The New Jersey Devils are sinking to the ocean floor faster and faster with each loss. With last night’s 3-2 defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins, they’ve lost six in a row and 15 of their previous 18 games. What was supposed to be a season that ended up with playing meaningful games in March and April is slowly turning into a race for Shane Wright or Matthew Savoie at the 2022 draft. Here are five takeaways from another lackluster effort from the Devils.
McLeod Hard-Matched Against Crosby
Head coach Lindy Ruff and his staff had a clear game plan last night, and that was to hard-match Michael McLeod’s line against Sidney Crosby’s line at five-on-five. The strategy worked in the sense that Crosby didn’t score, even though he did generate his fair share of chances for him and his linemates. But McLeod’s deployment came at the expense of playing some of the Devils’ top players.
McLeod led Devils forwards in five-on-five ice time, ahead of Jack Hughes, Dawson Mercer and Jesper Bratt. The Devils did not generate much offensively at five-on-five, as they had an expected goals of 0.95 and 24 shot attempts for the game. That’s problematic for a team that’s struggled to score goals lately.
Hughes, Mercer and Bratt led all Devils forwards in total ice time for the game (18-19 minutes each), but McLeod was right behind with 17 minutes. He plays his role well, but he shouldn’t be logging similar ice time to Hughes, Bratt and Mercer. And he certainly shouldn’t be logging more than them at five-on-five. The Devils should be playing their top players more often, closer to 20-22 minutes a night at all strengths, plus the most minutes at 5-on-5. That kind of deployment is only compounding the issues they’re already having.
Hughes’ Deployment Did Him No Good
After a couple of impressive games in a row, Hughes had an off night against the Penguins. That’s not a surprise on the second half of a back-to-back, but there were other issues at hand. Like hard-matching McLeod against Crosby, the way Ruff and his staff deployed Hughes’ line was…interesting.
You probably don’t think about Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger too much when hockey comes across your mind. But they are two of the better defensive forwards in the NHL. Aston-Reese, in particular, is an elite defensive forward. For whatever reason, Ruff deployed Hughes, Andreas Johnsson and Tomáš Tatar the most against Aston-Reese and Blueger. And as you may have guessed, they completely shut down Hughes’ line.
Hughes finished the game with an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 3.69 percent. Aston-Reese held him to an xG% of 0.96 percent in 7:09 at five-on-five, the most ice time Hughes had against a Penguins forward. The Devils had last change since it was a home game, but Ruff still deployed Hughes against the Penguins’ best defensive forwards. Again, that speaks volumes to some of the deployment decisions Ruff and his staff are making. It’s clear they’re negatively impacting the team in some way.
Gillies Solid in Devils Debut
After acquiring Jon Gillies in a trade with the St. Louis Blues earlier this week, he made his Devils debut against the Penguins. He performed well, stopping 19 of 22 shots, and when looking at the goals he gave up, there wasn’t much he could’ve done to stop them. The first was a shorthanded breakaway, the second was a snipe from Danton Heinen, and the third was a shot from Mike Matheson that Gillies couldn’t see because of a screen applied by a Penguins forward.
With Mackenzie Blackwood out day-to-day and Jonathan Bernier likely out long-term, the Devils will need Gillies to give them solid play after the Christmas break. He’s going to be Blackwood’s primary backup for as long as Bernier is out. Last night was a decent start, and if he can give them league average goaltending, it would help the Devils in trying to mend the problems they have.
Another Strong Night for Ty Smith
Ty Smith’s poor start to the season isn’t a thing of the past yet, but it’s starting to come along for him. He only played a total of 14:34 last night, but he finished with a game score of 1.41, which led all Devils players. It was a nice rebound effort from him after a tough night in a loss against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday. And it was, in fact, the second-best game score of the season for Smith.
While December has been an awful month for the Devils as a team, Smith’s play has begun to improve. Five of his 10 best game scores have come this month, and his five-on-five numbers are slowly trending upward. Their season may be a lost cause at this point, but Smith is an important part of the Devils’ long-term plans. As I mentioned recently, getting him in a groove is crucial for the rest of the season. And it appears it might be starting to click for him.
Devils Power Play Still Committing Fatal Mistakes
The Devils scored a power-play goal to make it a 3-2 game in the third period. But that still wasn’t enough to make up for another shorthanded goal against that they allowed in the first period. That shorthanded goal ultimately proved to be the difference in the final score, which isn’t the first time that’s happened this season.
The goal of any team’s power play is to be a difference-maker, but that’s not what the Devils’ power play is. Not at all. After last night, they’ve given up six shorthanded goals while only scoring 10 power-play goals. That’s good for a goals for percentage of 62.5 percent, which is the worst in the league by just over 11 percent. Their power play has cost them a few wins, at a minimum. And while it’s no guarantee they defeat the Penguins last night if they don’t give up a shorthanded goal, they could’ve at least salvaged a point.
With games between U.S. and Canadian-based teams postponed due to rising COVID cases, the Devils’ final contest before the Christmas break will be a rematch against the Penguins in Pittsburgh tomorrow night. The near-week off will serve the players well and give them a chance to reset after a tough month-plus. And given the number of losses they’ve piled up, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they returned to a revamped coaching staff as well.
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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