As we hit American Thanksgiving, the Devils have played 17 games, a 3-2 shootout loss at home to the Wild on Wednesday being the latest, another outing in which the Devils rallied from two behind to tie the game in the third, this time only clawing out a single point. With the late start to the season and the postponement of one game due to COVID protocol, they’re two games over .500, two points behind both wild card spots–and trail the third spot in the division by seven. By this time next week, they’ll have hit the 20-game mark and a larger sample size to draw some reasonable conclusions. But, the fact right now is the Devils have remained competitive in most contests, have had some issues with injuries and have found ways to win. So, through today’s available information, here’s what the Devils are telling me:
1. Secondary Scoring
At the time of writing this, the Devils have five forwards with double-digit point totals and Dougie Hamilton as the lone defenseman with 10 (5-5). Last season, at the 20-game mark, three forwards–Pavel Zacha, Jack Hughes, Miles Wood and one defenseman–Ty Smith–had 10 or more points. At 30 games, they had eight forwards and three defensemen. Tomas Tatar has looked better, Yegor Sharangovich is starting to find some offensive rhythm and Jimmy Vesey is carving out a role with some power play responsibilities. It might be close, but it looks like they’ll match that total among the forwards. P.K. Subban and Ryan Graves are close and Smith and Damon Severson seem to collect points in bunches and haven’t gotten hot yet. Looking at what we’ve seen and having even the most modest projections, the Devils shouldn’t have much of an issue showing its secondary scoring is the same through 30, but should be even better.
The Devils right now are averaging 2.9 goals-per-game–comparatively, that’s enough to hang around in most divisional contests–Carolina/Pittsburgh (3.05), Rangers (2.9), Flyers (2.7), Islanders (2)…of course, you’d think the Caps could cool off a bit from 3.5, right? Elsewhere, the East has been a mostly sub-2.8 goals-per-game conference, minus the near-4 goals-per-game Panthers, but that’s hardly a surprise to the Devils. It doesn’t have to be a shootout night-after-night, but they look better at handling those confrontations now than the sample set from last season.
2. Special teams issues are flirting with costly
The Devils have drawn 3.68 penalties/60–middle of the pack in the league this season. Meanwhile, they’re among the league leaders in penalties taken/60 at 4.02. That’s slightly concerning and then you look at the equally unflattering numbers on the power play–13.7 percent, good enough for fourth-worst in the league and a 78 percent kill, 23rd on the season. In games in which the Devils have drawn four or more power plays, they’re 2-2-2, going 3-for-25. The Devils have allowed the same number of goals as they’ve scored (49), which is to say, these kinds of special teams numbers, if not fixed, come very close to being an Achilles’ heel to whatever efforts the team has in mind.
The power play on Wednesday, which yielded a shorthanded goal in the first and had over a minute of 5-on-3 time in the third, drew empty–but there were some strong looks in-close. Enough to look past coming up empty. You’d imagine the advantage won’t mind having Hughes back in the next month or so, but is the personnel in-house for a sufficient kill? Is that the kind of role Jesper Boqvist will need to provide when he’s in the lineup to stay in? Alexander Holtz’s game isn’t that and thus a second callup could take some time, but Frederik Gauthier see this and know what his path back to the NHL is? I’d assume so.
3. A Healthy Mackenzie Blackwood just might be the Team’s MVP
The organization wasn’t exactly shy in their frustrations over one player not being vaccinated heading into training camp. And, now that he is, you see why that frustration was so apparent. Blackwood, 3-1-2 with .922 save percentage and 2.84 GAA, has already shown he can be a difference in contests dating back to last season–a season in which he was dealing with injury and severe COVID-19 symptoms. Though a small sample, he’s already shown efforts that have to be encouraging if not exciting for the team’s future including timely saves versus Tampa last weekend and a 33-save effort at MSG before being pulled due to concussion protocol.
With Blackwood in net, the Devils have earned 9 of a possible 14 points. At his best in 20-21, more specifically his first five starts and a five-game win streaking late in the season, he stopped 31 shots or more on six occasions. There were some particularly difficult stretches in 20-21 on-ice, which wasn’t always a given for No. 29, including a miserable April for the Devils, that saw the netminder go seven-straight starts with a regulation defeat.
But he’s come out away from that season and all its troubles on and off-ice to put together a campaign that should even have Team Canada keeping him on the Beijing radar. If this team can come along as we suspect they will, it appears they have a sure-fire answer in the pipes. Jonathan Bernier as an experienced 1B option only helps make the tandem even more effective.