A Year of Inconsistency for the New Jersey Devils

It has been a season of inconsistency and frustration for the New Jersey Devils. The Devils ranked among the top teams in preseason predictions but have underperformed going into the Holiday week of the 2023-24 National Hockey League season.

After beating a robust Boston Bruins team in overtime, the Devils lost to Anaheim Ducks, one of the bottom-ranked teams in the league, and then to the Philadelphia Flyers. It was a game the Devils needed to win to climb up the standings. Instead, the result gave Philadelphia more of a lead.

Injuries have played a significant role in the ups and downs this season. Injuries to Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Erik Haula, Tomas Nosek, Timo Meier, and Dougie Hamilton for the season have significantly affected the teams’ performance. The replacement of veteran talents, Damon Severson and Ryan Graves has also been an adjustment for the team. Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec have been considerable additions to the team and, as rookies, have performed way above expectations. Yet, there is still a learning curve with their play. They are also very different players than Severson and Graves, and the team's defense has yet to adjust.

Goaltending has stood out as the team’s biggest weakness. Last season, the team was content with average goaltending to get them through games. Their high-paced transition game, dynamic offense, and attacking defense covered the weaknesses of the Devil's goaltending. This season, the defense is more in a zone formation and does not actively attack the puck in their zone. One of the most glaring changes this year is that the attempts to clear the zone are often met with turnovers at the blue line or just not clearing the defensive area. Giveaways have been very high compared to last season, with the team allowing 17 giveaways in the game vs Philadelphia.

When the Devils play well, they seem unstoppable. The offense has come at opponents in waves in many games this season. Jack Hughes is an elite player, and his chemistry with his teammates is undeniable. Almost every game, he leaves highlight reels on how to enter a zone and carry a puck, and even when not scoring, he is astonishing to watch. Jesper Bratt is a solid player who can match with either top center and make it look easy. Hischier, the heart and soul of the team, continues to show why he was a finalist for the Selke last season. It is just a different team without him on the ice.

All this leads to frustration on the fan's part. Some nights, the Devils are so dominant it looks like they are in a different league, and other nights, it brings fans back to the frustrations of years past-- so much talent but nothing to show for it. The slow starts, the mental lapses, the rebounds on goaltending, bad timing penalties, and clearing attempts have left everyone frustrated.

The game against the Flyers was no different. The Devils entered the zones clearly but were met with the shot-blocking of the Flyers, limiting their shots to only four in the first period. It was the fourth liners who scored the first goal by playing very physically against the Flyers. The underrated Michael McLeod continues to show he deserves more than a one-year contract. The Flyers answered back in the second period when Hughes attempted a drop-pass that failed, leading directly to a turnover and goal. The powerful Devils power play gave them the lead again, with Bratt scoring off a hard drive to the net by himself and Hischier. Hughes put the puck on net, and his teammates ensured the Devils would finish it.

The Flyers would answer off another turnover in the neutral zone and tie the game at two-all. No scoring in the third, but after an exciting Overtime, the Flyers would take advantage of another turnover in the defensive zone and freeze Devil goaltender, Vitek Vanecek. Owen Tippett would give Philadelphia the win, which gained them one more point for their lead over the Devils in the Metropolitan Division standings.