Devils Can Turn It Around With December Schedule

The New Jersey Devils haven’t been playing great hockey lately, collecting just two wins in their last 10 games. It also didn’t help that November featured an incredibly tough schedule against multiple top teams in each conference. Fortunately, things are about to change for the better in December with a softening slate of games, starting tonight against the Ottawa Senators. 

At 9-9-4, the Devils’ season is far from over, even after losing eight of their last 10 games. They have an opportunity to right the ship in December, but there are certain areas they have to improve to get better results. Let’s look at their schedule and what needs to change for the rest of this month. 

Devils’ November Offered No Let-up

November was not an easy month for the Devils in the least bit. It started with a matchup against the Anaheim Ducks, a top team in the Western Conference so far (the Devils lost 4-0). They also played the Florida Panthers twice (one win, one loss), Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers. All those teams are at the top or near the top of their divisions and conferences. The Devils’ tough schedule even carried over into the beginning of this month with a back-to-back against the Wild and Winnipeg Jets, ending with an 8-4 loss to the Jets on Friday evening. 

It’s clear that in the middle of November, when the schedule went up even another notch, the Devils were going to have a much bigger challenge ahead of them. Their most recent stretch of two wins in 10 contests began with a 5-2 loss to the Bruins on Nov. 13. Since then, they’ve been outscored 28-43. Their five-on-five numbers could’ve been worse — they had a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 51.71 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 48.63 percent. But where they struggled was on defense. 

Andreas Johnsson Dawson Mercer Jesper Bratt New Jersey Devils
Andreas Johnsson, Dawson Mercer and Jesper Bratt of the New Jersey Devils (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Including that 5-2 loss to the Bruins, the Devils have allowed the fifth-most shot attempts per 60 minutes and fourth-most expected goals per 60 minutes (xGA/60) in the NHL. That’s led to a dip in their five-on-five save percentage (.891), which isn’t a surprise considering the quality of chances Devils goaltenders have faced. It’s also a noticeable downward trend from where they were defensively in their first 12 games. 

The Devils play high-event hockey under coach Lindy Ruff, so whatever they generate will probably lead to a fair bit going back the other way. The difference from now to the first 12 games of the season is the Devils’ defense was middle-of-the-pack — their xGA/60 of 2.29 in their first 12 games ranked 16th in the NHL. But in their last 10 games, their xGA/60 of 2.70 ranks 28th in the league. The Devils have played the third-most difficult schedule in the NHL to this point, so the increase in the level of competition certainly didn’t help. But there’s no doubt they need to limit the quality of chances their opponents are generating moving forward.

Devils’ December Schedule a Reprieve From November

There’s no such thing as a “gimme” in the NHL. Just ask the Colorado Avalanche and Carolina Hurricanes, who lost to the Senators last week. But the Devils’ schedule is about to get much easier than what they dealt with for the last three to four weeks. 

Related: Devils Can Look to Trade Market for Scoring Help

Four of the Devils’ next five games are against teams not in a playoff position as of this writing. The Senators are 6-15-1 and sit at the bottom of the Atlantic Division, while the Philadelphia Flyers have lost four in a row and are 1-7-2 in their last 10 contests. The Devils play them twice in the next week, though it won’t be with coach Alain Vigneault behind the Flyers’ bench, as they fired him this morning

Other opponents this week include the New York Islanders, who are 5-10-5 and are 0-7-3 in their previous 10 games, though they did deal with a widespread COVID outbreak. The only team in a playoff position is the Nashville Predators, who sit at 13-10-1 and are eighth in the Western Conference. That’s a winnable stretch of games for the Devils that they need to take advantage of. 

Nathan Bastian New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils right wing Nathan Bastian (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In addition to those matchups this month, the Devils will also square off against the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres, teams at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. Of the Devils’ 14 remaining games in December, seven will come against teams who currently hold a playoff spot. That includes a young, up-and-coming Detroit Red Wings team, who sit in fourth in the Atlantic Division at 13-9-3. 

With that said, the Red Wings’ CF% sits at 46.2 percent, while their xG% comes in at 49.88 percent. It’s also a winnable game for the Devils. They could get themselves back into the Metropolitan Division playoff picture, but they’ll have to be better than they’ve been lately. And it’s not just defensively. 

What Devils Need to Improve Besides Defense

While everything in December looks mostly favorable on paper for the Devils, they obviously need to show up for these games. One thing that has plagued them quite a bit this season is their play in the first period. They’ve been outscored 14-26 in the opening frame; the only team with a worse first-period goal differential is the Arizona Coyotes (12-27). 

Related: Gretzky, Ovechkin and the Goalies They Scored On (A Lot)

The Devils have had a couple of impressive comebacks where they’ve either rallied for a win or fought enough for an overtime or shootout loss. Still, falling behind that early and often is difficult to overcome regularly. They have to get off to better starts, or their results will be the same, even against a lighter schedule. 

Another area the Devils need to improve is the power play. They’re only converting on 13.11 percent of their opportunities and are just five for their last 48. Add shorthanded goals allowed, and their power play is really 3/48. That is nowhere near good enough, but December’s schedule may enable them to set their power play on the right course. Five of the Devils’ 14 remaining opponents this month have penalty kills in the bottom 10 of the league. All five of those teams’ success rates are below 80 percent too. 

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

One thing that may help the Devils’ power play is the return of Jack Hughes, who’s back in the lineup after missing close to six weeks of action with a dislocated shoulder. It’s still going to take him a bit more time to get up to speed, but his skill and creativity could be a significant addition to a power play that desperately needs it. Having Hughes and Dougie Hamilton, who the Devils signed this summer, on the power play for the first time in all of 2021-22 could begin to change things for the better. 

The rest of December will be crucial for the Devils’ playoff hopes. Their schedule is more favorable than it isn’t, but they need to improve significantly over their previous 10 games. I’m not overly optimistic about their power play getting better. But if they can improve their five-on-five defense and first-period performances, they can probably start the new year where they want to be. That is being in the hunt for one of the wild-card spots in the Metropolitan Division, where they hope to be once March and April roll around. And a strong December may be just what they need to achieve that goal. 

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