The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (11-10-1) @ Vancouver Canucks (16-8-1)
The Time: 10:00pm ET
The Broadcast: MSG, MSGSN2, NHL Network
Last Devils Game
New Jersey sunk to a new low this past Friday, getting blown out by the league-worst San Jose Sharks at home, 6-3. Chris called the loss “Horrific and inexcusable” in his game recap. Yup.
Last Canucks Game
Vancouver battled their fellow Western Canadians, the Calgary Flames, on Saturday night. The Canucks came away with a 4-3 victory, with Nikita Zadorov assisting on the game-winner in his Canucks debut (against the team that traded him, no less!)
What Else is There to Say?
The New Jersey Devils, a team that came into the season on the shortlist of Stanley Cup contenders according to many around the league, got doubled up on their home ice by the San Jose Sharks last Friday night.
The San Jose Sharks are so horrifically bad that they lost their first 11 games of the season. The Devils lost to that team.
The San Jose Sharks are so horrifically bad that a month ago they lost consecutive games by scores of 10-1 and 10-2. The Devils lost to that team.
The San Jose Sharks are so horrifically bad that they went the first two months without earning so much as a single point in any of their games away from home, entering Friday’s contest sporting a road record of 0-10-0. The Devils lost to that team.
The Devils lost an unlosable game.
Yes I can talk myself off the ledge by pointing out the fact that by all statistical measures, both traditional (the Devils outshot the Sharks 47-18) and advanced (New Jersey earned 70.57% of the expected goals at 5-on-5 according to Natural Stat Trick), the Devils outplayed the Sharks. Getting goalied is a real thing that happens to every team, it happens.
But what makes that even more frustrating is that while the Devils were getting goalied by Kaapo Kahkonen, the Sharks were feasting on Akira Schmid. Fresh off a genuinely great performance against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, in which Schmid stopped 44 of 47 shots, head coach Lindy Ruff decided to roll with Schmid for the second half of the back-to-back. First of all, that to me speaks volumes about where Ruff’s confidence level is in Vitek Vanecek at the moment. But the plan backfired stupendously as Schmid had arguably the worst game a Devil goaltender has had this season, which is saying something.
It was also the first game for New Jersey after learning the team will be without Dougie Hamilton long term, possibly for the remainder of the season, with a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery. I know many of you have a lot of issues with Hamilton, particularly how he plays defense, but losing Hamilton is a tremendous blow to a team that really can’t afford to keep losing players to injury. His offense is elite, and call me naive but I’m of the opinion that Hamilton’s defense is a little underrated by a lot of Devils fans. However even if I think he’s a little better than most, I still do think he’s been bad defensively this season. Then again he was far from alone on the Devils blueline.
His injury did open the door to something exciting though...
Welcome to The Show, Simon Nemec
Upon placing Hamilton on Long Term Injured Reserve, the Devils called up their blue chip defense prospect, the number two overall pick in the 2022 draft, Simon Nemec. The Slovakian blueliner debuted in North America last season with the Utica Comets, and by all accounts he got off to a slow start in the AHL before finishing the season very strong. This year, Nemec continued to impress down in Utica, and now he finally gets his shot in the big leagues.
So how did Nemec fare in his NHL debut? The Sharks, as detailed, are a dumpster fire’s dumpster fire, so take the following with a grain of salt...but he did very well. He registered two assists in the game while finishing with three shots on goal. Under the hood, Nemec looked very good at 5-on-5:
Corsi For%: 72.09%
Scoring Chances For%: 70.00%
High Danger Corsi For %: 77.78%
Expected Goals For%: 67.94%
Excellent numbers across the board.
Even more interesting to me was the fact that Nemec played a whopping 22:38, which led all Devils defensemen. He didn’t finish with the team lead though, because Tyler Toffoli played 23:20, and Jack Hughes played an unfathomable 27:16.
Who knows if Nemec is here to stay now that Hamilton is gone, or if he’s going to get the classic nine-game look before being sent back down. It’s exciting to finally see a big piece of the Devils’ future in person, and even though it took place in the Devils’ worst loss of the season, I tip my cap to the young Mr. Nemec, and congratulate him on his NHL debut. Here’s to many, many more in a hopefully stellar career in red and black.
One Player Back, Another On the Way?
One last note before moving on to the Canucks, because quite frankly if I continue to spend any more time thinking about the Devils I might go crazy. Timo Meier returned from injury on Friday night, his first game since November 14th in Winnipeg. Meier was not eased back in, playing 21:30 against his old team. He finished with zero points, five shots, and a 5-on-5 xGF% of 45.45%. Not a good return for Meier. We can only hope he was just shaking off the rust and he regains his form quickly.
Meanwhile, Erik Haula has been out the past few games due to injury himself. He’s obviously not close to the most important forward on the team, but he serves a key role on the roster, providing energy and physicality and a little goal scoring touch just for good measure. Well the Devils received some good news in regards to a potential Haula return:
It was only a matter of time before Erik Haula rejoined #NJDevils practice. The writing was on the wall with Laberge returned to Utica.— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) December 4, 2023
But for a vet who is outspoken, hard working and intense, it couldn’t come at a better time to have Haula back. https://t.co/3GsGobc0nH
No guarantees, but it appears as though Haula is on the verge of returning to action. Getting him back would be a nice little boost to the team’s depth.
The First Full Hughes Bowl
Across the larger hockey world, the big story in this game is the family reunion between The Brothers Hughes (there’s a reason this game is on NHL Network). Quinn, the Canucks’ standout defenseman and the oldest brother of the trio, has faced Jack and the Devils a few times in his career already. But this will be the first time Luke is thrown into the mix, completing the trilogy.
Obviously New Jersey has bigger fish to fry than focusing on this side story, but taking a step back from the semi-crisis the club is going through at the moment, it is pretty cool to see all three Hughes boys play in the same game. Over at NHL.com, Mike Morreale had this nice piece on what this game will mean to the Hughes family. I doubt any of the brothers will need any extra motivation in this one.
According to Morreale, when Jack and Quinn have played against each other, the Devils are 5-1-0, with Jack earning six goals and 10 points in those six games (Quinn has three assists in the six contests). New Jersey has had the Canucks’ number in recent years, and Jack has had a lot to do with that.
It’s a little tough to care about anything other than wanting the Devils to win some games at this point in the season, but this really is a cool, special story that is worth appreciating for what it is.
Riding the Rollercoaster
It’s been an interesting season for the Canucks. They started their season incredibly hot, racing out to a 10-2-1 record in their first 13 games. How were they achieving those terrific results? Well there were a lot of people sounding the alarm that Vancouver was doing it mostly with smoke and mirrors, AKA an unsustainable PDO bender.
For those unaware, PDO (which doesn’t actually stand for anything!) is simply the sum of a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage. A general rule of thumb with PDO is that 1.000 is luck-neutral, and if a team has a PDO higher than that, they are considered lucky, and it is expected that the number will regress closer to 1.000 at some point.
Vancouver’s 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on November 9th was the game that got them to that 10-2-1 record. So what was their PDO on that date? Well...
The 2023-24 Canucks currently have a 109.8 PDO, the highest (by far) at this point in the season since the stat has been tracked.— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) November 10, 2023
Here's how they stack up against other teams from the past 10 seasons who have started with similarly high percentages. #Canucks pic.twitter.com/MwSXBrZXUY
Yeah, the Canucks were on quite the heater.
Since that day, Vancouver has in fact regressed quite a bit, going 6-6-0 in their last 12 games. The Canucks are still a solid team with their share of dangerous players, but it appears as though their luck has finally evened out.
The Unstoppable Force
I think we can all agree that goaltending and defense have been major issues for the Devils this season. Well given those struggles, you’re not going to like hearing that the Canucks lead the entire NHL in goals scored with 96. If these trends continue, this game could get real ugly real fast.
Vancouver is a team that leans heavily on their stars, and they’ve all shown up in big ways through the Canucks’ first 25 games. Let’s start with Quinn Hughes, who we touched on up above. The eldest Hughes brother was named captain of the Canucks this past offseason, and he’s rewarded the organization’s trust in him with big time production. He’s played all 25 games thus far, and has registered a staggering nine goals and 34 points, which has him currently tied for most points by a defenseman in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar. Unsurprisingly, he also leads all Canucks skaters in average time on ice, skating 24:47 per game, so expect to hear his name (and the name “Hughes” in general I guess) called a lot tonight.
Up front, Vancouver is led by J.T. Miller, who paces the team with 13 goals and 36 points. That point total is tied for second overall in the league (with the Bruins’ David Pastrnak), as Miller is looking up at only Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov across the NHL. Right behind Miller is Elias Pettersson, who has 10 goals and 32 points of his own. Pettersson currently stands at seventh in the league with his 32 points.
Are you starting to sense a trend?
The two other Canucks who are averaging at least a point per game are Brock Boeser (17 goals, 28 points) and shockingly, Filip Hronek (two goals, 25 points). After that it drops off considerably with Andrei Kuzmenko sitting at sixth on the team in points with 15, which is still a respectable total. Yes maybe those players collected a lot of those points thanks to unsustainably high shooting percentages earlier in the season, but these are still excellent players. Underrate them at your own peril.
The Immovable Object
The Canucks are not just a stellar offense this season, as their 64 goals allowed is good for 10th-fewest in the entire league. Goaltender Thatcher Demko deserves the lion’s share of the credit for that, registering a terrific .924 SV% and 2.26 GAA in 18 games this season.
Demko, who is now in his fifth full season and seventh overall (all with Vancouver), has generally been a good to great starting goaltender through his career. His best season came in 2021-22 when he finished seventh in the Vezina Trophy voting. Last season was a low point for Demko, as he struggled to the tune of a .901 SV% in only 32 games played.
He’s bounced back with authority this season. In addition to those gaudy traditional stats I mentioned, Demko also comes into this game fourth in the league in Goals Saved Above Average at 10.65 according to Natural Stat Trick.
Demko has gotten a heavy workload this season, so it’s quite possible Vancouver head coach Rick Tocchet gives his leading man the night off in favor of Casey DeSmith. In eight games played (seven starts) this season, DeSmith clocks in at a .903 SV% and a 3.06 GAA. Those are reasonable numbers, but clearly there’s a significant drop off from Demko to DeSmith. A lot of the Devils’ fortune tonight may depend on who gets the call for the Canucks.
I hope you remembered to stock up on coffee for tonight given the 10pm start. What will you be watching for tonight? Which Hughes brother do you think will have the best game? How will Simon Nemec fare in his second career game after a promising debut? Will New Jersey actually get a save tonight? As always, thanks for reading!