Devils Downward Spiral: Who’s to Blame?

The New Jersey Devils season has quickly taken a turn for the worst. They’re 2-8-1 in their last 11 games after a 4-0-0 start and were outscored 34-17 on a seven-game road trip where they won just one game. Their roster is largely the same as last season’s playoff team, so who’s to blame for the rough start?

Devils Seven-Game Road Trip a Disaster

The blame begins with how the players have performed since their 4-0-0 start, specifically on a recent seven-game road trip. Even with the lack of wins, their underlying numbers haven’t been particularly poor. The Devils had an expected goals (xGF%) of 51.08% and had an 82-69 advantage in high-danger chances on the trip.

However, the stats don’t justify the Devils sluggish performance. Defensive breakdowns played a huge part in them giving up five or more goals in four of seven games. They missed plenty of assignments in their own end and were consistently hemmed in after failing to get the puck out of the zone. They also struggled in the neutral zone, where they made careless turnovers.

The Devils goaltending has been as bad as it gets, too. The team had an expected goals against (xGA) of 24.23 at all strengths, ranked second worst in the NHL since Oct. 30, but that’s still 10 less than the 34 actual goals they gave up. Their team save percentage (SV%) is 86.1% over that span, third worst in the NHL. Even with the poor defensive effort, Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider have to be much better.

New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider
Cory Schneider needs to step up for the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

Things could have been worse for the Devils offense. They averaged 64.35 shot attempts per 60 minutes at five-on-five, ranked sixth in the NHL. Their 82 high-danger chances tie the Carolina Hurricanes for best in the league. Their expected goals for (xGF) of 22.14 also ranks sixth best in the NHL since Oct. 30. Those may be the only positives to take away from a disastrous road trip.

Ray Shero’s Offseason Plan Hasn’t Panned Out

The Devils general manager had a pretty simple approach to free agency this past summer. Their lone signing with NHL experience was Eric Gryba, and he’s played in a mere two games for the big club. Shero’s plan relied on their young players taking the next step forward, and so far, that has not worked out.

Pavel Zacha had no points in 10 games and is now in the AHL trying to get his act together. Former first-round pick John Quenneville made the Devils roster out of training camp, but like Zacha, he’s trying to work his way back up from the AHL. Miles Wood has also struggled out of the gate, with one goal in 15 games.

Shero’s free agency approach made sense, and he still made the right decision to not spend to the cap. But there were a couple of players that would have helped address some significant needs for the Devils. The two that come to mind first are Calvin de Haan and Anthony Duclair.

The Columbus Blue Jackets signed Duclair to a one-year contract worth the league minimum of $650,000. He has seven goals and 10 points in 18 games and is averaging 2.03 points per 60 minutes (P/60) at five-on-five, ranked fourth on the Blue Jackets.

Columbus Blue Jackets Anthony Duclair
Anthony Duclair would’ve been a perfect fit for the New Jersey Devils middle-six forward lines. (Photo by Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

De Haan has just two points on the season, but he has fantastic underlying numbers at five-on-five. The Hurricanes have a 63.77% xGF% and an 8.67 xGA with him on the ice. He signed a very reasonable four-year deal, with a cap hit just over $4.5 million, a deal the Devils could have easily afforded.

Duclair would have been a nice upgrade for the Devils, but they chose to bring back Drew Stafford, who’s added next to nothing on the ice this season. De Haan would have fit right in on the Devils’ top pair and would have been a significant upgrade over Mirco Mueller. And both players would have helped the Devils without damaging their long-term cap situation.

Related: Devils Need to Target Duclair

John Hynes Should Not be Fired

Hynes holds some of the responsibility for the team’s struggles. They aren’t playing well, and it falls on him and the rest of his staff to get things back on the right track. At the same time, it’s ridiculous to call for his ousting.

The Devils were projected to be a lottery team in 2017-18 and made the playoffs after a 97-point season. He had the team playing a fast, attacking style of hockey that the organization wasn’t known for in the past. The Devils would likely still be among the basement dwellers of the NHL without him.

Shero’s lack of additions during the offseason hasn’t helped Hynes, either. The Devils weren’t a perfect team and had secondary scoring and defensive issues in 2017-18. A trade can still help make improvements, but it’s not a guarantee that’s coming any time soon.

Perspective is Important

No one individual is responsible for the Devils slow start. Shero’s plan short-term plan may have backfired, but the Devils are still in a good position in the long run. They have an improving prospect pool and a good cap situation.

Ray Shero New Jersey Devils
GM Ray Shero addresses the media at the New Jersey Devils 2017 Development Camp. (Photo Credit: New Jersey Devils/Patrick Dodson)

Hynes is a good coach and shouldn’t be afraid for his job, even with Joel Quenneville available. Firing him would be a knee-jerk reaction to what is just a potential rough patch. His style of coaching also fits how the team wants to play and replacing him could change their philosophy for the worst.

The Devils also need to perform better on the ice. Taylor Hall is performing well below his career averages at five-on-five, so he’s due to pick it up. Their goaltending should bounce back, too. That’ll help turn things around, and if they don’t, the Devils future still looks bright, and that outlook is what matters most.

*    *    *

Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Corsica Hockey