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Moore-On or Moron: Halfway Point Edition

We’re at the midway point of the 2023-24 season, and do we have some Devils TAKES for you.

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Vancouver Canucks v New Jersey Devils
McLeod may be the Team MVP, but its indicative of a larger problem
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Following Monday’s 3-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, the New Jersey Devils are officially at the halfway point of the 2023-24 season with 41 games in the books and 41 games remaining.

The Devils were in the midst of a solid stretch of hockey where they temporarily climbed into a playoff spot, but with the way this season has gone to this point, the Hockey Gods apparently decided that that was far too much success and good vibes for the team to enjoy. So the Hockey Gods struck, the team lost four key players from their lineup due to injury in the span of a week, and that combined with a rough stretch in the schedule and the season-long goaltending issue that has plagued the team has sent the Devils back to the bubble.

With the season at the midway point, now is a good time to take the temperature of the club and fire off some of my patented TAKES, which are always excellent and need no further explanation. That said, sometimes they may need a little more time in the oven or to be tweaked. So without further adieu, it’s time for the latest edition of Moore-On or Moron where I am either spot on with whatever my opinion is (hence, Moore-On) or I am a moron for suggesting it.

Michael McLeod being in the running for Team MVP is not a good thing

Our old friend CJ Turturo posed an interesting question on Twitter the other day, asking “Who is the Devils MVP so far this year?” Below are the results of his informal poll.

My vote was for Michael McLeod, so I actually agree with CJ’s findings (even though he leaned Jesper Bratt, another fine choice). McLeod is on pace for a career-high in points and has seemingly had a knack for clutch moments through the first half of the season. He’s a faceoff-winning machine, and is a player that Lindy Ruff trusts to play in key situations. I don’t know that I’d go nuts suggesting he’s a late bloomer in his age 25 season, but he is in the prime of his career and is having a year reflective of that. Whether you agree or not that he’s the team MVP, he’s certainly in the running with how he has played thus far.

And that’s part of the problem.

Remember, this is a player the Devils exposed to UFA briefly this past summer rather than qualify him because they didn’t think he was necessarily worth his qualifying offer. The Devils were willing to risk McLeod and his representation telling them to pound sand and go elsewhere on the open market, something they would NEVER do with the actual difference makers on this team. The Devils have a lot more players higher on the pecking order than McLeod in terms of salary and where they play in the lineup who would be in the mix for Team MVP if they were a) healthy and b) playing to the back of their hockey cards.

But they’re not. And that’s the problem.

Sure, Jack Hughes is still well over a PPG with 45 points in 32 contests. But with only 9 points at even-strength in his last 16 games prior to this most recent injury, it feels like there’s definitely some meat left on the bone of how much of a difference maker he’s actually been. Timo Meier has spent most of the season bouncing between ineffective and injured minus the three game or so span prior to his latest setback where he was really coming on strong. Nico Hischier has been fine. Dawson Mercer has been fine after a brutal start. Jesper Bratt has been streaky. Say what you will about Dougie Hamilton defensively but the team has missed what he brings to the table offensively. John Marino has had a down year defensively, as has Jonas Siegenthaler. And of course, the Devils have gotten no help from any of their goaltenders.

Michael McLeod has had a good season and he deserves credit for that. He is a fine complimentary player. He is not a difference maker, and the Devils would be in a far better position as a team if roughly 6-7 other players who could be classified as difference makers on this roster were healthy and pulling their own weight.

Verdict: Moore-On

Tom Fitzgerald does not deserve a pass for how this season has gone

I may expand further on this in a future column, but I am inclined to not give Tom Fitzgerald a pass for how the season has gone to this point. And the main reason for that is directly tied to the goaltending.

I don’t care that Fitzgerald went big-game hunting for a goaltender over the summer when he ultimately failed to get one. I don’t care that Fitzgerald seemingly said every other week over the summer that the Devils wanted Akira Schmid in the minor leagues, only for him to start the season with the big club because the team didn’t bring someone else in. And now that we are in-season, I don’t care that trades are hard to make and teams are trying to hold Fitzgerald over the barrel for the Jake Allens of the world. Trying to fix the problem and actually fixing the problem are two different things.

This is why the Devils needed to be in the goaltender business once again after the playoffs ended last year. In the case of the 2023-24 Devils and their playoff aspirations, choosing to go into the season with the Vanecek/Schmid tandem may prove to be a fatal mistake that costs them a playoff berth. And that is unacceptable.

Fitzgerald has been the general manager of this team for four seasons now, and while I’m not necessarily saying he deserves to be fired, his inability to fix the goaltending could very well be what ultimately does get him fired at some point. I acknowledge that there has been quite a bit of bad luck between Corey Crawford retiring in the middle of training camp and Jonathan Bernier suffering a career-ending injury ten games into his Devils career. But with the notable exceptions of Mackenzie Blackwood’s brilliant play pre-COVID in the 56-game season, Vanecek’s play for most of the first half of last season, and Schmid’s play late in 2022-23, the Devils have failed to get consistent goaltending for any prolonged stretch in the four seasons he’s been on the job. Nor do the Devils have someone in the system that I am confident is the long-term solution. I’m not saying that Fitzgerald has ignored the position or that he’s sitting on his hands now as the season is on the brink of spiraling out of control, but it was inherently risky to go into the season with Vanecek, Schmid, and a when-healthy Nico Daws as your Top 3, and that gamble has blown up in his face.

For those who are as concerned about the future of the goaltending position as I am, I implore you to ask yourself these questions....

  1. Is the Devils 2024-25 Opening Night starter in goal currently on the roster or in the system?
  2. Do the Devils have a goaltender anywhere in their system that you are confident is the long-term answer in net? And if so, who and why?

If your answer to both of these questions is no or probably not, and it probably should be if you are being honest with yourself, isn’t that damning of the job Tom Fitzgerald has done over four years to try to find a long-term solution in net? Isn’t it eerily reminiscent of his predecessor Ray Shero’s failure to find NHL-caliber defensemen? It’s not like Shero didn’t try to upgrade the position as he swung deals for PK Subban, Mirco Mueller, Sami Vatanen, Ben Lovejoy, and Will Butcher (and drafted Ty Smith). Shero’s failure to fix the blueline though over several years ultimately got him the pink slip. Goaltending might be what ultimately sinks Fitzgerald whether its this year, next year, or three years from now.

It’s not too late for Fitzgerald to swing a deal for a goaltender who can actually make a save. But until the Devils make a significant upgrade at the position, its tough to take them seriously as contenders. The man ultimately responsible for picking the players shouldn’t get a pass when the players he has chosen to roll with continually come up short.

Verdict: Moore-On

Luke Hughes has hit the rookie wall

I will preface this next section by reminding everyone that Luke Hughes is 20 years old and is getting his first full season under his belt in the best hockey league in the world.

Keeping that in mind, it certainly looks like Luke has hit the proverbial rookie wall halfway through his rookie season, doesn’t it? I’d even go as far as to suggest that if the Devils weren’t so banged up at the moment, he could probably use a night off as a healthy scratch.

That’s not to say Luke has played poorly, as his 23 points leads rookie defensemen in scoring and he’s still one of the better defensemen on the roster. But the offense has dried up a bit over the last handful of games (two assists in the last six contests), likely coinciding with the injuries the Devils are dealing with elsewhere on the roster.

More alarming than that though is the number of rookie mistakes we’ve seen Luke make. We knew going into the year that rookie mistakes would happen. While we can appreciate him trying to hit home runs and make something out of nothing with some of the passes he tries, his decision making with the puck has been head-scratching at times and his skating has looked off to the point where he’s skating himself into brutal defensive zone turnovers. The processing of the game seems to have slowed down for him and there have been a few too many mental mistakes recently as he appears to be overthinking things or trying to do too much.

Trailing only John Marino and Dougie Hamilton in ice time per game, Luke Hughes is being asked to not only play tough minutes against the other team’s best players, but do so playing more games in a season than he’s ever played before. He’s going to obliterate the 51 games he played last season between Michigan, World Juniors, and the Devils. It’s not something that is unique to Luke as other Devils such as Jack Hughes, Dawson Mercer, and Ty Smith also hit the wall during their rookie seasons, and its not a suggestion that he’s a bust. But it is something he’s going to have to learn how to grind through and find another gear as the season continues to drag on.

That said, let’s hope Luke isn’t selected for the NHL All-Star Game at some point. For a player who has already taken a physical pounding this season, he could really use that full week off to reset and recharge.

Verdict: Moore-On

Nico Daws looking good lessens the need for a goaltender trade

With a .922 save percentage through his first 5 NHL appearances this season, Nico Daws is making the case for more and more playing time. Some would say he’s even become the #1 goaltender since he’s the only one of the Devils three options thus far this season who has shown he can consistently make a save.

All of this means the Devils don’t need to trade for a goaltender now, right?

Verdict: Moron

I would be very careful with a few things with Nico Daws. First of all, I’d be careful with his playing time in general as he’s still working back from hip surgery. If Daws is indeed the answer in net, the temptation will be there for Lindy Ruff to play him as much as he can handle. I get that the Devils are in a situation where they need every point they can get, but they also need to make sure they keep Daws healthy for the long haul to have any chance of going on a run.

Secondly, I’d be careful overreacting to a fairly small sample size by Daws at the NHL level. Yes, Daws has looked excellent against Florida and Boston, and that is encouraging. But it is just a handful of games by a relatively inexperienced goaltender. Definitively saying he is the answer now is just as short-sighted as definitively saying he’s just a guy as recently as last week.

Lastly, the Devils will still need their other NHL goaltender to play somewhat regularly. There are seven back-to-backs remaining on the schedule. They have three instances between the Stadium Series game and March 26th where they have two consecutive days off, with one of them immediately after that game. In other words, there is a lot of hockey coming up in a fairly condensed window. The Devils would be foolish to get away from a near 50-50 goaltending split as they try to navigate the schedule and do what they need to do to squeeze every last point out of this roster.

Since Vitek Vanecek is somewhere between bad and unplayable, Daws’s play doesn’t change the equation when it comes to the Devils needs at the position, both short-term and long-term. Regardless of what Daws does, the Devils should be in the market for an upgrade in net. If Daws continues to play well, he should split time with whoever that person is. If he doesn’t, the Devils can figure out how to divide up the starts between three potential options and include Vanecek in the mix at that point. Either way, Daws putting in a few impressive performances doesn’t change the fact the Devils need to upgrade at the position.

The Tyler Toffoli trade was a mistake

Over the summer, the Devils made a splash in their Top Six when they traded Yegor Sharangovich and a third round pick to the Flames for Tyler Toffoli. It was a deal that was well-received at the time and understandably so, as Sharangovich was a streaky scorer who had consistency issues and found himself out of the Devils lineup in the most important games of the season last year. Toffoli is a goal-scorer who does all of the right things and won’t be a healthy scratch.

Halfway through the season, are the Devils experiencing a little buyer’s remorse?

Toffoli’s counting stats have been fine through the midway point of the season. His 16 goals is tied for the team lead with Jesper Bratt. But like most goal scorers, they’re notoriously streaky. After a white-hot start to the season, Toffoli only has 4 goals and 4 assists since December 1st. He’s not shooting the puck as much as he was last season, perhaps a byproduct of being a regular linemate with Jack Hughes, and his slow skating has been as advertised. One could argue that Toffoli, when he’s not scoring goals, hasn’t brought much to the table and has been too much of a passenger. To rub salt in the wound, Sharangovich has outscored Toffoli by a goal. As a result, the early returns on this deal aren’t looking so great.

Verdict: Probably a moron, for now anyways

I think its important to mention a few things regarding this trade.

If we’re going to acknowledge that goal scorers are streaky and ding Toffoli for being on a cold spell, then we should also point out that Sharangovich is shooting almost 18% on the season and is shooting at a much higher rate than a year ago. It wouldn’t be surprising if two months from now that Sharangovich has cooled off while Toffoli is on another heater.

I think its also important to remember that a guy like Toffoli was brought in for April-June as much as he was brought in for October-April, so its probably a little premature to criticize the deal when he was brought in to help this team get over the hump. Whether he does remains to be seen and its possible the Devils goaltending sees to it he never gets that chance, but this is one where I will give Tom Fitzgerald and Lindy Ruff the benefit of the doubt. There’s a reason why Sharangovich was a healthy scratch in playoff games last season and it wasn’t because the coach doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s because of those inconsistencies that we see from younger players.

I suppose if one wanted to argue that trading a streaky 25-year old scoring winger with a few years of control remaining and a third round pick for a streaky 31-year old scoring winger who is a pending UFA isn’t a great move simply from an asset value standpoint, I can understand that point of view. But very few people were saying that at the time (go back and re-read the comments in the link I posted above) and that is a case of hindsight being 20/20.

I’m also not going to go as far as to say the Devils should resign Toffoli because I have concerns about his skating moving forward. But trades like the Sharangovich-Toffoli deal are ones that “win now” teams are going to make if they think the player they’re getting in return can potentially put them over the top. The Devils felt that Sharangovich wasn’t going to be a long-term piece for them and decided to move on for a player they thought would be a better fit in pursuit of a Stanley Cup. Time will tell if Fitzgerald is right on that.

The Devils should sign Corey Perry

If there has been a common complaint with the Devils over the last few years, it’s that they’re a “soft” team. That they don’t have enough guys who are a pain in the neck to play against. That they lack guys who will toe the proverbial line, that play with an edge, that play with sandpaper.....use whatever 200 Hockey Men cliché you want.

What if one of the biggest pain in the necks to play against over the last two decades was available midway through the season while the Devils happen to be missing several regulars from their lineup? What if the Devils could insert a former MVP and Stanley Cup champion with a wealth of playoff experience into their lineup? What if they could add a player who has all those qualities, who will go to the front of the net, and will have the back of the boys? And all it would cost them is money? No draft picks would be necessary, even though this is a league that routinely has GMs who trade draft picks for players with these qualities. Just money.

The Devils would be irresponsible NOT to look into making a move like that.

Obviously, Corey Perry is a free agent for a reason. His contract was terminated in Chicago because of a workplace incident with a team employee that was deemed “unacceptable” and in violation of the terms of his contract and the team’s internal policies. Perry later apologized and sought professional help for substance abuse. Specific details of what exactly happened are still unknown publicly, but are not believed to be of a criminal nature. Perry has since met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and is eligible to sign with a new team.

I don’t mean to make light of whatever it was that got Perry unceremoniously released by the Blackhawks or not take it seriously. While we may never know the specifics, we do know what he did was deemed an inappropriate workplace matter that is NOT illegal. As far as we know, he’s not going to be arrested or charged with anything. He has taken the steps to get clean and get the help he needed. He’s not ineligible to sign, and he’s not suspended by the league. Guys get second chances to make amends all the time and Perry should be no different in that regard.

Corey Perry, the flawed human being, might not be an ideal fit for the Devils if you’re looking for a team of boy scouts. But Corey Perry, the hockey player, is an ideal fit, and that would’ve been true before the Shane Bowers and Max Willmans of the world found their way into the NHL lineup. He clearly has something left in the tank even at 38 years old. If the Devils don’t try to sign him, odds are one of the teams they’re chasing for a playoff spot will....making an uphill battle even more difficult for the Devils. Teams line up to trade for Corey Perry types at the deadline all the time. It’s not an accident he’s been on so many teams that have made deep playoff runs. The Devils can easily use a portion of the Dougie Hamilton LTIR money to outbid the other teams who will be after him. If Perry is good enough to play for teams like Boston, Vegas, Edmonton, Florida, or Colorado, he’s good enough to play for the Devils. And if he indeed wants to play in a “quieter” market as Elliotte Friedman alluded to on his 32 Thoughts podcast, the Devils would check those boxes as well.

Verdict: Moore-On