Every time it seems like the New Jersey Devils take a step forward, they take two steps back. After going 3-2 on a road trip that included a swing in Western Canada, the Devils returned home and were thoroughly outplayed by the Ottawa Senators in a 4-2 loss.
That loss was a perfect sum of how the Devils have looked this season; a blown third-period lead, poor play in the defensive zone, and an offense that isn’t generating enough. At 5-8-4 on the season, it’s starting to get late early. If they keep going with the status quo, they will be playing for a shot to draft Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield at the 2020 Entry Draft. And that’s not what expectations were heading into the season.
Devils’ Blown Leads Proving Fatal
We’ll start with the biggest problem that’s plaguing the Devils, and that’s the number of leads they’ve blown late in games. It started on opening night against the Winnipeg Jets, where they blew a 4-0 lead and lost 5-4 in the shootout. Their next blown lead came against the Edmonton Oilers a little less than a week later, where they allowed a game-tying goal in the final minute of regulation before falling in the shootout.
The Devils’ most egregious performance came against the Florida Panthers on Oct. 14. After taking a 4-1 lead, the Panthers stormed back with five unanswered goals to defeat the Devils 6-4. Things were pretty similar, but to a lesser extent, against the Arizona Coyotes a week and a half later, as the Coyotes scored three unanswered goals to defeat the Devils 5-3. And the common thread in all these losses? They were all on home ice.
There are plenty of reasons why this keeps happening, and goaltending is one of them, especially earlier in the season when both goaltenders were struggling mightily. But the Devils’ play in the defensive zone hasn’t helped, either. Their defensemen have missed assignments, as was the case on the Senators’ go-ahead goal last night. And they’ve had a tough time with clean breaks outs to exit the defensive zone.
How the Devils have played in the third period in some of these losses is also a problem. Against the Panthers, they were out-attempted 14-4 and lost the expected goals (xG) battle 0.73 to 0.09 at five-on-five. It was the same against the Senators last night, as the Devils were out-attempted 16-9 and had an xG of 0.42 compared to the Senators’ xG of 0.94. And it’s worth mentioning they’ve been outscored 24-9 in the third period this season.
If the Devils want to correct those third-period woes, they have to respond to adversity much better. There’s been some improvement in the last couple of weeks, but last night’s game against the Senators shows there needs to be more, or these late-game problems won’t go away.
Devils’ Attack is Close to Non-Existent
Plenty of people expected the Devils to have a much-improved offense after their offseason. And why wouldn’t you? They drafted Jack Hughes with the first pick, traded for Nikita Gusev, and signed Wayne Simmonds as a free agent. They also returned players like Kyle Palmieri, Nico Hischier, and a healthy Taylor Hall. But so far, the team’s results are among the league’s worst.
To date, the Devils are averaging just 2.53 goals per game, ranked 28th in the NHL, and it’s their play at five-on-five that’s contributing to the lack of offensive output. They’re averaging 48.18 shot attempts per 60 minutes (CF/60), ranked dead last in the NHL. Their expected goals for per 60 minutes (xGF/60) of 2.08 isn’t much better, as it’s sixth-worst in the league.
If we breakdown the Devils’ season in two segments, their offense hasn’t shown much improvement. Over their first 10 games, they averaged 46.5 CF/60, ranked last in the NHL, and their xGF/60 of 2.08 ranked seventh from the bottom. That hasn’t changed much since the calendar flipped to November, either.
The Devils are averaging 50.49 CF/60 over their last seven games, which is a slight improvement but still ranks in the bottom five of the league. However, their xGF/60 remains the same at 2.08, so they aren’t generating enough quality looks that lead to scoring more goals.
It also doesn’t help that the Devils’ power play isn’t clicking. They’re only converting on 12.9% of their opportunities, ranked 28th in the league. But unlike at five-on-five, they are generating some quality chances — their xGF/60 is ninth-best in the league for the season. One reason for the poor results on the man advantage is the lack of shooting luck. The Devils have the fourth-lowest power play shooting percentage in the league (8.51%), so they may be due for some positive regression.
The Biggest Change John Hynes Should Make
A 5-8-4 record may not seem that bad, but let’s put it another way: the Devils have five wins in 17 games, and that is pretty terrible. That won’t cut it for many reasons, so what adjustments should be made?
Since a 5-3 win against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Devils have scored a combined seven goals in their last five games. What head coach John Hynes should be trying to do is change the way they play on offense. It may come at the expense of their defense and goaltending, but a team with players like Hall, Hischier, Hughes, Gusev, and Palmieri shouldn’t be ranked 28th in goals per game.
I understand wanting to make up for defensive deficiencies because the Devils’ blue line is not great. But they can’t keep playing the way they are on offense because it’s unlikely anything changes. So trying to push the pace to generate more offense may be the best option Hynes has. And it’s possible a stronger attack, which could force their opponents on their heels, could help erase some of those third-period woes, too.
* * *
Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
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