January 16, 2024

Bryce Salvador

Hey everyone,

With the Devils having officially reached the halfway point of the season, here’s a check-in on where the team is at, as well as some of my keys to a successful 2nd half of the 2023-24 regular season.

Now, as a former captain, it’s in my DNA to never allow injuries to become an excuse, and I can speak for the guys in that Devils’ room when I say they have that same mentality!

However, I do want to preface this article by saying that the Devils’ injury troubles have undoubtedly been a critical factor in the team’s PTS% dropping from .671 (T-#5) at the 41-game mark last season, to .573 (#15) this season.

Here’s a look at the injury list that the team is currently dealing with, with the exception of Timo Meier, who is making his return tonight, and the addition of Brendan Smith (sprained knee):For coach Ruff to have a situation where a total of 47 combined games have been missed from your true, substantial top-9 FWDs — Jack, Nico, Timo, Pally, and Haula — plus an additional 22 games missed from your reigning 73-point play driver on the backend in Dougie Hamilton? Talk about a tough ask for the rest of the guys to fill those skates!

Well, as coach Ruff has said numerous times, the reality is that it's impossible to replace what any of those key guys bring. This is due to not only their offensive production but also the respect they demand on the ice from the opposition.

What's quite remarkable, though, is that despite all these setbacks, the Devils' overall offensive process has actually been fairly similar to where it was at the halfway point last season. I'm especially impressed by the fact that the Devils have once again created the highest rate of rush chances in the NHL, even with irregular playing time from both Jack and Dougie, who are two of the league’s deadliest transition threats.

It's also awesome to see significantly increased year-over-year goal-scoring rates from certain guys who have had an opportunity in an increased role on the Devils' offense this season. Most specifically, guys like Mercer (33% goal rate increase), Holtz (41% goal rate increase), McLeod (140% goal rate increase), and Haula (460% goal rate increase), have each taken full advantage of their opportunity and have provided the Devils the depth scoring they've desperately needed.With that being said, Devils fans, we can only hope that the upcoming All-Star break is a chance for Jack and Pally to inch closer to full health. The speed, skill, and depth of the Devils’ forward core at full strength is a sight that would have me terrified as an opposing defenseman!

While the Devils have found a way to replicate a lot of their offensive rates from last season, it’s unfortunately no secret that the Devils have struggled to keep pucks out of the back of their net since October.

And, yes, it’s easy to point to the goaltending and their lack of timely saves this season (even if NJD#50 has started to shift that narrative!), but, the reality is that the Devils are not ending plays quickly enough in front of them, and are ultimately conceding a much higher volume of scoring chances from the slot and high-danger inner slot areas this season.

Now, let's not forget that the Devils have had key injuries to their blueliners as well, with Siegenthaler, Hamilton, Miller, and potentially Smith all missing time. As much appreciation and excitement can be attributed to the young trio of Luke, Nemec, and Bahl, it’s important to reiterate that the coaching staff has been forced to lean on 3 inexperienced defensemen to fill big holes on the backend this season, since the Devils parted ways with Severson and Graves over the offseason.

I've praised the Devils’ coaching staff for their ability to develop young talent, but their job has become as hard as, "develop on the fly and win games while utilizing your two rookie U20 defensemen in top pair roles." Look no further than Game #41 against BOS, where 20-year-old Luke Hughes took on over 28 min (!) of TOI after Brendan Smith went down. Crazy!

Lastly, I want to add some thoughts on the Devils’ special teams, which have been completely flip-flopped from last season.

The PP has made tremendous overall progress, climbing from 9th worst at this time last season to 3rd best (up 7.6 percentage points).

However, the PK has taken a nosedive, regressing from the 7th most efficient kill last season to the 9th least efficient this season (down 5.1 percentage points).

Simply put, the personnel changes explain the polar opposite special team ranks.

When it comes to the PK, I don’t, by any means, intend to discredit the strides Bahl and Nemec have taken this season; but there’s a long learning process — that Graves and Severson had already gone through in their career! — to become fully proficient with the structural discipline and DZ reads necessary as a defenseman on the PK. It’s those "teaching moments" that have led to the negative regression of the Devils’ PK% so far this season, but will pay off down the line for Bahl and Nemec!

The PP, on the other hand, was so incredibly dominant to start the year that it has held up a top 3 rank at the halfway point, even though opposing teams have begun to frustrate the Devils’ system with deeper pre-scout and video sessions in their game prep. Yes, having Jack, Dougie, Timo, Nico, and Pally all in and out of the lineup doesn’t help, either, but it’s most unfortunate that the Devils don’t have the ability to change things up by moving Dougie to PP1.Regardless, Devils fans, there’s still so much hockey to be played; so much time for weaknesses to become strengths. NJD enters their game vs. MTL in the #1 WC spot based on PTS%, so, they’ve found a way to stay in the playoff picture to this point. However, the Devils find themselves in a position they weren't in last season, and that's the tight race to the finish line in the East. It’s all about playing .500 - .600 hockey in these last 6 games before the All-Star break to stay in the mix while you wait for reinforcements. Then, the playoff push is on!


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