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It’s that time of the year when the New Jersey Devils are slowly furthering themselves from any chance at a playoff spot. They currently sit 7th place in the Metropolitan Division with 33 points and are 11 points out of a wildcard spot, although having three more games played than the Boston Bruins. While there may be a little under 50 games remaining in the season, Devils fans may find themselves starting up the draft lottery similarity sooner than they had hoped for.

A week to forget

In the last week, things haven’t been so good in Newark. Starting with the news about Dougie Hamilton and his possible season-ending injury. Then there was the covid outbreak that knocked out eleven players from the lineup. Oh, and let’s not forget, both of their goaltenders wound up on the covid reserve list, forcing them to sign a guy in Kyle Shapiro, who had not suited up for a game since 2018, in which, he was a member of New England College’s hockey team. Navigating the last few weeks has been difficult, demonstrating their 1-3 record. Three very winnable games that the Devils were in until the end resulted in losses. The recent losing streak poses the question, are the Devils a bad hockey team, or do they have a talented bunch beneath the long list of covid and injuries? I think both.

Size factor

The Devils are a young, small, finesse team that play in a division loaded with heavy veteran teams who play a defensive game. There is a reason why the Devils lost all eight meetings to the Capitals last season. The same reason they lost Thursday night’s game against the Islanders, they were caught out of position, couldn’t win a puck battle, and were outmuscled. In Thursday’s game against New York, the young Devils players were put on their back more times than I could count. All of which, resulting in their passing percentage being abysmal and consistently failing to get the puck out of the defensive zone. When your team is built that small, they won’t be a physical team either. According to Statmuse, the Devils rank 28th in the league in hits per game, most of which belong to Mikey McCleod and Nathan Bastian. I’m not sure if I have some Don Cherry in me, causing me to sound like a grumpy old man but playing a heavy veteran style of hockey works. According to Elite Hockey Prospects, three of the four teams that made the conference finals last year are top four in heaviest teams. Additionally, ten of the twelve heaviest teams currently hold a playoff spot.

Another season without goaltending

There is no getting around it; the New Jersey Devils continue to be killed by horrible goaltending. According to Fox Sports, the Devils rock a .890% save percentage, tied for 31st in the league. They sported a .892 save percentage in the year prior, which was 30th in the NHL. There is also no getting around the fact that the Devils signed two goalies to be their 1B netminder for the past two offseasons. Neither of them made it till the second month of the season, and Corey Crawford didn’t even make it to the start of the season. Up to this point, Mackenzie Blackwood hasn’t been the same goaltender we had seen his rookie year. According to MoneyPuck, Blackwood has the 3rd worst goals saved above expected among starting goaltenders at -7.9 goals. Additionally, he has a .898 save percentage. At the beginning of the season, I wrote that the Devils needed a minimum save percentage of .910 if they wanted a chance at a playoff spot. They’re currently 20 points under that save percentage total.

Being bad is starting to pay off

As for the positives, there are lots of them. Devils fans have waited a long time for their young players to develop, and it’s finally paying off. Both Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes are having breakout years, producing at about a point per game. The two could be the first Devils since Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, who completed the feat in 2008-09. Other guys like Nico Hischier, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Dawson Mercer have established themselves as building blocks for the franchise’s future as well. Hischier has nine points in his last ten games and looks as confident as ever with the puck. Siegenthaler’s ability to shut down on the right side gives the Devils and Dougie Hamilton a partner for the foreseeable future. As for Mercer, he may have cooled down, but that’s largely due to a downgrade in linemates. He’s still creating chances, just he and his linemates aren’t cashing in on them. While it has been tiring to be a Devils fan for the last decade, the progress these young players are making this season is something to get excited about.

Look ahead to next week

There is nothing. The Devils were supposed to take a trip up to Canada to play the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, but that won’t be happening due to covid. The Devils will return to action next Wednesday, where they’ll take on the Coyotes, followed by three more home games against the Hurricanes, Kings, and Stars. This break will allow the Devils to get a handful of players back from covid reserve.

“Photo: The Athletic”

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