The last two games the New Jersey Devils played exemplify how their season has gone. The Devils turned an early deficit around to win on March 22 against the New York Rangers before dropping a potential victory on March 23 vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Devils have shown glimpses of the success they are capable of when they play without mistakes.
However, on too many occasions, the Devils have been their own worst enemy. The flaws they are committing represent what teams do that find themselves at the bottom of their division standings. If the Devils are going to become a contender, they need to fix the inconsistencies in their play. Let’s take a look at what the team needs to fix in order to be better.
Devils Allow Too Many Goals in Consecutive Games
Once Nico Daws started in goal on a continuous basis for the Devils beginning on Feb. 28, the team did not allow several goals for a stretch of seven games. The 21-year old performed well enough to keep them in games. The Devils looked like a competitive team with reliable goaltending and better defensive play from the forwards and defensemen.
However, the Devils’ slip-ups are still evident. They allowed six goals in three straight contests — March 15 against the Vancouver Canucks, March 16 vs. the Calgary Flames, and March 19 against the Edmonton Oilers. Daws did not finish the games against the Canucks and Flames.
After the loss to the Flames, head coach Lindy Ruff commented about Daws’ difficult game, “We’ve asked a lot of him, probably unfairly, I’ve asked a lot of him. Tonight he just didn’t have it, and that can be a product. He’s played a lot of games. He’s prepared for a lot of games. He’s developing as a young goaltender. He’s given us good games. But the test has probably been a little bit too big for him.”
The Devils have had stretches of games when their opponents have tallied too many goals (five or more) against them on several occasions. The offense is put at a disadvantage as a result of the team’s poor defensive play or goaltending. The team defense and goaltending need to improve for longer stretches during the season in order for the Devils to be in playoff contention.
The Devils may be in the hunt for another goaltender this offseason. General manager (GM) Tom Fitzgerald may decide the team needs more change besides signing or acquiring another netminder. Hiring a new goaltending coach during the summer should be in consideration as the team has not improved enough at the position.
Currently, Daws and Mackenzie Blackwood have the most potential to remain with the Devils long-term. There are questions as to whether Blackwood can be a starting goaltender, if he is more suitable as a part of a platoon, or as a backup. Injuries have derailed his 2021-22 season as he struggled with effects from offseason heel surgery. He has been on injured reserve (IR) since Jan. 25 and it is uncertain if he will return to play this year.
Darcy Kuemper is listed as the top goalie scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) this offseason in a piece written by Luke Fox of SportsNet. Braden Holtby, Martin Jones, Jack Campbell, and Ville Husso are some other players who will be UFAs. Alexandar Georgiev will be a restricted free agent (RFA) and will be traded by the New York Rangers during the offseason. GM Fitzgerald did not appear to be satisfied with the goaltending position before the NHL trade deadline and he will explore other options for the team this summer.
One of the reasons the rival Rangers are in the midst of a successful season is due to the play of Igor Shesterkin. The Rangers’ starting goalie is a candidate for both the Vezina and Hart Trophies with his exceptional 2021-22 season. Georgiev, while inconsistent at times in his role as a backup, has played games this season that makes him worthy of contending for a starting goaltender position. The Rangers are an example of how good goaltending can play a role in a franchise’s success.
Devils Allow Too Many Short-Handed Goals
Devils fans have watched the players make too many errors that have led to short-handed goals. During the game against the Maple Leafs, the Devils let a possible victory slip away by being careless with the puck that led to short-handed goals. The Devils lead the NHL with 11 short-handed goals allowed.
The Devils have a roster that is still gaining experience and young players will make mistakes. However, at a certain point, the question needs to be raised if a personnel change is in order. Assistant coach Mark Recchi has struggled in his responsibility of improving the team’s power play since his hire before the 2020-21 season.
The Devils rank 26th in power-play percentage (PP%) at 18.1 percent. Making careless passes that lead to short-handed goals is deflating for the team’s momentum and gives an unexpected boost to the opposition. Against the Maple Leafs, a short-handed goal was the game-winner, which halted the Devils’ momentum from the victory against the Rangers.
The Devils have shown how good of a team they can be with their talented offense and when they limit errors that have put them at a disadvantage, such as allowing short-handed goals. The last two games against the Rangers and Maple Leafs are an example of the frustrating inconsistent play that hinders the Devils. The team exploded for five unanswered goals and took advantage of the Rangers’ mistakes in order to secure a thrilling win at the Prudential Center.
The next night resulted in a letdown against another playoff-caliber team in the Maple Leafs. The second short-handed goal of the game during the third period sealed the Devils’ fate. At this point in the season, the team needs to correct these careless errors and move forward. The Devils are not playing for a playoff spot and will need to be motivated by having a strong final month to their season. Hopefully, enough progress is made over the remaining 18 games for the team to build on.