The first week of the All-Star Break resembles much of the Devils 23/24 season. Slow starts and inconsistencies in net and defense force the Devils to play an uphill game each night. Some nights like the Colorado Avs game on Tuesday, the Devils were able to make a dramatic comeback. Other nights the mental errors and poor puck management lead to a bitter defeat in a game the Devils could have easily won.
A year ago, the New Jersey Devils were 34-13-4. They sat in second place in the Division and third in the Conference. The New York Islanders, Pittsburg Penguins and Florida Panthers were battling for the final playoff spot, separated by a single point. This year, the Devils are 25-20-3 and sit 11th in the Conference and five points out of a Wild Card Playoff spot. The way the Devils face the second half of the season with one of the tougher schedules in the NHL will not only determine their playoff hopes, but define them as a team going forward as well.
With the return of Jack Hughes and Tomas Nosek as well as the addition of Nick Simone, the Devils have resembled a healthy squad for the first time since November. The Devils have lost 153 MGL (man games lost per @NHLinjuryViz) which ranks top five in the NHL. That number is higher if you consider the level of player lost as well. Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec have the experience now, lacking earlier in the season, to really stabilize the back end and Alexander Holtz needs to play more of a role in the top six thanks to his 5x5 play.
Goaltending and poor starts continue to hurt the Devils run, plus too many streaks of 8 – 10 minutes without a shot on goal put the Devils behind too often. The Devils have proven resilient in coming back but too often this season it has cost them games and much needed points. The goaltending issue has been a season long problem well documented in stats and media. The numbers don’t lie but also don’t tell the full story. The defense in front of them has been inconsistent as well.
What do the Devils need to do for the second half of the season with one of the hardest schedules in the NHL and less than 27% odds of making the playoffs based on betting site averages?
Chemistry is a huge part of the game and how players pass, shoot, and position themselves. One of the things that made the Devils’ power play so vital to start the season was the combination of Hughes's brothers. They just instinctively knew where each other would be on the ice. The constant changing of lines and defense pairings has led to way too many men on the ice penalties and a lack of communication during play.
We have all seen the rebounds that Vitek Vanecek likes to give up. He makes the first great save but too often, the puck bounces out and possession goes back to the opposition. Players from other teams watch the Devils’ film. They know goaltending tendencies. The Devils need to know their own as well.
They need to be aware of where the puck is, play a physical game around the goaltender and be ready for the rebound. Too often, they are caught watching while the other team is aggressively going after the puck. During the Calgary Flames game, Dawson Mercer seemed to be aware of it and was able to clean it up quickly, but others let the puck float out there.
People have said this since October, and long before the injury effect. The Devils need to work on getting the puck out. Even commentators like Ken Daneyko and Bryce Salvador have often mentioned it on the broadcast. Sloppy passes, blind passes and a tendency not to see where the opposition is on the ice have trapped the Devils in their zone for extended periods of time.
This exhausts the lines and forces a change and instead of moving up ice with the puck it becomes necessary to change and often loss of possession. The turnovers in the Devils zone have been killer for them this season. They try to be fancy and move the puck with too many passes or move it up the boards when a clear, high shot up the ice would do. During the Calgary Flames game, this was a constant issue.
Jack Hughes is everything you hoped for in a first-overall pick and more. He sees the ice like few players do, and his absence has allowed other teams to focus on Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. With Hughes on the ice opposition defense must worry about multiple lines that can outskate and outscore you. They don’t give up, and when they are playing their “game,” they can come at you in waves. This is how you beat the 1-3-1 and 1-2-2 system: speed and hockey IQ.
Tom Fitzgerald constructed this team to be a solid mix of youth and experience. Adding players like Tyler Toffoli, Nosek, and Ondrej Palat helps offset the youth of players like Luke Hughes, Nemec, Kevin Bahl and Holtz. Players who don’t always show up on the stat sheet still play a major role in the success or failure of this team.
It is the job of the veterans to install that the playoffs start now. Every point matters, every game matters. Last year the Devils were comfortable in the standings. This year they must fight to stay alive. The young guns are stepping up and the team needs to play hungry, controlled but desperate hockey now.
Devils’ fans have reason to be excited after last year. Yes, this season hasn’t gone according to last year’s script. There is no coasting to the playoffs this season. Injuries have been the number one factor and fans are evenly split on the coaching. The experiences of Ryan Graves and Damon Severson took an adjustment to get used to as well as new faces and steady stream of call ups have made it an interesting season but not a lost season.
Last year’s team wasn’t expected to make the playoffs, they weren’t expected to beat the powerful N.Y. Rangers. But they did. Suppose the Devils need to get back to basics. The analysts see it. The media sees it. The fans see it. This is a talents team and one seriously underperforming even with all the injuries.
The trade deadline is a month away. If the Devils slide back more than nine points in the playoff race, then expect them not to make any moves or even become sellers. The next three weeks will be telling of what Fitzgerald’s plans are for this team and their playoff hopes.