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Game Preview #60: New Jersey Devils at Colorado Avalanche

The Devils open the Timo-Meier era against the team they acquired him to emulate: the reigning champions Colorado Avalanche. Learn more about tonight’s matchup in this Devils game preview.

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NHL: Colorado Avalanche at San Jose Sharks
The new guy
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils versus the Colorado Avalanche. Avs SBN Blog: Mile High Hockey

The Time: 9:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: ALT, MSGSN

How are the Avs Going Generally?

Having won the cup last year, the Avs entered this season with repeat aspirations. Expectations were always going to be sky-high, so fans were left confused when the Avalanche faltered somewhat. Take a look at the below two figures, the first from The Athletic, the second from Moneypuck. The first shows Colorado’s playoff probability at different times in the season, the second shows their cumulative 5-on-5 goal differential.

Evidently, there was a span in the middle of the season, from late November to early January, where the Colorado were struggling mightily. From NaturalStattrick, between November 23rd and January 14th, the Avs were 25th in points percentage, certainly not becoming for a contender. Colorado’s 5-on-5 goal differential was terrible over that span at 44.71%, and losing all those games gave their playoff chances a massive hit. However, they have recently rebounded, buoyed by the return from injury of, at different times, Nathan MacKinnon and Valeri Nichushkin. Indeed, over their last 10 games, the Avs are 7-1-2, good for third in the NHL over that span. They are now, in terms of points percentage, first in the Central Division and second in the Western Conference, favoured to win the West both in the regular season and in the playoffs.

Frankly, it feels slightly ridiculous for me to analyse Colorado’s underlying metrics and rates over the season. Having been completely disrupted by injuries (as they still are, to an extent), I feel that these numbers aren’t going to be reflective, at all, of the team the Devils are coming up against tonight. I mean, the Avs are the reigning cup champions, something tells me they are better than their output which, as noted above, has been mediocre at times this year. A better way, I feel, to tackle this matchup is simply to take a look at their roster and figure out who to be afraid of.

Take a look at the Athletic’s depth chart for the Avs.

The Avs Offence

I am not going to waste any time talking about MacKinnon and Rantanen, who I know you know are all-world players. The Avs rely heavily on them, they are third and second, respecitvely in TOI per game amonst forwards, after McDavid and before Draisaitl. They are second and 11th in points per game, and are on 38 and 57(!) goal paces. Yeah, monsters. Their linemate and captain Gabriel Landeskog has been injured all year, and is potentially out for the season. Good thing, then, for the Avs, that Rantanen and MacKinnon are still out there.

Otherwise, the Avs offense is not remarkable. Artturi Lehkonen, Evan Rodrigues and JT Compher are around 0.6-0.7 point per game players: useful, but certainly not ground-breaking. The main guy I want to highlight here, however, is Valeri Nichushkin.

Without Nichushkin in the lineup this year, the Avs are 12-15-1. With him in the lineup, the Avs are 22-4-4. That seems like a pretty drastic difference to me. Check out his impacts per HockeyViz:

He is a defensive machine, basically not allowing high-danger chances against at all. He is low-event penalty wise, keeping the game at 5-on-5. He is also fine offensively, being an above-average finisher and setter, and is scoring at a 27-goal, 40-assist pace. But it is his defensive qualities which make him so impactful for the Avs. He is playing tonight, so the Devils can expect a miserable time when he is on the ice.

The Avs Defence

Notably, from the above depth chart, reigning Norris and Conn-Smyth winner Cale Makar is absent with injury. The most recent update I could find says that he will likely be a game-time decision against the Devils. I will err on the side of him playing tonight. He has had a much more quiet season in terms of noise-generation with respect to the Norris trophy, where other guys such as Erik Karlsson, Josh Morrissey and Adam Fox gaining most of the headlines. This, however, does not mean that Makar has had a bad season. Quite the opposite, in fact. From, in the 46 games he has played, he has 45 points, which puts him 5th amongst all defensemen in points per game. With an average TOI of 26:57, Makar plays the most minutes of any skater in the entire NHL this year. The Athletic has him as a top 10 percentile defensive defenseman, in addition to his well-known offensive skills. Honestly, I imagine you all know who Makar is. Just know that he is as good this year as he was in previous seasons.

The support behind Makar consists of Devon Toews, Bowen Byram, Samuel Girard and Joshua Manson, who are all in the lineup tonight. Toews absolutely has offensive upside, but his main quality is on the defensive side of the game. Check out his defensive impacts, courtesy of HockeyViz.

The Athletic has him as a top 5% defensive defensman, which correlates with the darkness in front of the Colorado net. Per MoneyPuck, of defensive pairings to have played at least 150 minutes of 5-on-5 together, the Makar-Toews pairing is 7th in xG against per 60, and is the second best, of those 7 pairings, in xG for per 60, making them one of the most well-rounded pairings in the league this year.

Bowen Byram was drafted 4th overall a couple of years ago, and really came into his own during Colorado’s cup run last spring. In the 20 games he has played this year, he has scored 5 goals, putting him on a 20-goal pace. He is still raw, however. Since coming back from injury (yes, him too), this is his GameScore per game:

There are pretty wild fluctuations, both above and below zero (ie, positive versus negative impacts). He is thought very highly of, and is going to be a great defenseman, but he is still learning, and will have sub-par performances (hoping for one of those tonight).

Girard and Manson are both solid-to-good defensemen. After being a really strong defenseman a couple of season ago, Girard has had a tough time both last year and this year. See the trends from the 19/20 and 20/21 seasons compared to this year and last:

His defensive impacts were off the charts, but have since been turned on their head. After providing great value, his contract is looking pretty tough all of a sudden, so much so that Girard has been involved in trade chatter this year. We’ll see where that goes, but unless something happens today, he’ll be in the lineup versus the Devils tonight.

Manson was acquired at last year’s trade deadline from Anaheim, and was a big part of the cup run for the Avs, scoring the OT winner in game 1 of the second round versus the St Louis Blues, who — after the Lightning — gave the Avs their toughest challenge.

This year, Manson has been taking the tough matchups for the Avs. His usage, per the Athletic, is 93rd percentile, meaning he is playing against really tough competition with really poor teammates. His defensive impacts are pretty good despite this, so I expect to see him play against one of the top-two lines, depending on how matchup-maker Avs coach Jared Bednar sees fit.

The Avs Goaltending

Per PuckPedia, Pavel Francouz is out with an injury. As such, Alexandar Georgiev will be in net tonight (he would have been anyway, in all likelihood, being the starter, but this confirms it).

Ex-Hated-Rival, Georgiev is having a fantastic season in Colorado. He is third in goalie point shares (the points contributed to his team’s seaon total due to his play in goal) with 9.8 behind only Hellebuyck and Sorokin. He rocks a 0.921% save percentage, a 66.7% quality start percentage and has 21.2 goals saved above average across the season, all from HockeyReference. From MoneyPuck, in all situations, he is 6th in goals saved above expected with 20.7, and is 10th in goals saved above expected per 60 amongst the 74 goalies who have played at least ten games with 0.493. Undoubtedly, he is a great goaltender who has played consistently great icehockey this year. The following plot from HockeyViz shows how Georgiev has performed compared to league expectation on shots from different areas.

Concerningly, he is doing very well against high-danger chances, stopping everything (relatively) from the slot and crease areas. Indeed, from the 74 goalies above, he is 5th in high danger unblocked shot attempt save percentage above expected. He is also good on medium danger shots, being 16th. Low danger shots seem to be where he struggles, being 38th. But even here he is saving 96.8% of low danger unblocked shot attempts, compared to the 97.1% he is expected to save, so it isn’t like he’s giving up goals for free.

At 5-on-5, Georgiev is strong, being 8th in goals saved above expected. He struggles somewhat on the penalty kill, being 26th in goals saved above expected. Here he is not as great at stopping high-danger shots, being 27th in high danger unblocked shot attempt save percentage above expected. But yet again, here he is only barely below expectation.

Georgiev, then, is an extremely strong, consistent goaltender with few-to-no weaknesses. Expect the Devils to have a low shooting percentage tonight.

Devils-Specific Considerations


I still can’t quite believe that Fitzy did it, trading for Timo Meier, the guy literally everyone wanted. Unfortunately, he is struggling with a minor injury, and will not be playing tonight versus the Avs ;(

He did practice yesterday, but was in a non-contact jersey. We will just have to wait patiently to see #96 out there in red and black.

Graeme Clarke

After a fantastic season so far in the AHL (which followed an impressive training camp), Clarke has been rewarded with his first call-up of the season. A couple weeks ago James wrote a great report on Clarke’s season up to that point. Clarke has largely been Utica’s best offensive player, and has made the largest push of any of the youngsters to get onto the NJ roster.

Now, it does not sound like Clarke will play tonight. As Amanda Stein noted, he was called up largely due to Zetterlund leaving a vacant roster spot. Indeed, these were the lines the Devils rolled in practice.

Either way, I want to see Clarke get in the linup some time soon, perhaps when he has been acclimated to being with the big team. He looked very encouraging in pre-season, so I’d like to see what he can do in the big leagues.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about tonight’s matchup? Have you got any more-up-to-date-than-mine information about any of the injuries the Avs are dealing with? Makar specifically? Or perhaps info about what they are doing in the trade market (they traded for Jack Johnson, a depth D-man, but nothing else thus far)? Who are you afraid of on the Avs? Who should the Devils be looking to take advantage of? And what are your thoughts about the trade deadline? With just a couple more games to go, Fitzgerald will likely be finalising his evaluation of his roster: whose roster spots are in danger? where can the Devils upgrade? and how will these factors be reflected in tonight’s game? Let me know in the comments below, and thank you, as always, for reading and supporting the site!