There is a lot going right for the New Jersey Devils at the moment. They are on a 10-1-2 heater right now. They are sitting at third in the league standings. They are on pace for the best regular season points total in the history of the franchise. He’s sidelined at the moment, but they have a player with a good shot to be a Hart Trophy finalist at year‘s end as well as a player who is probably creeping up the Norris Trophy leaderboard.
All of these things are objectively great for the Devils as a team in the 2022-23 season and as a franchise more broadly. It sure seems like the bad times might be over for now in New Jersey. But in the past couple of months, the Devils have increasingly been skating by with performances that are uneven at best and, frankly, even sink to straight up crappy on some nights.
Last week, I looked at the playoff race and concluded that, absent a catastrophic finish to the season, the Devils are almost certain to be playing postseason hockey this year. To do more than just make the dance, though, the Devils have some serious work to do to make themselves more likely to advance deep into the playoffs. More and more, the Devils have been relying on their stars, most notably Jack Hughes, to try and pull games out of the fire as they frequently find themselves pinned back by opponents at worst or grinding them to relative stalemates at best.
The dominant brand of hockey the team had going in the first couple months of the season has mostly vanished. And while the Devils still sit second in the league overall in 5v5 xGF%, per Natural Stat Trick, the most recent stretch of games paint a much different picture. Since returning from the Christmas break, the Devils have controlled just a shade over 47% of the expected goals at 5-on-5, putting them 25th in the league over that time frame.
Of course, over that same stretch of games, the Devils are sitting pretty with a 12-3-3 record, tied for the league’s best points percentage in that period with the Rangers (who are somewhat similarly riding the percentages right now). It’s pretty tough to complain too hard about a team that’s collecting 75% of the available standings points over the past two months, but anyone who has been watching the Devils knows that they have rarely looked particularly crisp or anything approaching dominant in most of those victories. The fact that six of those 12 victories since Christmas have come after regulation should make it clear the Devils are just barely eking out most of the wins they’ve collected over the past two months.
One thing you can say about the Devils right now is that they are finding ways to win, so to speak. On one hand, it’s good that the Devils are getting enough timely contributions (and stout goaltending) to win when they are not at their best. It’s certainly better than the alternative of losing a bunch of games. On the other hand, how long can a team play “not at their best” before you start to wonder if they can actually recapture that form that you might consider “their best.”
It’s admirable that the Devils are a tough team to put away and that they have developed a knack for pulling games out of the fire and it is definitely a refreshing change of pace from the team’s recent history of seemingly always doing just enough to lose, regardless of how they looked on the ice. But at some point, they need to find a gear that allows them to better control games. There’s no 3-on-3 overtime waiting after regulation in the playoffs, and the Devils won’t be able to use their speed advantage over most teams to control play with all that open ice. The Devils have even looked sluggish against some of the dregs of the league at 5-on-5 of late, and that is unlikely to cut it if they are in a series against a good team like the Rangers or Hurricanes.
It seems like teams have started to sniff out some of the Devils’ systematic tendencies, and the disintegration of the contributions of the bottom six, where the team doesn’t have the type of guys who can beat defenders with individual efforts, seems to back up that hypothesis. Without Jack Hughes tying guys into knots or Dougie Hamilton activating to create offense from the blue line, the Devils feel like they are frequently non-threatening at even strength. The Devils are playing a tune that the league is beginning to anticipate, and people across the hockey landscape are trying to sort out why this team looks so meh recently. The answer may be that the Devils have become way to predictable in some of their tendencies.
Despite having that record of 12-3-3 since Christmas, the Devils are getting outscored when they don’t have one of Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier on the ice, and they are getting handily outshot and outchanced in those situations. Even the Hughes/Hischier underlying numbers are mediocre to pedestrian over that stretch but the bottom does really drop out when the bottom six is on the ice, to the tune of 42% of the expected goals (and 43% of the actual ones) over that stretch.
When a team is getting nothing from outside its top six, which is pretty evidently the case for the Devils right now, it’s tough to imagine them going too far in a playoff environment. The Devils have game breakers for sure, and that will probably give them a chance in a lot of games, regardless, but if they can’t fix some of the increasingly glaring systematic issues they have right now, the team will struggle to advance. Adding a player like, say, Timo Meier wouldn’t hurt in this regard (more firepower is never a bad thing), but many of the problems the Devils are having right now seem like they will persist unless the team can correct their issues on the breakout and start limiting the odd-man opportunities that teams have increasingly been able to collect against them. The Devils are top-heavy right now in a big way, and while they have plenty of time to figure it out down the stretch, if they don’t, they could find themselves easily getting frustrated once the intensity goes up at playoff time.