Have you ever heard this phrase about a football player?
Sure he got 1200 yards, but 175 were against the worst defense in the league, and he only got 40 in the playoffs.
Aside from a few very specific examples, like Sam Gagner scoring 8 of his 48 points in 2011-12 in one game, this narrative doesn’t often appear in hockey. The season is longer, each game means less in the overall scheme, and nobody goes on an 82 game point streak. Everyone gets shut out once in a while.
One cliché is "Big players show up in big games." The goal of this exercise is to only look at the games the Devils played against playoff teams this season. The idea behind this post was a response to Jesper Bratt’s disappearance in the playoffs. As I dug for more and more facts and looked for comps, it turned into an analysis of the "milk carton crew" (plus Jack). Two of the members of said crew are up for new contracts (Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt), and it’s a possibility that the Devils can’t sign both and have enough room to make further moves down the road, which they clearly need to do.
The deepest analysis will be Bratt-focused, since he was the origin of this post. I took notes about Bratt month by month, including things like his biggest games and noting which teams shut him out. Bratt is the one that was getting called out the most by Devils fans during the playoffs. Timo and Nico also went missing on the scoresheet at times, but Nico took part in shutting down the Zibenejad line and Timo was a violent forechecker and got in Shesterkin’s head. Bratt didn't perform well on either the stat sheet or the eye test. He did record the primary assist on Dougie Hamilton’s Game 3 OT goal against the Rangers, and if the Devils lost that game, they probably lost the series. So there is some evidence of a clutch play in the biggest game the Devils had played at that point.
I also compiled the Devils record and total GF-GA against playoff teams throughout the season to see if there is a bigger issue. I wanted to see if the Devils, as a whole, didn’t beat playoff teams, and just padded their record by consistently beating up the bottom of the league. This was a concern I had developed in March, when the Devils limped into the playoffs while the top teams were gearing up and playing their best hockey.
This entire process was painstaking, but fascinating. I had to go through the whole season game by game to identify the number of "scoreless games vs playoff teams", because that is not a tracked stat to my knowledge. I also know that points are not the sole judge of hockey players, but the topic of conversation during the playoffs was that their biggest scorers weren't scoring in big games, so here's some extra data over a whole season instead of 12 playoff games. So without further adieu, let’s start with the month of October:
Oct Team Record: 2-0, 5 GF, 1 GA
Transport yourself to October 28th, 2022. The Devils are hot, but it's pretty obvious they haven't seen the best of the NHL yet. Enter the defending champs, the Avalanche, and the Devils gut out a tough 1-0 win. Who scores the lone goal? Jack Hughes. Who gets the assist? Jesper Bratt. As far as "big games" go, this was the Devils first, and they passed the test. FWIW, Vitek was in net. Timo and the Sharks got themselves off to a slow start and a tough schedule, but you'll see him turn it around soon. I am not going to dig too deep into Timo's season, as it was very unusual and not a fair comparison to the Devils players.
Nov Team Record 4-1, 18 GF, 12 GA
Bratt had himself a nice November, along with everyone else on this spreadsheet. He scored goals in two one goal wins against Edmonton and Toronto. He would be shut out by Toronto in this month as well. As I went through Bratt's season, I figured it was worthwhile to not just identify how many times he didn't touch the scoresheet, but who blanked him. And let me reiterate here, this post was initially going to be Bratt-focused, but I wanted to share some context with his teammates.
Dec Team Record: 1-6-1, 22 GF, 35 GA
This was not a December to remember, unless you are like me and identifying and fixing weaknesses is part of the beauty of sport. It's worth noting that the two worst months of the season, December and March, were the two months the Devils played the most playoff teams. They regressed hard in these two months. That's the negative way to look at it. The positive spin is that every season has ups and downs, and for the most part, the Devils recovered from this month. Bratt went on a 4 game pointless streak during the 6 game losing streak (including non playoff teams). The 4 playoff teams that blanked him were NYR, FLA, and BOS (x2). Credit to Jack Hughes for staying afloat while the majority of the team sunk.
Jan Team Record: 5-0-2, 28 GF, 17 GA
The Devils bounced back with a solid January after the rough December. Bratt's best and worst "big games" were both against the Canes. One night, he scored 3 points, the other, he was shut out. All three Devils had themselves a very good January, and Jack Hughes had himself a stellar month. If I recall, this was about the time that Lindy Ruff finally took the snakebitten Haula off of Hughes' line, conceding that some faceoffs may be lost, but the product will improve. And it did.
Feb Team Record: 4-0-1, 13 GF, 8 GA
The start of 2023 was a good time to be a Devils fan. They were back after a slumping December and didn't lose a single game in regulation to a playoff team until March. February was not a good time to be Jesper Bratt, as he started to cool off from his hot start, getting shut out by Winnipeg, Minnesota, and the Kings. Maybe he took it to heart that he didn't accompany Jack to the All Star Game. It also was a tough month to be Timo Meier, as he battled injuries and trade rumors.
Mar Team Record: 4-4-3, 31 GF, 32 GA
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As Devils fans cheered on the addition of a goal scoring power forward, they also saw the wheels of the Devils wagon start to fall off as the best teams in the league also added pieces and were battling for their playoff lives. The Devils did not do well against them, only winning 4 of 11 games and seeing all of their big players get blanked for half, or close to half of them. For our Bratt-focused analysis, it was more up and down than just down. In 2 of the Devils wins against Carolina and Tampa Bay, he scored 5 goals, including a hat trick. They might have gone 2-6-3 without him. The teams that blanked him were Toronto, Tampa (x2), Florida, Rangers, and Islanders.
Apr Team Record: 0-2, 2 GF, 8 GA
If you want to combine this sliver of info with the month prior, it looks even worse for the Devils, going 4-6-3 and getting outscored 40-33 against playoff teams as we geared up for the playoffs. If you asked me in February if I thought the Devils were a Cup contender, I would have said "probably yes, depending on how they deal with more disciplined defense." If you asked me before the puck dropped against the Rangers, I would have told you that I'm just happy they're there. The Devils only scored 2 goals in these two games. Bratt and Hughes participated in both and Nico participated in one as well.
So here are the regular season stats of the "milk carton crew" and Jack Hughes. Jack Hughes led in every category, followed by Nico Hischier. Meier and Bratt split the last two categories. Bratt appeared on the scoresheet for a higher % of games, but Meier ultimately scored more per game.
The Devils goal total against playoff teams was 119 to 113, at a rate of 3.05 goals per game to 2.9 goals per game. At a glance, it's tough to argue the Devils have a big game "problem", but you also can't call them dominant against the best of the NHL. OTL's are just L's in the playoffs, and the Devils won 19 out of 39 games. Furthermore, if you isolate March-May, when the best of the league played better, you get a different story, as the Devils went 9-13-3. I added the Canes record as context, as they topped the Devils in both the regular season and the playoffs.
It's important to recognize Mackenzie Blackwood played a lot during that stretch. I saw the logic in it; to get Utica into their playoffs and get Blackwood warm in case of an injury, but I saw more logic in continuing to ride Vitek/Schmid. Could that have bled into the Devils mindset, "management isn't going to try their best during this month, so why should we?" It's a topic for another article, of which there have been many, but I want to know if that was Fitz or Lindy's call. From where I sit, Tom Fitzgerald built a team that Lindy Ruff stood behind, and if you break down Lindy's lineup decisions throughout the season and playoffs the same way you'd break down the decisions of a player, it's probably a player that gets seriously evaluated for a replacement.
I'm also not a huge fan of his defensive structure that adds extra pressure to the puck behind the net (where very few goals are scored from) and wish the Devils played something more traditional and tight-checking in the slot, where most goals do get scored from. His system also adds extra stress to wingers who need to cover back door shots as if they were centers and can leave defensemen at the point wide open. This is relevant to the article because it's the kind of system that can eat up a struggling team but fail to stop a team that's in sync, finds open lanes and moves the puck effectively in the offensive zone. Early in the season, Nico questioned the system and his teammates' understanding of it.
A coach gets a record tied to their name, for better or for worse. The grass isn't always greener, and I'm okay with returning the known commodity of Lindy Ruff considering the massive leap the team took this year. I'm not at practice, I'm not in the locker room, so I usually defer to management. I just believe that several coaches would have taken this roster to similar heights, and maybe even higher. We'll never know for sure. Back to the players on the ice:
You may even know these stats already, but in case you didn't, here they are. I don't need to go too much into this as it's more recent memory. Just like the regular season, Jack was the best of the bunch, followed by Nico. Timo Meier was statistically worse than Jesper Bratt, but let's also recall how much time Meier spent on the third line and how instrumental he was in rattling Igor Shesterkin. As I mentioned earlier, Bratt's eye test, to me and many fans, was the ugliest of this bunch, and it's why a lot of fans are calling for his head if the choice comes between him and Meier.
But is that fair?
So after a long post that many of you might have scrolled through to skip to the end, here is the grand total, regular season and playoff, of the Devils going up against playoff teams. Included also are the contributions against teams that didn't make the playoffs, because the Devils did a great job this season of not playing down to their opponent and taking care of business against the bottom of the league.
Let's remember a few things: Points aren't everything, Timo Meier had a weird season of bad teammates, injuries, and new team acclimation, and Jack Hughes has officially "played against men." Another thing to remember is the great article that was posted here within the past few years that argued "consistent goal scorers" don't actually exist outside of a few 1st overall picks that stay with one team forever, and you need to score as a team to achieve consistent goal scoring. It's worth noting that while some of these players were shut out, the Devils, as a team, scored at least one goal in every game this season and postseason.
As for Bratt, the original focus of this, I would love to have him back in Devils red next season, but not at the number it seems he thinks he is worth. Going scoreless, as wingers, in close to half of the big games is not a good look for him or Meier. We can't forget the extension for Mercer is coming up soon, Luke Hughes is not far behind him, and the Devils still have an unsettled situation in the crease. Not to mention that if nothing changes by July 1st, the Devils depth chart will look something like this
While the defense is pretty set, and will likely get Bahl back, the forwards are wide open, and you can bet on some camp battles and maybe a spot for the likes of Graham Clarke.
So that's my data and brief analysis of the "core" Devils forwards in big games. Did you find these numbers helpful to put the entire season in context? Did anything surprise you? Is Jesper Bratt a better or worse big game player than you thought? How awesome is it that Jack put up close to a PPG vs playoff teams and over 1.5 PPG against non playoff teams? Did I get anything wrong? Comment below and thanks for reading.