When the New Jersey Devils named Alain Nasreddine as their interim coach on Dec. 3, he made it clear he wanted the team to play faster. That’s been the case so far, and it’s benefited the offense, but the team’s defense has taken a noticeable step backward. If the Devils want to win more consistently over the final 40 games of the season, they’ll need to tighten up defensively. And the solution may not be as difficult as it seems.
The Change From Hynes to Nasreddine
When the Devils fired John Hynes, it was clear they didn’t have a choice. The team was sputtering in all facets of the game and were blown out by the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers in consecutive games right after American Thanksgiving. They were also playing a low-event and slow-paced style of hockey that didn’t fit the roster’s makeup, so making a change made sense.
But for all the flaws the Devils had under Hynes, their defensive numbers were still quite respectable. Even though they gave up the 10th most shot attempts per 60 minutes (CA/60) under Hynes this season, their expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60) ranked seventh best. And they gave up the fourth-least high-danger chances against per 60 minutes (HDCA/60). In simpler terms, they gave up a fair amount of shot attempts without giving up much in the way of quality shots.
That’s one of the advantages of low-event hockey, as it keeps shot events to a minimum. And given the Devils’ blue line is the weakest part of their roster, it made sense to try and adjust for its deficiencies. But that came at the expense of their offense, so a change was needed. In comes Nasreddine, and their offense has begun to make legitimate strides. However, it’s now their defense that’s struggling mightily. Only the Canucks have averaged more CA/60 than the Devils since the coaching change, while the Canucks and Winnipeg Jets are the only teams who have averaged more xGA/60.
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Those defensive struggles are some of the downsides of playing faster, at least for the moment. Now comes striking the right balance of playing faster while not having their team defense suffer for it. And that’ll be a key to their second half of the season.
Adjustments Devils Need to Make
While the Devils’ faster pace of play is noticeable when watching them, there haven’t been many systemic changes (Nasreddine has noted that on a few occasions in various post-game press conferences). Those changes may come in the offseason when the team names a permanent head coach. But for now, a simple improvement in the team’s defensive execution may be the answer.
“You gotta be on the right side of things. And I think part of our opportunities is we’re trusting the guys behind us that have full possession that they’re going to make the play to get it up and out,” Blake Coleman said to Chris Ryan of NJ Advance Media after a 6-3 loss to the Rangers. “So, myself included, if the puck’s on our stick in our end and we don’t execute, a lot of times we’re taking off to go on a rush. So that’s when teams can kind of counter and get some offense. So it’s on us to execute the plays, and they’re correctable.”
Even though the Devils struggled defensively against the Rangers, they played well on offense. They fired 49 shots on goal and scored three times, which should be enough to win games on most nights. But the Rangers took advantage of the Devils’ defensive miscues and missed assignments — thanks to Tony DeAngelo’s historic night — and it wasn’t just in the defensive zone.
“It’s not just in our own zone, it was a couple goals that started in their zone with missed assignments,” Nasreddine said to Abbey Mastracco of northjersey.com. “It’s not being fully committed to playing the system, breakdowns — it’s not one area in particular, it’s just decisions throughout all three zones.” (From ‘How the NJ Devils gave up a hat trick to a defenseman and what they want to fix,’ northjersey.com – 1/10/2020).
Another area that’s been a concern for the Devils is their net-front presence around goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. There have been too many moments where opponents win battles and score on a loose puck or a redirection in front of Blackwood. That comes down to missed assignments, where opponents get too much time and space around Blackwood, giving him no chance to make a save. And it’s something that needs work over the rest of the season, too.
Coleman Is on the Money
The good news is Coleman is right. The Devils can correct some of these problems. They have defensemen — Damon Severson, Will Butcher, P.K. Subban, and Sami Vatanen — who are all effective puck-movers. It just becomes a matter of executing properly on their breakouts and not missing their assignments (that goes for the forwards, too).
And with the season being a lost cause, proper execution and making progress in player development couldn’t be more important. The Devils have a lot of young players on their roster who don’t know anything other than losing. Winning more consistently, even if it hurts their draft position, would go a long way heading into the summer and the 2020-21 season. And that can only happen if they start improving their defensive performances the rest of the way.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick