Wins have been hard to come by for the New Jersey Devils this season, and it hasn’t been any easier since the NHL trade deadline. They’ve also had injuries to top players like Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier, which hasn’t helped matters. Although they aren’t winning games, things aren’t as bleak as they might seem. There are a few reasons why that’s the case, and they should provide Devils’ fans with a sense of optimism during the final month of the regular season.
Devils’ Defense Has Tightened Up
The Devils’ effort has been there as of late. On Saturday night, they played the Bruins to the final horn, losing by a score of 1-0. They won the scoring-chance battle 18-13 and limited the Bruins to only three high-danger chances. But they couldn’t find the back of the net with all their top scorers out of the lineup.
Their following performance was much of the same, and they even outplayed the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Devils outshot them 30-18 at all strengths, won the five-on-five scoring chance battle 26-14, and held the opposition to three high-danger chances for the second straight game. The Devils would end up falling in a shootout, but it was an impressive performance against a team desperate to get back in a playoff spot.
The lack of chances the Devils are giving up is no accident. They’ve been of the best scoring chance suppression teams in the league over their last 15 games, allowing 22.83 scoring chances against per 60 minutes, ranked third in the NHL. They’ve also allowed 8.88 high-danger chances against per 60 minutes, ranked second behind the St. Louis Blues.
With the injuries piling up, head coach John Hynes had no choice but to get his defense to tighten up. Their best offensive players are out of the lineup, and the goals will be sparse until they return to action. That means a lot of low scoring games are coming, but it’s the best way for the Devils to keep things competitive. And with a bunch of young players filling in, it’ll help keep things manageable for them.
Which Devils Have Performed the Best?
They aren’t scoring a ton, but the Devils are getting good efforts from the some of their new faces. Michael McLeod hasn’t recorded a point yet, but he came close to giving the Devils a 2-1 win against the Blue Jackets when he rang a shot off the crossbar in the third period. The Devils also have an expected goals for (xGF%) of 58.17 percent when he’s on the ice. If he keeps it up, he should be rewarded for his efforts because his play has been solid.
Kevin Rooney has made his presence felt. Over his last 15 games played, he has an xGF% of 50.55 percent. He’s also been a big part of the Devils’ penalty kill and took over Brian Boyle’s role after he was traded to the Nashville Predators. He’s shown improvement since his first game with the Devils and is making a case for a fourth-line role next season.
Kenny Agostino has been a nice addition to the team. He has an xGF% of 58.45 percent when on the ice, ranked best of the Devils’ forwards since he was claimed on waivers about a month ago. His ceiling may not be higher than a fourth-line forward, but he plays the role well. And he can score a bit more than players like Kurtis Gabriel and Blake Pietila, which strengthens his case to stick around beyond this season.
The newest Devils have played well, but it’s their goaltenders that have been their best players over this stretch. Cory Schneider has a .923 save percentage (SV%) since returning to play on Feb. 7, while Mackenzie Blackwood has stopped 62 of his last 65 shots and has a .931 SV% in 15 appearances this season. They should both continue to benefit from the Devils keeping scoring and high-danger chances to a minimum moving forward.
Is There Any Significance to This?
The Devils keep losing games, so it may not seem like any of this has meaning, but that isn’t the case. Schneider is playing the best hockey he has in well over a year, and that has importance beyond this season. He’s under contract for three more seasons, and I doubt the Devils trade him. They need him to play well because he’s key to them getting back to the postseason in 2019-20.
The same could be said for Blackwood, although his situation is a bit different than Schneider’s. He’s a rookie on his entry-level contract who’s still developing. The Devils are trying to see what they have in him, but the early returns are great. There’s a good chance he’ll be in the NHL in 2019-20, so seeing him play at this level is another positive.
The performances of their call-ups shouldn’t go unnoticed either. The Devils have half of their AHL roster in the NHL right now, and most of them are trying to show they belong in the league. The team’s defense tightening up has helped, but the effort has been there from players like Rooney and McLeod. That’s something you want to see because it matters heading into next season too.
The Devils aren’t going to win many games the rest of the way, but you have to applaud their recent effort. It feels different than the end of 2016-17 when they were getting run out of the building on most nights. They’re keeping things competitive and getting decent outings from their young players, as well as their goalies. It provides a sense of optimism and gives the Devils something to build on heading into a crucial offseason. And that’s why there’s significance to keeping things competitive to end the season.
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