Devils’ Power-Play Struggles Prove Costly vs. Maple Leafs

After an impressive 7-4 victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday evening, the New Jersey Devils headed to Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs last night. Despite being on the second half of a back-to-back, the Devils played well at five-on-five. Unfortunately, as has been the case many times in 2021-22 — specifically earlier on — their power play gave them no chance to win the game. Let’s highlight their man-advantage struggles and a few other takeaways as they look to reset against the Washington Capitals on Saturday. 

Devils Power Play Had a Brutal Night

Anyone who watched last night’s game will know the Devils’ power play cost them a chance to win. They gave up two shorthanded goals, including one on a four-minute power play in the third period after Andreas Johnsson took a high stick and drew blood. Not only did the Devils get outscored 2-1 on their power play, but they also got out-chanced 4-3. The Maple Leafs even had more shorthanded high-danger chances than the Devils did on the power play (2-1). 

The Devils’ power-play struggles aren’t anything new. It’s been a problem all season and even dates back to the beginning of the 2020-21 campaign. Since then, they’re averaging 82.4 shot attempts per 60 minutes while up a man. Only the Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes have averaged less, and the Devils’ expected goal rates aren’t any better. They’ve averaged 5.4 expected goals per 60; only the Columbus Blue Jackets and Coyotes have averaged less. 

The Devils rank in the bottom five of the league in both those stats this season. Considering the team has Jack Hughes, who’s producing at a 93-point pace over 82 games, and Jesper Bratt, who’s on pace for 84 points, there’s no excuse for a power play to be this ineffective. In fact, it’s been the worst power play in the league since the start of last season:  

The Devils signed Dougie Hamilton to a massive contract last summer, partly because of his ability to quarterback a power play. But his shot and chance generation rates have been his worst in years, even dating back to his rookie year in 2012-13. His expected goals percentage (xG%) of 77.63 percent on the power play is the worst of his career by a country mile; he’s never been below 83.5 percent. 

I doubt Hamilton suddenly forgot how to quarterback a power play after being one of the best power-play quarterbacks in the league for most of his career. Systemic issues are hampering his and the rest of the team’s ability to have a productive man advantage. It needs wholesale changes, and if it means a coaching change, even if it’s just replacing Mark Recchi, who oversees the power play as an assistant coach, then so be it. 

Related: Takeaways From Devils’ GM Fitzgerald’s Trade Deadline Presser

We’re far past the point of saying the Devils’ power play is going through a bad stretch. It’s been like this since the first game of the 2020-21 season. Recchi lost his job with the Penguins after their power play couldn’t produce with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. And it may be too late to avoid a similar fate with the Devils, given the duration of its ineffectiveness and talent they have. 

Daws Stands Tall

What made last night’s loss even tougher was that the Devils wasted a solid start from Nico Daws. After giving up 1.2 goals more than expected against the Rangers, he gave up only half a goal more than expected. Essentially, he stopped what he should have, and there’s no way to fault him on either of the shorthanded goals. The Devils’ poor play in front of him was the reason for those, and there was nothing he could do about either tally. 

Nico Daws New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Nico Daws (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Devils acquired Andrew Hammond from the Montreal Canadiens at the trade deadline to help ease Daws’ workload. He wasn’t available last night as he works his way back from an injury, leaving Daws to start on consecutive nights. But given the circumstances, he handled the start as well as he could have. It’s easy to see the promise he has, and he should find a bit more consistency once Hammond heals up and splits the net with him. 

Devils Player Bullets

Jack Hughes

  • Though the Devils were on the losing end of last night’s game, Hughes had another standout performance. He finished with an assist and led the team in Corsi-for percentage (CF%) and xG%. His game score of 1.98 led all skaters between both clubs too. That’s coming off the heels of an impressive two-goal performance against the Rangers. As mentioned above, he’d be on pace for 93 points in 82 games. He’s very much arrived and looks like the player that made him the first overall pick in 2019. It’s now about surrounding him with more talent to help the team take a significant step forward in 2022-23. 

Kevin Bahl

  • The Devils called up Bahl ahead of yesterday’s game. He entered the lineup for Ty Smith and played in his first NHL contest since Dec. 19. He finished with a CF% of 45 percent and xG% of 33.11 percent at five-on-five, and he even saw a bit of ice time on the penalty kill. With the Devils all but eliminated from the playoffs, he may get in some games to close out the season to assess where he is in his development. 

Dawson Mercer

  • After playing mostly center through the first half of the season, Mercer has moved to right wing alongside Hughes. It got off to a bit of a rocky start, but he seems to be adjusting well to playing on the wing. Mercer finished last night with a 62.5 CF% and 52.21 xG%, both in the top five among Devils skaters. Since moving to wing on Feb. 15, he has 11 points in 15 games. General manager Tom Fitzgerald will undoubtedly add scoring wingers one way or another this offseason, but Mercer could be a solution too. He’ll get 18 more games to show that’s where he fits long-term. 
Dawson Mercer New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils forward Dawson Mercer (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Last night may have been a tough loss for the Devils, but they’re playing much better against the upper echelon of the NHL. Their wins over the last month include the Pittsburgh Penguins, Colorado Avalanche, and St. Louis Blues, to name a few. There have been other games where they’ve played well but have faltered because of goaltending. But overall, they’ve been competitive. They’ll get a chance to build on it against the Capitals on Saturday, a team they’ve mostly struggled against in recent seasons. 

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