The New Jersey Devils were on the cusp of a win yesterday until they weren’t. They gave up a late game-tying goal in the third period and ultimately fell to the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 in a shootout. Despite the loss, the Devils secured a point and finished October with a 4-2-1 record. There were plenty of positives to take away from last night’s game and some points of concern too. Here are some notable takeaways as the Devils get ready for their California road trip, which begins tomorrow in Anaheim.
Hamilton Is Elite
You probably knew this already, but Dougie Hamilton is a force of nature, specifically at five-on-five. Last night was his best performance as a Devil so far, and it was otherworldly. The Devils had a 33-15 shot attempt advantage and controlled 74.9 percent of the expected goals (xG%) with him on the ice at five-on-five.
This next stat borders on hilarity. Shots on goal with Hamilton on the ice were 23-4. No, that is not a typo. The Devils had a 23 to 4 shots on goal advantage with him on the ice. Hamilton himself had 10 shots on goal. Ten. He is a defenseman, so that number is ludicrous. It should come as no surprise that the Devils outscored the Blue Jackets 2-0 when he was on the ice. When he wasn’t on the ice, they were outscored 1-3, so he’s making his impact felt.
The Devils signed Hamilton to a seven-year, $63 million contract this offseason, and he’s been worth every penny so far. It’s too early to get into Norris Trophy contenders. But if he’s going to have performances like this more often than not, he’ll be in the conversation at season’s end and could easily end up as a finalist.
Mercer’s Line Continues to Click
After an impressive debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday evening, Dawson Mercer’s line had another stellar outing against the Blue Jackets. Mercer and his linemates Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson were the Devils’ best line last night, and it wasn’t all that close.
Johnsson scored just over a minute into the game, his fourth goal of the season. He had five goals in 50 games in 2020-21 and is already about to tie that total just seven games into 2021-22. He’s second on the team in high-danger chances and is having a positive impact offensively. With that said, he’s shooting 40 percent, which is not sustainable. Regression is coming, but he’s legitimately playing well, so he should be able to find ways to keep contributing.
As for Mercer and Bratt, they’re the Devils’ most dynamic offensive players at the moment. After not having a point in his first five games, Bratt suddenly has three in his last two games. Mercer scored a goal last night and is up to three goals and five points in seven games. Not bad for a 20-year-old rookie.
By the time regulation was over, the Mercer line led the Devils in Corsi for percentage (CF%) at 68.2 percent and had an xG% of 53.3 percent. Until they give head coach Lindy Ruff a reason to break them up, they aren’t going anywhere. They’ve been the Devils’ most threatening line since Ruff put them together, something the Devils need while Jack Hughes recovers from a dislocated shoulder.
Ty Smith has only played in four of the Devils’ seven games, but it hasn’t gone well so far. He hasn’t collected a point yet, and had a costly turnover that led to the Blue Jackets’ game-tying goal in the third period. His five-on-five numbers were among some of the worst on the team too. He finished with a CF% of 34.9 percent, second-lowest on the Devils, and xG% of 26.6 percent, the lowest on the team.
It’s worth noting that Smith did not have much of a training camp and did not play in any preseason games due to an injury. Ruff stated in his post-game press conference that the lack of a training camp may be affecting Smith to start the 2021-22 campaign.
Smith is a key part of what the Devils want to do defensively this season with their top-two defense pairs. But it’s probably way too early to be concerned about his play. Ruff is pretty spot on in saying Smith’s lack of a training camp is hurting him. So it’ll just take some time for him to get up to speed and used to NHL pace during the regular season. He’s playing with a defense partner he’s quite familiar with in Damon Severson, so his play should come around eventually.
Blackwood’s Return Will Help
With Jonathan Bernier having started in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Scott Wedgewood closed out the back-to-back against the Blue Jackets. Wedgewood had a goals saved above expected (GSAx) of -0.58, so he was far from awful. At the same time, there’s no way Boone Jenner’s game-tying goal should’ve found the back of the net in the third period.
Don’t get me wrong; it was a great effort by Jenner. But Wedgewood gave way too much of the net to Jenner, and should’ve had much more of it covered than he did. Sure, Smith had a terrible turnover that led to Jenner scoring, but Wedgewood should’ve been able to bail him out. It was more than a stoppable shot, and it likely cost the Devils one point when they should have had two.
Fortunately, it appears Mackenzie Blackwood is very close to returning. It seems he’ll likely make his season debut on the California trip some time this week, which is welcomed news for the Devils. Bernier has held up his end of the bargain and has been outstanding in his three starts. He has a .923 save percentage and a GSAx of 2.02, the latter of which ranks 15th in the NHL. If Blackwood comes in and combines with Bernier to give the Devils that kind of goaltending, they’re going to be competitive in plenty of games this season. And they’ll need that, as their strength of schedule cranks up once they return from California.
All in all, the Devils played another strong game last night. They should’ve come away with two points. But collecting three of four points against two divisional opponents is something to build on. If they can carry it over into the new week, they should return from California with some positive results.
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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