The New Jersey Devils’ 2022-23 regular season got underway last night. It felt all too familiar, however, as they fell to the Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 5-2. Poor goaltending and questionable player usage seemed to plague the Devils last night as they did a season ago. Fortunately, it is game one, and there’s plenty of room to improve. There was some good to take away, so let’s dive in as the Devils look to get in the win column in their home opener versus the Detroit Red Wings tomorrow night.
Blackwood’s Performance a Real Cause for Concern
Remember when goaltending tanked the Devils most of the time a season ago? Well, last night wasn’t any different. The team got off to a decent start when Alexander Holtz scored a power-play goal for his first career marker to give them a 1-0 lead. But just 23 seconds later, Mackenzie Blackwood gave it back on a tally that had no business finding the back of the net.
Ivan Provorov fired a harmless wrist shot from the point that Blackwood should’ve been able to control. He didn’t, and it went through him and to Wade Allison, who had an easy tap-in goal to tie the game at 1-1. After that, it was downhill for Blackwood. He should’ve stopped at least two of the Flyers’ four goals (their fifth was an empty netter). In all, he gave up four goals on 2.42 expected goals against; a goals saved above expected of minus-1.42.
If Blackwood plays like this, Vitek Vanecek will get a heavy dose of starts. He was the better of the two in the preseason by a healthy margin (he should’ve started last night, in my opinion). And if he shows well against the Red Wings tomorrow, don’t be surprised if head coach Lindy Ruff rides with Vanecek for a relatively extended stretch of games to start the season. After all, that’s why they acquired him from the Washington Capitals this summer.
Play Your Best Players
Ruff played his best players in the third period when he had to last night, but that was because the team was trailing. The results were encouraging, as the Devils generated some of their better chances in the final frame. But through the first two periods, their five-on-five offense was largely missing. Most of their shots came from the perimeter, and by the time their offense got things going, it was too little too late.
It’s not rocket science, but Ruff has to play his best players from the start. He was trying to roll four lines too much through the first two periods, which led to players like Miles Wood and Michael McLeod earning similar five-on-five ice time to Jesper Bratt. And when you see Bratt’s numbers from last night, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher as to why he wasn’t leading Devils forwards in ice time:
What you see above is pretty simple: the Devils had a 30-4 advantage in shot attempts with Bratt on the ice, an 88.4 Corsi for percentage (CF%). Yet, he only finished with 11:37 in five-on-five ice time and 15:57 for the game. Ruff was asked why Bratt’s ice time was low during his post-game media availability. He didn’t know his ice time initially, but when told by Star-Ledger reporter Ryan Novozinsky, his response to Bratt not receiving enough ice time was, “16 minutes is not enough?”
For a player as impactful as Bratt, playing 15:57 is nowhere near enough. Not even close. Jack Hughes played 22:54 last night, and Bratt should be right alongside him and Nico Hischier (when healthy) when it comes to ice time. That would be about 15 minutes at five-on-five and near 20 for the game, not below 16 minutes. If Ruff thinks Bratt playing 16 minutes a game is enough, that’s a problem. That’s unacceptable and needs to change.
Holtz Looks the Part
Aside from his first-career goal, Holtz had a solid night. Ruff kept his minutes relatively sheltered, a smart move for a 20-year-old still getting his feet wet in the NHL. He handled that role well with Tomáš Tatar and Jesper Boqvist, finishing with a 61.9 CF% and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 62.58 percent at five-on-five.
Holtz finished with four shots on goal at all strengths, second on the team to Dawson Mercer, and had an individual xG of 0.9. He was one of the only Devils skaters to generate quality looks on the power play, and that was while playing on the second unit. After Yegor Sharangovich, Holtz is the team’s best shooting threat, so Ruff needs to promote him to the first power-play unit. That change should happen as soon as tomorrow, especially since their first wave lacks a shooting threat.
Hughes’ Quiet Night
Hughes is going to have a big year, but it got off to a quiet start. He was far from awful; he had a 61.65 CF% and 57.19 xG% at five-on-five. It’s more that he wasn’t as involved offensively as you may have expected from him, considering how great he was a season ago.
That did change in the third period, though, when Ruff shuffled the lines and placed Hughes alongside Bratt and Sharangovich. The Devils had a 9-0 shot attempt advantage and 100 xG% with them on the ice in the third period. Hughes and Sharangovich’s chemistry dates back to the 2020-21 season, so it wasn’t a surprise to see them mesh again. Add Bratt to the mix, and there’s high-octane scoring potential. If that small sample is a sign of things to come, Hughes will find the scoresheet in no time.
Devils Line Combos Already Need a Shakeup
With Hischier hoping to return from a strained hamstring for tomorrow night’s home opener, and last night’s poor performance in the regular-season opener, Ruff could turn to different line combos based on how he ended the game:
- Sharangovich – Hughes – Bratt
- Ondrej Palát – Hischier – Mercer
- Tatar – Erik Haula – Holtz
- Wood – Boqvist – Fabian Zetterlund
Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian struggled quite a bit last night; McLeod finished with 8:19 in ice time at five-on-five, while Bastian had a team-low 6:54. McLeod had the worst xG% at 11.92, while Bastian was third-worst at 44.89 percent.
Meanwhile, Boqvist played well in a third-line role, finishing with a 60 CF% and 68.87 xG%. Assuming Hischier returns, Boqvist should stay in the lineup over McLeod. He may not be your prototypical fourth-line center, but McLeod’s play last night does not warrant remaining in the lineup over Boqvist.
And since it’s early in the season, giving Zetterlund a look is worth it. He can play physically but also has much more to offer offensively than Bastian. For a Devils team that struggled to generate offense for two periods, trying to inject some more skill into their line combos wouldn’t hurt to help them get their first win.
- Brendan Smith played well in his first game as a Devil. His five-on-five numbers were so-so, but he added some intangibles the team lacked last season. He wasn’t afraid to get into scuffles and played a physical game. With Kevin Bahl appearing NHL-ready, the two will likely rotate on the third pair this season. But Smith’s edge will be a welcomed addition to the lineup when he plays.
- It’ll go unnoticed because the Devils lost 5-2, but Sharangovich was quietly excellent. The Devils finished with a 24-7 advantage in shot attempts with him on the ice (77.42 CF%) and a 66.44 xG%, and he led the team in high-danger chances with four at all strengths. As if he needed a stronger argument to play on Hughes’ wing against the Red Wings tomorrow night…
- John Marino isn’t a flashy defenseman, but he was more than solid in his Devils debut. He defended the rush well and broke a couple of potentially dangerous odd-man rushes the Flyers had, especially early in the game. I’d expect his role to increase as the season gets into a flow, with more difficult defensive minutes coming.
* * *
Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick