Devils Battled Adversity in First 10 Games of 2021-22

It hasn’t always been pretty, but the New Jersey Devils are where they want to be after 10 games into the 2021-22 NHL season. They sit with a 5-3-2 record, which comes out to a 98-point pace over 82 games. That’d be good enough to put them in the playoffs, even in a competitive Metropolitan Division. And they’ve done this facing some adversity, as Jack Hughes has missed all but two games after dislocating his shoulder against the Seattle Kraken in the second game of the season. 

The Devils still have warts to sort out, specifically on special teams. But they’ve otherwise held their own through a rash of early-season injuries. Let’s go over the good and the not-so-good from the team’s first 10 games. Plus, a look at some individual standouts from the start of the season. 

Devils Playing Well at 5-on-5

Though the Devils finished 11 games below NHL .500 a season ago, they posted solid numbers at five-on-five. Those were apparently no fluke, as they’ve been one of the better five-on-five teams to start 2021-22, even without Hughes in the lineup. Their Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 50.7 percent ranks 15th-best in the league, while their expected goals percentage (xG%) of 53.2 percent ranks ninth-best. Among their Metropolitan peers, their CF% ranks fourth-best, while their xG% is third-best.

Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Offensively, the Devils are one of the top teams in the league. They’re averaging the ninth-most shot attempts per 60 minutes and the fourth-most expected goals per 60 minutes. They’re a middle-of-the-pack team defensively, so they’re giving some back on defense. But that’s a product of playing the fast-paced, high-event system that head coach Lindy Ruff has in place. Overall, they’ve played well at this game state, and it’s a significant reason why they’re 5-3-2, especially with two struggling special teams units. 

A Special Teams Nightmare

Ah, special teams. It hasn’t been a great start for either the power play or penalty kill. However, each unit is heading in different directions. Let’s start with the power play, which has been nothing short of a disaster through 10 games. The Devils’ power play is connecting on a woeful 9.68 percent of its chances and is 0/18 over the last five games. It was 0/4 in their 3-2 shootout win versus the San Jose Sharks, and could’ve easily cost them the game if it weren’t for Janne Kuokkanen’s late game-tying goal. 

The Devils’ power play hasn’t been getting unlucky, either; it’s been legitimately terrible. They’re averaging the least amount of shot attempts and expected goals per 60 minutes in the league. There’s no flow or puck movement in the offensive zone. Passing has been an issue, and shooting lanes have been hard to come by as a result. Not having Hughes hurts, as well as Dougie Hamilton for the last few games. But they’re going to need to make systemic changes sooner than later because it doesn’t seem any one player will be able to change their fortunes.

As for the penalty kill, their success rate of 73.2 percent is 25th in the league. But there are encouraging signs when looking underneath the hood: 

To add to Bryce’s stats, the Devils have been suppressing shots quite well on the penalty kill. They’re giving up the third-least amount of shot attempts per 60 minutes and fourth-least expected goals per 60 minutes. The problem they have right now is their penalty-kill save percentage (SV%) is the worst in the league. Perhaps that improves now that Mackenzie Blackwood has returned from offseason heel surgery. If it does, they should find more success on the penalty kill. 

Devils Goaltending Holding Up

Goaltending was a significant problem for the Devils in 2020-21, though there were multiple factors for those struggles. Blackwood had a rough bout of COVID that derailed his season once he returned in February. Corey Crawford also retired during training camp, so the team did not have a legitimate backup behind Blackwood. 

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The Devils addressed the backup situation by signing Jonathan Bernier as a free agent this offseason. Since Blackwood missed the start of the season rehabbing from surgery, Bernier has gotten the bulk of the work and has played well. He’s 4-1-0 in five starts and has totaled a SV% of .910. He has a goals saved above expected (GSAx) of 0.2, so he’s stopping most of what he should be stopping, specifically at five-on-five — his five-on-five SV% of .949 ranks sixth-best in the NHL. 

The Devils’ goaltending needs to improve on the penalty kill, but as we said above, it should with the way they suppress shots. Once Blackwood gets fully healthy and into a rhythm, they should have one of the better netminding tandems in the division and the league that should be able to stop shots consistently at all strengths.

Stock Up, Stock Down: Which Devils Have Stood Out?

Stock Up: Jesper Bratt & Andreas Johnsson 

With the injury to Hughes, the Devils have needed players to step up offensively. After a tough 2020-21, Johnsson has rebounded in a big way to start this season. His seven points in 10 games tie him for the team lead in scoring with Pavel Zacha. Johnsson leads the team in goals above replacement (2.4), and he’s been their most-efficient five-on-five scorer this season. 

Bratt got off to a slow start, but he’s picked it up since getting benched against the Calgary Flames by Ruff a week and a half ago. He has five points in his last five games and has had a significant positive impact at even strength, along with Johnsson, in their 10 games played: 

Jesper Bratt, Andreas Johnsson
Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson’s impact at even strength through 10 games of the 2021-22 season

Bratt’s had a better two-way impact than Johnsson, but that’s nitpicking this early in the season. They’ve been the Devils’ most productive wingers, especially as of late. And the team will need that to continue, with Hughes expected to miss about another month or so. They’ve found success with Dawson Mercer as their center, and I’d expect Ruff to keep that trio together as they navigate a difficult schedule over the next couple of weeks. 

Stock Down: Tomáš Tatar

It’s been a tough start to Tatar’s first season in New Jersey. He had three assists in his first four games but has not found the scoresheet in his last six contests. Overall, he has the second-worst GAR (-2) on the team, so his play has been the opposite of Johnsson’s through 10 games. With that said, he’s also had some poor shooting luck, as his goals above expected is -1.8. 

Given Tatar’s three previous seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, I’d bet on him figuring it out at some point. His best performances have come on a line with Nico Hischier and Zacha — that trio has a CF% of 57.9 percent and xG% of 54.6 percent. Ruff reunited them at the end of the Sharks game on Saturday evening, and it helped turn the tide in the third period. There’s a good chance they stick together to start the new week, and perhaps that gets Tatar going. 

Stock Up: Nico Hischier

Hischier has been a bit of a punching bag on social media to start the season. The criticism isn’t entirely unwarranted, but it’s also been overblown. He may only have five points in 10 games, but he’s been one of the Devils’ best players with Hughes out of the lineup. His xG% percent of 61.1 percent is third on the team to Bratt and Colton White, while his CF% of 55.8 percent is third to Hamilton and Bratt. Overall, Hischier’s had a strong positive impact at even strength: 

Nico Hischier
Nico Hischier’s impact at even strength and the power play through 10 games of the 2021-22 season

Part of the reason for Hischier’s lack of points is some very unfortunate shooting luck. His goals above expected of -3 is the lowest on the team, meaning he should have four goals instead of the one he’s potted. He’s shooting only four percent and is a 10.9 percent shooter for his career. Once he tallies his next marker, the floodgates could open for him. Otherwise, he’s done just about everything else right to start 2021-22 after an injury-plagued 2020-21 campaign.

Stock Down: Yegor Sharangovich

Sharangovich is still searching for his first goal of the season, but he hasn’t struggled as much as Tatar has so far. Sharangovich has an xG% of 54.2 percent and is ninth on the team in GAR. He’s generating chances at five-on-five, but like Hischier, he hasn’t had much puck luck. His goals above expected of -1.8 is the second-lowest on the Devils to Hischier, and he hit quite a few posts in the first few games of the season. 

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If there’s one player who misses Hughes’ presence the most, it’s Sharangovich. The two of them found great chemistry at the end of the 2020-21 campaign, and there’s a good chance they’d be linemates right now if Hughes weren’t injured. Hughes’ play-driving ability and offensive creativity helped Sharangovich find space and shooting lanes last season. He hasn’t much of that to start 2021-22, so the Devils need to find a way to get him going until Hughes returns. They’ll need his depth scoring with matchups against some of the Eastern Conference’s best teams over the next two weeks.

Devils Schedule About to Ramp Up

Considering the Devils have not had Hughes for all but for four periods of the 2021-22 season, starting 5-3-2 is almost as good as they could’ve hoped for. They managed to collect three of four points without Hamilton this weekend, a notable accomplishment as well. The expectation is he’ll return from a minor injury sometime this week, which the Devils will need with games against the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. If they come out without positive results from that slate of games, then it might be time to start talking about how much noise they can make in the Metropolitan Division. 

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