Two weeks into the season and the New Jersey Devils are still looking for their first win. Assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald will be behind the bench tonight in an all-hands-on-deck attempt to fix the issues that have plagued the Devils through the teams first 6 games. Three trouble areas that really stand out are special teams, which have been a nightmare, goaltending and an overall lack of commitment to team defense that has resulted in big leads evaporating on multiple occasions.
Let’s start with special teams.
The Devils are 0-for-18 but I see reasons for optimism here. New Jersey has no problem gaining the zone, doing so successfully on 80 percent of its entries which ranks 1st in the NHL. They rarely resort to dumping the puck in, doing so on less than 10 percent of their entries which ranks 2nd overall. Considering they have Taylor Hall as their primary entry option on the first unit and Jack Hughes on the second unit, this isn’t a shocker. The Devils are also getting pucks to the slot and shooting from there, hallmarks of most good powerplay’s, at a top-10 rate. As for the Devils expected goal rate on the powerplay, based on the quantity and quality of their shots, they’re in the top half of the league so I won’t be surprised if the powerplay starts clicking before long.
Less reason for optimism here.
The penalty kill has been a nightmare for the Devils from a process and results standpoint. The Devils are allowing a ton of quality chances against, they’re not getting in shooting lanes or jumping on rebounds and as a result, have the worst penalty kill percentage in the league.
Ill-timed turnovers, defending the blueline and breaking up cycle plays are three major contributors to the Devils early season slide.
New Jersey has a turnover rate (how often a team turns the puck over relative to how often they possess it) of just over 18 percent which ranks bottom-5 in the NHL. In the Devils most recent loss to Florida, a game in which they led 4-1, Kyle Palmieri tried to skate the puck through the neutral zone with 15 seconds to play in the 2nd period – he turned it over, the Panthers scored to make it a 1-goal game en route to a 6-4 win.
DEFENDING THE BLUELINE
Limiting opponents ability to gain the Devils zone with speed at 5-on-5 has been a troubling issue, particularly for the Damon Severson / P.K. Subban pairing. Severson has the second lowest zone denial rate of any Devils defenseman, breaking up just 39 percent of the entries against him. However, Subban is being targeted more than any Devils blueliner and has successfully defended less than a quarter of the entries against him.
After denying close to half of all entries against him the past two seasons, Subban’s zone denial rate sits at under 25 percent, which ranks 166th out of 168 qualified defensemen.
Granted, we’re dealing with a six-game sample-size and a player who is adjusting to a new team, coach and defensive partners. Growing pains are to be expected and the Devils defensive woes certainly aren’t all on Subban. However, there have been several plays already where poor gap control and decision making have cost the Devils.
In New Jersey’s first game of the season, with time winding down in a tie-game, Subban fails to deny an entry and chases a hit, leaving an odd-man situation that nearly resulted in a goal and a regulation loss for the Devils.
Against the Sabres, another easy entry and failed pass block resulted in a goal against.
And most recently, off the opening face-off against the Panthers, an entry against, Subban chases a hit and a poor defensive switch with Severson led to Jonathan Hubereau’s goal 16 seconds into the game.
Subban is just a couple of years removed from being voted a Norris finalist and is capable of much better play. He’s the highest paid player on the team and was brought in to be their best defenseman. He will have to be if the Devils are going to do a better job of limiting chances and goals against.
STOPPING THE CYCLE
Compounding the entry issues is the fact that once teams are in the Devils zone, it’s been far too easy to create offense. New Jersey has allowed 9 goals off-the-cycle at 5-on-5 in 6 games. The 1.5 cycle goals against, per game, ranks last in the NHL. Part of that is a result of poor overall team defense and part of it is the last and arguably biggest reason for the Devils winless start.
The tandem of Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood has done little to inspire confidence that the Devils will receive even average goaltending this season. Blackwood ranks 47th in save percentage out of 48 goalies with at least 2 games played – Schneider ranks 41st. Let’s separate team defense from goaltending. The Devils have an expected goals against (reflection of team defense) of 20.6 and an actual goals against of 27. What that shows is that Devils goaltending has cost the team roughly 1 goal per game this season, relative to average goaltending. Only 3 teams are worse.
I think the Devils powerplay will be fine. I think Jack Hughes will be fine, despite not recording a point in his first 6 games. The penalty kill is worrisome and a reflection of poor defensive execution overall. Subban will have to get back to the level of play we’ve seen from him in the past to balance out a defense corps that is underwhelming. Most importantly, Schneider, Blackwood or both will have to turn things around for the Devils to make up the ground they’ve lost in the first two weeks of the season.
(Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)