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The Devils Certainly Don’t Look like a Playoff Team

Time is already running out for these Devils to salvage their season

NHL: San Jose Sharks at New Jersey Devils
The loss to the Sharks last Friday was yet another unacceptable loss for the Devils
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend, our good friend CJ Turturo sent out an interesting tweet.

I like CJ, although I don’t always agree with what he’s saying. That’s not a personal knock on him, but longtime readers and followers of CJ’s work know that he’s looking at this from an analytical background. If you’ve read my work here over the years, you’d know that while I do believe there’s a place for analytics, I’ve always said things like you are what your record says you are. That I care more about real goals than expected goals since only one of those actually impacts every game. I am an eye test guy, first and foremost.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I certainly had some thoughts on the Devils playoff chances after seeing what the models and sportsbooks had to say. I was also still ticked off after the pathetic showing by the Devils on Friday night against the worst team in the NHL in a game they needed to have.

Needless to say, I’m not as high on the Devils chances as the spreadsheets are.

I don’t take any joy in burying this team three weeks before Christmas, but as an analyst, I think I’d be doing a disservice if I wasn’t being honest about what I see when watching this team. I might be wrong in my analysis, but I’m not going to say things I don’t believe and I will tell it like it is even though the truth can hurt.

The Devils are flunking the eye test regardless of what the charts and models say. And I’m not sure how people can look or continue to look at them like a playoff team when they have yet to show it this season.

The reasons why the Devils are flunking said test are fairly obvious and well-documented. 23 games into the season, the Devils have shown you that they’re a talented team, but not necessarily a good team. They can score a lot of goals and they have one of the best power plays in the league, but when you have goaltending on par with what we saw two seasons ago, it ultimately limits your ceiling and you’re only going to go so far as a team. You’re not a playoff team with Jon Gillies or Andrew Hammond-caliber goaltending. You’re just not.

Of course, the Devils made their bed when they decided to run it back with Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid as the tandem, even though those of us who knew better knew the Devils weren’t actually serious about contending until they once again addressed the position. Now, they have to deal with the mess they’ve made.

It might have been a slight exaggeration for me to say in that response to CJ that the Devils are getting league-worst goaltending, as they’re actually 30th in save percentage (.884) and 31st in goals against per game (3.73), but its not that far off either. This is a 32-team league after all. And considering they’re right there with the Sharks for goals allowed per game, it doesn’t take a genius to point out that none of this is good. If we’re just looking at the 2023-24 season, and you should if you’re going to evaluate the Devils 2023-24 season, there are few conclusions to draw other than the obvious.....the goaltending stinks. It has and will continue to cost the Devils hockey games and will likely be the single biggest reason why they miss the playoffs.

Compounding the problem is that the Devils don’t really seem to have any answers as to what they should do to fix the goaltending. Lindy Ruff has been all over the place with his goaltending rotation this season, as exhibited by how much he was playing Vitek Vanecek earlier in the campaign. It’s easy to say with hindsight that Ruff made a mistake playing Akira Schmid both ends of a back-to-back after stopping 47 shots in Philadelphia on Thursday, and that might be true. But the fact that Ruff felt the need to ride Schmid two nights in a row, for whatever reason, is pretty telling when it comes to the Devils situation in net. I also wouldn’t count on goaltending coach Dave Rogalski all of a sudden coming up with the answers, although I don’t know if this is a case of him having nothing to work with or if he’s actually bad at his job.

One could say that goaltending is random and players are due for regression, both positive and negative. There might be some truth to that, but what exactly has Vanecek shown that would make anyone believe he’ll turn things around anytime soon? We’re talking about a goaltender who has posted an .883 save percentage since February of last season. Including the playoffs, this is over 45 appearances. That isn’t all that far off from a full season’s workload for a platoon goaltender. Gerard is on to something when he says its time for the Devils to ride Schmid, but he hasn’t been much better than Vanecek this season. There is likely a little more upside with Schmid where some regression to the positive helps the Devils, but this is assuming Ruff doesn’t overcorrect and turn back to the veteran in Vanecek more than he should after Schmid got lit up by the Sharks last Friday.

If part of goaltending in the NHL is the mental side of the game, being in the right frame of mind, and good vibes, how much damage are the Devils actually doing continuing to run Vanecek and Schmid out there despite the lack of results?

I wouldn’t count on the answer coming internally. The Devils don’t appear to have any viable alternatives internally between Erik Kallgren (.851 save % in 9 games with AHL Utica), Keith Kinkaid (.870 in 9 games with AHL Chicago), or Nico Daws, who is still working his way back from hip labrum surgery. Maybe that changes in a few months if Daws gets healthy and/or anybody puts together a good stretch of play, but will it be too little, too late by then? Do the Devils have the luxury of time to wait after already surrendering as many points in the standings as they have?

It’s easy to say “go trade for a goalie”, especially now that there is potentially upwards of $9M in LTIR money from Dougie Hamilton’s injury burning a hole in your pocket, but most teams are set at the position. They’re not going to break up their tandem to help the Devils solve their problems....not in December anyways. The time to do something about the position was in the offseason, and for whatever reason, that move never happened. Connor Hellebuyck wound up extending in Winnipeg and Juuse Saros and the Boston goaltenders are seemingly not available at this time. That’s not a criticism of Fitzgerald of pulling a trade out of thin air, but the Devils talked a big game all summer about bringing in a goaltender so they could send Schmid to the AHL. They didn’t. The fact that its not even Christmas and there are Devils fans talking themselves into Jake Allen, Connor Ingram, and Petr Mrazek as potential trade options hammers home the point of how badly things have gotten.

And yet, throwing anything at the wall and seeing if it sticks certainly feels like a better option than the alternative.

This brings us to the team defense, and while the charts seem to suggest the defense might be better than we think, I have my doubts.

Both of these stats would suggest that the Devils have actually been good defensively this season, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way considering the frequency at which Devils goaltenders have been beaten. Granted, every defenseman is going to look silly or lost in the defensive zone from time-to-time, and that goes double in front of this level of goaltending the Devils have.

That said, anyone who tries to convince me that Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino haven’t taken a major step back defensively this season is fighting a losing battle. We just talked last week about how much Dougie Hamilton has struggled defensively. Brendan Smith has found his way into the lineup in every game this season with the exception of the last two while he has been serving a suspension. He’s also been one of the worst defensemen in the league this season. Luke Hughes hasn’t been exempt from mistakes in his own end and with Simon Nemec now up replacing Hamilton, its fair to expect him to make his share of rookie mistakes as well. The support from the forwards hasn’t always been there, and the team has missed far too many opportunities to clear the puck from the defensive zone when they have had the chance. If you’re curious about the hows and whys pertaining to the Devils defensive issues, I’d recommend this video from Jack Han.

All of this brings us to the coaching, and if we’ve learned anything about Lindy Ruff in the four seasons he’s been the head coach, it’s that he’s going to run his system, so the players better execute it as intended. Tyler pointed this out a few weeks ago when it comes to what the Devils are trying to do when it comes to defensive structure. On one hand, you can appreciate that level of consistency. You don’t want to make big changes with the system every time you have a three game losing streak. On the other hand, the team is unlikely to make any major systemic chances and sacrifice a little offensively to lock down in their own end defensively. If anything, they’re more likely to double down on what they are successful with, put the foot on the gas pedal, and try to idiotproof (for lack of a better term) the games for their goaltenders. This strategy could work, but it also leads to prolonged sequences where Bill Spaulding and Ken Daneyko are bemoaning the Devils not making the simple plays to clear the puck out of the defensive zone, like they did during the third period in Philadelphia last week. There is still that lack of attention to detail and poor puck management and its really easy to get caught out of position playing the way the Devils do in their own end. Add on top of that a no-win situation where Ruff has two bad options to pick from with the starting goaltender, the fact that you’re going to lose games in this league because the other team is good too, and this hasn’t been easy for Lindy Ruff to try to navigate.

This brings me to my third point in my response to CJ and whether a coaching change might be the spark this team needs to go on a run. That is certainly a tricky question to answer.

Lindy Ruff isn’t in net and he isn’t the one making mistakes on the ice, so the players do need to share accountability there. But I do think their collective failure, and more specifically their continued failures, to execute Ruff’s system puts the goaltenders out on an island and in a very difficult spot. Vanecek and Schmid aren’t good enough to make saves to bail out the skaters in front of them. I believe that goaltenders aside, this Devils team is better than what we’ve seen to this point and should have a better record than what they currently have. But I also believe there is a mental aspect of “the Devils have to play perfect in their own end just to have a chance of winning because the goaltender will blow it otherwise” that the team is playing with and that the charts can’t quantify.

That said, firing the head coach is likely a one-time only card that Tom Fitzgerald has in his arsenal to play in order to get the attention of the room. I don’t know that he’s going to be inclined to use it after the coach he hired finished 2nd in Jack Adams voting last year and is coming off of a freshly-signed contract extension. That last part is particularly important because Fitzgerald would have to answer to his bosses as to why they’re making a change so soon after signing Ruff to said extension. Needless to say, I think Ruff and Fitzgerald view things the same way and see what the issues are. I don’t think a coaching change is coming anytime soon, which means I don’t think you’ll get a new coach hire bump in the standings or a widespread systemic change that may or may not fit the personnel of this roster better than what is currently in place. At least not for now.

I think that last part is key as well. I don’t expect the Devils to do anything for now other than rely on what they already have on the roster and hope that the players that are struggling start playing better. This is better known as a sunk cost fallacy, and I question whether or not Ruff and/or Fitzgerald are proactive enough to aggressively correct course.

That is another problem. The Devils probably need to go outside of the organization to fix this and make a trade, but by the time teams are looking to make trades in the weeks leading up to the deadline, it may be too late to save the season.

Don’t believe me? Let’s use Monday night’s results and Tuesday’s schedule as an example.

The fact that we are already scoreboard watching in the first week of December because the Devils can’t take care of their own business tells you everything you need to know about the position they have put themselves in.

Yes, the Devils are “only” four points out of a playoff spot as of this writing. But saying a team is “only x” number of points out of a spot shows a general misunderstanding of how difficult it is to make up points in the standings. There’s a reason why Thanksgiving is viewed as a measuring stick in that regard. Teams that are generally in a playoff spot at that time of the year have their act together and don’t have the type of goaltending issues that the Devils do. The Devils, who were outside of the playoffs, have their work cut out for them to be one of those teams that defies the odds and makes up ground for a spot.

So if points are this hard to make up in December, why would anyone think things be any easier once there is separation in the standings come January? Or February? Or March, in the days leading up to the trade deadline? “Only four points out” quickly becomes “only six points out”, which quickly becomes “only eight points out but we have games in hand”. Before you know it, things will have spiraled out of control with fewer and fewer dates left in the schedule to make up the deficit.

Yet, the models are still bullish on the Devils for the reasons I mentioned earlier. Players like Hughes and Hischier are good and now healthy, the Devils score a lot of goals, and one could argue its “just the goaltending”. I would be careful though is to say that with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier back in the lineup, everything is magically fixed. If one were to point out that the Devils goaltenders could regress positively and start playing better, couldn’t it also be said a team that has dealt with a ton of injuries already this season may get another rash of injuries as the season wears on? Or that the Devils power play won’t finish the season as the greatest single-season power play ever?

One final thought on the Devils having Hischier and Hughes back in the lineup, spurred by the tweet from Tyler.

For as important as Hischier is to this team defensively, its worth pointing out they’ve given up the same amount of goals per game with him as they have without him. And if you’re curious, the Devils have given up 3.70 goals per game with Hughes in the lineup and 5 goals per game without him. This isn’t me blaming either player, simply an acknowledgment that the Devils goaltending woes and defensive woes have been prevalent regardless of whether they’ve been in the lineup or not.

Obviously, the Devils have a bigger ceiling to reach offensively when Hughes and Hischier are in the lineup. You can see the stats with Nico above, while the Devils are averaging 3.64 goals per game with Hughes versus 3.40 without him. I don’t doubt whether or not Jack is capable of carrying the load offensively, but I don’t think people realize how insane an ask it is to win games 5-4 every night. Or for Jack to continue averaging damn near 2 PPG over the course of the season (he’s at 1.76 PPG going into last night’s game). Just to put things into perspective, Connor McDavid averaged 1.86 PPG last season, and nobody has averaged over 2 PPG since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96. I’m as high on Jack as anyone, but he’s not Mario or Gretzky, nor should he have to be.

Then again, that McDavid Oilers team also had one goaltender who could get the occasional save in Stuart Skinner and their playoff spot was never really in doubt. Maybe if the Devils can find someone who can get a save, they too will have a far easier time winning games and proving the charts right.

Until they do though, its fair to be skeptical of their chances.

(all stats referenced do not include the game against Vancouver on December 5)