In the early season stretch of dominant hockey by the Devils, most of the team was performing at a high level. Across the board, players were performing at or near their best and the results were absolutely reflecting that. Even in the midst of that context, Jonas Siegenthaler's early season play stood out, as he sported a goal differential and expected goal differential at the top of the league while frequently facing opponents' top competition. As pointed out by a former AAtJ colleague recently, Siegenthaler's performances over the first two months were pretty much transcendent. That same linked tweet also simultaneously shows the troubling last couple of months that he has had, though.
Since the end of November, the Devils' performances have become become a lot more uneven. Even during the recent run of good results from New Jersey, the underlying performances have been lacking the kind of 60-minute dominance of that early season run, and the team has been more prone to steal victories from opponents instead of running away with them. This dip in performance on a team level has been pretty closely mirrored by the performances of Jonas Siegenthaler who has gone from looking like a dominant force to a much more like an average defenseman.
The ice is not looking so tilted anymore with Siegenthaler out there, and even anecdotally, he has had a lot more mistakes and poor decisions than we had become accustomed to seeing from him. There was a good example of this last night toward the end of the game, when Siegenthaler, despite having time and space exiting the zone and Hughes streaking away from the zone, ladled a weak pass up the boards that was immediately picked off and turned into offensive zone pressure for the Jets while it remained a one-goal game. Those are the kind of poorly thought-out/poorly executed plays that just didn't seem to be a pare of Siegenthaler's game earlier this year.
It's hard to pinpoint what exactly has happened for Siegenthaler in the past few months, but his status as a defensive stalwart and one of the team’s top shutdown defensemen alongside John Marino represents a critical factor in the team’s success, particularly when considering the tight-checking atmosphere of the playoffs, in which the Devils are now all but assured of participating. In October and November, Siegenthaler led the entire NHL in expected goals percentage by defensemen (though it was something of a teamwide phenomenon at the time) and the Devils had scored 80%(!) of the goals with him on the ice at 5v5. Siegenthaler combined with Hamilton to make the league’s most formidable pairing over that run, soaking up minutes against other team’s best and crushing them in that time.
Since December 1st, though, it’s a different story. Siegenthaler has an expected goals share below 48% in that time and is 144th out of 207 defensemen with 200+ minutes over that stretch. He is also bringing up the rear among Devils regulars over that time period. His actual goals share at 5v5 has also sunk to 46% in that stretch, ahead of only Brendan Smith and Kevin Bahl on the Devils defense. It’s hard to know what to attribute this sharp decline to, but with Siegenthaler turning in middling or worse performances a lot of nights, it makes the Devils’ left side look a whole lot more vulnerable.
The obvious thing to point to when the decline is as abrupt as it has been in Siegenthaler’s case is a potential injury. Siegenthaler strangely disappeared for the end of a one-goal game on the 28th of November, and while Lindy Ruff seemed to indicate that in injury was not the reason after that game, Sieg’s performance sinks like a stone from his extraordinary start right in that time frame. Could Siegenthaler be just hampered enough by a nagging issue that it’s impacting his game this significantly? It’s difficult to say without venturing further into full-on speculation, but it at least makes some sense in the context. The Devils don’t exactly have a sparkling recent history with injury management.
The other possibility is that perhaps teams have adjusted to some of Siegenthaler’s defensive zone tendencies and, similarly to the Devils as a whole, Jonas has had some trouble making the required adjustments to those adjustments. Even in that context, though, it seems like some of the plays Siegenthaler is making are uncharacteristically poor in his own end. But if Siegenthaler was vibing with the Devils system in the early season, and teams have caught up to that system, it would make at least some sense that his drop in play is related to him struggling to adjust on the fly.
Whatever the reason may be, the Devils would benefit greatly from a return to something at least in the area code of his early season form. Him collecting 64% of the on-ice xGs and 80% of the goals again is probably asking too much, but the Devils need him to return to a positive impact player to avoid being a bit flimsy on the left side. Ryan Graves, to his credit, has stepped up a bit in the past month or so but it’s not a good thing that Siegenthaler has been lackluster enough that there wasn’t too much of an uproar when he was scratched on Saturday evening in Pittsburgh with Brendan Smith and Kevin Bahl in the lineup on the left side.
So, here’s hoping that, assuming the issue is not injury-related, the scratch served as a wake-up call for my man Jonas. He’s clearly capable of playing at a much higher level, and if the Devils want to make noise in the playoffs, that’s probably what they are going to need from him.