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Game Preview #24: New Jersey Devils @ Seattle Kraken

After a wild win in Vancouver, the New Jersey Devils continue their west coast swing against the newest team in the NHL, the Seattle Kraken

NHL: Seattle Kraken at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (12-10-1) @ Seattle Kraken (8-12-6)

The Time: 10:30pm ET

The Broadcast: ESPN

Last Devils Game

In the inaugural Hughes Bowl on Tuesday night, the Devils edged the Vancouver Canucks, 6-5. New Jersey entered the third period with a 5-2 lead, but thanks to poor defensive play and awful goaltending (sound familiar?), the Canucks stormed back to tie the game late in the third. But Jesper Bratt scored his second goal of the night with about half a minute left in regulation to propel the Devils to victory.

Last Kraken Game

Seattle ended a four-game road trip with a 4-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens. Jared McCann and Vince Dunn were the goal scorers as the Kraken dropped their fifth straight game.

Back to Full Power Up Front

Erik Haula returned to action on Tuesday after sitting out since November 25th due to injury. With his return, the Devils now essentially have their entire forward group back after a raft of injuries hit them over the first two months of the season. Along with Haula, Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Timo Meier, and Tomas Nosek have all missed time. That’s a lot of talent out of the lineup, so it’s nice to finally get the whole band back together.

To that end, here’s how the Devils lined up on Tuesday:

Nosek remains out, and probably long term unfortunately, so this is what we’ll probably see going forward assuming good health. Maybe not these exact line combinations given head coach Lindy Ruff’s penchant for line shuffling, but this personnel at least (unless part-time forward extraordinaire Brendan Smith sticks on the fourth line or something).

This is an incredibly deep forward group. For as many issues the Devils have right now, the offense is not one of them. In fact it’s the team’s greatest strength, with New Jersey staying afloat thus far by outscoring their abysmal goaltending. Jack Hughes is a superstar, Jesper Bratt is having his best season to date (and that’s saying something), and Nico Hischier has six points in five games since returning from injury. Meanwhile Tyler Toffoli leads the team in goals, Erik Haula and Alexander Holtz are around a half-point per game pace, and the Devils haven’t even gotten what they expected to get out of players like Timo Meier and Dawson Mercer yet. There are star producers, there’s incredible depth, and for the time being at least, there’s mostly good health again. The offense will keep New Jersey in any game, regardless of how bad the goaltending is.

...Oh Yeah, the Goaltending

Vitek Vanecek got the call against the Canucks, and he gave up those five goals on 33 Vancouver shots, good for a save percentage of .848%. Once again, defensive coverage breakdowns played a role, but Vanecek continues to kneecap this team’s chances of winning every time he suits up. I just said that the Devils offense is so good that they can stay in any game regardless of how bad their goaltending is, and that’s true, but staying in every game is not the same as winning every game. New Jersey might be good for three or four goals per game...but five or six? Again, they’ll be in the game, but they won’t win.

Perhaps the most concerning thing to me was how Vanecek reacted to the tying goal against last night (8:21 mark of the linked video). That...is a deeply concerning look. It’s the look of a man that just lost the last shred of confidence he had left.

It really was a massively demoralizing goal that never should have happened, though honestly I thought Brock Boeser got away with a pretty clear pick on Meier at the top of the zone to help set up the goal. But missed call or not, it doesn’t absolve Vanecek of giving up yet another backbreaking goal on yet another inexcusable rebound. Vanecek is fighting it harder than I have seen a Devils goaltender fight it since the 2021-22 season.

So what can be done? There are a lot of ways the Devils can go, from riding Akira Schmid to waiving Vanecek with the intention of sending him down to Utica to trading for a goaltender. But each answer has it’s problems. Schmid has not proven he can carry a team for a full season. Vanecek regaining his game and his confidence in the AHL isn’t all that likely. And the only goaltenders on the market are either also-rans or come with prohibitively expensive contracts.

So in the end, I really don’t know what can be done. I wish I had answers for you good people, but I do not. For all our sakes, but especially Vanecek’s, let’s hope The Vitek finds some of his swagger from last season again soon.

Life After Dougie

Last Friday against the San Jose Sharks, the Devils defenseman with the most time on ice was the freshly called up Simon Nemec, clocking in at 22:38. On Tuesday, Jonas Siegenthaler was the leader in the clubhouse with 26:55 time on ice, head and shoulders above everyone else.

It will be very interesting to me to see how Ruff and assistant coach Ryan McGill handle the defensive deployment now that Hamilton is out long term. Throwing another wrinkle in, Brendan Smith is eligible to return from his suspension tonight, and knowing how much Ruff loves him some Brendan Smith, I have to imagine we’ll see him return to the lineup tonight. But in place of who? Smith may very well get sent to the fourth line again, perhaps in place of Nathan Bastian or Curtis Lazar. If Smith returns to the blue line, I would guess that he takes Colin Miller’s place, though I would personally hate to see that.

The Devils were linked to Nikita Zadorov before the Canucks traded for him, so perhaps the short term (as in, nine-game short) answer is Nemec, and the long term answer is an in-season trade? On the one hand, general manager Tom Fitzgerald has been on record as saying he believes teams are built over the summer and not at the trade deadline, so I’m skeptical. But on the other hand, Fitzgerald has made trade deadline moves frequently during his time in New Jersey, including a swing for the fences with the Meier trade last season. The market has yet to fully develop, but I wouldn’t put it past Fitzgerald to add to the blue line in Hamilton’s absence.

Down In a Hole

In their third season of existence, things aren’t going all that well for the Kraken. Seattle’s loss to the Canadiens on Monday extended their losing streak to five games, with their last win coming back on November 22nd against San Jose. Their 22 points in 26 games played is bad, though remarkably they’re still fifth in the Pacific division. That’s a bit misleading though considering 1) They’ve played the most games of any team in the Western Conference, and 2) They still sit 10th overall in the West. If you go by points percentage instead, they’re ahead of only the Sharks, Blackhawks, and Ducks in the playoff race.

After a terrible inaugural season followed by a wonderful sophomore campaign (in which they won a playoff round against the defending Cup Champion Avalanche!), Seattle has come crashing back down to earth. There’s still plenty of season left, but given how many three-point games we see every night, it is so tough to make up ground in the NHL.

Black Hole Dunn

Unless your team has prime Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey, or you’re Erik Karlsson putting up a triple digit point total a season ago, it’s usually not a good sign if your team’s leading scorer is a defenseman. That is currently the case with Seattle, who are led production-wise by blueliner Vince Dunn. The 27-year old had himself a career year in 2022-23, registering 14 goals and 64 points (both career highs) in 81 games. The Kraken rewarded him with a four-year, $29.4M contract over the summer, and he’s put up a comparable point pace this season with four goals and 21 points in 26 games to lead Seattle.

If you look past the strong point production, however, things aren’t exactly going stellar for Dunn. During his breakout season last year, his on-ice numbers at 5-on-5 were all pretty solid across the board.

Per Natural Stat Trick...

2022-23:

Corsi For%: 54.90%

Scoring Chances For%: 54.13%

High Danger Chances For%: 51.56%

Expected Goals For%: 53.87%

But fast forward to this season, and things are going much worse:

2023-24:

CF%: 52.60%

SCF%: 53.25%

HDCF: 44.79%

xGF%: 49.91%

The CF% and SCF% are fine, but the xGF% is bad and the drop in HDCF% in particular is brutal.

Credit to Dunn for continuing to put up solid point totals despite the step back in puck possession prowess. But considering Dunn is tied for the team lead in average time on ice (with old pal Adam Larsson), New Jersey will be seeing a lot of him tonight, and that is definitely a matchup the Devils can and should win.

Can’t Find a Better McCann

Before being selected in the expansion draft, Jared McCann bounced around the league for a while. He spent his rookie year with the Canucks, then two and a half seasons with both the Panthers and the Penguins. He was a fine depth contributor everywhere he went, but not much more than that. Since being plucked out of Pittsburgh to join the Kraken, however, McCann has taken a big step forward.

In Seattle’s first season, McCann put up 27 goals and 50 points, both team highs. He followed that up with an exceptional 2022-23, reaching the 40 goal and 70 point plateaus for the first time in his career. It took a fair bit of luck to get those those totals though, as McCann finished the campaign with a shooting percentage of 19.0%, by far a career-high (his next best shooting percentage was 15.1% in 2020-21).

Naturally, he’s regressed back down this season, though he’s still shooting a solid 16.0%. He enters tonight’s contest with 20 points and a team-leading 12 goals, the only Kraken to reach double digit tallies so far. McCann is a dangerous offensive weapon who has been given a chance and gotten way better with Seattle, and the Devils would be wise to mark him carefully while he’s on the ice.

Endless, Saveless

Even in their playoff season last year, Seattle has never experienced particularly good goaltending in their short existence. It’s been an endless stream of poor play in net since day one, and the biggest offender in the Emerald City is Philipp Grubauer.

After three seasons in Colorado, the Kraken selected the German netminder in the expansion draft and immediately inked him to a six-year, $35.4M contract. It has not been money well-spent, as according to Natural Stat Trick he is dead last in the entire league in Goals Saved Above Expected since 2021-22 at -42.75. This season he sits at -8.06 GSAA, fourth-worst in the league.

On the other hand, Grubauer’s tandem mate, Joey Daccord, is doing better by comparison. Both goalies have played 15 games, but while Grubauer is rocking that -8.06 GSAA, Daccord comes into this game only slightly in the red at -2.06. Both goalies have save percentages below .900 (Grubauer at .883%, Daccord at .898%), so if the Devils manage to pepper the Kraken net with lots of shots, we could see another implosion between the Seattle pipes this evening.

Your Take

After a pulse-pounding victory in Vancouver, the Devils look to keep the good times rolling in Seattle. What will you be looking for tonight? Who do you think will step up with big games? Who on Seattle interests you the most? As always, thanks for reading!