(This article does not include stats or records from the 3/21/23 game against Minnesota)
With just under a dozen games remaining in the 2022-23 campaign, the New Jersey Devils will be playing postseason hockey for the first time in five seasons. The Devils have consistently been one of the five best teams in the NHL throughout this season, but after a challenging week against Tampa Bay and Florida, there appear to be some cracks in the foundation that are at least of mild concern.
Back in December, I listed what the flaws with this Devils team were. It was a list that could have been perceived as very nit-picky at the time as the Devils weren’t that far removed from their 13-game winning streak, but that was also by design. The Devils showed very early in this season that they were a legitimate threat, and have only continued to confirm that with their play throughout the season. The goal from that point forward for the Devils should’ve been to clean up the minor gripes in their game that I raised then.
Since December, the Devils have done some things to address my concerns at the time. They added a little more high-end skill and sandpaper in Timo Meier and Curtis Lazar, respectively, and in the process, added a couple of players who have been in the playoffs before to help out an otherwise inexperienced group. But there are still some questions that remain unresolved that the Devils need answers for if they hope to be more than a one-and-done playoff team. Without further adieu, lets take a look at what Lindy Ruff and the Devils players should be looking to accomplish before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
Vitek Vanecek or Akira Schmid: Who Gets Game 1?
Mike wrote last week about Akira Schmid making a case for the starter’s net. Schmid hasn’t done anything to hurt his case since then, as he followed up an average outing against the Lightning with a great performance against Florida, one where he deserved a better fate. To Vanecek’s credit, he’s managed to pick up a pair of big wins over Carolina and Tampa Bay as he continues trying to resemble the quality goaltender he was earlier in the season.
There is little reason for Lindy Ruff to overplay either netminder down the stretch. Vanecek has already set a career-high in games played, and while Schmid has arguably outplayed him, its important to keep in mind that this is only his second season as a professional. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ruff opt to give both goaltenders close to a 50-50 split the rest of the way, with Mackenzie Blackwood perhaps finding his way into a spot start here or there if he can ever get healthy.
Competition is healthy though. In a perfect world, both Vanecek and Schmid would be playing well and would really make the decision tough for Ruff. We’re starting to see that with Vanecek being better of late with his last few performances, and Schmid continues to impress every time he plays. I understand the argument that Vanecek has handled a starter’s workload while Schmid has handled a backup’s, but Schmid has looked the part every time he’s been in the lineup. There’s something to be said about the poise with which he plays, his positioning, and his ability to shake off a goal against.
How will Ruff see it though? I’d expect him to go with the ‘safe’ choice in Vanecek. After all, Vanecek has more experience, and while his previous postseason performances haven’t been great, three playoff games is way too small of a sample size to make a definitive judgment one way or the other. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how much consideration Schmid gets for a potential Game 1 start if he continues to play well and press the issue.
Finding Lines That Work And Sticking With It
One of the biggest complaints with Lindy Ruff (and most veteran coaches, as Ruff isn’t alone with this approach), is that he is way too quick to pull out the line blender and shake things up if the team has a bad stretch of play.
In fairness to the coach, Ruff has done this a lot in-game this season, and it has worked consistently throughout the season. There are plenty of examples of Ruff shaking up the lines only for the Devils to make a comeback and win the game. He’s not wrong to make changes if he’s seeing that something isn’t working and pull the plug on it. But he can also be stubborn to a fault as most veteran coaches are and have an itchy trigger finger. The Devils had a first line that was working in Tomas Tatar-Nico Hischier-Dawson Mercer and a third line that was beginning to develop a real identity in Ondrej Palat-Erik Haula-Jesper Boqvist. Its nice having two lines that are going, but for the Devils to get where they want to get to, they really need to be able to roll four lines effectively.
Ruff switched up the lines prior to the win on Sunday over Tampa, putting Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt with Nico Hischier. What were the results? A hat trick for Bratt, and both Bratt and Hischier reaching the 30 goal mark for the first time in their careers. The Devils got a big win against a top team. As important as that is, there is also a trickle-down effect moving forward with the rest of the lineup, as this goes hand-in-hand with my next point.
Getting Jack Hughes Going Is a Priority
Of course, a big part of the reason why Ruff needed to shake up the lines in the first place was because the pairing of Meier and Bratt (and occasionally Boqvist) with Jack Hughes just wasn’t clicking.
I’m not a mind reader, so I can’t hazard a guess whether or not the upper-body injury that caused Hughes to miss four games in February is still bothering him. It would certainly explain the dip in his performance, just as how Dougie Hamilton wasn’t the same player last year after he fractured his jaw. The results are what they are though, as he “only” has two goals and 12 assists in 16 games since then. He might be on close to a PPG pace, but he also hasn’t been the same player he was pre-injury when he was a fringe Hart Trophy candidate. Whether this is injury-related or not is anyone’s guess.
What I won’t blame on the injury though is Hughes’s decision making and his tendency to try to play hero ball when he feels the need to make something happen. Hughes has never been short on confidence, but there’s a difference between confidence and arrogance where you’re trying to force the issue with plays that aren’t there. Bratt and Hughes are very similar players in size and playing style where it made sense to separate the two of them. Adding Timo Meier into the mix when he’s trying to get up to speed on the Devils system wasn’t helping matters either.
People might groan seeing Erik Haula back on Hughes’s wing, but Haula was on his wing for most of this season when Hughes was going good. He was there for a reason. Haula plays a good 200-foot game and his presence on that line will go a long way to putting Hughes in a position to do what he does best and make plays. Add Mercer to the mix, as he has enough talent and hockey IQ to keep up with Hughes while simultaneously getting to the dirty areas on the ice, and it should hopefully get Hughes back on track as we enter the postseason.
Ultimately, it boils down to this simple statement. Your best players need to be your best players. Hughes is one of the Devils best players. The Devils have gotten by the last few weeks with Hughes being ordinary, even by his lofty standards, but they need better than ordinary if they hope to make a run. Getting #86 going is a must moving forward.
Finding the Right Fit for Timo Meier
Meier hasn’t been awful early in his Devils career, with three goals and two assists in his first nine games in New Jersey. But he has been a bit of a victim of circumstance. It took a week for him to even make his debut with the team as he had suffered a minor upper-body injury in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline. The fit with Hughes and Bratt looked dubious at best. Add in a condensed schedule and an entirely new system for him to learn with no practice time and its not exactly a recipe for success.
I think Meier and the Devils will be thrilled though if he sticks on Hischier’s wing going forward.
Timo Meier may have only picked up an assist, but Jesper Bratt made note how important he was on several goals:— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) March 20, 2023
"He's so strong on the puck, he was winning puck battles and he took that dirty work in front of the net that you don't always get credit for on the score sheet…
Nobody should be surprised that Meier fits on Hischier’s wing like a glove, as the pair has plenty of international experience together from their time on the Swiss national team. Meier isn’t necessarily a prototypical power forward but he does use his frame to create space, and he plays a hard game that naturally fits with Hischier’s skillset. Add in a dynamic playmaker like Bratt to the mix and the Devils have the makings of a lethal top line.
Getting More Out of the Power Play
The Devils have had a league average power play all season. While this is an improvement over the disaster that was Mark Recchi’s power play in 2021-22, the 18th ranked unit in a 32-team league is about as average as it gets.
There is a common misconception that the referees swallow the whistles in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This is somewhat true, but misleading, as the data says that there are more penalties called in the playoffs than in the regular season. Most fans think the opposite is true as there are plenty of infractions that don’t get called, as the amount of physicality, clutching, grabbing, and holding ramps up.
How far the Devils go in the playoffs likely goes hand-in-hand with whether or not they convert these power play opportunities when they get them. Similarly to what I just wrote about Meier and his best fit in the lineup, the Devils still seem to be in the process of finding the best spot for Meier on the top power play unit as he appears to be shifted out towards the flank, a spot where he had a ton of success in San Jose. The power plays might look better of late, but whether you score or not may be the difference between advancing or not.
The Devils have 11 more regular season games to find something that works, although that number is probably lower due to my next point.
Keep Players Fresh / Navigating Injuries
The Devils have gone through a stretch where they’ve been (knocks on wood) remarkably healthy, but their depth has been tested in the last week with Miles Wood, Nate Bastian, and now Lazar on the shelf.
In addition to all of the things I’ve mentioned already, its important that the Devils continue to manage the health of the roster and give players a chance to rest. We’re at the point of the year where everybody is banged up, and Ruff himself said “We have to treat rest as a weapon” last month. Now is the time to give guys a breather.
The Devils have four games over the final week of the season against teams that will have nothing to play for that week. Boston will be the #1 seed in the East while Columbus, Buffalo, and Washington likely will all have nothing but pride to play for. The last thing the Devils need is Tom Wilson foolishness in Game 82 when they have nothing to gain and everything to lose and somebody important gets banged up in a meaningless game.
Like I said before, I have no idea whether or not Jack Hughes is still dealing with an injury, but getting him a game or two off prior to the postseason isn’t the worst idea in the world. The same can be said for the captain, as its not a Nico Hischier game until the MSG cameras catch him grimacing on the bench. Palat is 31 years old and missed a big chunk of the season due to groin surgery. Getting him a day off makes sense. Just from the nature of the position and what they’re asked to do, the defensemen all could probably use a game. And we already mentioned how keeping both goaltenders fresh makes all the sense in the world.
Expect the Devils to weaponize rest after they clinch their playoff berth. It’s true that there’s still an outside chance of them winning the Metropolitan Division, but it would likely take a late-season slump by Carolina to do it, so there’s not much for the Devils to gain by going all-out to win the division, especially if their ‘reward’ is a potential date with the Islanders or Panthers who won’t make things easy for them in the first round.
Continue to Play Devils Hockey. The Rest Will Sort Itself Out.
It’s easy to hit the panic button when the Devils lose three games in a row late in the season. Never mind that it was against Tampa Bay and Florida, two of the better teams in the league, and that there were in a position to win two of the three games that they lost. Panic!
Panicking isn’t going to accomplish anything though.
We’re 70 games into the season. The coaching staff is what it is. The roster is what it is. The system is what it is. For the most part, it has worked all season. They’re not going to scrap what they’re doing three weeks before the playoffs and start from scratch just because they lost a couple games in a row. They’re going to stick with the process that got them to this point, for better or worse.
With the exception of Boston, the Devils have beaten every team likely heading for the postseason in the Eastern Conference at least once. Their record against Toronto, Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, both New York teams, and Pittsburgh is 11-7-3, with three games pending against the Rangers, Islanders, and Penguins. With a couple of exceptions, the majority of those losses were there for the taking, and this would also include the two games they dropped to the Bruins back in December. The Devils haven’t done this by accident or gotten lucky. They’ve done this because of how they play within their structure and with their talent level. Expect that to continue even when they hit the occasional speed bump in the road.
The Devils have played a lot of meaningless hockey in March and April of recent years. In a way, the games are “meaningless” again, as wins and losses between now and the regular season finale on April 13 won’t move the needle a ton one way or the other. In actuality though, they’re not meaningless games. For the Devils, they have a purpose. If the Devils are going to do anything in the playoffs, its important that they use this time to find answers to the questions I laid out above. If they do all that and they get beat, they get beat. It happens. But if they find answers to the questions I posed, they’ll be in a position to go on a run.
You’ve heard enough from me though, so now, I turn things over to you. What do you think the Devils should be looking to accomplish in the waning weeks of the regular season? Do you agree with my list or is there something I’m missing? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thanks for reading.