It has been a rough few weeks for the New Jersey Devils. After the Devils’ crushing loss to Tampa Bay on Saturday night, Captain Nico Hischier challenged his team and gave a candid view of the state of the team. He said:
Yeah, disappointing, and I’m embarrassed to be honest.
For all fans, players, and coaches, seeing this team miss that effort night in and night out has turned into an extremely frustrating — and embarrassing — situation. It only lends itself to ask when this team will reach a boiling point. To that end: when further asked about what his teammates should be thinking about heading into the break, Nico continued,
I mean, I hope everybody goes and rests up a little bit and thinks about what team he wants to be part of, uh, coming down the stretch. If we want to be a playoff team, we got to figure something out. It starts with the compete like all the things we’ve been talking about and I think everybody is gotta start looking in the mirror and start by yourself, including me. So just how, how you get out of it, start with yourself and then come out of this as a group.
Since Jack Hughes got hurt in the game against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Devils have gone 3-6-1. Gaining only 7 standings points in 10 games, they arguably left points on the board in their overtime loss to Tampa, their loss to Montreal, their loss to Carolina, and their loss on Saturday to Tampa, when they pulled to within one goal on two occasions. That is up to seven extra points that they should have at least gotten some of. I think you can say that the Bruins, Stars, and Canucks proved too much on their respective nights. But the Devils needed to do more during the rest of the stretch. The Devils have lost consecutive games on three occasions since they last won consecutive games: nobody wants to watch that.
Faltering Depth and Underperforming Stars
With Jack Hughes out of the lineup due to injury, the Devils were left with Dawson Mercer, Erik Haula, Curtis Lazar, Chris Tierney, and — more recently — Justin Dowling at center after Nico Hischier’s top line. Of course, the indefinite leave played into this sudden change in depth as well, but I consider that situation indefinite. It is what it is. When Erik Haula left the team on Friday to attend to his wife, who has been expecting a child, it left the team with Dowling as their second line center, with Mercer kept on the wing.
And when Brendan Smith sustained a knee injury, Santeri Hatakka was called up from Utica, making Kevin Bahl the most experienced defenseman on the left side for the Devils. With Bahl’s third period from hell on Saturday, I think we can all see what happens when the team falls into a place of too little experience.
In these ten games, Kevin Bahl has posted a paltry 40.34 CF% as the team has been outshot 87-59 and outscored 10-6 with him on the ice. His pairing has been letting up high danger chances about twice as often as the Devils have generated them. But it’s not just Bahl. Simon Nemec’s CF% dropped to 46.93 as the team has been outscored 16-10 with him on the ice despite the Devils generating more chances than opposition with him on the ice. And John Marino, who has had what I can only imagine as the roughest season of his young career, has seen the team outscored 11-4 at five-on-five during these 10 games. The only positive goal shares on defense have come from Hatakka and Smith, who were each on the ice for 7-2 goal differentials during this stretch.
Only Santeri Hatakka, Brendan Smith, Curtis Lazar, Erik Haula, Chris Tierney, and Nathan Bastian have played well enough during this stretch to have both a positive GF% and xGF%, though Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt only barely fell short on the xGF% side. This is not a good sign. When Timo Meier sees 10 goals against in six games played, that’s a problem. When Dawson Mercer is outscored 12-6, that’s a problem. When Tyler Toffoli is on the ice for the Devils giving up more than double the high-danger chances they generate, that’s a problem. When you add Travis Green’s power play coming to a screeching halt (despite all of the still-available talent) and Ryan McGill’s penalty kill unable to pick up the slack, you have a 3-6-1 record in 10 games.
Are There Moves that Tom Fitzgerald Should Be Able to Make Today?
I think we can solidly say that there are some passengers in the Devils’ lineup. Max Willman, with his amazingly low 24.33 xGF%, has nothing to offer the team. And regardless of whether they have otherwise had expectations, John Marino, Kevin Bahl, Timo Meier, and Tyler Toffoli (game-saving hat trick aside) have had a bad run of games. Even Alex Holtz, who fans clamor to crack the top six, posted a low 40.49 xGF% as the team was outscored 5-4. Yes, Willman may be the factor dragging that line down, but Holtz has not really been standing out as the team has begun to collapse.
The Devils need help in all areas. At forward, I think they are in need of another center, considering injuries and leaves of absence. If Dawson Mercer cannot play well enough at center to the point Justin Dowling is centering the second line with Haula out, I would not want to see this team trying to claw back into a playoff spot or competing in a playoff series with Erik Haula as the only playable top six center after Hughes and Hischier. Additionally, I think they can stand to add another winger — preferably one with lots of speed and defensive ability. For me, those two guys are Adam Henrique of the Anaheim Ducks and Nicolas Aube-Kubel of the Washington Capitals. Both are on expiring contracts, and Aube-Kubel is an interesting UFA at just 27 years old.
With Henrique (whom Elliotte Friedman conjectured today to be tied the Devils), you gain veteran leadership, a PK stabilizer, and a sniping lefty shot that can go anywhere in the top nine. With Aube-Kubel, you gain one of the fastest skaters in the league with a physical edge — and he tilts the ice in the right direction. Putting Aube-Kubel on a line with a guy like Holtz could open up a lot of ice for the young sniper to work with, and I don’t think Washington would hold off on a trade if offered a good deal right now. I think of Colorado’s acquisition of Artturi Lehkonen: a hard-nosed two-way forward, which helped spring their Stanley Cup run. Aube-Kubel does not have the same offensive skill, but his impact in the defensive zone is even stronger. And with his speed, you can put him up and down the lineup.
Friedman on 32TP: "I would find it very hard to believe the #NJDevils in particular have not looked into Adam Henrique"— NHL Watcher (@NHL_Watcher) January 29, 2024
Defensively, I am less interested in Chris Tanev than others. Tanev is very, very slow, on the wrong side of 30, and has probably been bailed out by Jacob Markstrom a lot more than you realize. If the Devils are going to go for a Flames defenseman, they should swing for the fences and create a package for Noah Hanifin, as the left side is arguably weaker than the right with the injury to Jonas Siegenthaler. But, I don’t think that trade is available right now. If the Flames are more out of the playoff race around the deadline, I think Tom Fitzgerald should call and see if they can work out a trade with an extension in place. Around the league, otherwise, I am not sure the Devils can do much better than Nick DeSimone among the teams that already count themselves out of the playoffs. It’s going to take a few weeks for that market to open up.
At goalie, I do not think the Devils should abide by any price for Jacob Markstrom that involves Alex Holtz or Seamus Casey. And if they get a guy like John Gibson, they’re getting a roughly average goalie on a big contract — though he should cost less than Markstrom. I think a “make a move now” trade would be targeting one of Marc-Andre Fleury (if he’s willing to play for anyone other than Minnesota or Pittsburgh), Kaapo Kahkonen of the San Jose Sharks, or Petr Mrazek of the Chicago Blackhawks. Of these options, Mrazek is likely the best, with a .910 save percentage in 34 games. And in this area, these teams are squarely out of the playoff race: a trade is possible.
Making Good of Nico’s Challenge
What team do these players want the Devils to be? When I watch this team play, I see forwards that act like the puck is going to magically come to them in the neutral zone. They’re not necessarily getting in the way of bodies or passes, but the skaters have been keeping such wide gaps anyway that teams are more or less able to do whatever they want with the puck in the Devils’ defensive zone. Each and every Devils forward needs to be better about applying pressure on the forecheck and in the neutral zone, as well. The weak structure starts there: how many goals can you remember this season coming off of hard effort on the forecheck? Do we really want to say that the only forwards we can trust to give a 200-foot effort are Hischier, Bratt, Haula, Lazar, Bastian, and Tierney? That has been the reality since Jack got hurt.
“I hope everybody (…) thinks about what team they want to be a part of coming down the stretch. If we want to be a playoff team, we have to figure something out."— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) January 28, 2024
- Nico Hischier#NJDevils pic.twitter.com/CrTGnp9rYH
I think there’s something to be said about Tyler Toffoli and Timo Meier — the two forwards that are least familiar with Lindy Ruff’s system — having consistently bad defensive impacts and/or results this year. But Toffoli’s lack of speed hampers him, and he needs to be more anticipatory and positionally sound to make plays in the defensive end. Timo Meier is even more lost, with sky-high chances and goals against. I think he has shown positive signs with Nico Hischier, but Meier needs to impose himself more upon the game. This is not a guy who is supposed to grip his stick and wait for the puck to come to him. This is a guy that needs to be winning board battles, intercepting passes, and using his speed to create chances for himself.
On the defensive end, John Marino needs to go to the Ken Daneyko school of clearing the crease. There was one such goal where he was guarding nothing but air against Tampa, as Vitek helplessly tried to stop Brandon Hagel from scoring. Vitek had no chance because John neither took the man nor swept the loose puck out. Of all the excess goals the Devils have given up with Marino on the ice, it usually has something to do with crease-area coverage. And all defensemen on the team can stand to be better with the puck. Passing the puck through the middle at this point should be an automatic loss of shift for every defenseman on the roster.
If the Devils can man up, hound the puck, and give a better effort in all three zones, they can and should make the playoffs. If not, then maybe the answer is not in the room. But that is what they will have to grapple with over the next week: do they have it in them? Do they want to be a soft team? Do they want to make the playoffs?
What do you think? Will the Devils bounce back? How much help do they need? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.