The New Jersey Devils have dealt with a plethora of injuries to start this season. Both of their top goaltenders, Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier, have missed game action due to injuries. Jack Hughes dislocated his shoulder against the Seattle Kraken and will be out for the foreseeable future. But one Devils injury that’s flying under the radar is that of Miles Wood, whose absence is starting to strain the team.
Wood appeared in a couple of preseason games and looked quite good. But he hasn’t played since the Devils’ preseason game against the Washington Capitals a little over two weeks ago. Wood described the injuries as “some bumps and bruises” but hasn’t seen the ice since then, even in practice.
How much longer Wood is out remains to be seen. But the Devils could sure use him in their lineup sooner than later. With Hughes unavailable for the next couple of weeks at a minimum, the Devils need any scoring depth they can get. And there aren’t many bottom-six forwards who have the offensive ability Wood does while bringing some physicality the team seems to be craving these days.
Wood Re-Established Himself in 2020-21
Wood’s had a bit of an up and down tenure with the Devils. He had a so-so rookie season in 2016-17 but broke out the following year, with 19 goals in 76 games, and played an important role in helping the Devils qualify for the playoffs in 2017-18. However, his game would take a bit of a step back the next two seasons.
Wood’s production slipped between 2018-20, as he scored 21 goals across 131 games. His five-on-five numbers fell off as well, specifically during the 2019-20 campaign, where finished with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 43.1 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 43.3 percent that season while struggling quite a bit defensively.
But as we all know, the 2019-20 season went on pause due to the COVID pandemic. And with the Devils not being part of the NHL’s playoff bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, that gave Wood close to 10 months to re-adjust his game and come back fresh for the 2020-21 campaign. Whatever he did during that time off seemed to work because he had arguably the best season of his career.
Though the Devils were not much good a season ago, many of their young players took noticeable steps forward. That’s true of Wood, even though he’s one of the team’s older players at 26 years old. He finished last season with 17 goals and 25 points in 55 games — a 25-goal, 37-point pace over 82 games. His five-on-five scoring improved from 1.53 points per 60 minutes the season prior to 1.82 in 2020-21.
More importantly, his on-ice results at five-on-five saw a noticeable uptick. He finished with a CF% of 48.8 percent and xG% of 50.8 percent and found chemistry on the fourth line alongside Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian. And after struggling defensively the season before, he became one of the Devils’ better two-way forwards.
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It was a back-to-basics kind of season from Wood that saw him score 19 goals in 2017-18. He started getting towards the front of the net more often instead of shooting from low percentage areas the previous two seasons, and it paid off. Add the physical game he brings, and that’s what the Devils are having trouble trying to replicate.
Replacing Wood Hasn’t Been Easy
It’s pretty clear head coach Lindy Ruff wants some physicality in his lineup this season. That’s the reason why the Devils claimed Mason Geersten on waivers during the preseason and have played him in two of their three regular-season games. It’s also why Frederik Gauthier, who’s 6-foot-5, 238 pounds, is on the roster and is seeing some playing time.
Geersten and Gauthier posted solid five-on-five numbers in the Devils’ 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals on Thursday evening. With that said, both players have their offensive limitations. Gauthier has averaged close to 15 points per 82 games for his NHL career. Geersten, on the other hand, had never played in an NHL game until this week. He wasn’t much of a scorer in the AHL either, with 29 points in his previous 138 games, though many of those games came as a defenseman rather than a forward.
Geersten and Gauthier may add the physical presence Ruff is looking for in his fourth line. They shouldn’t have a problem continuing to add that, either. But the Devils will need goals from their bottom-six at some point, especially with Hughes out. Gauthier and Geersten may score an occasional goal here and there, but they’re not going to be able to match what Wood offers offensively.
Wood may not be as large or as physical as Geersten or Gauthier, but he doesn’t shy away from throwing his body around and irritating opponents. He still plays physically enough while having the potential to score 20 goals in a bottom-six role and playing the net-front on the power play. And that’s something the Devils are sorely missing in their lineup early in the season.
How many more games Wood misses is unclear. But he’s an underrated part of the Devils’ roster who doesn’t get enough credit for the scoring and physical elements he provides in the bottom-six. And with scoring depth becoming more crucial with Hughes missing games, the sooner the Devils get him back in the lineup, the better off they’ll be trying to build a good start to the 2021-22 campaign.
Colton White on Waivers
Before departing here, I briefly wanted to touch on the Devils placing White on waivers. It’s not worth going over who they should’ve placed on waivers over him. Rather, the point I want to make is that he deserves to be on the team’s NHL roster. With injuries to Ty Smith and Damon Severson to begin the season, White appeared in two of the Devils’ three games and impressed.
It doesn’t get much smaller than a two-game sample size, but White had an xG% of 67.3 percent across those two games. That ranks first among the team’s defensemen and third among all players behind Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha. For me, placing a player on waivers who’s outperformed some other defensemen who figure to be bottom-of-the-lineup players isn’t a great look and doesn’t send a good message. Hopefully, White passes through waivers unclaimed and this is all for naught. Because if injuries strike again, the Devils will likely need him to step into the lineup once again. And losing him on waivers when he’s shown he can add something positive will hurt their defensive depth.
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Advanced stats from Evolving-Hockey
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