Welcome to the New Jersey Devils 3 Up, 3 Down for the 2022-23 season. This will be a weekly column released on Mondays, chronicling the highs and lows of the previous seven days.
As I write this, the Devils are tied with the Boston Bruins as the top team in the league with 36 points and a record of 16-4-0. Last week they saw their 13-game winning streak snapped against the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, the club quickly turned it around and finished with back-to-back wins and will be starting this week off looking for their third straight victory.
Here’s a look at some of the good and bad from the week for the Devils.
Plus 1: Lindy Ruff Earns 800th Win
It has been a wild few weeks for Devils head coach Lindy Ruff. He’s come a long way since the “Fire Lindy” chants that echoed throughout Prudential Center in early October. Since then, he received “Sorry Lindy” chants and became the fifth coach in NHL history to earn 800 career wins, joining Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville, Barry Trotz, and Ken Hitchcock.
After his team’s victory over the Washington Capitals on Nov. 26, he talked to the media about his milestone. When asked what it means to have 800 wins, the coach answered with a chuckle saying, “it means I’ve been around a long time.”
He continued to talk about what it means to be included with the four aforementioned coaches.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for all those names. A lot of great coaches,” Ruff said. “I obviously played for Scotty Bowman and I have a lot of respect for him. I still communicate with him on occasion. The reason you get there is you’ve found a way to adapt through the years and get to that point.”
Minus 1: Penalty Kill Could Improve
This past week the Devils found themselves shorthanded 12 times and allowed two power-play goals, one against the Edmonton Oilers and the other against the Capitals. The club’s penalty kill percentage is 81.9, which ranks them seventh in the league. It’s an improvement since they finished 14th in the league last season. Over the summer, the organization lost Jimmy Vesey and Janne Kuokkanen, who were big contributors to their four-man unit, along with Michael McLeod and Nico Hischier.
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This season a few new faces have been deployed on New Jersey’s penalty kill including Erik Haula and Nathan Bastian. Hischier and Yegor Sharangovich have averaged over two minutes of shorthanded ice time, while McLeod now ranks fifth among all forwards.
According to Ruff, Bastian is expected to be out a little bit with a shoulder injury. That not only affects the team’s impressive impact line but also the penalty kill, as he has been out with Haula. It is something to keep an eye on as the team will continue to improve its special teams.
Plus 2: Devils Continue to Get Solid Goaltending
“The Devils continue to get solid goaltending.” There’s a sentence fans and media could not say last season. The team’s depth at the goaltending position has been a key reason for their early success. The tandem of Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid holds a record of 11-1-0 since Blackwood was injured on Nov. 3 against the Oilers.
At the time of publication, Vanecek is second in the league among goaltenders with a goals against average (GAA) of 2.05 and ranked sixth in the league with a .923 save percentage. Schmid has surprised many by showing, just how much he progressed and matured this past summer. Last season he appeared in four games and had a record of 0-4-0 with a goals-against average of 4.83. This season the 22-year-old has flipped the switch and has a 4-0-0 record with a goals-against average of 1.24. Regardless of who gets the nod in the crease, it appears the coaching staff, team, and fans are comfortable, which may be the biggest surprise of the 2022-23 season, so far.
Minus 2: Severson’s Reduced Ice Time
One player I have been paying attention to this season is Damon Severson, who through the first quarter of the season has averaged 17:39 of ice time. Since coming into the league, he has been one of the defensemen the coaching staff has heavily relied upon, playing up to 23 or 24 minutes a night. Now that the blue line has drastically improved, the 28-year-old has been dropped to the third defensive pair along with veteran Brendan Smith. Over the past week, here is a breakdown of Severson’s ice time.
versus Edmonton Oilers 13:31
versus Toronto Maple Leafs 12:54
versus Buffalo Sabres 14:59
versus Washington Capitals 17:43
Between the steady play of Dougie Hamilton and the emergence of John Marino, Severson is not getting the same opportunities he has grown accustomed to in the past. Weeks ago, I spoke to Severson and asked him if he feels less pressure this season because of the team’s depth on defense.
“Yeah, maybe in a sense because we didn’t have that depth so I always knew I was gonna need to play big minutes,” he said. “I quite enjoy that, like I really enjoy the 24-25 minute nights. I don’t need to be doing that every time, but my minutes have been a lot lower than I wanted to. …I’m just trying to continue to play well and help the team.”
Plus 3: Jack Hughes Nets First Hat Trick
It was only a matter of time until the former first-overall pick recorded his first natural hat trick. The surprise is that it came against a team, that before Nov. 26, only collected two goals in 14 contests. The Capitals are historically not just a tough opponent for Jack Hughes, but for the Devils, as their record against Alex Ovechkin’s club is 94-118-13-6.
According to MSG Networks statistician Nick Cahill, Hughes has the Devils’ first natural hat trick since Brian Boyle earned his in Pittsburgh on Nov. 5, 2018. After the game, Hughes was asked what he was aiming for on his second goal. The 21-year-old replied with a huge grin, “just the net, baby. The net…”
Minus 3: The Team’s Play in the First Period
If there is one area that needs to be improved, most would agree it is the team’s play in the first period. Haula and Smith have been vocal about the team needing to be more prepared and to start on time, while Hischier told the media the club lost their game versus Toronto in the first period. The club is still looking for a full 60-minute effort, but things have been improving. Their first period against the Capitals might have been the best first-period fans have seen over these past few weeks.
That does it for this edition of the Devils’ 3 Up, 3 Down. Tonight the Devils will travel across the river to take on the New York Rangers before coming home to face the Nashville Predators on Dec. 1st at Prudential Center.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.