“R-E-L-A-X,” are the five letters Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers muttered to reporters after a loss a few seasons ago. And I am urging New Jersey Devils’ fans to do the same. Make sure to remember that the season is only two games old.
However, I do acknowledge that the first two performances by the Devils to start the season were discouraging. This rightfully has some fans on edge given the sky-high expectations that surrounded the much-improved team before the season began.
That is why it is worthwhile to examine what has gone wrong and evaluate how the Devils can improve on them.
Problem #1: Head Coach John Hynes
A quick browse through Devils’ twitter shows where most fans are pinning the blame for the rocky start. And this lucky scapegoat is head coach John Hynes. He is responsible for making the line combinations and also for determining who plays and who gets the night off. So, this blame is rightfully warranted.
The criticism got started before the season began when the Devils were practicing for their season opener. Forward Jesper Boqvist was skating as a healthy scratch and veteran defenseman Andy Greene found himself on the team’s top defense pairing. Boqvist was arguably the team’s most impressive forward throughout camp, and he was scratched in favor of John Hayden, who brings a lot less skill to the table. Greene has shown time and time again that his top-four minutes are behind him and he is now more suited to serve in a bottom-pairing/penalty-killing role. So it was easy to see why fans were up-in-arms.
It was what followed in the opening games that united the fanbase frustration with Hynes. While leading 4-1 in the season opener, Hynes decided to shake up the lines. Even though the Devils gave up a late second-period goal, they were still in a great spot come the third period. However, Hynes thought it would be a good idea to shake things up.
He promoted Hayden to what was the team’s third line alongside Jack Hughes and Nikita Gusev. This trio would end up being on the ice for two of the three goals against in the final period. Hynes later explained that he did this to “stabilize” the line, citing that Hughes needed some defensive stabilization.
His other move was to demote Jesper Bratt – who was having a great game – to the fourth line. These mixed-up lines – coupled with a few other incidents – led to the Devils ultimately blowing a four-goal led and losing to the Jets in a shootout.
Hynes followed up this embarrassing performance with an odd combination of lines for the next game (see above). To add to the interesting lines, he decided to go with the same defensive core that surrendered five goals in the last 21:10 of the previous game.
Just minutes into the second game, Hynes was mixing-and-matching the defense pairings which confused many. However, he ultimately decided to go back to what started the game. As the game progressed, it was clear the new line combinations were not the answer as the Devils were down 5-1 at the end of two periods (see image below). However, he decided to stick with the same lines for the entirety of the game which ended in a demoralizing 7-2 defeat.
Now, not every aspect of the first two games should be pinned on Hynes. However, it is the coach’s responsibility to make sure his team is firing on all cylinders. And changing the lines leading 4-1 and not changing the lines at all in a 7-2 defeat doesn’t constitute a strategy of a coach ensuring his team is firing on all cylinders. Hopefully, he finds a good combination of lines and sees the players that are struggling and make sure he has the correct lineup come Wednesday in Philadelphia.
Problem #2: The Struggles of the Mueller/Severson Pairing
The Devils’ bottom-defensive pairing to start the season has been the duo of Mirco Mueller and Damon Severson. The two have by far been the Devils worst pairing, as they’ve combined for six of the Devils’ nine 5-on-5 goals against, a staggering statistic. To further demonstrate the struggles of this duo, Mueller owns a 33.33 Corsi For % (CF%) and Damon Severson a 41.38 CF%. These marks qualify as the worse of any Devils’ defenseman.
Now I have seen many on Twitter put the majority of the blame on Severson. But Mueller has struggled at the NHL-level ever since his debut with the San Jose Sharks. He owns a career CF% of 48.5 and this mark has not been higher than 47.9 since he joined the Devils a few years back. He constantly turns the puck over and fails to clear the puck when given the opportunity. To put it lightly, Mueller has been bad for the Devils since he arrived in 2017.
I acknowledge the fact that Severson has struggled as well. However, Mueller has a large hand in his struggles, and Severson has not nearly been as bad as Mueller has (see above chart for comparison). But the bottom line is the pairing has not been getting it done. Hynes needs to address this issue, and it starts by scratching Mueller in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Problem #3: The Struggles of Jack Hughes
Growing pains were expected for the first overall pick, and that’s exactly what he’s going through. The rookie center has struggled mightily in his first two games as a professional.
Not only has the eye-test shown these struggles, as it is apparent through his numerous turnovers and struggles in the defensive end. But the numbers also paint an ugly picture. Hughes has only contributed three shots, a 38.5% efficiency on the faceoff dot, and owns a -3 rating.
His analytical numbers also are extremely unflattering. Hughes owns a team-worst 23.26 Corsi for percentage (CF%), this number also ranks dead last in the whole league (min. two games played). His expected goals for % (xGF%) is also dreadful as it is last on the Devils by a wide margin (23.32% compared to Jesper Bratt’s 35.88%).
It is apparent Hughes is not getting the job done. To fix it and make his adjustment to the NHL go smoother, Hynes must find linemates that will help him. He referenced wanting to “stabilize” Hughes, and adding Hayden to that line in game one was not the answer. In the second game, he tried Miles Wood, who also was not the right idea.
Next on his list to try should be Kyle Palmieri. Palmieri is a pure scorer and to the surprise of many is responsible in the defensive end. This suits Hughes perfectly as his playmaking ability would compliment Palmieri exactly. It’ll be interesting to see what Hynes tries next in his quest to find the right linemates for the rookie.
The bottom-line is the Devils are struggling mightily through the first two games of the season. The above three problems are major contributing factors to these struggles. However, they are not the only things bringing the Devils down. Everyone must be better.
Luckily, it is only two games into the season and the Devils’ have too much talent for this to continue much longer. But still, it is indeed frustrating to watch. Let’s hope it gets better sooner, rather than later.