After 41 games, it is time to examine what the Devils have done and failed to do, and where they go from here.
Halfway through the 2022 NHL season, the Devils have 35 points, are 7th in the Metropolitan Division, 12th in the Eastern Conference and 26th in the entire NHL. That is far from what Tom Fitzgerald meant when he talked early in the season about the Devils playing meaningful hockey in March and April. This season has just been more of the same disappointment and failure that the Devils have come to be known for over the last decade. They have been a .500 team or better after 41 games played just three times in the last 10 years, the last time being in 2018. Despite roster and coaching turnover and high draft picks, the results on the ice have stayed more or less the same for the last decade. Let’s look at what has gone so wrong for the Devils this year.
The most obvious answer is goaltending. The Devils came into this season hoping to have Mackenzie Blackwood and Johnathan Bernier splitting the load in the NHL while Nico Daws and Akira Schmid developed further in the AHL. However that has never really been the case. Blackwood has been battling a heel injury all season and trying to play through it, resulting in less than stellar performances. Bernier was only able to play 10 games before a hip injury he was battling required season ending surgery. With those two netminders out, and not playing particularly well when they were in, the Devils have had to use four other goalies. Nico Daws, Akira Schmid, Jon Gillies, and Scot Wedgewood have all played goal for New Jersey this season and none of them have played all that well either. Schmid and Daws are both very young and clearly not ready for the NHL just yet. Wedgewood is a below average NHL backup that was claimed off waivers by Arizona early in the season and Jon Gillies is not much more than a decent AHL goalie. Between injuries, poor play, and yet to be developed talent, the goaltending the Devils have gotten so far has been woefully inadequate. No Devils goalie has a save percentage above .902 or a goals against average below 3.06. Essentially, on their best nights, the Devils goalies have been average NHL backups. Not nearly good enough to help a young team compete for the playoffs. The Devils are more or less stuck for the moment as few, if any, starting caliber NHL goalies will be available for a mid season trade. For the moment at least, the Devils are hoping that Blackwood and Bernier heal properly for next season while Daws and Schmid develop well in Utica so the goaltending can be more reliable heading into next season.
Coaching has been a major topic of conversation among Devils fans this season as the team has continued to struggle. Calls to clean house on the coaching staff began in November as the team began a serious slide down the standings and out of playoff contention. The coaching staff has been criticized for the power play, which currently sits tied for 24th in the NHL, as well as the development of some of the team’s young talent, mainly Alexander Holtz.Holtz was picked by the Devils 7th overall in the 2020 draft. He has played this season mostly with the Utica Comets and has been highly productive, scoring 11 goals and collecting 10 assists in 18 games. Unfortunately, this has not transferred to the NHL where Holtz has just 2 assists in seven games. That fact has been at least partially blamed on the NHL coaches not putting Holtz in a position to succeed based on his skill set. Holtz is a sniper with a fantastic shot, yet when he has been called up to New Jersey, he plays with players like Mason Geertsen, who play vastly different styles from Holtz. Holtz excels when he can get open in space and rip the puck. He is a pure sniper and does not excel by playing dump and chase in the corners. I would like see Holtz play on a third line with Dawson Mercer and maybe Pavel Zacha.
This season has not been all bad though. We have seen the arrival of Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt as NHL super stars as well as the best season of captain Nico Hischier’s career so far. Hughes has been a point per game player this season while Bratt is the Devils leading scorer with 37 points in 38 games played. Meanwhile, Hischier has 24 points in 35 games, the highest point per game average of his career so far. Hischier has also won over 54% of the face offs he has taken, while taking the puck away from opposition 29 times and giving it away only 14 times. Hischier is also called upon to play big minutes, leading all Devils forwards in average time on ice per game. Those three players, all under the age of 24, are having fantastic seasons and will hopefully be leading the Devils franchise to playoff success in the not so distant future.
While Hughes, Hischier, and Bratt have been very impressive this season, other players have been extremely underwhelming. Namely, Pavel Zacha, Andreas Johnsson, and Tomas Tatar. Zacha and Johnsson both started the season on fire but have been mostly invisible in recent weeks. Tomas Tatar has shown flashes of the finishing ability that made the Devils want to sign him, but has been inconsistent at best. Tatar has only eight goals at the season’s half way point. If he keeps up this pace and finishes with 16 goals, that would be his lowest total in a full season since 2012-2013 when he was a rookie and member of the Red Wings. Zacha currently has 18 points on the season. In his first 20 games played, he had 13 points. In his last 18 games, he has only 5 points. Johnsson started the season with 18 points in 20 games and has followed that up with only 5 points in his last 19 games. These drop offs coincide pretty nicely with the Devils 7-3-2 start to the season, followed by a stretch of 3-12-3 to end the 2021 calendar year. So between Tatar being well below his career average production and players such as Johnsson and Zacha falling off of statistical cliffs, it is not hard to see why the Devils are 21st in the NHL in goals scored. You can’t win when you can’t score and for most this season, the Devils have been unable to score. All three of these guys should be offered in trades to any interested teams before the trade deadline because it is pretty clear at this point that none of them are a part of the solution to fixing the major issues this team has.
Between the sub par goaltending, poor production from key forwards, questionable coaching, injury problems and Covid protocols, the Devils have had a rough 41 games. That being said, every team has had injuries and every team has had players in Covid protocol and the Devils just need to be better everywhere. they need to find a way to score more goals when Bratt, Hughes and Hischier aren’t on the ice. They need to help out their over matched goalies by taking better care of the puck in their own end and not allowing cross ice passes to wide open opponents. Fewer players left unattended in the slot would be nice and fewer odd man rushes allowed would go a long way in helping to get this team better results.
Another hockey season, another second half and off season looking for reasons to be excited about the future. Suffer through the second half of the season with me on Twitter at PatBoooooth.