Assessment time is coming for NHL teams. By the weekend, most will have already played 30 percent of its regular season and perhaps, given the COVID-related struggles across the league, the reality of sub-56 game seasons could start to set in.
The Devils have a busy weekend and week ahead, but won’t reach that 16-game (30%) benchmark until next weekend’s back-to-back meetings with the Washington Capitals. By the end of that series, the Caps will have already played 20 games. But such is life in the NHL, where teams have been shelved for upwards of two weeks and will have to deal with more compact scheduling–Lindy Ruff said Tuesday that full-team practices are essentially out for the season.
There’s the reality that the percentage of games played now, next weekend or a month from now, might not be true. That a 56-game season could be threatened as the league, much like the world, is forced to adapt. The Devils, who have played the fewest games in the NHL right now (11), have put together enough of a body of work to at least jot some noteworthy things down. So let’s review.
State of Affairs: In Net
In their return to action after two weeks of quarantine, the Devils won consecutive road games in regulation while outscoring its opponent 8-4. Though the youthful squad might have expected some of its young legs to run off adrenaline in the first period of their return on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden–by the way, they did as they outshot the Rangers 16-9–it was hard to ignore the structural play in the third.
Versus New York on Tuesday, the Devils tallied thrice in the third, a period that was played entirely at even-strength. On Thursday at TD Garden, the Bruins managed to cut a two-goal deficit in half, but the Devils grinded away some strong looks from some of Boston’s most potent weapons while Mackenzie Blackwood, who saw a season-low 27 shots, secured his fourth-straight win.
‘Black’ is back after missing six games due to COVID-19. In five starts this season he’s been forced to stop 35-plus shots three times including a 47-save performance on Jan. 19 at MSG, his last game before being sidelined. Of course limiting his workload on ice is among Ruff’s priorities as he continues to mold the club’s defense to his liking, but we could see the first backup appearance for No. 29 in the upcoming stretch of games. Aaron Dell, a capable NHL goaltender through four previous pro seasons was claimed off waivers by New Jersey to help strengthen their depth in net along with Scott Wedgewood (who remains on the roster) and had included Eric Comrie before he was claimed back by Winnipeg via waivers on Thursday.
State of Affairs: On Defense
In 11 games, the Devils have utilized 9 different defensemen. For comparison, the Canucks, who have played more games than any team at this point and nine more than New Jersey, has also utilized 9 blueliners. For the entire first month of the season, there was no deviation from the six utilized on opening night. But three more have entered into the picture in the last two games. Connor Carrick and Will Butcher made their season debuts on Tuesday; Sami Vatanen on Thursday.
If the Devils entered the season with a defense that looked apparently suspect, there’s been some optimism around how they have performed thus far, particularly following another game in which they withstood one of the game’s best offenses for the third time this season allowing two or fewer goals.
“If you look at the early games, I think we played really solid against them,” Ruff said when asked if Thursday was perhaps the best his team has looked in front of their goaltender. “We realize that they’re a really good team. I think that’s the next step for us is treat everybody as a really good team.”
The nine-straight games of usage of the personnel that included Dmitry Kulikov, Ryan Murray, Damon Severson, Ty Smith, P.K. Subban and Matt Tennyson was a subject Ruff was asked about in what was the last series before being shelved for awhile.
“These guys have worked hard at where they need to be in their own end,” he said. “Our forwards have worked hard at where they need to be in their own end. So I think if we continue to play like that, this group of six can have success. It’s all linked together. Our system just isn’t about defending with defensemen.”
But it may be awhile before that six shares the D-corps together again. Vatanen eased his way back into the lineup on Thursday with 14:44 TOI after missing time due to COVID protocol, coming to NJ via Finland after a season in which he started with the Devils and wound up on Carolina at the trade deadline.
For Vatanen, who was an important part of the Devils defense in parts of his last three seasons, this might be the system that compliments his style the best.
“We play a very fast game here, try and get a lot of pressure from their guys,” Vatanen said in a Thursday Zoom call. “It fits me very well and I’m ready to battle.
“Just make the first easy pass for the forwards and then join the rush. You’re going to get some chances to score, too. Of course it helps for the forwards if the D are very active and moving the puck fast.”
Vatanen isn’t the only puck-mover that appears helped by the fast-paced system under Ruff. Severson, who has logged a team-high 23:45 this season is playing more akin to his style and has been void of some of the more glaring gaffes. Smith, the 20-year-old rookie, has made good on his first season thus far–he’s tallied eight points and most recently is coming off back-to-back 20-plus minute showings.
The pieces on defense have been around the organization in one way or another, but they’re getting some effective, proper usage under a system that has the backing of the eye test and numbers to be working so far.
State of Affairs: Jack Hughes and the Forwards
If there was a source of concern among the Devils forwards–or at least something worth noting–it was that through 9 games, Kyle Palmieri, the club’s leader in goals and points
in four of the last five seasons, had yet to find the back of the net. But Palmieri’s wrist shot 1:34 into the second period on a great feed from Jack Hughes put 21 on the board. He’d add the 2-0 tally shorthanded later that period. He’s in the final season of his contract, but at 30 he has a lot of hockey left to give and while the youth has been at its best among the forwards, there’s still a heavy reliance on him.
“It’s nice to get the monkey off your back there,” Palmieri said postgame in Boston. “Jack made a great play. It’s nice to contribute in that way and obviously coming out of the break, it’s a tough situation for our team to be in, but I really loved Lindy’s quote the other day about finding reasons to win. Two games on the road, two big wins and that’s a good sign of something special here.
“We got an awesome group in here. I think we’re playing for each other. I saw the emotion of guys–they were happy for me coming to the bench. That means a lot. It’s an awesome win for us and hopefully it carries some of that momentum into the weekend.”
Just a tidbit here: I have wondered about Palmieri and comparables as the winger remains unsigned and the team will have to decide something one way or another, presumably before the trade deadline. One has to think that James van Riemsdyk’s five-year, $35 million contract is one. JvR’s was in free agency and he had many suitors including the Devils, but Palmieri has 255 points in his last 373 games with NJ (0.68 points-per-game); van Riemsdyk through 413 games with the Leafs–294 (0.71 points-per-game).
Back to the forwards and of course you have to start with Hughes. After what was comparatively a tough season for the first overall pick, he’s blossomed in his sophomore campaign. The two-goal, three-point showing at MSG might be the highlight–but in the absence of Nico Hischier, he’s taken over the first line center duties for much of the season and has rolled with it. With a season of pro hockey under his belt, a long offseason spent wisely, there’s no reason to expect the 19-year-old won’t continue to navigate this league with success. Processes do take time, but there’s a lot of creativity and IQ to get through the hurdles.
This won’t be a full dissection of forward-by-forward. After all, the Devils have utilized 15 already and have seen the likes of Nate Bastian, Michael McLeod, Janne Kuokkanen, Nick Merkley, Mikhail Maltsev and Yegor Sharangovich all step in and contribute with regularity–some including Merkley and Maltsev just recently earning that opportunity. But while we’re on the topic of processes, it’s important to examine Pavel Zacha.
By now you’ve had to have seen the fantastic spin-move to get around the Bruins defense and followed it up superbly with a goal that ended up as the game-winner on Thursday. But beyond the glamor shot, this has seemed to be the best start to the season for Zacha, who hasn’t been without his struggles since coming on board as a regular in 2016-17. He put up points with more regularity last season but his confidence has looked noticeably better in the early-goings of this unpredictable season.
“It’s something that you do in practice and I tried it in a game and it worked out,” Zacha said on his spin-o-rama. “I’m happy about that. You don’t really have time to think about what you’re doing that much.
“We’re trying to play a real fast game, not spend too much time in our D-zone and I think for our team that’s how we want to play–we have really fast forwards. That’s a system that works for us. We just have to get better and keep working on it.”
Ruff admitted that he didn’t know much about Zacha prior to taking the head coaching job with the Devils, but knows now that he has some traits that can be important for his club.
“I’m going to be very honest, I didn’t know a lot about Pavel Zacha when I got here,” Ruff said. “I’ve trusted a lot in what (Fitzgerald) has told me, what (Nasreddine) has told me about him, where he needs to get his game to. There’s games where I thought he’s been good for us, there’s games that he could have given us more. These last couple games is the type of player we need, he’s winning battles, he’s involved in the 50-50 puck situations where he’s coming up with them, he’s better on draws and he’s an important piece when he plays like that for us.”
Miles Wood, the last player of further review for this piece, has been a catalyst of a few things this season. He’s the team’s leading goal scorer, he’s still the fastest skater on an very young team and versus Boston he once again got an opportunity to frustrate the opposition, drawing a penalty. I wrote about the forward earlier this season, this came following the Devils’ 2-1 OT victory in Boston that saw Wood collect a scrap and a goal. He makes no apologies for how hard and fast he plays.
“It’s just kind of how I played my whole life,” Wood said prior to Thursday’s meeting against his hometown Bruins. “It’s not on purpose, it’s just how I play. If it gets under their skin, then it is what it is. That’s their problem. It’s just how I’ve always played the game and I for sure won’t stop because that’s what got me here to this day.”
Before we conclude on forwards and this piece, two components of interest could be part of the Devils when the team returns to action this weekend. Nico Hischier, who has been out in COVID protocol could make his season debut and Travis Zajac, no longer in protocol could be an option this weekend as well, according to Ruff. He is two games shy of 1,000 in the NHL. A great accomplishment when it happens.
And lastly, there was some ambiguity at times regarding Tom Fitzgerald and whether or not he was a serious candidate or seriously interested in the GM job in Pittsburgh that ultimately went to Ron Hextall. Several reports connected him as an option while others suggested the Devils felt he was a big part of its future. It’s been reported that he has a multi-year contract, but only a year as the GM–a unique structure for someone who was stripped of the interim tag this offseason. Chris Drury, who was a candidate the Penguins were intrigued by, got upped from Assistant GM to Associate GM. Additional term as GM seems likely, but perhaps he will also be tabbed as ‘President of Hockey Operations.’ This is something several teams have done with their GMs and is something I’m wondering about here.