The New Jersey Devils’ good start to the season continued this past week, as they managed to go to 2-1 with wins against the New York Rangers and New York Islanders. That moved them to 3-1-1 on the season and has them in third place in the East Division.
Collecting points in four of your first five games is about as good of a start as the Devils could’ve had out of the gate. They faced some adversity over the last week to get to that point. But some of their young players stepped up and helped them come away with two wins. Let’s take a look at who impressed, as well as where the team needs improvement heading into a busy week that features four games in six nights.
It was quite the week for the 19-year-old center. Hughes had a breakout game in the Devils’ 4-3 win against the Rangers, where he tallied two goals and an assist, including this silky smooth breakaway goal that Alexandar Georgiev had no chance of stopping.
Hughes had a quiet night in the Devils’ 4-1 loss to the Islanders on Thursday night, but he bounced back in a big way in the Devils’ 2-0 win in a rematch on Sunday night. He got the scoring started with an absolute rifle of a shot on the power play to give the Devils a 1-0 lead, and the team never looked back after then.
Hughes was arguably the Devils’ best player in Sunday’s showdown against the Islanders. He finished with a Corsi share (CF%) just above 72% and had an expected goals share (xGF%) just above 83%. He’s driving play and winning one-on-one battles he wouldn’t have won a year ago. It’s clear he’s a much-improved player from his rookie season, and that can only help the Devils.
The rookie defenseman is off to a heck of a start. He has six points in his first five games and had a pair of assists in the Devils’ 2-0 win against the Islanders. He’s collected at least a point in every game so far, and he’s already moved up to quarterback the top power play unit.
A look at Smith’s underlying numbers doesn’t paint as rosy a picture as his counting totals do. His CF% at five-on-five sits at 43.6%, while his xGF% is only 37.6%. Some of that has to do with having Matt Tennyson as his partner, but Smith also hasn’t defended all that well.
With that said, Smith’s had a positive impact offensively, both at five-on-five and on the power play. The Devils aren’t asking him to play tough defensive minutes, so he doesn’t need to be an elite defender yet. Head coach Lindy Ruff will likely keep Smith in a third-pair role, and he should thrive playing top power play minutes. I’d expect his five-on-five numbers to improve as well once the recently signed Sami Vatanen joins the team.
I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much from Kulikov when the Devils signed him to a one-year deal during free agency. Given the construction of the team’s blue line, it didn’t look like he’d play more than bottom-pair minutes. And his results with the Winnipeg Jets didn’t suggest he should be more than a third-pair defender.
As it turns out, Kulikov has performed well above expectations to this point. He’s played every game with Damon Severson on the second pair, and they’ve arguably been the Devils’ best defensive unit through five games. It’s the smallest of sample sizes, but the Kulikov-Severson pairing has an xGF% of 61.7% in 71 minutes of five-on-five play.
It’s not just because he’s paired with Severson either. Kulikov has played quite well through five games, as he has the best defensive impacts of any of the team’s defensemen. He had a dominant performance in the Devils’ 2-0 win against the Islanders — he finished with an xGF% of 89% and was a stalwart in the defensive zone. To date, he has an xGF% just above 62%, ranked first among every player on the team. We’ll see if it lasts as the season progresses, but there’s no doubt he’s been a pleasant surprise.
There’s been some chaos with the Devils’ goaltending situation in the early goings of the season. Corey Crawford retired less than a week before games began, and Mackenzie Blackwood found himself on the COVID list just three games into the season. That suddenly left Wedgewood as the team’s de facto starter when it looked like he’d be third on the depth chart.
Wedgewood gave up four goals against the Islanders in his first start of the season, but he hardly deserves any of the blame. The team did not play well in front of him, and it was hard to fault him for any of the goals. Fortunately, he and the Devils came to play on Sunday night, and it resulted in Wedgewood getting his first NHL shutout in nearly three years.
He’s only had two starts, but so far, Wedgewood’s held up his end of the bargain. He has a .937 save percentage (SV%) and a goals saved above average (GSAA) of 1.97. Wedgewood also has some help on the way, as the Devils claimed Aaron Dell off of waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Once his work visa goes through, he can begin his mandatory seven-day quarantine before joining the team. If Wedgewood can hold down the fort until then, the Devils should be in good shape.
What Needs to Improve
Both the Devils’ power play and penalty kill have gotten off to rough starts. We’ll start with the power play, which is only converting on 15.4% of their opportunities. They’re ranked last in shot attempts per 60 minutes, though they do rank 17th in expected goals per 60 minutes.
The Devils’ power play did show signs of life in their 2-0 win against the Islanders. Their puck movement was much crisper, and they generated a few quality chances in their two opportunities. Smith moving to the top unit seemed to make a difference, and his high-end puck-moving ability should help it flow better.
As for the penalty kill, they’ve only killed off 66% of penalties they’ve faced. It was 2/2 against the Islanders on Sunday night. But it likely wouldn’t have been perfect had it not been for Wedgewood, who stopped six shots on goal on the Islanders’ first power play. The Devils’ second kill of the game looked much better, as they didn’t give the Islanders any quality chances. Perhaps that’s something to build on, but they clearly have work to do to get the penalty kill going.
Gusev did pick up his first point of the season on Sunday night, a primary assist on Pavel Zacha’s first goal of 2020-21. But it’s been a struggle for him otherwise. He had a CF% of 37% and xGF% of 26.5% over the Devils’ three games last week. For the season, he has a CF% of 41.88% and xGF% of 34.5%.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Gusev got off to an almost identical start in 2019-20. It took him about 10 games to find his footing, but he was one of the Devils’ best players the rest of the way once he settled in. Some of his early-season struggles could be a result of his linemates too. He hadn’t played particularly well with Andreas Johnsson and Zacha, and he didn’t look much better with Zacha and Nick Merkley on Sunday night.
Fortunately, Gusev might have some help on the way. Jesper Bratt has received his work visa and is in the COVID protocol conducting his seven-day quarantine. He could join the team for practice as early as tomorrow, meaning he could play in games by this weekend. Nico Hischier has also begun skating, though he’s yet to practice. Once both are in the lineup, it’s probably safe to assume they’ll get a look with Gusev, and that should get him going.
Speaking of Johnsson, it’s been a challenging first five games for one of the team’s newest forwards — he has no points and has only one shot on goal. He only has two shot attempts at five-on-five and has struggled to create any offense, whether it’s shooting or passing the puck.
Though he wasn’t one of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top scorers, he was still productive in his time there. He averaged 45 points per 82 games in his two full seasons in Toronto, as well as 2.10 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five. He also averaged 1.8 shots on goal per game, so this start is pretty out of character for him.
Because Johnsson has a track record of producing offense, I wouldn’t be hitting the panic button yet. Like Gusev, he could benefit from Hischier and Bratt returning to the lineup. If those two end up with Gusev, Johnsson could get a shot with Travis Zajac and Miles Wood, who have been two of the team’s best players so far. Perhaps that gets him going.
Even Strength Play
The Devils were thoroughly outplayed at even strength in their first two games last week. That was particularly true against the Islanders on Thursday night, where the Devils generated just two high-danger chances and only had an xGF% of 37%.
The Devils did flip the script in their rematch with the Islanders. They finished with an xGF% of 52.8% and CF% of 50.65%, an encouraging development after not looking so hot earlier in the week. They’ll need more games like that at even strength until Hischier, Bratt, Blackwood, and Vatanen make their way into the lineup, especially if their power play and penalty kill continue to struggle.
The Devils begin a two-game homestand against the Philadelphia Flyers tonight, with the second game taking place on Thursday. They follow that up with a two-game series this weekend against the Buffalo Sabres, which will be the Devils’ first set of back-to-back games this season. Both of those games will take place in Buffalo.
Tonight’s game also begins a busy stretch of the schedule that sees the Devils play five games in eight days. There should be plenty to discuss over the next week-plus, so make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest coverage.
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