Devils’ Downward Spiral Deepens

The New Jersey Devils’ season has not gone the way they would’ve liked or expected, and it got even worse yesterday afternoon. Coming off a 6-4 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Thanksgiving, the Devils were shutout by the New York Rangers in a Saturday matinee. And how they ended up losing by a score of 4-0 could be defined as one of the lowest points of the season. 

The Devils had eight power plays but didn’t convert on one and had only seven shots on goal with the man advantage. To make matters worse, they gave up two short-handed goals as well. They won’t win many games playing like that, and it’s not like these issues have been a one-game problem, either. Something has to change, and it has to come soon, or the season will be another lost cause before Christmas. 

Devils’ Special Teams Are Slumping

After yesterday’s performance, the Devils are converting on just 12.9% of their power play opportunities, putting them in the bottom five of the league. That shouldn’t be the case with a roster that has players like Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Nikita Gusev, the KHL’s reigning MVP. So why are the Devils only converting 12.9% of their power play opportunities? 

Their expected goals for per 60 minutes (xGF/60) of 6.59 is 12th best in the league. And they have an xG of 17.34 but only have 12 power play goals, so they’re performing quite a bit below expectations. Part of the reason for that is the lack of shooting luck. Their power play shooting percentage of 8.76% is fourth-worst in the league, so they’re due for some positive regression. 

With that said, their execution on the man advantage has to be better. They’ve struggled with zone entries, and when they do gain the offensive zone, it’s been a struggle to get the proper setup. Their passing needs to be more accurate, and even though they generate some quality looks, they’re some times hesitant to shoot the puck. 

Taylor Hall New Jersey Devils
Taylor Hall needs to spark the Devils’ power play (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The other part of the equation is the team’s penalty kill. They’re killing off just around 77% of power play opportunities against, which is in the bottom 10 of the league. Their PK finished in the top five last season, even as the team finished in the bottom three of the league and on their way to winning the NHL Draft Lottery. So what’s changed?

Related: Palmieri Starring for Slumping Devils

The Devils brought back their top penalty killers from last season (Travis Zajac, Blake Coleman, and Pavel Zacha). Unfortunately, their goaltending has not held up, as they have the third-worst PK save percentage in the league. They’ve done a great job suppressing shots and chances, so if their goaltending improves, their kill should begin trending upwards. And it probably has a better chance to do so than their power play. 

Devils Have Problems at Five-on-Five, Too

The Devils’ power play and penalty kills may not be clicking, but it’s been that much worse at five-on-five. Their shot share hasn’t been great, as they’ve controlled only 47.1% of shot attempts, as well as 49.41% of the expected goals. But’s what’s most concerning about their five-on-five performance is the lack of offense they’re generating. 

The Devils are averaging the third-least shot attempts per 60 minutes (CF/60) and seventh-least xGF/60. Their offense was supposed to see plenty of improvement after trading for Gusev, drafting Jack Hughes, and signing Wayne Simmonds. But their struggles may be less about personnel and more about head coach John Hynes’ system. Since he took over as Devils’ head coach in 2015, they’ve ranked at or near the bottom in a few significant offensive categories:

StatRateLeague Ranking Since 2015

It’d be easier to brush off if this were a one-season problem. But the rate at which they generate xG, shot attempts, and shots on goal (SF/60) is among the league’s worst since 2015. And their xGF/60 is right on par with their actual goals per 60 minutes (GF/60), too. That’s part of the problem in a system that emphasizes low-event hockey, such as the Devils. They don’t give up a ton of shots by keeping shot events to a minimum, but the downside is the offense suffers because they can’t generate enough. 

John Hynes, New Jersey Devils
John Hynes’ days as Devils’ head coach could be numbered (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

That type of system could work if you have the right roster to pull it off, but the Devils don’t, especially up front. Most of their top forwards (Palmieri, Gusev, Hughes) are 5-foot-11 or smaller. And players that have more stature (Hall, Hischier) are no bigger than 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-2. They’re also on the faster side, so playing a grind-it-out style of hockey seems contradictory to the roster’s makeup. 

Hynes preached a fast, attacking style of hockey when hired in 2015. Now he has the roster to play that way, but it hasn’t come to fruition. And if it hasn’t happened in four-plus seasons, it probably isn’t going to, either, so a change may be needed.  

Shero Needs to Bring About Change

Whether it’s a coaching change or not, general manager Ray Shero needs to find a way to spark the Devils. After his active offseason, he and the rest of the front office can’t be satisfied with a 9-12-4 start to the season. They’re tied for second to last in the entire league with the Los Angeles Kings, and they don’t have a roster bad enough that says they should be in that position. 

Related: Devils at the Quarter Mark: Little Margin for Error

The idea of drafting a top-five prospect like Alexis Lafreniere, Lucas Raymond, or Alexander Holtz is enticing, but that was not how this season was supposed to be. Instead, the Devils should be making progress, but it appears they’ve even taken a step back from last season. The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. It feels that’s the point the Devils have reached, and if they continue with the status quo, it’ll only continue to get worse.

* * *

Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, stats in the table above from Corsica Hockey