Happy New Year! December is done, January begins, and there are 47 games left to play in the season. After a disappointing November, the New Jersey Devils did rebound a bit in December. They finished the month by going 8-5-1 for 17 points. That is a far better set of results than going 6-7-0. They are very much on the bubble for making the playoffs in a tight division. Which is about where they were when they started the month. Which also speaks to how hard it is to catch up in this league as well as how tight it is in the division.
The Devils will need to keep having successful months going forward. As stated last month, they have to keep on doing it. Because they had a poor December, the situation is tight, and the help they could use to move on up is not guaranteed. The Devils have to help themselves. Making matters worse is that the 2024 portion of the schedule is going to be tough. However, there is a brief respite. The Devils will start that schedule on Wednesday in Washington D.C. For today, let us look back at what happened in December from the good to the bad and everything else in between.
The Games of December 2023
The Devils went into December on the strength of an overtime win in Philadelphia. A result over the Second Rate Rivals is always a good feeling. The Devils were to host the San Jose Sharks on the next night. On paper, this was a gift. The Sharks were extremely terrible to start this season and have won zero road games out of ten going into Newark on December 1. Then the game began. The Devils were slow to start, slower to react, and could not come out of a hole as the Sharks ran it up. Akira Schmid faced nearly 50 shots the night prior and Lindy Ruff thought it best to start Schmid again. This went badly. The Devils were bad on defense, worse in the crease, and embarrassing in their “compete” in a 3-6 loss to the Sharks. Yes, the Devils gave them their first road win of the season. I hated seeing it. Live.
The Devils then embarked on a trip to the Northwest. This proved concerning since A) the Devils just lost by three to San Jose and B) the opponents were of quality. Vancouver has been (and still is) a top team in the Pacific. Seattle and Calgary were more or less mediocre but far from doormats. Edmonton cratered their season early but were trying and succeeding at making up ground. It turned out to be sort of what the Devils needed.
On December 5, a wild night in Vancouver took place. The goals came in bunches. The 2023 First Hughes Bowl was seemingly in hand for the Devils as they went up 5-2 going into the third period. That lead - was busted in the third period as it seemed Vitek Vanecek was mentally broken in the process. Fortunately, another breakdown by the Canucks yielded a late score from Jesper Bratt for the 6-5 regulation win. The near opposite happened in Seattle on December 7. Both teams were sloppy except for the goalies, who were sharp. Akira Schmid was calm and collected as he conceded one goal. The Devils got two, including a game winner from Simon Nemec - who debuted in the Sharks game. A great time to get a first ever NHL goal in a 2-1 win. On December 9, the Devils began an Alberta weekend in Calgary. The Devils started off slow and down a goal. Then the Devils came back with “greasy” goals. The “go to the net and good things happen” type plays. The equalizer was a lovely shot from Nico Hischier. Then came a bouncing puck off bodies to go past Dustin Wolf for a 2-1 lead, a giveaway from Wolf that led to Holtz firing a pass across that went in off Dillon Dube’s front foot for 3-1, and an empty netter from the Devils’ own goal line by Hischier. A 4-2 comeback win loaded with Phillips 66. The trip was a success with three straight wins. Alas, the wins would end on the final day of the trip in Edmonton. There, the Devils basically ran out of gas in a 1-4 loss to the Oilers. A scoreline that could have been worse if it were not for some challenges and reviews in New Jersey’s favor. And a game where Connor McDavid had one of the easiest goals of his career.
The Devils returned home on December 13 to host the Boston Bruins. Post-Bergeron B’s have not let up as they have ruled the Atlantic Division and battling with Our Hated Rivals for first in the East. The Devils did more than hold their own, however. An early goal where Morgan Geekie bossed in a goal was responded with a Dawson Mercer bat-in of a mid-air puck. Both Jeremy Swayman and Vanecek were in great form. Overtime was needed and Jack Hughes, the Big Deal, took over. After nearly ending it himself multiple times, he did on a feed from Bratt for the 2-1 win. Close as it was, it was one of the best wins of the season. They did not let up when they went to Columbus on December 16. The Devils went up quickly thanks to Jack Hughes. They never looked back as Erik Haula, Tyler Toffoli, Nico Hischier, and The Big Deal scored two more times. Yes, Hughes had a hat trick in a 6-3 win over the Blue Jackets. A great two games after a successful trip. And a five-game homestand would begin the next night, continuing over the NHL holiday break.
It would not be a good homestand.
No, on December 17, the Devils returned home to host Anaheim. The Ducks, boasting popular Devils trade target John Gibson and Devils playoff hero Adam Henrique, were bad this season. You would not know it from the effort. Gibson stonewalled the Devils in the first period got sick and made way for Lukas Dostal. Henrique scored two in the second period and the Ducks added three more, including a hat trick for the ex-Devil. The Devils and their fans at home were very frustrated in a 1-5 loss to the Ducks. The frustrations would continue on December 19 against the Flyers. The Devils went up first, which was good. Then the Big Deal turned a puck over that led to an equalizer by Ryan Poehling. Bratt piled in a PPG, which was good. Then Brendan Smith turned a puck over that led to a 2-on-1 finished by Poehling. The Devils tried to break the tie but could not. In overtime, The Big Deal left a puck for his brother Luke - only to be missed and taken by Owen Tippett. He scored for the 2-3 loss. An enraging moment to be sure. This would be followed by an enraging night on December 21 against Edmonton. The Devils went out there and filled their pants as the Oilers proceeded to score twice. Schmid was pulled for Vanecek to provide a spark. One eventually came thanks to a Mercer goal and the second period saw the Devils pull ahead 3-2. Then the third began, the Devils were stunned as their mistakes and Vanecek’s poor goaltending helped Edmonton score three goals in less than two minutes to turn 3-2 into 3-5. The Devils were cooked, the fans left early and those remaining were bemused or upset, and the Oilers added a sixth goal for good measure. It was a disaster of a loss, 3-6 to the Oilers.
The Devils would get a win on this homestand. On December 23, right before the Christmas break, the Devils hosted Detroit. The Red Wings struck first on their first shot of the game, 4:22 into the first period, when Patrick Kane beat Vanecek. But the Devils would get a response later on from Timo Meier. He scored his first goal since the injury in the second loss to Edmonton and he tied it up then. Detroit went up a goal thanks to Shayne Gostisbehere. A response would come in the third period. Meier would strike again to tie it up early in the period. Tyler Toffoli’s first goal since the Columbus game, a deflection of a Bratt shot, went in for the 3-2 breakthrough. The Devils won a home game in that week before Christmas. Dramatic? To a point.
The last game of the homestand would be more dramatic. Against Columbus, the Devils were seemingly in trouble when the Jackets scored first. Then the Devils responded. Then they went down again to a Justin Danforth deflection. The frustration set in again as the Devils struggled to keep the Blue Jackets away. But they got a break when Nemec found Mercer in the slot for a one-timer. They were back? No. Jonas Siegenthaler coughed up a puck to Yegor Chinakhov, who slid the puck through Vanecek so cleanly that one wondered if Schmid could have stopped it (he could). It was over. Or was it? With the net empty late, Luke Hughes turned into Scott Niedermayer, torched multiple Blue Jackets, and ripped a shot past Elvis Merzlikins to make it 3-3 late in the game. The Devils were back. In overtime, the Devils would win it thanks to Timo Meier taking a Kent Johnson turnover, going on a breakaway (he got his speed back!), and beating Merzlikins low for the 4-3 win. That was dramatic.
The month and 2023 would end on the road with a back-to-back set. On December 29, the Devils visited Ottawa. They surprisingly started Nico Daws for this one. He had all of three (3) games with Utica since returning from hip surgery and its recovery. Would he hold up in the NHL? Absolutely. He was stunning as he stopped breakaways, slot shots, and limited his rebounds. The Devils would get their power play going in the first period thanks to The Big Deal and Bratt. Mercer and Toffoli would keep it rolling. Brendan Smith scored on a breakaway out of the penalty box for his first goal as a Devil (and since 2022). Luke Hughes scored late to cap off a decisive 6-2 win. The next night, they were in Boston. There was hope of a second back-to-back win as the Devils scored first for the tenth time this season. They even went up 2-0. Then they blew it by conceding four goals in the second period with a delectable combination of bad goaltending, bad defensive play, bad defensive tactics (read: weakside was open again), and bad mistakes. A late PPGA locked up a 2-5 defeat in Boston to close out the month, end another back-to-back set with a loss (1-6-1 in the second games! Eight more to come!) and the calendar year.
There were ups. There were downs. There were embarrassing losses, wins to be proud of, errors to regret, and highlights to celebrate for weeks, months, and even years to come. That Luke Hughes end-to-end rush will be one of the latter ones. It was ultimately a positive month for the Devils. A winning record with some solid feathers in their cap. How did their performances look overall? Let us look at the data.
By the Numbers
All stats come from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com where mentioned. Data was pulled after last night’s games so the ranks should be accurate for the whole month. Stats in the top ten are colored in green; stats in the bottom ten of the league (23rd to 32nd) are colored in red. Ties in rank are rounded up to the highest rank.
5-on-5 Play: The Devils were remained good at 5-on-5 in December. Not great, but good.
Is good good enough? It should be. OK, it is a bit underwhelming to see the Devils rank below the league median in shot and chance generation. But they did rank above it in high danger chance and all shot attempt generation. They remained in the top ten when it came to allowing all of those things. Their expected goal rates were all in the top ten on both ends. Most importantly, the sticks of the team got hot. They shot just under 10% for the month, yielding a high-scoring month in 5-on-5 play by a team that is capable of doing so.
And that is all the more impressive given how only one Devil really blew up on the scoresheet in the most common situation in hockey. Timo Meier, Ondrej Palat, and Erik Haula were either just edged in production or matched the four points in 139:07 that Lindy Ruff allowed to give Alexander Holtz. (And Michael McLeod and Tyler Toffoli only had one more point than Holtz despite at least 35 more minutes in 5-on-5.) Even The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, only put up 6 points in 5-on-5 in December. You have Jesper Bratt and his 13 points to thank - which means he was involved in over a third of the 33 team goals in this situation in December.
Once again, on the surface level, it appears the Devils defense is more than fine and all they need is someone to make some saves. Once again, this does not match up with what has happened in the games. Especially in those bad losses to San Jose, Anaheim, Edmonton, and Boston. xGF or on-ice rates are not going to point to the weakside getting exploited again by an opposition. Or show when a defender coughs up the puck. Or even whether the goalie gave up a bad goal. (And in the case of the Chinakhov goal on December 27, those last two combined). Beware of the analyst who claims the Devils are only getting goalied and everything is fine. They are not digging deeper into the issues. Fortunately, you are reading a site that puts in a bit more effort than that. And for free, too. Do not take this to mean that the goaltending was good in December. It was absolutely not good. I have a whole section going into how not good it really was. And how you should take this to mean is that the Devils were not bleeding opportunities every night in December and were still out-doing their foes in 5-on-5 for the most part. Whether it was good enough, well, depends on the context, expectations, and the need to prevail.
Over all, this is another month where 5-on-5 is not a massive eye-sore and has plenty of positives. I just think where the Devils are falling short are not going to be properly or fully captured by some of these stats.
Power Play Situations: The Devils’ power play slumped in December. That is my short summary of what happened in December. Here are some numbers anyway:
The on-ice rates show a power play is still taking it to other teams pretty often. Being a top ten team in generating attempts, shots, and scoring chances shows that the process is more than fine. Even without Dougie Hamilton. The Devils were indeed shooting the puck despite your misgivings or desire for shots instead of passes.
However, the process did not yield as many results as indicated by the success rate dropping to below 20% and just 7 PPGs in the month. Throw in the two shorthanded goals allowed and a +5 goal differential is not so helpful. Especially since the Devils often did not get the calls they probably should have received at times, leaving them short on opportunities. The culprit: That 11.67% shooting percentage. The Devils that were finishing seam passes and completing ornate plays were not finishing them as much. In other words: it was in a slump. The good news is that they got some successes toward the end of the month. The PP exiting the slump going into January is a positive.
By the way, the most productive player on the power play last month was easily The Big Deal with six points. In other words, he was involved in all but one PPG. This was followed by Jesper Bratt, Luke Hughes, and Nico Hischier as the only ones to register multiple power play points in December. Unsurprisingly, they are all on the primary power play unit.
Penalty Kill Situations: Surprising to me given how I pointed out how it was an issue after the loss to Boston, the Devils’ penalty kill was actually great in December. Far better than I recalled.
Conceding just six power play goals all month is great. Conceding 36 shorthanded situations, even if some of them were entirely avoidable, is great. Whereas the goalies putting up a combined 89% in 5-on-5 play is horrible, putting that up in shorthanded situations is legitimately great. For all of the issues we can point at Jonas Siegenthaler, Brendan Smith, Kevin Bahl, and John Marino in December (and all season), they were very solid in shorthanded situations in December. They got some great support from Dawson Mercer, Erik Haula, Nico hischier, and Curtis Lazar. And, in a bit of a twist, Simon Nemec got some PK time in December. Another sign that the rookie defenseman has earned the coaches’ trust. I thought the PK was an issue for the Devils to sort out. Instead, I was wrong. They were great overall in December - outside of that game in Boston.
Goaltending: I have decided to pull goalie stats from Natural Stat Trick for the month. While Nico Daws did make his season debut, it was just one game played. It is not fair to compare his numbers with the majority of goalies who have played at least 3 games in this past month. Therefore, this will cover Vitek Vanecek and the now-demoted Akira Schmid. You will be not shocked that they were bad in December.
In a word: Oof. In 5-on-5 situations, which is the most common situation in hockey, Vanecek was a touch worse than Schmid. While Vanecek played more and both goalies posted the same save percentages, his high-danger save percentage finished just outside of the bottom 10 of all 67 goalies in this sample and his goals saved above average did finish in the bottom 10. However, if you open it up to all situations, Schmid was worse than Vanecek by a bit. A worse save percentage, a worse GSAA, and a worse difference between xGA and GA. Sure, both goalies had their moments in December. Schmid was legitimately good in a tight game in Seattle. Vanecek was legitimately good in a 2-1 OT win over Boston. However, both goalies got rocked more often than not. I could even say Vanecek earned a new nickname with his rebound control problems: Pinball Flippers.
I will say that I personally think Schmid got more of a raw deal from the coaches in this past month. Yes, he gave up two early goals amid a dreadful start to the game on December 21 against Edmonton. He was pulled to give the Devils a “spark.” In a sense, I guess that happened. But Vanecek melted down entirely as the Devils blew that game in another bad loss in December. What did the coaching staff do? Give Vanecek the next two starts (what) and demote Schmid to Utica to give Nico Daws a shot. And when Vanecek is melting down in, say, Boston, the staff does not even consider pulling him for a “spark.” This is also the same staff that felt Schmid could start back-to-back games after facing nearly 50 shots against Philly to start this month. I think he was set up to fail that one, which he did against San Jose. Some teams would want to rightly treat a young goalie who bailed them out in the postseason and did quite well last season. The Devils are not one of those teams.
Still, as much as I thought it was a big risk to give Daws a start after just 3 games in Utica after recovery from hip surgery, I can understand the decision given these stats in December. Vanecek was terrible. Schmid was also terrible. The best you can say about either in December was that there were only about 8 to 11 goalies worse than them in the NHL. Which is not saying anything good at all. At least Schmid can go freely to Utica and try to recover his form away from the dark arts of goalie coach David Rogalski. What do you do with Vanecek? That is up to Tom Fitzgerald to decide and a coaching staff to mitigate this and other issues (and there are other issues!) as they wait for a decision. Please do not ruin Daws either, Ruff & Co.
Additions and Subtractions
Remember how November ended with Dougie Hamilton being out in the penultimate game of the month? It was a significant injury. Specifically, a torn left pectoral muscle. Hamilton needed surgery, which was successful, and is now in a multi-month recovery. If he ends up making it back within the season, then it will likely be in April. He was placed on injured reserve - not the long-term injured reserve, just IR - retroactive to November 28 on December 1, 2023. We hope for the best with Hamilton in recovery.
Hamilton’s absence required a call up from Utica. It was time for the 19-year old and second overall draft pick of 2022 defenseman Simon Nemec. Nemec entered the lineup and never left it. In fact, he played in every game this month and played over 20 minutes in eight of thirteen games. Would have been nine but he missed it by a second in Edmonton. Still, Nemec’s play has warranted this heavy usage. He has been a solid hand in his own end, a decisive activator on offense, and plays much smarter than you would expect from a young man in his second season of North American pro hockey. His entry level contract has been burnt - and this is actually fine because Nemec is clearly a NHL caliber defenseman.
On the same day and in the same tweet (Xeet?) from the team about Hamilton, the team stated that Tomas Nosek re-aggravated a foot injury and would be out indefinitely. The Devils did have coverage at forward in Chris Tierney so an additional call up was not needed. Mostly in the form of Lindy Ruff slotting Brendan Smith as a forward while keeping Colin Miller on defense. In fact, Sam Laberge was sent down on December 2.
That would be it for most of the month from a transaction point of view. The Smith-at-forward experiment actually yielded some positive games from the veteran while allowing Colin Miller to be solid as advertised in his own end. However, Ruff was changing his lineup often for one reason or another. It got to a point where Smith returned to defense. At first, this was necessary as Miller did leave the team for a bit as his wife had a baby. Then he was scratched in Ottawa and in Boston for a reason I cannot understand.
There were some minor injuries. Vitek Vanecek was Erik Haula missed two games and Curtis Lazar missed three games. Neither were or have been out for anything major as far as I can recall. Nathan Bastian also missed a game, although that may have been a healthy scratch. The only other injury news that came out was Ruff suggesting to Amanda Stein that Timo Meier was not playing at 100% after returning from injury. Which was apparent to anyone with eyes as the speedy winger was notably slower, notably not attacking, and notably not producing for weeks since returning from his injury. He should have stayed out a bit longer. That said, Meier would turn it around right before and after Christmas to provide 4 goals in December.
The big transaction at the end of the month came after the holiday roster freeze ended. Nico Daws was called up and Akira Schmid was sent down. Daws, who was coming off hip surgery and a subsequent long recovery period, returned to the net for Utica on December 8. He played in just 3 games as the plan was to bring him along slowly. He did not even play any road games. But New Jersey management felt he needed a chance. Daws had a short call up to just be around for a few days but was returned before the holiday freeze so he could play against Cleveland in the AHL. Clearly, management lost faith in Schmid even as Vanecek was kicking the rebounds out like they were jams and melting down like he was a statistically poorer goalie than Schmid. So Daws was brought back ahead of the Columbus game. Schmid was sent down on December 28 after that game. Daws started in Ottawa on December 29. It was a big risk but it paid off big as he played calmly in net and stopped a lot of tough chances in that game. Multiple one-on-ones, a few point-blank saves, some power plays, and even a denial of a Senator flying in from the bench. He played so well that he warrants further time in New Jersey. And so December’s end may be the hope that there is a goaltending answer after all in the system. He just needed to finish recovering from hip surgery. Still, he is a possible answer to one of the biggest questions of the team this season.
There is a big short-term question going into January. One that could lead to another transaction. Timo Meier left the Boston game early with an apparent injury in the second period. He did not play in the third period. Given that he was already playing while less than 100% for a bulk of this month, it is possible that the injury could be a re-aggravation. Or it could be something different. Either way, he could miss time to start the new year.
Devil of the Month
For this monthly designation, I tend to focus on who has been good throughout the month. As much as the Devils have been more successful, the performances have not exactly been consistent. I do want to highlight as an honorable mention someone who has been - which is impressive in of itself.
Who would have guessed Simon Nemec to be this good already? While Ruff has clearly been giving Alexander Holtz a raw deal, he has been willing to give minutes and responsibilities to other younger players he trusts. Luke Hughes was one. Nemec is definitely another. Since coming in for Hamilton, he has averaged over 17 and three-quarter minutes per game in 5-on-5 play and over 20 minutes in all situations. Only Jonas Siegenthaler averaged more than Nemec in 5-on-5 and only he and John Marino have played a bit more in all situations. The difference is that Nemec has been far more calm, collected, and controlled than either Siegenthaler or Marino in this past month. Which is surprising to see from a 19-year old rookie literally thrown out there because the Devils had no other real option. When Nemec has been on the ice, the Devils are out-performing their opponents. An on-ice xGA rate of 2.29 and an on-ice xGF rate of 3.03 in his first month in the NHL matches what Ruff wants out of his defensemen: mobile players who can activate to bolster the attack but also can be responsible in their own end. From the eye test, Nemec is often involved in all three zones. If he is making a mistake, then it is usually a small one. Not nearly costly as some of the ones we’ve seen from #71 or #6 or #2 or #88. While he only had five points in December, his first NHL goal won the game in Seattle, his four assists have been helpful, and his 21 shots on net is as many as Luke Hughes - without the benefit of being on the primary power play unit. Oh, and Nemec has taken just one penalty all month. This is all from a 19 year old rookie defenseman called up to replace Dougie Hamilton. It is clear that Nemec absolutely belongs in this league. That he is already averaging 20-21 minutes per game shows that he is someone the Devils can rely on. Even by a coaching staff that will oddly trust some well (Luke Hughes) and not others (Alexander Holtz). Who would have thought one of the answers to the Devils’ blueline questions would be Nemec right now? It was an impressive month from the young man. enough to make him my Honorable Mention for Devil of the Month.
But the Devil of the Month really needs to go to someone crucial and directly involved for the team’s successes. Take a bow, Jesper Bratt. In the 14 games of December, only three players surpassed double digits in points. Hischier got to ten points from the Boston game. The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, led the team in shots (60) and goals (7) in December and finished up with 15 points. Kind of frightening when a player is seen as “slumping” and still puts up 15 points in 14 games. But Bratt had the most with 18 points coming from six goals and twelve assists. He was the only Devil to break double-digits in 5-on-5 scoring with 14 points. He followed only Hughes in power play scoring. While it seemed like he was shy from shooting at times, the 44 shots he put on net in December said otherwise. The offensive leader in December was Bratt, who continues to earn his fat raise from the Summer.
It was not just points. The run of play in 5-on-5 when Bratt took a shift was utterly great. His CF%, per Natural Stat Trick was surpassed only by Chris Tierney’s three games, Luke Hughes, Colin Miller, and Tyler Toffoli - all players Bratt out-produced. His on-ice expected goals for rate of 3.54 was the best among all regularly playing Devils. His on-ice scoring chance rate was the best among all Devils period, even including the short time of Tierney. Basically, if you needed offense in 5-on-5, then going to Bratt was the move. Something Ruff tried to spread around, even oddly after a great night next to The Big Deal. Bratt was still a generator in December. He brought the points with that to make him a complete threat. Throw in his attacking skills on the power play, his support on the penalty kill (9:28 TOI in December!), and his movement in 3-on-3 situations and Bratt was indeed a complete threat for the Devils in this past month. That is sufficient to make Jesper Bratt the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of December 2023.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
Remember how I wrote that the Devils went 8-5-1 in December? By points earned, that was one of the better records in the NHL. Tied for the eleventh most in the month. Problem is: three of the seven teams with better results in December are in the division: the Islanders, Flyers, and Our Hated Rivals. While OHR owns the division, the other two teams are among whom the Devils are chasing. Also: The Carolina Hurricanes also earned 17 points - another team that they are chasing. The Devils end December behind all of them in the standings. Oh, and they are tied with seventh-place Pittsburgh Penguins in total points thanks to them earning 17 points in December.
It is so hard to catch up. That 6-7-0 November continues to hurt the Devils. As does some of those six non-wins. Sure, we can rationalize blowing it to Boston. But losing by multiple goals to San Jose and Anaheim? Those games hurt. In the standings and in the seats. One of the bigger issues with the Devils this season is that they are just 8-8-2 at home. They went 3-3-1 at home in December. In a league where the median home team takes at least 60% of the points, going 50% is not good enough. It just adds to the confounding nature of the 2023-24 season. How can this happen and, more importantly, why has nothing much been done about it?
After the loss to Boston, I realized how a lot of the issues in that game were present not only in several of the games in December - even in some of the wins - but were also issues in November and even in a bit in October. Bad starts, bad goaltending, a defensive system being exposed and exploited, bad defensive efforts (and usually not by the rookies), confusing lineup decisions, and slumping skaters. OK, not much can be done about a slump. But the issues that have been holding the Devils back continue to be issues now 35 games into this season. And what is going to be changed about it? You cannot simply “out work” all of this and just “play harder.” If Tom Fitzgerald and his staff are not going to make any changes to the roster (outside of throwing Nico Daws at it now), then I would expect an experienced coaching staff and a team filled with vets and experiences from the last 1-3 seasons to try some adjustments. Get a little creative to solve some of these internally. Or at least stem some of the damage from it. But I am not seeing it. You are not either. Despite an 8-5-1 record in December, nothing seems really solved. (And somehow the steadiest defenseman is a 19-year old Simon Nemec.)
One of my favorite posts on the site in December was written by Jared. He pointed out that making the playoffs are the minimum expectation. After 52 wins and beating Our Hated Rivals in seven games in the postseason, that is absolutely the minimum expectation. As of today, they have went from being just outside of the playoffs to start December to being just outside of the playoffs to start January (and now tied with 7th place Pittsburgh in points!). They are not meeting even the minimum expectations. Yet, nothing has seemingly been done to turn it around. (No, playing Michael McLeod more than Nico Hischier in even strength hockey in multiple games this past month does not count. Also, yes, that’s happened.) Other than throwing Akira Schmid down to Utica and betting big on Nico Daws, which has worked for one (1) game so far. I just do not get it. What are the players waiting for? What is Ruff and his staff waiting for? What is Tom Fitzgerald and his staff waiting for? Do I really need to hope the owners, Josh Harris and David Blitzer, are asking those questions before something happens?
It was a good month. But the Devils needed more to keep pace with the teams in their division. They need more. Why? Because they put themselves in this position to need more. They have to figure something out. Even if our hopes and prayers are answered and the teams around the Devils crater, then that still leaves the Devils to need to win games. Anyone can identify problems. We can hear the same narratives and canned answers from the MSG broadcast team. The people in charge, whether it is on the ice, on the bench, or in the front office, need to find some solutions. And if they do not, a bad January could all but sink their chances. You may think that is dramatic, but I remind you that the Devils did well in December and remain in sixth place on the outside looking in. And in a tie in points with seventh place as well. This is the reality of the situation. We have to deal with it. Even if it is not fun to acknowledge.
Welcome to 2024. May it be a better one for the New Jersey Devils than the last three months. It certainly will not be easy.
Post-script: Alexander Holtz put up 5 points in December, which is as many as Michael McLeod put up and more than Timo Meier, Ondrej Palat, and Erik Haula all month. This is in spite of having games where he is saddled with Chris Tierney and/or Nathan Bastian. Even in games where an extra shooter would be a great benefit. Ruff, please drop whatever nonsense you have with a young winger who still has an outside shot at 20 goals this season if you actually utilize him appropriately. Shocking to some, but on-ice production can lead to a lot more points in the standings than winning a faceoff or an intangible. Make it a new year’s resolution if you must.
Now I want to know what you think ahead of the start of the 2024 part of the season, which will be on Wednesday against Washington. Can the Devils play a more consistent game in the hopes of getting more results? Can they improve upon what they have done? Will the goaltending get better? Or the slow starts or the defensive struggles or the PK? What were your highs and lows of December 2023? If you do not think Jesper Bratt is the Devil of the Month of November, then who would you pick and why? Please leave your answers and last thoughts about last month in the comments. Thank you for reading.