with injury. Going 2-1-0 in the road trip games where Jack was held pointless, the Devils look more like a team that can win in multiple ways than a team that is overly reliant on one player to deliver them victories. It helps, though, that the Bratt-Hischier-Palat line has been so strong: they can really take the heat off Jack.
Better Defensive Results from Jonas Siegenthaler
Despite having a much rougher four-game stretch than usual in terms of dominating possession stats, Jonas Siegenthaler did a much better job at preventing chances for the opposition over the last few games. Playing 77:03 at 5v5 during this road trip, Siegenthaler saw a 1-2 goals differential to go with his 2.36-2.77 xG differential. That might seem subpar, but that’s only 2.15 xGA/60 and less than two real goals against per 60 on the road trip. That’s over half an expected goal against less than what Siegenthaler has been allowing throughout the rest of the season. It just goes to show: sometimes, the process does not look pretty when a shutdown defenseman is getting the types of results they want. Defense ought to be Jonas’ focus, and this is a good place to work from as the Devils return home.
Simon Nemec Has Established Himself (Plus Defensive Downsides)
At even strength, Simon Nemec had a 2-2 goals differential at even strength on the road trip to go with a solid 3.05-2.49 xG differential (55.0 xGF%). However, this was a bit of a “tale of two pairings” situation. When Nemec was paired with Jonas Siegenthaler, in 54:12, the Devils had a 42.71 CF%, were outshot 19-24, and outscored 2-1 despite a 48.70 xGF%. In just 8:03 of pairing time with Luke Hughes, Nemec and the Devils had a 80.77 CF%, outshot opponents 6-3, and outscored them 1-0 to go with a 67.78 xGF%. It seems that the optimal pairings are not what they have recently been. Even so, Nemec has found a way to contribute.
Simon says score your first career NHL goal. pic.twitter.com/yiklHG2hYO— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 8, 2023
In fact, none of the main pairings broke even in expected goals, or shots on goal during the road trip, though the Hughes-Miller pairing had plenty of broken up shot attempts that inflated their CF% above 50. John Marino and Kevin Bahl had a 6-5 goals ration to go with a 44.76 xGF% and a team-high 3.12 xGA during the four-game trip. Luke Hughes and Colin Miller fell to earth as a pairing with a poor 39.53 xGF%, though they had the best goals differential at 3-1.
So, what’s the move forward? I think that John Marino and Kevin Bahl have failed to re-establish themselves as a shutdown pairing and must either be demoted to the third pair or split up. If Luke Hughes were paired with Simon Nemec, then I think a Siegenthaler-Marino pairing may have more success as a second pair than Bahl has been contributing. But if that were to continue failing, I would not be opposed to seeing Marino and Bahl demoted to bottom six matchups as Siegenthaler and Colin Miller handle shutdown assignments. Siegenthaler held up his end of the bargain over the past few games in terms of preventing chances against, and now it’s on Marino and Bahl to find their role with this team.
Final Thoughts and Your Thoughts
At the end of the day, nobody is perfect. Even when playing better, the team was bound to run into a game they were going to have a lot of trouble winning. In Edmonton, they just could not sustain their recent bump in shooting success, and a couple goaltending mistakes sealed their fate. It happens — it left me no less confident in their ability to continue their winning ways as they face Boston, Columbus, and Anaheim over the next week. I would love to sweep those games, but continually winning two out of three or three out of every four games for the rest of the season would pretty much guarantee a high playoff spot, near the top of the Eastern Conference. Would I like to see better goaltending? Yes, definitely. But the Devils are showing the ability to improve their defensive results while getting a higher percentage of their scoring chances in the net. I think all Devils fans should be thrilled with the past week of hockey.
But what do you think? Do you agree that this road trip was a success? Are you still worried about their long-term viability? Do you think they have their mojo back yet? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.