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Game Preview 25: New Jersey Devils at Calgary Flames

Though the Devils are 5-1 in their last six, are they actually on the cusp of turning the season around, or have their performances been a mirage in the desert?

New Jersey Devils v Seattle Kraken Photo by Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils at Calgary Flames

The Time: 4:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: MSGSN

Key Takeaways

  • The Devils, winners of five out of their last six games, take a trip to face the up-and-down Calgary Flames, whose 5-4-1 record in their last ten speaks to a team that can hang with the league’s contenders but find themselves unable to execute on a nightly basis.
  • Despite rostering talents like Elias Lindholm and Jonathan Huberdeau up front and MacKenzie Weegar and Noah Hanifin on the back, the Flames are 20th in the league in goals-for and 11th from the bottom in goals-allowed.
  • The Devils are still trying to make up ground in the playoff race. With games in hand on three of the five teams ahead of them in the Metropolitan, a victory tonight keeps them apace with the leaders of the pack.

Getting wins, but there’s still work to do

The Devils are beginning to turn things around—at least on the scoresheet. In practice, while they’ve won more than they’ve lost since Nico Hischier returned to duty, they’ve eked out some ugly wins in that stretch. An ugly win is still a win. Come April, two points from a wretched victory may be all the difference they need to make the playoffs.

Nevertheless, since losing to the Blue Jackets 2-1 before American Thanksgiving, they’ve surrendered at least three goals in four of their six contests and more than four goals in three of those games. Call it defense, call it goaltending, the Devils get scored on way too much, and goaltending is still very much a problem. Even with Akira Schmid’s potential resurgence, you can’t survive an 82-game season with one goalie, especially one who doesn’t even turn 24 until May. Goaltending has been a problem ever since Cory Schneider’s decline, which has led to John’s autopsy of Dave Rogalski’s career as goalie coach. It’s a good article, go check it out.

The Devils last played Thursday night against Seattle, which saw Akira Schmid make 37/38 saves and Simon Nemec score his first goal in a Devils jersey. Jackson characterized Schmid’s play as “the best effort a Devils goaltender has put up all season long.” I have to agree. Schmid did not have an easy night, as the Devils once again surrendered far too many shots and allowed scoring opportunities from prime areas of the ice, but the young netminder looked poised all game and seemed to track the puck well. Typically, I’d write that—with back-to-back afternoon games on a Western road trip—you should expect to see Vitek Vanecek play at least one of them. After the unforgivable loss to San Jose, I would like to write that Ruff probably learned his lesson in playing a goalie in both games. (Especially after recent heavy workload nights.) I’d like to write that.

Vanecek has clearly about run out of rope. We’ll see this weekend just how salvageable they think the goaltending situation is. Whether he starts one game with a very short leash or doesn’t start at all, we’ll see just how much rope he has left before he swings.

Another mediocre year for the Flames

After a disappointing 2022-2023 campaign in which they finished fifth in the Pacific Division and only finished with 93 points (not good enough for the playoffs), the Flames fired their coach, let their general manager walk to another Canadian team, and traded their leading scorer for a forward whose scoring touch had faded. Whether or not you think their coach or their GM was any good, I would not qualify that as a positive offseason.

The Toffoli trade, which Devils fans are very familiar with by now, is looking more like a heist than a steal. Sharangovich is on pace for 38 points, which would put him slightly above his 30 last season. Now, Sharangovich was touted as a two-way forward with a goal-scorer’s shooting. But if the offense isn’t quite there anymore, at least he’s still contributing on defense, right? Wrong. Kind of. Sharangovich’s Corsi percentage, expected goals percentage, and scoring chances for percentage at five-on-five have all either fallen from last season or are at all-time lows across his career. His xGF% of 37.84 is a notable and significant drop from his career average. I’m rooting for Sharangovich’s success (just not tonight), but it seems his move to the Flames hasn’t gotten his career back on track. He’s still a fine middle-six forward. That’s likely all he’ll be.

In fact, former Devil (for a hot minute) A.J. Greer is having better outcomes on the ice than Sharangovich. Greer might not become anything more than a depth forward, but he’s having an underrated season for the Flames.

The biggest problems for the Flames remain:

  • Consistency. They’ll beat the Golden Knights 2-1, lose to the Wild 5-2 nights later, then march back with a 3-2 victory over the Hurricanes. Much like the Devils this season, you’re never sure what version of the Flames you’re going to get.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau. He’s continuing to struggle. As the tenth-highest-paid player (in terms of salary cap hit), Huberdeau needed to play like a gamebreaker for the Flames to have any shot at competing with this roster. He hasn’t been that, leading to questions surrounding how much Aleksander Barkov’s elite play impacted Huberdeau’s performances.
  • Similarly, Elias Lindholm. Without Matthew Tkachuk on his line, Lindholm has gone from elite to good. Without either Lindholm or Huberdeau leading the charge—and with Toffoli now gone—the Flames just aren’t getting it done.
  • Goaltending. Jacob Markstrom is having another sub-.900 save percentage season, and their backup Dan Vladar has been even worse than Markstrom’s .896 with an unplayable .877. Their sole saving grace may be Dustin Wolf, who backstopped them to a third-period comeback against the Hurricanes on Thursday.

Trade Watch

The Devils need a goalie, and there aren’t many teams willing to dance the dance. Some have said Markstrom could serve as a trade target. While the Flames, after trading Nikita Zadorov, seem willing to trade pieces off their roster for futures, I don’t think Markstrom is a good fit with the Devils. He carries a six million dollar cap hit for two more seasons after this one and, according to CapFriendly, has a full no-move clause. Combined with his grisly performances over two seasons, I’d rather not risk it, and Calgary’s unlikely to want to retain much (if any) salary. If they’re going with a reclamation project in net, they should take the chance on someone younger and cheaper.

Nikita Zadorov was of course traded to the Canucks last week, disappointing many in the Devils fan community. The good news for those wanting the Devils to consider defensive help is that Chris Tanev is still available. Tanev is 33, shoots right, and is an expiring UFA with a 4.5 million dollar cap hit. That’s much more manageable to acquire and for the Flames to retain, if they must. Noah Hanifin is also a pending UFA, as is Lindholm.

Your Thoughts

Don’t forget that the game (and Sunday’s) are at 4 PM eastern, folks. Is there anybody on the Flames you’d like to see acquired through trade now that Zadorov is gone? Is Tanev the right fit, or should they look elsewhere? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading.