December was a tough month for the New Jersey Devils. A six-game winless streak was the centerpiece of a 4-7-2 month. Worse, the Devils were generally playing well in most of those games. They just did not get the finish or enough saves to turn those performances into wins. The good news is that the New Jersey Devils bounced back in January 2023. They had 13 games to play and they won nine of them. They ended a home winless streak. They went 4-0-1 on a road trip wherein they swept all three California teams. On the surface, the Devils would like a team back to dominance. Their January record was 9-2-2 for 20 points. Only two teams earned more points in January. The Devils remain second behind Carolina for first in the Metropolitan Division; and they have a top-five record in the NHL overall.
The issue is in how the Devils obtained a 9-2-2 record. Whether you just watch the games or focus on the data, the results painted a better picture than how the Devils performed. It is effectively the inverse of what happened in December. Obviously, we’re happy about the results. I appreciate them, the People Who Matter appreciated them, but should we want the Devils to keep winning games, then we need to address the reality of how they played. For that, let us begin by re-visiting through the games of January 2023.
The Games of January 2023
The year and the Devils’ schedule began on January 1. The Devils hosted Carolina, who were then on an epic heater similar to New Jersey’s run in November. The game had it all. Errors including an epic whiff by Mackenzie Blackwood to give Sebastian Aho the easiest shorthanded goal of his career. The Devils’ offense breaking through to smash Antti Raanta’s hot form with four goals; the first of many January goals from Jack Hughes, a pair from Jesper Bratt, and a tasty wrap from captain Nico Hischier. The game even had a first for the season: a shootout. Alas, the Devils lost in that so the first game ended with a 4-5 shootout loss. It was also a dominant game for Carolina in 5-on-5, which would become a theme for the month. And also another winless game at home, their seventh.
The Devils would rebound in the same place where their epic winning streak began: Detroit. New Jersey hammered the Red Wings in a 5-1 win that better resembled the halcyon days of November. Unfortunately, the home woes would continue the next night against St. Louis. Despite what Hughes and Hischier did, the Devils flailed in the third period and ended up losing 3-5 to the Blues. The home winless run reached eight games with a then-massive game against Our Hated Rivals. Second place in the division was on the line along with bragging rights. Surely, the winlessness would end?
It did not seem that way. Our Hated Rivals put the Devils down early. Put them down further. It was 1-3 in the third period. It stayed that way until a power play was given. Bratt finished it for the conversion. With Dawson Mercer with Jack Hughes on a later shift, Hughes slammed home a denied puck past Igor Shesterkin to tie up the game. A beautiful goal despite the reverse retro nonsense by adidas. The game needed overtime. A hero was needed. It came from Damon Severson taking a puck from Alexis Lafreniere, leading a 2-on-1, and rifling it past Shesterkin. The home winlessness run was over. The comeback was complete. Second place remained in New Jersey’s hands. The Devils won 4-3 over Our Hated Rivals. This would lead to another, familiar run for New Jersey: a winning run.
The Devils began a five-game road trip in Raleigh against the Hurricanes. While Carolina dominated the early parts of the game, the Devils hung in there. Thanks to Jonas Siegenthaler’s low shot sneaking past Pytor Kochetkov. Thanks to Kochetkov being beaten by two straight backhanders through his five hole by Mercer and Jesper Boqvist. Thanks to Mercer splitting the D late to make it a 4-3 game. The Devils ultimately rose up to win 5-3. The California part of the trip followed. The Devils crushed Anaheim early and would go on to win 6-2. Los Angeles put up more of a fight in the first period, continuing what happened in Carolina: a first period/half where the Devils goalie had be great to keep the game from getting out of hand. The Devils ultimately rose up in the second period to lead 4-2 and prevailed 5-2 against California’s lone good team this season. This did not mean the game on Monday afternoon in San Jose was easy. Far from it. The Sharks took it to the Devils and really out-performed a Devils team that struggled to get much going. It took a Jack Hughes shot going off Erik Karlsson within the final seconds to force overtime - and, get this, the Devils won a shootout to make it a 4-3 win. The California sweep was completed but the performances started to raise eyebrows and concerns. This continued at the trip’s end in Seattle. The Kraken effectively out-Devils the Devils with how they used their speed and transition play. Blackwood was strong in net, but the Devils needed another comeback effort. One that included an Erik Haula shorthanded goal and another 6-on-5 goal at the end. This time, Hughes took a shot and Hischier piled in the rebound. Alas, overtime saw Andre Burakovsky slide a puck through Blackwood’s legs to end it. New Jersey lost 3-4 in OT. The winning streak ended at five games, but a point-streak continued for six games. The trip ended at an excellent 4-0-1 record which rang hollow given how the Devils played.
The Devils returned home on January 22 to host Pittsburgh in an afternoon game. The struggles for the Devils to get forward continued. Pittsburgh was excellent in the neutral zone and in their own end. The goalies were good too. But the Pens never really punished the Devils as much as they could. While Hughes and Sidney Crosby each scored within the first seven minutes, overtime ended up being necessary. Marcus Pettersson appeared to have ended it for Pittsburgh with a goal off a 2-on-1 rush. However, the referee caught Pittsburgh with four men on the ice; Pettersson jumped onto the ice too early. On the resulting power play, Hughes set up Dougie Hamilton for a one-timer to end it. The Devils won 2-1 to continue the point-streak to seven games. Tuesday night saw Las Vegas come to the Rock. The Devils’ performance was closer to what they have been doing earlier in the season, although the G-Knights did well enough. The Devils needed another 6-on-5 goal to get a second goal on the board to tie the game. They got it from Hamilton. In OT, Ben Hutton tripped up Yegor Sharangovich. On a rush up ice in the 4-on-3 situation, Hughes took a puck from Vanecek and headed up ice. He drew two G-Knights and was smeared face-first into the board by Brayden McNabb. Yet, Hughes still slid a puck to the middle while getting boarded by the defender. Hamilton took that puck and one-timed with a bomb for a power play goal and another win. The Devils came back for a 3-2 win to extend the point-streak to eight games. With two road games to end the month and the Devils’ success on the road, it seemed possible for the Devils to get to the end with continued points.
Not so fast. The game in Nashville would end that run. The Predators preyed on the Devils’ lax defensive effort and continued to get behind the defense over and over and over for all three periods. It was worse than the Seattle game. While the Devils managed to stay in it score-wise, Nashville would eventually score on their many breakaways and odd-man rushes. They did so in the third period and the Devils ultimately lost 4-6 in regulation. It was their first regulation loss on the road since December 20, 2022 (8 games). It was a wake up call, at least to the People Who Matter. The next night, the Devils went to Dallas. While the Devils ensured that Dallas would not get behind them so much, they conceded a ton of shots and required Vanecek to be a hero for a lot of the game. They even took some bad penalties to make it worse and go into the second down two goals. But they found a way back into the game on the scoreboard. Hughes scored a breakaway and Miles Wood scored his first goal since December 13 to tie it up. The third period was flowing, had few whistles, and saw both teams come close to break through. Fittingly, the game went to OT - the fifth time in the previous six games for the Devils. Fittingly, Jack Hughes provided the team’s final goal of the month. Tyler Seguin got a piece of it and it fooled Jake Oettinger to go in. The Devils won 3-2. Hughes had 13 goals for the month. The Devils won their ninth game. Another comeback win. Their fifth post-regulation win in the month out of seven games going beyond 60 minutes.
And all who have watched these games, especially for the last two weeks, were happy with the results but understandably want the Devils to play better. The month’s games were filled with slow starts, poor runs of form where the goalie bailed them out repeatedly, and the Devils needing late heroics to get a point or win out of the game. This is backed up by the data for the month.
By the Numbers
All stats come from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com where mentioned. Data was pulled on the night of January 31 so the ranks should be accurate. Remember, this is all within January. Hopefully, it stays within January, as you will soon see.
5-on-5 Play: The Devils averaged about 50 and a half minutes per game of 5-on-5 hockey in January, which ranks in the top five in the NHL for the month. That was not a good thing given these figures.
For the first time this season, most of this chart is in red save for one corner. The Devils went from being great in 5-on-5 in October, November, and December to being among the likes of Arizona and the Islanders (and, weirdly, Boston). That is mostly not good. Special teams certainly did not help a lot if the all-situations expected goal rates are anything to go by. Venue and score adjustments were favorable but did not move the needle that much. Only the on-ice HDCA rates did not end up in the red, but even those took a unfavorable hit compared with last month. How did the Devils go 9-2-2 in January?
Three letters: PDO. Last month, the Devils’ sticks were cold in 5-on-5 and their goalies not getting a lot of stops. Both did a complete 180 as the Devils were absolutely finishing their shots and the goalies were great in 5-on-5. Even Mackenzie Blackwood post a 93.2% in 5-on-5 play in January. Things are excellent in the net when that is happening.
Of course, that covers up what was some really rough times in Devils games. All of those slow starts and rough stretches where the opposition did whatever they wanted such as Seattle and St. Louis games as well as the second Carolina game? The team’s on-ice rate numbers back up what the People Who Matter likely complained about as they watched such games. It is an ugly time when the Devils had exactly two players with an on-ice CF% above 50%: Tomas Tatar and Ondrej Palat. Not even Jesper Bratt or Jack Hughes cracked 50% with all of those shifts spent playing defense in January. Although, to be fair to The Big Deal, he was above 50% in on-ice xGF% along with Tatar, Palat, and nearly 21 minutes of Nolan Foote.
What that all means is that this is not a simple matter of the Devils needing John Marino back in the worst way and/or getting another scoring winger. I can agree that having both back would help the team. However, opponents in January have absolutely picked on the Devils’ depth players with the BMW Line near the bottom in 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats along with the ever-rotating third line (Dawson Mercer, Jesper Boqvist, Fabian Zetterlund, Yegor Sharangovich), Kevin Bahl, and Nikita Okhotiuk. The issues goes beyond those too. big-minute players like Bratt and Dougie Hamilton have on-ice xGA/60 rates above 3, then that suggests to me that the gameplan and preparations need work. The Devils have been dropped into several holes in the run of play in January, only to climb out of it by finishing their shots, their goalies bailing them out, and the Devils prevailing in one period or overtime to take games for victories. It worked in January. I will gladly take victories over losses.
However, I fear that the shooting and save percentages may not be so hot in February. If the 5-on-5 play does not get adjusted - or even come back from a week-long break - in February, then do not be shocked if the record is not so good looking next month. This would be something that special teams could help mitigate. Did that happen? Not quite.
Power Play Situations: The power play did play a crucial role in getting the Devils a couple of their nine wins this month. There were some man advantages where the Devils did a lot right but not score. The data shows that the power play was extremely good with two caveats.
First, a goal differential of just +5 in a month of power plays is not that encouraging. All three shorthanded goals came from Carolina, with the January 1 special being from Blackwood whiffing on a puck Aho put in. The Canes put in two on January 10 in a game the Devils won. The good news is that the shorthanded goals stopped there. As an aside, Carolina scored seven shorthanded goals in January. Keep that in mind as an example of how really good teams still have fortunate things happen to them.
Second, the worse news is that the Devils had just 33 power plays all month. No, the referees did not have it in for the Devils. Those poor 5-on-5 on-ice rates show a Devils team struggling to attack and having to play defense a lot more than they have so far this season. One of the results of that is that opponents have less of a reason to foul a Devils player. Sure, offensive zone penalties happen but not nearly as much as those in the neutral or defensive zone. What this meant is that the Devils’ power plays were effective when they had a chance - but they did not have a lot of chances. As such, their success rate looks better than how many goals their power play produced.
That said, I am really encouraged at how the Devils performed on power plays in January. These on-ice rates for the month are awesome. The team’s on-ice rates were the best across the NHL in all but two categories. They converted their power plays in overtime, which is massive on its own (and directly yielding wins). They created offense very often; a far better fate than losing pucks to aggressive penalty killers. The power play remains reliant on the first unit. All eight power play goals came from either Dougie Hamilton (3), Nico Hischier (2), Hughes (1), Tatar (1), and Bratt (1). No one other than those five had a power play point in January. With Palat back, the second unit has more punch on paper - but the power play success remains reliant on those five players. And they have absolutely brought it. If only this team had more power plays in January! Perhaps they could have made some of their wins easier to obtain.
What I want to see is better play in 5-on-5 by the Devils. That would at least give the Devils more opportunities to draw calls and get power plays. If they can maintain or suffer a small decrease in their on-ice rates with a man advantage, then they could really get more out of it. More goals would be great and the on-ice rate stats suggest they could produce more. They just have to get there. Oh, and do not give up a bunch of shorties in the interim.
Penalty Kill Situations: The penalty kill took a step back in January. The goalies were not as hot, they conceded a lot of shot attempts, and had more shorthanded opportunities (36) than they had power plays (33) in January.
The sum total of the damage was nine goals out of 36 situations. A success rate of 75% is not something to really celebrate. Based on who scored them, the Devils basically conceded them in bunches over the month. It is true that the Devils had some important penalty kills. It is also true that they could have been better.
The concerning part to me is in those on-ice rates. They ballooned over December by notable amounts in all rates save for maybe HDCA/60, although that went up by nearly 2 per 60 minutes. The rankings show that these are not good rates to end up with. Blackwood and Vanecek (and Schmid in that St. Louis game) were not as incredible as they were in 5-on-5. As a result, the Devils conceded about as many goals as the expected goals model suggested they would based on what they allowed the opposition to do. The saving grace: only 36 shorthanded situations. Despite some real dumb penalties taken throughout the month (looking at you, Miles Wood although there were just four of them), the Devils were disciplined overall since they averaged average fewer than three shorthanded situations per game. This statement does not apply to Brendan Smith and his 7 penalties taken in January.
Still, the penalty kill being more porous in January further supports the idea that the Devils’ defensive efforts need to be better. I do not think it is so much the system given how good the PK was in December. I do think some adjustments are necessary. Getting Marino back would help. Having Jonas Siegenthaler (5 penalties taken) and Ryan Graves (4 penalties taken) take fewer calls would help given that they did well on the PK based on on-ice rates in January. Giving Dougie Hamilton a try when they do take calls may help too. Like their 5-on-5 play, something beyond having a break before the February schedule kicks in would be adviseable.
By the way: The shorthanded goal was scored by Erik Haula in Seattle. Really.
Additions and Subtractions
The New Jersey Devils did not lose too much to injury in January. Mackenzie Blackwood was apparently hurt in warm-ups in the Detroit game, so Akira Schmid was called up and started the game against St. Louis. That did not go so well for him in that loss. However, Blackwood returned to action, backed-up Vanecek against Our Hated Rivals, and started in four games from January 14 onward for the month. There were some moments where one was concerned about Nico Hischier as he only played 1:30 of the first period in Pittsburgh game, but he returned and played regularly from the second period onward. I am sure there are some suffering something minor, but no one was out for a long period of time because they were hurt.
The Devils did get two players who were on IR in return in January. Ondrej Palat returned to the lineup on January 5 against St. Louis. He was out since October 25 and underwent groin surgery. Palat is still adjusting to how the Devils have played this season. However, the points have come after a bit of time. After four pointless games, Palat put up a goal and four assists - his first four assists as a Devil - in the last seven games of the month. He has been playing quite a bit and quite well in 5-on-5 relative to how the team has done in 5-on-5 in January. Do not be shocked if Palat’s performances improve in February and March as he is not only more acclimated from his return to injury but to the team he otherwise played six regular season games for before said injury.
The other return was Nathan Bastian. Given he left the Washington game on November 26 early with his injury, it was thought his absence contributed to the Devils’ struggles through December. Certainly Miles Wood and Michael McLeod sort of missed him. I have to write “sort of” because those two were not much better when Bastian returned to the active roster on January 19 at Seattle. The BMW Line has been, well, bad since his return. Like a BMW with an alignment issue Bastian is doing his best in trying to get back into his previous form. He did pick his first point, an assist on Wood’s goal, in Dallas. He has four shots in five games. Clearly, Bastian can only do so much given Wood’s and McLeod’s performances. Perhaps he could use some different linemates. We shall see how he is used going forward.
The only player left injured outside of Jonathan Bernier on Long Term Injured Reserve is defenseman John Marino. While his numbers were dipping, he was clearly missed given how poorly Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotiuk have performed in their appearances. Bahl and Okhotiuk essentially rotated in and out for each other. A poor game with a notably bad turnover or missed coverage would lead to the other drawing in. Marino will likely return to the lineup after the All-Star Game Weekend. The Devils demoted Okhotiuk to Utica on Saturday, January 28. Notably, none of the other waiver-ineligible players were sent down. That frees up the roster space to bring Marino back.
There were multiple forward changes to the lineup throughout the lineup. Tyce Thompson was still with the Devils at the start of the month. He played 7:25 against Carolina on New Year’s Day. With the return of Palat to the lineup, he was sent down in the first week of January. Alexander Holtz drew back into the lineup on January 4 and scored a goal and registered an assist in the 5-1 win. After two pointless games and just two shots against St. Louis and Our Hated Rivals, Holtz has been a scratch and remained as one for the rest of the month. Ahead of the five-game road trip, the Devils called up Nolan Foote. He played in all three California games but did not play much (just 3:08 in San Jose) or make the scoresheet. He was sent back to Utica when Bastian returned to the lineup. Fabian Zetterlund played on January 1, January 4, January 10, and then the two road games to close the month on January 26 and 27. He was apparently held out of the lineup due to a lack of production in his performances; despite Wood and McLeod being nearly as unproductive as Holtz, Zetterlund, Thompson, and Foote. Zetterlund drew back into the lineup as Jesper Boqvist was scratched. The Devils’ bottom six remained as a group of players who are not contributing a lot and/or players that the coaching staff were not giving a whole lot of opportunity to perform.
This is still by and large a positive month in this respect. Avoiding major injuries is always a plus. Getting players back healthy is a plus. We shall see if next month’s in review brings up any players acquired by the Devils as the NHL Trade Deadline is on March 3. But, first, we shall highlight the most impressive Devils of the month.
Devil of the Month
In a month where the team performances left something to be desired but still got a load of wins, there were some who excelled throughout the month. You could even say they carried the team. That is a bit of an odd statement for a team that went 9-2-2 in January, but I think those who paid attention to the games and/or looked a little deeper than the record would understand. To that end, that guided my monthly selections.
First, the honorable mention really could go to the goaltenders as posting a 93.75% in 5-on-5 situations over a month is both incredible and necessary given the multiple slow starts and games where the opposition out-Devils the Devils. Mackenzie Blackwood may be inconsistent and had some big gaffes, but a 93.2% save percentage in 5-on-5 hockey over four games is nothing to sneeze at. Especially since Blackwood has been far worse in the past. But the real goalie to elevate is the #1 goalie on the team: Vitek Vanecek. The Rock knows to chant Vi-Tek now. The man has a winning streak that is now in Brodeur-ian territory. While wins are a team stat, Vanecek has done more than his fair share to get those dubs. Vanecek’s January ends with eight appearances - all wins - a ridiculous 95.2% save percentage in 5-on-5 situations with just 10 goals allowed against 19.8 expected goals against. In all situations, Vanecek put up a 93.2% save percentage with 17 goals allowed against 26.74 expected goals. Vanecek was one of the best goalies in the entire month of January. The Devils absolutely do not get wins in Carolina, against Our Hated Rivals, at San Jose, against Pittsburgh, and at Dallas without Vanecek holding it down during some lengthy rough stretches of play. This is all to say that Vanecek was absolutely crucial in January for the Devils. He is the honorable mention for the Devil of the Month of January 2022. If you want to say he is the Devil of the Month, I could hear you out. I will not agree, because this guy was better.
I will not leave you in suspense. It is Jack Hughes. The Big Deal. His January ended with 13 goals and 10 assists in 13 games with 67 shots. Forget leading the Devils in scoring, points, and shots, he is among NHL leaders in those basic stats. While his 5-on-5 on-ice rates were not great, he was among the better ones on a Devils team that suffered in 5-on-5 play in January. When the Devils needed something on offense, it was often Hughes that would make it happen. Even in games where he did not seem to make a huge impact for much of it, he eventually did as Hughes put up a point in all but one game in January (the win in Carolina on January 10). Hughes’ production was crucial for the Devils in getting results and I mean that as literal as possible. He scored at 6-on-5 in San Jose to get the Devils to overtime. He took the shot at 6-on-5 that rebounded for a Nico Hischier score to get the Devils to overtime. He finished a puck knocked out wide against Our Hated Rivals that tied up the game and went to OT, where the Devils ended a home winless streak. His brace in the loss to St. Louis gave the Devils a chance before a bad third period. He set up both OT winners against Pittsburgh and Las Vegas, with the latter being done as he took a boarding hit from Brayden McNabb. Hughes ended the month with the OT winner in Dallas. Hughes did not just score a lot and drive offense on a team that struggled to drive offense, he produced to directly get the Devils points in the standings. Much of Hughes’ 23 points in January were important.
Hughes may have been fortunate and that 19.4% shooting percentage in January may not hold up. But with the way Hughes has been performing, I am not going to bet against that. I would go as far as to say that the next time someone wants to criticize or diminish The Big Deal because he is a star, because he is not big, because he is not “tough enough,” because whatever nonsense reason, please make like P.K. Subban (paper discarding optional) and walk away. Some people cannot be helped. Some people cannot be educated. Some people cannot handle that The Big Deal is exactly that. For the rest of us, continue to appreciate the superstar that is Jack Hughes. Oh, and he’s the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for January 2023.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
The over-arching theme of January 2023 is that the results were great but the process was not great. For some of the People Who Matter, that is more than fine. This is hockey. This is a results-oriented business. It is far better to go 9-2-2 in spite of how a team plays than to go, say, 4-7-2 with more favorable stats and performances outside of the score. I can agree with that. I will gladly take the wins, especially as the Devils remain in second place in a very tough division.
However, my preference is for processes over results. This is based on the logic that, over time, good processes will lead to good results. Good processes can come in various forms. When a team suffers multiple poor first periods, long stretches with few shots and/or many bailouts by the goaltender, and needing to take seven out of 13 games to overtime to get points, it is clear the process has not been so good. Then you look at the on-ice rates of the team and you have the proof the process has not been so good.
I have to emphasize that it is because we have repeatedly seen these issues throughout the month that is an issue. Every team is going to go through games where they pull out a win or a post-regulation point despite themselves. Boston is the best team in the NHL this season. They have had games where Linus Ullmark or Jeremy Swayman have to stand on their heads before the rest of the team gets going. Carolina is one of the few teams in the NHL with a better record than New Jersey. Even they need some late-game comeback heroics, such as flipping a 4-2 deficit to San Jose at home from an empty net goal into a 4-4 game by the end of regulation and winning in OT. Name a team and we only have to look a little bit before we find a bunch of games where their fans may scratch the back of their heads and go, “OK, I’m glad they won but...” My concern is not that the Devils had to do some of this; it is that the spent a good part of the month with these struggles.
Ultimately, I do not want the January performances to continue so the Devils can keep being in positions to win games and remain chasing Carolina for first place in the division. It is unlikely the Devils are going to shoot just below 10% as a team in 5-on-5 from here on out. Vanecek and Blackwood were great overall in January - especially Vanecek - but they are not always going to be great every night. The team is not just missing Marino or a scoring winger or a depth defenseman away from good performances. The team also needs to sharpen up their attention to detail off the puck, be more mindful with moving the puck up ice, and not try to force plays so much that they take a penalty or turn it over or deny themselves a good scoring opportunity in search of a great one not realized. If they can make those adjustments, then we can see better performances. That will soften the fall of any shooting or save percentage. In other words, the Devils can still be in position to win games as they have done.
The good news is that the Devils are not in a position where they need to sort all of those issues out and turn their form around. They went 9-2-2 in January. They are still in a great position with respect to making the playoffs. They are expected to buyers by the trade deadline. They are seen as a team for opponents to prepare for and not a team for opponents to be careful to not look past. Provided they address the real issues with how the team is performing, I think the good times can keep on rolling into a busy February (10 games in 20 days with a four-game trip in the middle of it). I hope the Devils coaches, management, and players understand all this and act accordingly.
Now that you have read my take and review of January 2023 for the Devils, I want to know what you think. Can the Devils adjust their gameplan and individual performances for a better team performance in February? Do you think the Devils can keep up their winning ways in February? What aspect of the Devils’ performances would you like to see them improve upon in February (e.g. 5-on-5 play, special teams, drawing calls)? Would you agree that Hughes was the best Devil of the month of January and a second straight month? Please leave your answers and last thoughts about the last month in the comments. Thank you for reading.