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Slumps and Resurgences in the Second Quarter of the Season

As can be expected with this tumultuous season, players have had their ups and downs. Today we take a look at 5 players - how did they start, and what has gone better or worse since?

New Jersey Devils v Tampa Bay Lightning
Since being trusted with more top six ice time, Dawson Mercer has bounced back from a rough start to the season.
Photo by Mike Carlson/NHLI via Getty Images

In the course of an NHL season, it’s natural for players to go through tough stretches and times where things come easier to them. Today, I want to look at a couple players I think have made big impacts in the past 20 games for the New Jersey Devils. Alongside them, there are two players who have suffered in the second quarter of the season, and an honorable mention.

Surging: Colin Miller

In the first 20 team games of the season, Colin Miller only had six appearances due to an injury that kept him out the first few weeks. He was not looking good during the preseason, and I was concerned about his fit on the team when he looked out of place then. But after coming back from his injury, Miller was often paired with Luke Hughes, saving viewers from watching the adventurous Smith-Hughes pairing. In those first six games, Miller had a 56.46 CF%, a 59.71 xGF%, but the Devils only broke even with goals at 2-2.

In the last 20 team games, Colin Miller leads the Devils in five-on-five CF% with 56.98, just beating Jesper Bratt’s 56.96. Of course, Miller has only played 15 of the 20 games due to some odd coaching choices. Why odd? Well, Miller also leads the team in 5v5 GF% at 78.95 — as the Devils have outscored opponents 15-4 with him on the ice in the last 20 games. With a 54.29 xGF%, we might need to expect some sort of regression at some point. But for now, the Devils should be leaning on Miller the most out of the defensemen — or at least as much as Simon Nemec.

New Jersey Devils v Florida Panthers
Colin fights.
Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Something about the way Miller plays makes him a goalie’s best friend, with a .959 on-ice save percentage at five-on-five in the last 20 team games. The next highest is Michael McLeod at .925. Goalie play can really impact the way that we view skaters’ performances, but I think this disparity between Miller and others on the team is the result of Miller’s willingness to be constantly engaged, physically, in the defensive zone. As far as guys who don’t give any space to work go, Miller generally stays right on top of his assignments, and he is not afraid to stand up for himself around the net.

Slumping: John Marino

As Colin Miller has been the beneficiary of good goaltending this season (and is one of the only Devils who can say that), John Marino has been on the other end of the spectrum. In the 20 team games of the season, Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid’s save percentage stood a cool .861 with John Marino on the ice at five-on-five, which was somehow not the worst on the team (Nate Bastian - .833 oiSV%). However, with a 56.83 CF% and a 52.66 xGF%, Marino’s production and expected results were enough to make his games look passable. During those 20 games, Marino had the third-highest five-on-five point total on the team and the highest among defensemen with 8. Jack Hughes and Tyler Toffoli led the team with 10, and Alex Holtz had 9. With only seven giveaways to eight takeaways and only four penalties taken and three drawn, I expected Marino to bounce back after the strong season he had last year.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Florida Panthers
After getting a goal to seal last game, maybe Marino can get back to his old self.
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

That has not happened. His on-ice save percentage at five-on-five has been the lowest on the team in the last 20 games at .871. The team has given up 22 goals and scored 16 with him on the ice — the next highest 5v5 goals against total is Kevin Bahl at 15. With his CF% dropping to 48.13 and his xGF% to 51.92, Marino’s underlying numbers have worsened while his bad defensive results have turned to abysmal. His 3.49 GA/60 in the first quarter of the season turned to 3.86 GA/60 in the second quarter, and his production has not carried over, with two five-on-five points in his last 20 games. At the halfway point now, Marino needs to remember what was working for him last year. But if nothing else, guarding the net would be a good start. It’s been several times this year where Marino loses a man right before they score, or he’s not in good position to clear a rebound away, or he lets someone run roughshod right in front of the net while he gets lost in no-man’s land. I already know some will point to Lindy Ruff’s system, but I will point to Colin MIller and say that there is something different about what they do on the ice and the results that translate from it. If Marino gets back to the basics of defending, I think the results can come back.

Surging: Dawson Mercer

I am not going to say it’s all there with Dawson Mercer just yet, but there has been a marked difference in his play between the first 20 games and the last 20. In the first 20, the team averaged 1.75 GF/60 and 3.06 GA/60 with him on the ice. With Mercer only putting 25 shots on goal (less than half of Toffoli’s lead at 52), his production was subpar at three goals and three assists at even strength. Since then, Mercer has had seven 5v5 goals and four assists (tied with McLeod for second highest 5v5 point-total) with 32 shots on goal — good for third on the team in the last 20 games. His on-ice goal rates have also improved to 3.57 GF/60 and 2.46 GA/60, as his xGF% improved from 45.59 in his first 20 games to 51.17 in his last 20. Could his underlying numbers still improve? Sure, but Dawson seems to have rediscovered his scoring drive, and I think his combination with Nico Hischier will continue to be fruitful.

Slumping: Tyler Toffoli

Just as Dawson Mercer has found his scoring touch, Tyler Toffoli has had more trouble with his in the second quarter of the season. He was tied with Holtz for the team-lead in 5v5 goals at six in the first 20 games of the season, but there were seven skaters with more goals in the past 20 games, as Toffoli only scored three 5v5 goals. Going from 52 to 28 even strength shots might be the root cause there, but it speaks to how Toffoli has looked out of place at times during the season.

New Jersey Devils v Columbus Blue Jackets
The man is a goal scorer. Get him the puck!
Photo by Jason Mowry/Getty Images

It’s no secret that Tyler Toffoli is not as fast of a skater as many of the other guys on the team. I do think, though, that Jack Hughes was depriving him of the puck a bit too often before he got hurt. Since Toffoli has played with McLeod, whose style is much more direct and focused on going right for the net, I think he has looked more involved. This is not a guy who has a reputation for being a supporting guy: he has a long history of making an impact up and down the ice. He might not be the guy to carry the puck from end-to-end, but he is someone who should be finishing checks, scoring goals, and setting up teammates for goals. As far as that goes, I think he has looked on the right track over the past couple games. But going from 19 total points in the first quarter to 10 points in the second quarter of the season is concerning. That said, the team was giving up more goals with him on the ice to start the year than they have been lately, so maybe this is still part of his adjustment period.

Honorable Mention: Brendan Smith, Agent of Chaos

Nobody likes to give Brendan Smith credit, but he has seen a wide range of results this season. In the first 20 team games, of which he played 20, the team had a horrific 5v5 goals ratio of five for to 12 against. That was a rate of 1.24 for and 2.98 against per 60 minutes. Over the last 20 team games, of which Smith has played 13, the team has scored 14 goals and let up 9 with him on at five-on-five. But since he has often played forward, his per-60 rates are off-the-charts. At 5v5, the team scored 5.61 and allowed 3.61 goals per 60 with Brendan Smith on the ice over the last 20 team games. His xGF% also improved from 42.08 to 56.11. That’s legitimately good. I know we like to joke about Brendan Smith at forward, but there might actually be something to it. And with his propensity to be physical, his presence has been rather valuable lately.

Your Thoughts

What do you think? Do you think anyone else bears mentioning as having a markedly worse or better second quarter of the season? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.