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The Numbers Among the Slow Starts of the 2023-24 New Jersey Devils

27 games into the New Jersey Devils season and the Devils have trailed first in 20 of them and have more bad first period performances than good ones. This post explains what are the numbers behind those slow starts and suggests some ideas on how it might be fixed.

New Jersey Devils v Philadelphia Flyers
Yeah, I don’t get it either.
Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

On Wednesday night, the New Jersey Devils pulled out a 2-1 overtime win over the Boston Bruins, one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. The defensive effort was there. Vitek Vanecek actually goalie’d a team with only one goal allowed on 4.01 xGF. Dawson Mercer batted in a puck in a scramble to beat a locked-in Jeremy Swayman. The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, did not have one of his best games in regulation. He was a monster in overtime, nearly ending it himself multiple times before he actually did from a feed by Jesper Bratt. There was much to like.

It was also another night where the Devils started off the game poorly. Passes were more often into skates, heels or toes of sticks, or even to the other team. The Devils were skating well but their puck control and movement was off. It helped the B’s take control early on. Boston even got on the board first, which made it the 20th time this season where the Devils conceded the first goal. The Devils have played 27 games this season. Caleb pointed this out in the recap and he was right to do so. It has become a common occurrence this season for the 2023-24 Devils. So much so that it is worth exploring further. After all, there is a difference between being out-played in first periods than out-scored in first periods.

On Trailing First has two helpful team stat filters: scoring by period and scoring/trailing first. For the former, the New Jersey Devils sit at 27 goals scored in first periods and 30 allowed prior to Thursday night’s games. Five teams are tied with the Devils with 27 scored in first periods, sitting around the middle of the league rankings. This includes Boston and the two New York Teams. The issue is that other number: the 30 goals allowed. The Devils are 22nd in the NHL in first period goals allowed, which is right outside of the bottom ten of the NHL. That -3 goal differential is the 20th among all NHL teams in terms of first period scoring. While a couple of teams worse than them there are not bad - like Dallas, Toronto, and Carolina - most of them are not very good. But the Devils are not far off from being decent from a first-period goals perspective. Which is surprising.

Equally surprising is that the Devils indeed lead the NHL in giving up the first goal, which has happened 20 times out of 27 games this season. The Devils just went past Anaheim, Montreal, and Buffalo to lead in that category. The Devils are 9-10-1 when trailing first, which is not bad considering that only five teams are above 50% winning percentage when that happens. Then again, the Devils are 9th in winning percentage when trailing first and all eight teams ahead of them (which includes Boston, the New York teams, Dallas) have had at least 10 games where they scored first. The Devils have done it only 7 times. Successfully so; they’re 6-1-0 when that happens. Which is why it is worth demanding that the Devils start their games better.

The Run of Play in First Periods

Natural Stat Trick has game reports that break down on-ice stats by period. After going through all 27 games played by the Devils this season so far, here is what I found among all situations stats for first periods by New Jersey.

2023-24 New Jersey Devils All-Situation First Period Stats as of December 14, 2023
2023-24 New Jersey Devils All-Situation First Period Stats as of December 14, 2023
Natural Stat Trick

Collectively, all 27 first periods have not been that bad. The bad news is that the Devils have been out-shot by 40 (231-271). While they have been out-chancing their opponents, they are just below 50% in high-danger chances. The volume of shots has yielded an expected goals of 22.30 for to 24.44 against - which makes the actual goals of 27 for and 30 against seem understandable. Even if two games are doing a lot of lifting to get to 27 goals for as the November 25 game against Buffalo and the December 5 game in Vancouver each with 4 goals each. Surprising to me - and positively so - is a collective out-attempting of opponents at 524 to 513 and out-chancing 260-236. Keep in mind that scoring chances, high danger and otherwise, are based on attempts not pucks on net.

That stated, in going game-by-game, I would argue there were 14 unquestionably bad first periods. 14 out of 27 is not great. That also includes each of the last five games have had less than good first periods. Yes, the Devils did lead 4-2 in Vancouver after one, but they were also out-attempted (16-20), out-shot (9-13), and out-chanced (both kinds) for an xG difference of 1.01 to 1.68. Thank you, Thatcher Demko, for the 4-2 lead going into the second period. Also, yes, the Devils did lead 1-0 in Seattle after one too, but that was another game where the opponent did more of the work. Plus the one goal literally went off a body and in; hardly a mark of success. I am operating on the notion that out-scoring an opponent in a period is not the same as out-playing them. And I cannot honestly write the Devils out-played Vancouver or Seattle in either game. (Another example: That also applies to the first period in Chicago on November 5, where the Devils led 2-1 but also were out-performed by the Blackhawks in the first frame.)

Easily the worst first period performances came against Washington this season. The October 25 game featured two shots on net to Washington’s 8, an attempt difference of 13-19 (worst of season until November 3 in St. Louis), an xG difference of 0.39, and the Devils were down 0-3. The November 10 game was even worse. The Devils were out-attempted 9-21, out-shot 2-12, out-xG’ed 0.34 (lowest of the season) to 0.88, and out-scored 0-2. Easily the “floor” for first periods by the Devils this season. Annoyingly both at home and against a divisional opponent at that.

There were some positive first periods. While the first ended 1-1, the Devils controlled the rink in Long Island on October 20 with a 30-10 attempt difference in the first period against the Islanders. There was a run of four games of actually good first period performances prior to the current run of five bad ones. November 25 was that 7-2 beating of Buffalo. The Devils out-shot them 17-3 in the first, out HD chanced them 6-0, and went into intermission up 4-0. That was easily their best first period performance of the season so far. But they did not have bad starts against the Islanders on November 28, in Philly on November 30, and despite the score, San Jose on December 1. Bad as that game turned out, I cannot call a 30-15 attempt, 15-8 shot, 16-5 chance first period bad. That these four happened fairly recently makes me confident that the Devils can open up games well. Even if it does take a few minutes to get there. That it has been followed by five straight games of not-so-good first periods reduces that confidence.

One final bit: I did specify home and away games. The recent run of bad first periods has given an 8-6 edge of the bad first periods to away games. That is not enough to make me think the Devils have been significantly worse in the first period away from the Rock. Again, the two worst first periods were at home to Washington. And Wednesday’s first period to Boston was not good either; which was also the first bad home first period since the home loss to Columbus on Black Friday. Further, the recent road trip was what tipped that edge - it was 5-4 in favor of home first periods being bad. This speaks to the first period in general being an issue for the Devils. Where that first period happened does not appear to matter so much.

So It’s a Problem. So Now What?

The value of reviewing this data is to confirm what we have been seeing. Whether we disagree on the detail - such as the exact number of bad first periods out of 27 - the fact remains: first periods have not been good for the Devils. This supports the idea that the 2023-24 Devils start off games slowly. We know it from goals alone, where they have been outscored. We know it further from first period all situation stats from Natural Stat Trick. Collectively, it is not a disaster but there have been more first periods where the Devils did not play well than not.

That is a problem. Even if all it means is that the Devils are trailing - something this season’s Devils are used to doing - it is not a good thing. As much as the Devils have made comebacks this season, a bad first period often created a hole that the Devils could not climb out of. Ten times, to be exact given that 9-10-1 record. Even if the Devils were able to even up a deficit like they did against the Caps in October, the goals spotted were eventually built upon to lead to the loss. Even if the goals were even, the Devils had to put in more and better effort in the second and third periods to make the game more of a game. Admirable when it happens, but it surely has to get tiring. I know I’m tired of noting how poorly the Devils start games. You are probably tired of seeing it too.

If this was just a couple of games in October, then I would be inclined to think the team can ride it out. If it was scattered throughout random games or happened only in second halves of back-to-backs, then I would be inclined to think it is not that big of a deal. That is not the current situation. This is happening 27 games into the NHL season. We know it has happened both at home and on the road. We know it has happened as recently as the last five games regardless of the scores - and in three of those games, along with the score. I think it is clear that this a problem for the 2023-24 Devils So what are the solutions?

I think we can agree on what success may look like. A first period where the Devils have both the legs and the hands. The puck is not handled awkwardly. The passes are effective. Sure, hockey by its nature is chaotic and mistakes will happen. There is a middle ground between utter failure and total success and the Devils just need to find that side closer to the success than not. Ideally, scoring first helps a lot. I will even take first periods where the Devils are not out-shot, out-xG’ed, and/or out-attempted for even periods (0-0, 1-1, etc.). Basically, the Devils need to perform like they were prepared to play from the start instead of needing a lot of time or an entire period to figure the game out. How do we get to that success? That is the tricky part.

Feel free to disagree, but I think you have to look at the bench and the locker room here. When I keep seeing the same thing over and over, I am more inclined this is something the coaches have instilled. Or at least tolerate. This is something the players go along with. They are the ones on the ice. They talk to each other. They know what is going on and I would like to think they get frustrated playing this way as much as we watch it. There have been enough poor performances and games and post-game comments about how the team is not playing well enough to know they know it is a problem. Therefore, I’m scratching my brains on what could be done differently to get closer to success.

I am confident that head coach Lindy Ruff and his staff are not telling the players to go out there and just feel out the game. I would like to think the captain, Nico Hischier, is not giving speeches about how the players can just be there to start games. Or the alternates, Jack Hughes and Ondrej Palat. Or other veterans like Dougie Hamilton (a previous alternate captain) or Timo Meier or Jesper Bratt or Erik Haula or even Michael McLeod. Again, the Devils are in the middle of a run of not-so-good first periods. The Boston game came two days after a tired team lost in Edmonton and it was at home - and those factors did not yield a better start.

That all stated, I cannot ignore that this is an issue with respect to game preparation. If it is not a root cause, but at least a contributing cause. The Boston game on Wednesday is a great example of this issue. A poor first period gave way to a far better effort in the following periods. Great, but not ideal. Especially with the goaltending being as contentious as it has been this season along with getting out-performed fairly often in opening frames. That it has happened multiple times and continues to happen makes me think something has to be changed prior to the game even starting. Whether that is with the pre-game talk in the locker room, video sessions in practices or prior to games (if they happen), or even one-on-one discussions with players. These are all things a coaching staff is responsible for and that it has fallen short is an issue. The same applies to the leaders among the players, officially designated or otherwise.

If I could suggest a tactical adjustment, then I am inclined to suggest that the Devils coaches dial back the aggression to start games. Tactically, the Devils play aggressive hockey. Three men deep in the offensive zone, defensemen free to activate on offense and join rush plays, swarming the side with the puck in the defensive zone, and looking for transitional opportunities the moment they win a puck back. This is why weak side plays have been so problematic, why you see forwards dart out of the defensive zone the moment they think their team won it, and why offensive attacks can flounder with a mere missed pass or read. When it works, it can create a lot of issues. The problem is getting there. I question whether it is wise to come out in games like that. Especially as opposing teams expect it and playing that way requires good puck management. In many of these bad first periods, I would not say the Devils are not skating well. They have been more likely to lose pucks from handles and passes, as we saw in the first period against Boston. Even slowing it down at first may allow the Devils to build up some confidence in their execution. Then they can ramp it up - especially if opposing teams show signs of struggling against it. It may help at least stem the tide against them in case the opening period is just going to be sloppy for some other reason.

Of course, there is one other area that can help with this: goaltending. Devils goalies are saving 90% of the shots they face in the first period. It is not a two way street what with the Devils shooters putting them at a rate of approximately 10.46%. They just need to shoot more - which will be the result of playing with the puck more. But those who lament that the Devils just Need Someone To Make a Save do have a point here. There is some recent hope that perhaps Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid are out of their respective slumps. Or hope that perhaps GM Tom Fitzgerald will acquire a goaltender. Either way, better goaltending will help stem the GA count in first periods. That would help reduce the number of deficits or the amount of the deficit the team has to battle back from in second and third periods.

These may not be great ideas outside of the abstract. I mean, of course, who would not want better goaltending? But if the Devils can do something to address this clear issue with first periods, then they will help themselves tremendously. They may be able to have more games where they score first or establish their game in the first frame. More games where they may be protecting a lead instead of chasing one. The 2022-23 Devils that won 52 games trailed first in 42 games and made nearly 30 comeback wins. The current Devils are on pace to do it roughly 60 times - and it would be unlikely for them to repeat last season’s comeback prowess. At the end of the day, that is what this issue is describing; how the 2023-24 Devils can get more results in the standings. Fix this and the Devils can be on their way to doing so. And who would not want to see that?

Your Take

Of course, I am open to more suggestions as to why the Devils are struggling in first periods this season and what they can do to do better in them. What do you think? What should the Devils do differently in first periods as this season continues? What do you think are causing this issue? What do you want the Devils do about it other than “just play better?” Please leave your answers and other thoughts about first periods in the comments. Thank you for reading.