A new year is upon us. After tomorrow’s game in Boston, the New Jersey Devils will have 47 games in their season in the 2024 part of their schedule. It will not be easy. Well, nothing in the NHL is ever easy. I would like to think that the Devils have the talent to hang with anyone and everyone in the league. I have the evidence that the Devils have not played up to their potential for a myriad of reasons. It is called the 2023 part of the Devils’ season. As such, this could be a particularly rough 2024 part of the season. Let me go over it with you, one of People Who Matter.
Believe it or not, but the Devils have not played all 31 opponents this season. Not even all 15 in the Eastern Conference. Here is a quick run down of who is coming up that the Devils have yet to face yet:
- Tampa Bay, 3 games (1 home, 2 road), First Game: January 11, 2024 - The Devils are going to “enjoy” playing a Lightning team that has Andrei Vasilevskiy healthy and in form, Nikita Kucherov being a scoring machine (he’s your league leading scorer as of December 28), a collection of forwards who help out from Kucherov and Steven Stamkos to the less heralded Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul. At least the first and second games will be held without the Devils playing the day before. Can’t say that about the home game on February 25.
- Carolina, 3 games (1 home, 2 road), First Game: January 25, 2024 - It is unusual to see a divisional opponent make a debut this late into the season. It will also be a real challenge. Carolina’s goaltending is arguably as questionable as the Devils, but they have been far more responsible in their own end on and on the puck. While they have had some tough nights, Rod Brind’Amour has his charges playing hard more often than not. Oh, and the Devils have been and could still be chasing them in the standings, which will add further pressure to those games. At least none of them are part of back-to-backs.
- Dallas, 2 games (1 home, 1 road), First Game: January 20, 2024 - Dallas is good this season! They are currently fighting for first in the Central, they have been both good at home and on the road, and they can score heaps of goals. In fact, they have not lost 10 games in regulation yet as of December 28. The bad news is that the home game on January 20 is the second half of a back-to-back. The good news is that it is also the night where the Devils will put Sergei Brylin in the Devils Ring of Honor. So the Devils better be pumped and play for Sarge if nothing else. But the Stars will not make it easy.
- Las Vegas, 2 games (1 home, 1 road), First Game: January 22, 2024 - The defending champions are also good this season! They are in a bit of a dog fight for first in the Pacific and their road record (9-7-3) is not so dominant as their home record (12-3-2). Still, I would not take a G-Knights team led by Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault lightly. Especially since the road game on March 17 is right after a game at Arizona State on March 16.
- Los Angeles, 2 games (1 home, 1 road), First Game: February 15, 2024 - The Kings are, get this, good! The Kings have been road warriors with a stunning 13-1-1 record as of December 28. Hopefully, that hotness will cool off by the time Valentine’s Day rolls around at the Rock. The Devils will also have to maintain focus as they have the Stadium Series game two nights later. The return game in L.A. will close out a California trip on Sunday afternoon on March 3. Incidentally, the trade deadline this season is March 8.
- Nashville, 2 games (1 home, 1 road), First Game: February 13, 2024 - Hey, it’s the team Andrew Brunette is coaching. Some thought they would be entering a rebuild what with a change from franchise-lifer David Polie to Barry Trotz. But they are battling for a playoff spot right now. The Preds will have the advantage of getting the Devils in their building a day after the Devils host Seattle. The rematch at the Rock on April 7 will also be another second half of a back-to-back game for New Jersey. Not good for a team struggling in those games! Even worse knowing that Brunette might even out-coach Lindy Ruff in both games.
- Toronto, 3 games (1 home, 2 road), First game: March 26, 2024 - Yes! March 26! That late into the season, the Devils will then finally play each Eastern Conference team this season. Thank you, schedule makers? Maybe Toronto already clinches and they take the last few weeks off? Or maybe they struggle and therefore get amped for those games because they may need them? Either way, these games will get tons of attention as so much of the Hockey Media continues to focus on Toronto for reasons I cannot understand. At least the Maple Leafs are a high-scoring squad of quality with expectations. March 26 in Toronto, April 9 in New Jersey, and April 11 in Toronto will not be easy.
Seven opponents the Devils have yet to face yet and, as of this writing on December 28, all of them are playoff teams. Six of them have better records than the Devils both in terms of points and point percentage. The Devils have a slight edge over Nashville in terms of points percentage as NJ has played two fewer games than Nashville with the same number of points. It is possible that the Devils hold their own and do well against these teams. They may be struggling by the time the Devils play them. They do have wins over Vancouver, Boston, and the Islanders - all in playoff positions as of this writing. They also have losses to Our Hated Rivals, Colorado, and Winnipeg. The point remains: they will not be easy games. And these seven opponents represent 17 of the teams’ 47 games in 2024. (Forgive me if I miscounted a game or two.)
The Back to Backs of 2024
One of the lamest coping mechanisms about the 2023-24 Devils that I have seen is how they are tired after the first half of a back to back set and so they constantly lose the second. And how it is not fair for the Devils to have so many. This is trash. The Devils have been consistently playing 12 to 18 back-to-back sets per season since 2016-17. This is a compromise for the lack of actual travel the Devils have to do with local rivals and divisional opponents being so close. Our Hated Rivals, the Islanders, and the Flyers are within 90 miles of Newark. The Capitals are also a four-hour drive away. Hence, the Devils play more back-to-backs than most in the NHL. My opinion is that this is a team that should be built and prepared for it. Just like they were last season.
Anyway, we have to face facts. The second games in back-to-back sets this season have been Bad for the Devils. New Jersey is 1-5-1 in those games going into their final back-to-back set of 2023. Those five regulation losses include the embarrassing 4-6 loss to Washington, which showed issues that the Devils have yet to actually resolve; the embarrassing 3-6 loss to San Jose, who had zero road wins prior to the game; and the embarrassing 1-5 loss to Anaheim, which kicked off an unsuccessful homestand. Some may see that record and if there is a repeat of another bad regulation loss to Boston on December 30, then perhaps those in charge of the team have a responsibility for that. Whether you agree with that or want to blame some other noun for it, there are more back-to-backs to come. Here is a list:
- January 5-6, 2024, vs. Chicago and vs. Vancouver - The Devils will be at home for both, which would be a positive if the Devils did not own one of the poorer home records in the league. The Devils have beaten both teams. They beat Bedard in November. They have prevailed in the Hughes Bowl in Vancouver back in December. Can they do it again? They may need to! And that is the concern.
- January 19-20, 2024, at Columbus and vs. Dallas - Not only will this set feature a debut opponent for the season in Dallas, an important divisional game will be right before that Dallas game. Emotions should be in New Jersey’s favor as they are honoring Sarge on the 20th. Then again, the Devils have done well at not doing as they should at times this season - and not always for their benefit.
- February 12-13, 2024, vs. Seattle and at Nashville - This kicks off a busy week that ends at MetLife. The Devils did beat Seattle earlier this season and they should be able to beat them in Newark. The tricky part will be the second half. Nashville, like the Devils, are battling for a playoff spot. Unlike the Devils, they will not go down easily. This could be a real challenge amid a difficult part of a difficult month.
- February 24-25, 2024, vs. Montreal and vs. Tampa Bay - Both games are in the afternoon. Both games are at home. The Devils have prevailed over Montreal. The Tampa Bay game will be more difficult on paper. Plus, it will get more coverage as it is on TNT. And with the trade deadline looming on March 8, there will be plenty of interest depending on where each team is at. Still, this is another set where the second game, on paper, looks to be tougher than the first. Same with the other three in this list so far.
- March 16-17, 2024, at Arizona and at Las Vegas - Mark it 5. Arizona is no joke. They beat the Devils in a shootout way back in Game #2 and they have shown that they can compete. Las Vegas at home has been a tough place for anyone to play and that is made tougher by the fact that the G-Knights look to be Cup contenders again. This will also be made harder by the fact that whoever is on the Devils at this point is going to be pretty much the team as it is past the deadline.
- March 23-24, 2024, vs. Ottawa and at Islanders - Another set, another one where the second game looks to be tougher than the first. Ottawa is no doormat, which we may get to see tonight. They may be out of it by March 23 but I doubt they will lie down for anyone. The Devils have done well against the Isles this season. However, if both teams are desperate for points by March 24, then this could be a real pressure cooker in Elmont.
- April 2-3, 2024, vs. Pittsburgh and at Our Hated Rivals - Pittsburgh has been in New Jersey’s position so far this season: outside of the playoffs and needing help to get back into it. This Penguins team could be very different by the time April 2 rolls around, so this will not be a gimmie. The game against Our Hated Rivals is always hard because it is a rivalry game. Unfortunately, I do not think they will fall from their spot in 2024.
- April 6-7, 2024, at Ottawa and vs. Nashville - The final back-to-back set of the season is another one where the second game looks to be more difficult than the first. It is not that the Sens are a bunch of scrubs. It is that Nashville could very well still be in the mix by this point and, if so, this will not be an easy game. Even if they are out of it, the Preds can frustrate anyone and, again, Brunette may have the coaching skills to out-do Ruff - giving the Devils another edge.
Eight back-to-backs remain, representing 16 of the 47 games in the 2024 part of the Devils’ season. I will be blunt. The Devils cannot afford to just win one or two of the second game in those sets. They also need to keep getting results in the first game in those same sets, which have been more positive. But the Devils need to figure out whatever it is that they are not doing in those second games of these sets. There will be 10+ of them next season. And the season after that. They will not stop. Accept it. Deal with it.
The Home and the Road Slate Ahead
The Devils have 22 home games left this season after their 4-3 comeback overtime win over Columbus. 5 are in January. 7 are in February. 6 are in March. 4 are in April. With the MetLife game being classified as Neutral, this means there are 24 road games remaining.
This is actually a potential benefit for the Devils. One of the issues with the 2023-24 season is that the Devils have not done well at home. They have not. They finished their 18 home games in 2023 with an 8-8-2 record for 18 points, a 50% point percentage. The point percentage is tied with Ottawa for 24th in the NHL and that win over Columbus catapulted them from the seven teams who are sub-50% at home this season. The league median point percentage at home this season is 59.4% and the team ahead of Edmonton are the Islanders at 63.2%. The point is that being 50% at home is not at all good enough.
This needs to be better in 2024. The problem with that is that the home game opponents are not going to be easy. The only current non-playoff teams remaining that will come to the Rock include two against Montreal, one against Chicago, one against Seattle, one against Calgary, one against Ottawa, and one against bubble-team St. Louis. The Devils have the capability but they will need to actually get the job done at the Rock in 2024 much more often.
As far the road games go, the Devils have been much better at 10-5-0 going into these last two games of 2023. That may give them some good feelings as they get to go to Tampa Bay, Florida, and Boston for a three-game-in-five-day trip in January. They will also have that California trip to end February and start March where they need to get revenge in San Jose and Anaheim. There is also a big four-game trip in mid March that starts in Manhattan, goes to Dallas, and then ends with that Arizona-Las Vegas back-to-back. The last 3+ game trip is at the end of March. It starts with the end of a back to back in Long Island, goes to Toronto, and then ends in Buffalo. All other road games are one-offs or two-game trips. The point remains: the Devils have done well away from New Jersey and that is something that may help them in a remaining schedule that leans more on the road than at home in 2024.
Does that make it any easier? No. The only road games against sure-fire non-playoff teams are one in Columbus in January, the San Jose and Anaheim games on the California trip, and visits to Buffalo and Ottawa - which are not at all simple contests. Everyone else is where the Devils are right now or better. The non-playoff list may grow as 2024 goes on, but that is how it looks so far. That only adds to the challenge of what lies ahead for the Devils.
Now Add in All of the Other Issues We Know
What will make this all difficult are the real issues with the team that they have suffered from so far.
- Goaltending: Vitek “Pinball Flippers” Vanecek has been a rebound machine. Akira Schmid has been mismanaged and sent down to Utica. The team is set to throw Nico Daws, somewhat fresh off recovery from hip surgery, into games the Devils cannot afford to throw away. The goalies have not been good. I am not arguing otherwise. The goaltending coach has not been good. And a lot of people just want to throw up their hands and say, “Devils are being let down by goalies, ah, well what can you do” instead of exploring other issues that could help mitigate these issues. Or other ideas on how to fix it. (e.g. Hey, how come no one has had Vanecek change his leg pads given his rebound issues?)
- Starts of Games: The Devils have had some real sad sack first periods, some that ended OK after a bad first five or ten minutes, and some that were legitimately good starts. I have written about this earlier this month. Some of the People Who Matter do not want to think it is an issue, but it is. Given that the Devils have conceded first in 24 out of 35 games as of December 28, the problem is not as simple as “Goalie just has to make a save.” There has been too many sleepwalking performances from the players and the coaching staff to just leave it at the the goalie’s skates. This has to get better or 2024 is going to be a nightmare of a grind.
- Predictable Gameplans: In December alone, I have witnessed teams increasingly collapse in their own zone, play a 1-2-2 in the neutral zone, leave a skater on the weakside get open (activated from the blueline and otherwise), and have skaters up high along the walls or just outside of them to deny the Devils from doing what they are built to do. The Devils’ systems have yielded positive rates in 5-on-5 play. But part of why they are not as effective as they were last season and why they have had struggles against even the likes of Anaheim and a short-handed Columbus team is because they and others have adjusted to how the Devils play. Either the Devils have to adjust their own systems or have some “Plan B” looks to throw off opponents or be so good at their own systems that they cannot be stopped. This is an issue exacerbated at home where the Devils have the theoretical benefit of the last line change. By the way, the Devils ended 2023 with an 8-8-2 record at home.
- Inconsistent Accountability: Alexander Holtz, who has 8 goals this season, on the ice for a GA that he was not involved in? That’s a benching. Nathan Bastian, who has one goal this season, missing his coverage as the weakside defender? Keep on playing. Akira Schmid gets beaten twice early? Gotta replace him for a spark. Vitek Vanecek melts down in that same game? Gotta start him the next two games. The last two should sound familiar, that was what happened since last Thursday night. We have seen Ruff - correctly, in my opinion - sit the likes of John Marino or Timo Meier for a period or more for their mistakes earlier in the season. Now, it seems the coach has his favorites and his own personal justifications for his decisions outside of reality. This ties into the next point.
- Player Usage: Let me focus on an example. You know, I like Michael McLeod’s play in general this season. It is a lot better than in past seasons where he was often just a dude on the ice once the faceoff was taken. That said, I do not think he should be getting more even strength ice time in a game than Nico Hischier, which is exactly what happened in the game against Columbus. And in the Christmas Eve Eve game against Detroit. And in the disaster of a loss against Edmonton. Ruff, you cannot be serious that McLeod is giving you or the Devils more than Nico Hischier. Even with eleven fewer games played, Hischier has more production than McLeod and has been more positive in 5-on-5 play. Make it make sense.
- Discipline: By December 28, 2022, the Devils have been shorthanded 107 times. With even just Damon Severson and Miles Wood gone, I expected the Devils to be in the penalty box less often. As of December 28, 2023, the Devils have been shorthanded 106 times. While neither are exceptionally high numbers, the Devils’ current success rate of 78.3% on the PK this season is tied for 21st in the NHL. The best penalty kill is not taking a penalty. Get that together and the PK, with its questionable goaltending behind it, does not need to be so much of an adventure or a potential source of pain in games where a goal makes a difference. It starts with guys like Brendan Smith, Kevin Bahl, Ondrej Palat, and Erik Haula getting their acts together. Incidentally, three of those four are vets.
- General Work Ethic: In my meaner moments, I would say the 2023-24 Devils are proof that hard work beats talent when talent does not work too hard. The Devils have the talent. They can make comebacks happen and win games over tough opponents in a variety of settings, whether it is a goal fest in Vancouver or a bizarrely tight game in Seattle or an overtime thriller against Boston or needing Luke Hughes turning into Scott Niedermayer for a moment to force overtime against Columbus. The problem is that they do not always happen and the team is liable to melt down or not will their way in what was otherwise winnable games. See the losses to Edmonton, Anaheim, Our Hated Rivals, Columbus on Black Friday, Detroit before Thanksgiving, and either of the Capitals games for examples. If the Devils can put in something resembling a more consistent effort, then they may be able to get more consistent results.
I am sure there are others that I am either missing or ignoring because I do not think it is an actual issue. But I do think most would agree these are issues with the current team.
Get Ready for More Scoreboard Watching
I do a weekly snapshot of the division because it is more important than ever to keep tabs on what is happening in the division and where teams end up on a weekly basis. Due to the NHL playoff system, finishing top three in the division is critical for getting in. Due to the fact that the Atlantic Division is not just three or four decent to good teams anymore, wild card spots are not a guarantee. Those who feel this has been done too early are fine to feel that way. I do not because it is very tight right now in the Metropolitan and moving up in the NHL is very hard to do.
Consider this. As of December 1, the night where they filled their pants against San Jose, the Devils sat in seventh place in the division with 23 points. They were two points behind a wild card spot. The Devils had a successful road trip after that loss to San Jose, going 3-1-0. They had 29 points, they were fifth in the division due to tiebreakers, and still two points behind a wild card spot. The Devils proceeded to go 3-2-1 in their next six games, with three of those non-wins giving the paying customers at the Rock a reason to dislike hockey. On Christmas Day, the Devils had 36 points, sat sixth in the division, and down to three points behind a wild card spot.
Even if the Devils win out this month - which would be grand - I need to point out that the Devils have been within a striking distance of a wild card playoff spot for a month now. And that is with December being a better month than November. It is not enough to win more games yourself, you need help too and that is why it is so hard to catch up in the standings. The teams ahead of the Devils are not losing enough. And there is a chance they will not given that teams like Philadelphia, Washington, and the Islanders have yet to fade over 30 games into their season. This is not even considering Carolina or Pittsburgh improving their own fates. The Devils need to surpass these teams. The only way to know what that even requires is to pay attention to the out-of-town scoreboard.
Anyway, 2024 is going to be tough. The questions that come to my mind in light of this tough schedule are these:
1. Are the 2023-24 New Jersey Devils going to be able to handle it and get the results they need to make the playoffs?
2. If not, then what do they need to change to get the results they need to make the playoffs?
Because I do not know if you understand this, but missing the playoffs is not an acceptable outcome, as Jared wrote not that long ago. Yes, it can still be done. But after a month of going from being a few points out of a playoff spot to being a few points out of a playoff spot, it is far easier said than done. Will this team find another gear in this upcoming year? Do you think they will make the playoffs in 2024? If not, what has to change for the Devils to do so in 2024? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.
By the way, the 2024 schedule begins in Washington D.C. on January 3. A fine place as any for the Devils to show us something different. Hopefully better.