Let’s get one thing straight: despite being crowned by many as the undisputed off-season champions, few expected the New Jersey Devils to make the post-season. Yes, they added significant pieces, including first-overall pick Jack Hughes and one-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman P.K. Subban and took calculated risks on free-agent signee Wayne Simmonds and unproven trade-pickup Nikita Gusev. And yes, New Jersey already had its all-star scorer and centerpiece in Taylor Hall. But the depth, or lack thereof, remained an issue. That’s why, in The Hockey News’ Yearbook, the Devils were slotted in at seventh in the Metropolitan Division.
That seventh-place slot came with an unspoken asterisk, however. The caveat was that this would be a step-taking season in New Jersey, a meaningful campaign even if it ended with the Devils on the outside of the post-season picture and wild-card race. The Devils were supposed to become less the on-ice off-night they had been for the opposition in recent years and more a thorn in the side of even the best of the best, a growing team that could stun a contender in any given game. Through one-fifth of New Jersey’s season, that hasn’t at all been the case.
As the Devils glance at the standings Thursday – surely through barely spread fingers for fear of what they’ll see – New Jersey finds itself third-last in the NHL. Their five wins are the fewest in the league. Their three shutout losses give them the dubious distinction of being the only team blanked on three separate occasions this season. And the Devils’ minus-21 goal differential puts them ahead of only the bottom-feeding Detroit Red Wings. New Jersey also wakes up having dropped three of their past four, including a 4-2 home-ice loss to the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday. The Devils brass has to be asking themselves how much longer they can carry on like this.
Without question, there are fingers that can, have and will be pointed. Hall has been Hall, guiding the offense with 15 points despite next to no shooting luck. (His 3.2 shooting percentage on 62 shots is the worst among all forwards with at least 50 shots.) Kyle Palmieri has continued to offer secondary scoring, too, with six goals and 11 points. And Hughes, despite a slow start, sits third in team scoring with nine points. But not one other skater has more than eight points. Only 10 have more than five points. Yet, somehow, that’s not even close to the most glaring issue, not when the play in the blue paint has been absolutely, positively putrid.
Through 17 games, the duo of MacKenzie Blackwood and Cory Schneider have combined for an .880 save percentage, 3.48 goals-against average and a minus-14.3 combined goals-saved above average at all strengths. Among the 50 goaltenders with 250 minutes played at five-a-side, Blackwood ranks 39th with a .904 SP. Schneider is dead-last with an .867 SP. And both land in the exact same spots among the same group of goaltenders in GSAA per 60 minutes. The performance of both netminders has been woeful.
Granted, there is one minor defense of Blackwood and Schneider. The Devils’ underlying numbers have been underwhelming, to say the least. At five-a-side, New Jersey ranks 27th in Corsi percentage (47.2), 21st in shots percentage (48.7) and 22nd in scoring chances percentage (48.8). Those are all issues that need addressing. But the Devils also rank 13th in high-danger chance percentage (51.6) and 20th in expected goals percentage (50), significantly higher than their actual goals percentage (42.7).
It’s difficult to use underlying numbers to defend either Blackwood or Schneider, though, when you consider where they rank among comparable keepers. Using that same group of 50 netminders, Blackwood, who has started 11 games to Schneider’s six, faces the sixth-fewest shots against (27.1) per 60 minutes. Schneider ranks 38th with 32.1 against. The expected goals against totals per hour of play also sends up a red flag. Blackwood ranks eighth at 1.94, while Schneider lands 32nd at 2.35. And as far as high-danger shots against, Blackwood’s 5.9 per 60 minutes are the fifth fewest. Schneider’s 8.1 land in 31st spot. This is to say that Schneider’s numbers are somewhat more defensible than Blackwood’s, but both deserve to shoulder some blame.
Maybe the worst part about the performance of the goaltending duo, however, is that it has very evidently cost the Devils points and placement in the standings. Six times New Jersey has blown third period leads, more than one-third of their games this season. On four occasions, the Devils have watched two-goal leads disappear, including a four-goal lead on opening night against the Winnipeg Jets and a three-goal lead not long thereafter against the Florida Panthers. Coach John Hynes has been and should be held responsible for his team’s inability to buckle down, as well, but his Devils have also been let down repeatedly by the play of their goaltenders. It’s the old “show me a good goaltender, I’ll show you a good coach” axiom, but flipped on its ear in the most unfortunate way.
Though eight points out of a wild-card spot and teetering on the brink of another season that becomes a wash, this season is beyond saving. There’s a chance, however slim, that finding a quick fix or stopgap option in goal can help the Devils. If New Jersey is going to take the step forward that was expected – and have a legitimate shot at retaining Hall, a pending free agent who has made clear he wants nothing more than to win – it’s their only hope.
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