Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they somehow do. It’s been that kind of season for the New Jersey Devils, as they dropped four in a row to the New York Rangers in a four-game series.
But the Devils’ lopsided defeats to the Rangers exposed some troubling trends that have plagued them all season long. Their special teams are a complete and utter mess, and that’s partly led to Mackenzie Blackwood struggling on the penalty kill. That’s resulted in the Devils dropping many games that they should not be losing.
Still, through all of the team’s troubles, there are some positives to take away. Jack Hughes is a wrecking ball, their five-on-five play remains strong, and their young players continue to make meaningful contributions.
Special Teams Are a Dumpster Fire
There’s no sugarcoating it; the Devils’ special teams units are a complete embarrassment.
Let’s start with the penalty kill, which has really struggled as of late. It got off to a historically terrible start but then turned it around after the Devils returned from their COVID outbreak. Now, it seems to be back where it started the season.
Their penalty kill is operating at a 68.1 percent success rate over its last 18 games after yesterday’s 5-3 loss to the Rangers. The Devils have actually done a decent job of suppressing shot attempts on the penalty kill over that stretch. Where they’ve struggled is suppressing quality shots and chances. They’ve given up the second-most expected goals and third-most high-danger chances over that stretch; that’s also where they sit for the season.
That’s partly why the Devils have the third-worst save percentage (SV%) on the penalty kill, but that shouldn’t be a surprise when they’re giving up that much quality.
The Devils have allowed back-breaking power play goals countless amount of times this season. Let’s take a look at this one the Rangers scored yesterday.
Chris Kreider is wide-open backdoor. He’s so open that he could get a nap in and still score. The Devils have had a lot of trouble preventing this type of power play goal this season. There’s no excuse for it to keep happening this late in the schedule. Some of it falls on the players, but it’s the coaching staff’s job to identify and fix it, but they’re not. Alain Nasreddine is in charge of the penalty kill, and he needs to mend some of these issues in the final 15 games, or his job could be on the line.
Then there’s the power play. Power is the last word I’d use to describe it. It’s six for its previous 49, which is a 12.2 percent success rate. For the season, it’s converted on 12.9 percent of its opportunities, third-worst in the league.
Mark Recchi is only in his first season with the Devils, but trouble at his previous stop should’ve raised some red flags. The Penguins’ power play was a trainwreck last season, his final year in charge of it. At the time, it looked like a one-off bad season, but its issues were apparently more systemic and have carried over to New Jersey. The Devils have no puck movement on the power play. They’re misusing personnel as they did with Kyle Palmieri before they traded him, and they’ve had trouble winning races to loose pucks.
The Devils are averaging the second-least shot attempts per 60 minutes and the third-least expected goals per 60 on the power play. So there’s no quantity or quality. They generate nothing, and that’s why they only have a measly 16 power play goals this season. That’s inexcusable, and as with the penalty kill, it’s cost them games. If general manager Tom Fitzgerald thinks these are long-term issues and not a product of a weird, condensed season, then he may have to make changes to who’s in charge of both units. Because if this continues beyond this season, absolutely nothing will change.
The Hughes Breakout Is On the Horizon
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff. Jack Hughes has been an absolute terror as of late. He has seven points in his last nine games, and his five-on-five numbers haven’t been good; they’ve been downright elite.
Hughes has a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 67.8 percent over his last nine games. Here’s the list of players who have a better CF% over that stretch:
That’s the list. There’s no one else. Hughes has the best CF% in the league over the last two weeks. He has an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 69.7 percent; only Patrice Bergeron has a better xG% since then. Hughes is now starting to look like what made him the first overall pick in 2019. And the Devils are beginning to see his impact on the game at even strength:
The Devils might not be any good. But the most significant takeaway from this season was always going to be Hughes’ development. It’s there, and he’s starting to emerge as a dominant play-driving force. They need complementary pieces around him, but Fitzgerald has the assets to make that happen this offseason. And it’s time he begins to put the pieces in place.
Goalies are the hardest position to evaluate in hockey. And given everything that’s happened this season, it makes trying to figure out what’s going on with Blackwood that much more difficult.
He has a SV% of .900, a goals saved above average (GSAA) of minus-7.6, and a goals saved above expected (GSAx) of minus-12.48 (via Evolving-Hockey). Those numbers aren’t good by any stretch, but a lot is going on here.
For starters, Blackwood had a pretty rough bout with COVID earlier in the season. It’s been about two months since then, but Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics had COVID months ago and still uses an inhaler before games because of breathing issues. I don’t know if that’s a problem for Blackwood, but you can’t rule out that he may still have some lingering effects post-COVID.
The other thing is, of course, the penalty kill. They’ve done nothing to help Blackwood, and that’s part of the reason why he’s struggled this season. There have been some five-on-five breakdowns too, but the penalty kill has been the true killer (pun intended).
Is there cause for concern with Blackwood? It’s his first poor season in the NHL, and with everything that’s occurred, I wouldn’t be overly worried. With that said, the Devils need to get him a capable backup this season. The free-agent class for goaltenders is quite deep, so they shouldn’t have trouble finding a reliable 1B.
Devils’ Young Players Still Stepping Up
Yes, they’re still losing a lot of games. But the Devils’ young guns are playing hard and don’t show any quit. Nolan Foote, who they acquired for Blake Coleman at the 2020 Trade Deadline, made his NHL debut yesterday and tallied an assist on Nico Hischier’s game-tying goal.
Mikhail Maltsev had a goal and assist yesterday. Marian Studenič plays hard and picked up his first career NHL goal. Yegor Sharangovich finds himself on a line with Hughes and is producing at a 39-point pace over 82 games. Ty Smith continues to be one of the best rookies in the league.
There are players to build around, and they’re a big reason why the Devils have the sixth-best CF% and 11th-best xG% in the league this season. If their special teams weren’t as terrible as they are, this club would probably be hovering around the NHL .500 mark instead of 10 games below it.
The next task is getting some experienced NHLers to complement these young players. The best way to do that is going through the trade market, and with an extra first-round pick, 18 draft picks over the next two years, and $37 million in cap space this offseason, it’s there for the taking.
Schmid Back on Track
After an injury-riddled 2019-20, prospect Akira Schmid is having a hell of a bounce-back season. The 6-foot-5, 205-pound netminder had a 20-save shutout on Friday night and has a ridiculous .982 SV% over his last five starts for Sioux City in the USHL. He’s had a SV% of no lower than .917 in his previous 10 starts as well.
Schmid burst onto the scene in 2018-19 when he finished with a .926 SV% in 37 games played in the USHL. With his latest run of play, he’s up to a .919 SV% in 33 games played. The USHL regular season concludes in about a week, and it’s safe to say Schmid is on track to finish as the league’s best goaltender. He’s still a bit away from playing in the NHL, but the Devils will likely sign him to an entry-level deal this offseason to get his pro career started in the AHL.
That wraps up this edition of Devils news and notes. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest NHL coverage as playoff pushes around the league heat up.
* * *
Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick (except where noted)
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017