Let’s take a look at what has been going right for the Devils through 10 games and what needs to be fixed heading into the next 72.
The most important thing is obviously the results on the ice and so far, those have been positive for the Devils. Through 10 games, the Devils have earned 60% of the possible points in the standings. If the team can keep up this 60% pace, they will finish with 98 points, which would be a significant improvement over recent years. In none of the last three seasons have the Devils finished with a point percentage above 49%. So far, we are seeing more promising results on the ice. One issue is the rest of the Metropolitan division is having similar or better results. The Metro is the only division in the NHL where all eight teams have a point percentage above 50% so the Devils currently sit in 7th place in the division and 11th in the Eastern conference, despite getting off to a good start.
Now we need to look at things the Devils are doing right and doing wrong to get these results. The first issue is goal scoring. The Devils are not producing enough offense. Through ten games, the Devils have scored only 26 goals, which is 28th in the NHL and last in the Metro. The offense is obviously hurt by Jack Hughes being out of the lineup for all but four periods this season, however that is not an excuse for other players not stepping up. Yegor Sharangovich scored 16 goals in 54 games last year. So far this season, he has scored zero goals in ten games. The Devils rely on him to help carry the offense and so far he has contributed only three assists. The best part of Yegor’s game is his shot and he has not used it much this year, getting only 14 shots on goal in 10 games. Too many of his shot attempts are either being blocked or missing the net. In his rookie season, 53% of his shot attempts hit the net. So far this season, only 48.3% of his shot attempts have forced the goalie to make a save. For the Devils to score more goals, they need Yegor to put the puck on the net far more often.
Another player who is not pulling their weight offensively has been Tomas Tatar. The Devils signed Tatar in the off season and it was expected that he would produce offense in the top two lines. So far, that has not been the case and we seldom see his name on the score sheet. Like Sharangovich, Tatar has contributed only three assists in 10 games. This is a guy who has scored 20 or more goals six times in his career and had at least 50 points three times. His lack of production to date is unacceptable. An encouraging stat for Tatar is that the Devils are spending more time on offense than on defense when he is on the ice. This is shown in his Corsi numbers. Corsi is a stat that measures shot attempt differential while playing at even strength. It is essentially shot attempts your team takes minus shot attempts your team allows when you are on the ice in five on five scenarios. In the case of Tatar, there have been 116 Devils shots attempted while he has been on the ice compared to just 97 opposition shots attempted. This shows us that when Tatar has been on the ice, the Devils have been attacking more often than they have been being attacked. That being said though, Tatar himself is not contributing enough to those numbers. He needs to find a way to get more pucks to the net. 13 shots on goal, zero goals and three assists through ten games is just not enough. He was signed to score goals and its well past time he find a way to start doing that.
The biggest free agent in the NHL last summer was Dougie Hamilton. He chose to come to New Jersey and the Devils paid him handsomely. $63 million over the next 7 years. So far, he has earned every bit of that salary. In his eight games played so far, Hamilton has two goals and four assists for a total of six points. He also leads the team in shots on goal, having five more than second place Dawson Mercer. he is leading the team in this category despite missing the last two games with an undisclosed injury. Hamilton is also second among Devils skaters in average time on ice trailing only Ryan Graves. In the advanced stats category, Hamilton lead the team in Corsi despite starting the majority of his shifts, 57%, in the defensive zone. This means that when Dougie comes on the ice, more often than not, the Devils are in the defensive zone but while he is on the ice, the Devils spend significantly more time on the attack then they do on the defensive. This tells us that Hamilton is not only an asset in keeping the puck out of the Devils net, but he is a main component of the offense. Thankfully, all the news from the beat reporters the last few days has been that Dougie is a full participant in practice after missing the last two games and will likely be in the lineup tonight and we will hopefully get to see him dominate some more.
Another player the Devils brought in to bolster the defense was Ryan Graves. Graves was acquired in a trade with Colorado and has been a big reason for the Devils early success. Graves is a big man at 6 feet 5 inches tall and 220 pounds and he has used that big body to make the Devils a harder team to play against. Graves leads the Devils with 19 hits 21 shots blocked while playing in all 10 games. Similar to his usual partner Dougie Hamilton, Graves starts most of his shifts in the Devils defensive zone but the Devils have the majority of the puck control when he is on the ice. He does this while leading all Devils skaters in average ice time per game this season. Offensively, Graves has collected five points (1G 4A) and 16 shots on goal. So far, Graves has been a dependable defenseman in all areas of the game. He throws body checks, he blocks shots, he helps create offensive pressure and he gets shots on goal. Graves has been a massive upgrade to the Devils top four on defense.
The Devils had three picks in the first round of the 2020 draft and used the second one, 18th overall, to select Dawson Mercer. Mercer had an outstanding year in the QMJHL last season, had a great training camp in New Jersey this fall, and has had a good 10 game start to his NHL career so far. Mercer has five points (3G 2A) in his first ten games. Mercer leads all Devils forwards with 26 shots on goal so far while also having positive Corsi numbers. When Mercer has been on the ice, the Devils have accounted for 56% of the games offensive pressure. Some of this may have to do with the fact that 65% of his shifts have started with the Devils already in the offensive zone. This shows that the coaching staff is being careful with when they put him in games. He has not yet earned enough trust to hop over the boards when the Devils need to shut down the other team’s offense. That being said, he has been fairly responsible with the puck so far, giving it away to the other team only seven times, but taking it away from them seven times as well. He is still very young at just 20 years old but he has looked very promising to start his NHL career so far.
The Devils have also been bit hard by the injury bug to start the year. So hard in fact, that in just 10 games they have had to start four different goalies. Both NHL goalies Johnathan Bernier and Mackenzie Blackwood have spent time on the IR, which forced the Devils to use both Scott Wedgewood and Nico Daws as starting goalies within the season’s first week. Collectively, the Devils goalies have put up a save percentage of 89.7% and a goals against average of 2.85. These numbers are a little worse than you typically want out of your goalies, but Daws is only 20 years old and not ready for the NHL yet and Scott Wedgewood has been more suited to the AHL than the NHL for the entirety of his nine year professional career. So all things considered, the goaltending has been stable enough to give the Devils a chance to win in almost every game played so far. Bernier has played the most and so far and has shown that he can carry the load for most of the year with Mackenzie Blackwood as a tandem.
Back on the negative front, the Devils special teams. The power play and penalty kill have both been absolutely putrid. Horrible. Disgusting. Infuriating. Insulting to watch. However you want to describe it, there are no positive adjectives that can be attributed to either the power play or the penalty kill. Let’s start with the power play. The Devils have scored just three goals in 31 power play opportunities. A power play that only converts 9.7% of the time is a massive detriment to the team. The NHL average is over double that at about 20%. The Devils would have to more than double their power play efficiency just to be an average NHL power play. That is embarassing and unacceptable. The power play has cost them games already this year, such as the Columbus game where they went 0-3 on the power play, all in the the third period, including a 40 second five on three advantage. The Devils gave up a two goal lead in that period and went on to lose in a shootout. Having a competent NHL power play would have been super helpful in that game. There was also the OT loss to the Kings last week where the Devils power play went 0-4. Especially in tight games, you need to be able to take advantage of having an extra skater on the ice. Being unable to capitalize on the power play will cost you games and cost you points in the standings, as it already as for New Jersey. The penalty kill is better than the power play, which is not saying much. The Devils kill off 73% of the penalties they take which is still considerably behind the NHL average of 79%. The mix of these two below average units is a recipe for disaster. The Devils cannot capitalize on their opportunities and they struggle to prevent the other team from scoring on their power plays. This is a combination that will lead to several close losses in our competitive division if they are not fixed immediately. If the current coaches responsible for the special teams, Mark Recchi and Alain Nasreddine, can’t figure out how to make their units at least NHL average, then the Devils need to bring in some new coaches with some new ideas to try and make the special teams more efficient.
So far in this season, I think the good has outweighed the bad. However, if the offense and special teams don’t improve, I fear that we will have to suffer through some infuriating losses as Devils fans. Also, since he has only played 4 periods this season and won’t be back for a few more weeks I didn’t talk about him much but I just want to say, I miss watching Jack Hughes play hockey. A few tough games coming up this week at the Rock. It will be interesting to see how the Devils stack up against some of the best teams in the East.
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