The New Jersey Devils are 6-2-1 on the young NHL season following their Thursday night win over the Minnesota Wild. Thursday’s game was also only the second game all season they won by a margin of more than one goal. All their other victories were within one.
The Devils are an offensive juggernaut, as expected. Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt are first and third in the NHL in scoring, respectively. The team is second is goals for per game at 4.22, behind the Vancouver Canucks. Meanwhile the Devils are in the bottom ten in goals allowed (3.56 goals) per game despite their strong record. Is it fair to say their defense is underperforming?
The New Jersey Devils are an offensive power house, with some defensive defencencies. Is that keeping New Jersey from being a true cup contender?
The Devils blue line was in a bit of a transformation prior to this season. Much heralded prospect Luke Hughes made the roster after a cup of coffee at the end of last season. While he has shown the offensive upside Devils fans were excited for, seven points in 9 games, he has also made quite a few mistakes, which of course were to be expected.
Frequent target of Devils fans complaints is Hughes’ defensive partner Brendan Smith. Smith has played in every game so far, yet remains pointless with a -1 rating. Head coach Lindy Ruff keeps Smith in the Devils lineup, possibly for two reasons. For one, he serves as “training wheels” for the younger Hughes as a veteran depth defenseman. Second, trade acquisition Colin Miller remains out due to a lower body injury. Miller has yet to play a single game for the Devils since being acquired last offseason.
Gone from the Devils lineup are two regulars from last season. New Jersey lost Adam Graves to free agency to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team had seemingly been prepared for his departure and viewed Kevin Bahl, acquired in the Taylor Hall trade from the Arizona Coyotes, as Graves’ replacement in the defense’s top four.
Damon Severson, who was the team’s longest tenured player, left in a sign and trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Although Severson was an offensive minded defensemen who caught the frustration from Devils fans throughout his tenure, the underlying data suggests he was a stabilizing presence on the blue line. The Devils might be missing him more than they would have expected.
The Devils goaltending hasn’t improved since last season’s playoff run. With the oft-injured Mackenzie Blackwood traded to the San Jose Sharks, Akira Schmid took the role as full time back up to Vitek Vanecek. Vanecek’s 5-2-0 record does a great job of hiding his 0.893 save percentage and 3.21 goals against average. Schmid, heralded as the hero in the Devils round one victory against the rival New York Rangers, is even worse with a 4.07 goals against average and 0.863 save percentage in three games of action. Schmid was pulled in his last start against the Washington Capitals.
It has been said many times that with their offense, the Devils needed “just average” goaltending to succeed. Remember back in their dismal 2021-2022 campaign the goaltender with the most starts was ECHL-caliber Jon Gillies. With a rebuild seemingly eminent in Winnipeg, there was a lot of smoke and fire to rumors the Devils would upgrade in net with Connor Helleybuck. The addition of Hellebuyck could have been what elevated them from “playoff-contenders” to true cup contenders in the East, perhaps overtaking the Carolina Hurricanes. Hellebuyck’s surprise extension with the Jets took away that possibility.
One underrated thing to note is that captain Nico Hischier has missed the last two games as a result of the Buffalo Sabres’ Connor Clifton’s illegal hit. Hischier has long been seen as one of the game’s best two-way centers, perhaps the heir apparent to Patrice Bergeron in the Selke Trophy conversation. Losing him means the Devils are losing another lit bit of defense in their game.
There’s still a lot of hockey to play, but it’s obviously the Devils can’t coint on defense and goaltending to win them games like their cup winning glory days. The growing pains on defense should subside as the season progresses. If it’s keeping the puck out of the net that leads New Jersey to an early summer, maybe they’ll wish Severson was still around and Hellebuyck was made available.