With the New Jersey Devils currently sitting three points out of a playoff spot, the team is increasingly beginning to draw the ire of fans. I certainly was not happy watching their game against the San Jose Sharks, when they lost 6-3 after a series of defensive breakdowns and a total lack of timely goaltending. While everything seems like doom and gloom is imminent, there are some recent developments that I believe should give us hope that this is not the end.
Reason to Believe: Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec Are Legit
When Dougie Hamilton underwent surgery for a torn pectoral, the Devils took a serious hit on their back end. Would they be able to replace Dougie Hamilton effectively? Would this injury make a major dent in their playoff hopes? I am not going to say that Dougie being hurt has no bearing on the team’s success, but my fears were largely alleviated by seeing Simon Nemec in game action against the San Jose Sharks. While I felt that Nemec did not quite look ready during the preseason, he showed out with two points out of the Devils’ three goals on Friday.
Nemec looked good enough that he was even paired with Luke Hughes for part of the game. Hughes did not have his best night, but he had just been banged up the night before prior to scoring the OT winner against Philadelphia. Not only do I think Lindy Ruff should keep Hughes and Nemec together at their current combined age of 39 years, I think it’s already clear why they will be great partners for years to come.
Luke Hughes is already a puck movement wizard from the point, and he can drive the puck down low whenever he likes. He has a decent shot, and I think we will be seeing more of it as he feels more comfortable jumping up in the play. Hughes’ best attribute is his skating, though. He is able to cut down opportunities with his speed, and he is extremely slippery as a puck handler for a 6’2” defenseman. On the other hand, Nemec is more direct. Nemec is the type of guy to get the puck and immediately get to the middle of the zone for a big winding slap shot. He immediately looks for a screen and a lane to shoot through. But, perhaps being a bit timid at his age, he does not seem like he will be prone to getting caught in the offensive zone against quick transitions. He is a fine skater in his own right, and he is fast enough to keep up with Hughes. They may not be the sole answer to the defensive woes so far, but do not believe anyone who suggests that the Devils’ struggles are so tied to the performance of their rookies. The rookies are not the problem.
Reason to Believe: Nico Hischier
Since returning from a month-long concussion recovery, Nico Hischier has five points in four games, playing on a line with Ondrej Palat and Jesper Bratt. While Jesper Bratt is up to his usual Jesper Bratt things, Ondrej Palat may be picking up the type of role Tomas Tatar had last season as a player who provides a lot of support in the neutral zone and on the boards to ensure the puck stays in the offensive zone as much as possible. Even if Palat does not produce much during the regular season, this sort of arrangement worked wonders last year when Nico got to a career high in points at 80. When Nico is on the ice, things have been going well and will continue to go well.
Reason to Believe: Mercer-Hughes-Toffoli is Working
In contrast to his prior lines at even strength, Jack Hughes is finally on a line that is outscoring opponents. Through four games, the Mercer-Hughes-Toffoli line is outscoring opponents four to one in 41:18. With all of Jack’s other line combinations this season, the Devils have been outscored 13 to 10. If the Devils want to be a deep playoff team, and if Jack Hughes is going to be a Hart Trophy candidate, the Devils need to make sure he is on an effective even strength line. With Mercer and Toffoli, Hughes both has the space he needs to work with the puck and skilled linemates to create goals with efficiency.
Reason to Be Worried: Shutdown Defensemen and Goalies
For the Devils to be a successful team, they need Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino to be shutdown defensemen. Over the past couple years, Siegenthaler rated as one of the best-value contracts in the league, as his defensive value on the top pairing significantly bolstered Dougie Hamilton’s ability to produce goals and points. John Marino’s pairing last year with Ryan Graves was largely reliable and sometimes drew the toughest matchups.
This year, while John Marino has a 54.21 xGF%, his actual goal ratio is 15 for and 21 against at five-on-five. Meanwhile, Jonas Siegenthaler has a 56.45 xGF% and a 13:17 goals ratio. While they have not been terrible, it is not a good sign that our shutdown defensemen are bleeding the most goals. Some of this falls on goaltending, but not all of it. John Marino has dealt with an .863 on-ice save percentage, while Siegenthaler has had a much more manageable .904 on-ice save percentage. To this point, though, John Marino leads the defense with 12.4 high-danger chances and 2.51 high-danger goals against per 60. By comparison, Siegenthaler rates out at 10.55 HDCA and 1.65 HDGA/60. This is just not a good recipe. For a guy like Marino, he should be allowing 2.51 total goals per 60. Instead, his 3.52 GA/60 makes it difficult to expect opposing lines to be shut down by his pairing.
However, I am not sure how much longer Vitek Vanecek has as a Devil. While he was a fan favorite last year, he has simply not been a consistent starter, and I believe Lindy Ruff has totally lost faith in him. Otherwise, why would he leave Akira Schmid in the game against San Jose on the back end of a back-to-back, after he faced 47 shots? Why would he leave Schmid in when he thought Akira was failing to make saves on stoppable shots? The only rational explanation I can think of is that they are just going to limit Vitek’s ice time until they have a new goalie. I cannot blame them.
Lowest Goals Saved Above Expected - December 2 pic.twitter.com/l7nvT51aqy— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) December 2, 2023
Do you know what would be a huge step to the Devils reclaiming their mojo? The goalies need to get dialed in and start making big saves. Big saves energize teams, and this team falls flat when their shots aren’t converting to goals. If they had more faith in their own defensive outcomes, we might see more consistent effort.
The Fans’ Role
We, the fans, cannot trade for a new goaltender. And with how much extra cap space the Devils will accumulate by the deadline, I do not expect Tom Fitzgerald to make any move that requires Dougie Hamilton to hit LTIR until as late as possible. For the next few weeks, the Devils will likely be playing with what they already have. They kick off their northwestern road trip with the Canucks game tomorrow, though, and will not be back home until Wednesday, December 13, when the Bruins come to town.
Generally, I have no problem with booing an underperforming team. It’s a message that the product on the ice is unnaceptable, and it has been unnaceptable at times this season. But when the Devils come back home on the 13th, I just hope that they will have had a nice road trip. If the crowd at The Rock is shouting for the Devils all night long when they come back home, maybe they will feel rejuvenated. We still have plenty to cheer for: Nico Hischier, the Hughes brothers, Bratt, Mercer, Toffoli, Holtz, and Nemec have shown how electric they can be this season, and there are more players ready to get going. I know I can get angry about a bad game, but I want to see the fans pick the team up the next time they come back home for a game. The answers to our woes have largely already been on the ice, and the first step to them playing like the playoff team they should be might just be a really loud Rock crowd next Wednesday: hopefully after a big and fruitful road trip. We are about at the point of imperatives: if they don’t get it together soon, it might not be a happy New Year.
What do you think about the Devils being near the bottom of the east? Do you think more time with Nico and Jack healthy will result in them creeping back up, or will the goalies prove too much to overcome? Or do you think they have been suffering flukey results all year, and that they will turn it around soon? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.