After an impressive 7-4 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday evening, the New Jersey Devils fell to the Los Angeles Kings by a score of 3-2 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, last night. Jon Gillies had a strong performance in net, and Jesper Bratt had two goals, but it wasn’t enough to come away with the win. Here are four takeaways from last night’s loss.
Gillies Gave the Devils a Chance
With Mackenzie Blackwood still dealing with pain in his heel after offseason surgery, the Devils gave Gillies starts on back-to-back nights. Though they didn’t come away with the win, he stopped 34 of 37 shots and had a goals above expected of -0.58. The only goal he should’ve done better on was Viktor Arvidsson’s that made it a 2-2 game. He overplayed his position and left too much of the net open along his blocker side, giving Arvidsson an easy target to hit.
Other than that, Gillies kept the Devils in the game. His rebound control was the best it’s been since he joined the Devils, and he made timely save after timely save. With the Devils hinting that Blackwood will get less playing time than he has due to his health, they’ll need Gillies to have similar performances where he at least gives them a chance to win games.
Hughes’ Line Continues to Roll
All three Kings’ goals came with Jack Hughes on the ice, but the Devils still controlled play at five-on-five during Hughes’ shifts. The line of him, Jesper Bratt and Yegor Sharangovich led the team in Corsi-for percentage (66.67 percent) and expected goals percentage (62.89 percent) and was the only unit that generated offense consistently.
That’s been a common theme for Hughes’ line since head coach Lindy Ruff put them together after the Christmas break. In fact, it’s probably the best line Ruff has put together this season, though it is in a small sample size of only 61 minutes:
With the two goals, Bratt is on pace for 27 goals and 80 points this season, while Hughes would be on pace for 82 points in 82 games. They’re emerging as bonafide first-line forwards and have a good complement alongside them in Sharangovich. With games coming up against the Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs at the end of this week and beginning of next week, they’ll need to keep it up.
Devils Offense Goes Quiet
After an impressive performance against the Hurricanes, where they totaled 33 scoring chances and 15 high-danger chances at five-on-five, the Devils’ offense went quiet against the Kings. They finished with 20 scoring chances and were out-chanced 30-20. They also had just seven high-danger chances, though they did only hold the Kings to six.
Perhaps being on the second half of a back-to-back didn’t help, but the Devils didn’t do enough to test Cal Petersen, who’s struggled in net recently. He came into yesterday’s contest with a .905 save percentage (SV%) in his last five games and an .899 SV% in his last 10 games. The Kings are one of the best five-on-five teams in the league, but the Devils are in the top half themselves. It was a bit of a disappointing effort, especially since Gillies did his best to give them a chance to win.
Devils’ Five-on-Five Ice Time Distribution Was…Interesting
Ruff has gotten a lot better with this since the Christmas break, but last night’s five-on-five ice time distribution was less than ideal. Hughes and Nico Hischier led Devils forwards in five-on-five ice time, but not much made sense after them.
Jimmy Vesey is having a good season, especially for the fourth-line, penalty-killing role the Devils signed him to fill. In no way should he be logging more five-on-five ice time (13:34) than Bratt (11:43) and Sharangovich (11:55). Sure, Vesey was on a line with Hischier and Tomáš Tatar. But he doesn’t offer the same offensive prowess as Bratt or Sharangovich. Heck, even Michael McLeod played more at five-on-five (12:01) than Bratt and Sharangovich.
Sharangovich led the team in Corsi percentage (65.38 percent) and expected goals percentage (67.1 percent). Bratt was right behind Sharangovich in both those stats. They cannot be playing the 13th- and 14th-most minutes at five-on-five, especially in a game where they struggled to generate offense. And bottom-six forwards like Vesey and McLeod should not even come close to them in five-on-five ice time. That’s unacceptable, and it has to change against the Dallas Stars tomorrow night. They have to be among the team leaders in five-on-five ice time every game.
It’s Probably Time To Consider Another Holtz Call-Up
Watching the Devils over the weekend was a bit of a microcosm of their 2021-22 season. When they click, they can compete and score goals against the best teams in the league like the Hurricanes. But more often than not, goals are hard to come by like they were against the Kings. And when they do outplay a team, which they often do, the finishing is lacking, as it was against the Arizona Coyotes in a 4-1 loss on Wednesday.
Bratt and Hughes are producing at 80-point paces. Hischier is quietly having a great season, while Sharangovich and Johnsson are having good seasons in middle-six roles. But it’s clear the Devils need some goal-scoring wingers. That’s something general manager Tom Fitzgerald will likely address this offseason. But until then, it’s probably time to give top prospect Alexander Holtz another look in the NHL.
Holtz has been absolutely on fire for the Utica Comets in the AHL, where he has 11 goals and 20 points in 17 games. That would put him on pace for about 46 goals in the Comets’ 72-game schedule. His game score per game of 1.26 is third among U-21 players in the AHL and 13th overall among all players. His goals for percentage of 74.2 percent is third-best among U-21 players, while his rate of 0.94 primary points per game is 10th-best among all players.
If you haven’t guessed what I’m trying to say, it’s that Holtz is too good for the AHL. His first stint in the NHL earlier this season was a mixed bag, but he wasn’t always put in the best position to succeed. With the Devils’ current lines, he’d be a good complement for Hischier and Tatar. And if not them, he’d probably do quite well alongside Bratt and Hughes (probably even better), with Sharangovich moving up alongside Hischier and Tatar.
The Devils’ playoff chances are as good as toast, so the rest of the season should be about player development. While a call-up doesn’t seem imminent, it’s going to be hard to keep Holtz in the AHL if he keeps scoring the way he is. And he could force the Devils’ hand sooner than later.
The Devils have a difficult week of games ahead, with tilts against the Dallas Stars, Lightning and Hurricanes. Be sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest Devils coverage.
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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