New Jersey Devils Season Recap: The Good and the Bad

The Devils fell short of everyone’s expectations this season. (Photo by Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

Introduction

With the recent announcement made by the NHLPA, it seems as if the New Jersey Devils 2019-20 season is over. It started with the utmost potential but ended how almost every year since 2011-12 season, in disappointment. Several things went wrong, but some went right. So let’s take a look at the good and the bad from this season.

The Good

Tom Fitzgerald

Interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald took over after former general manager Ray Shero was fired on Jan. 12. He wasted no time in making a case for himself to return in a permanent role. He made five trades and was busy calling-up and sending down players to and from Binghamton (AHL). 

Overall, all the moves he made bettered the Devils for the future, and several people around the league recognized this. The moves that impressed the most were the haul for Blake Coleman (see above) and the second-round pick acquired for Andy Greene. He also made the decision to call-up Joey Anderson (who impressed in his limited ice time). Fitzgerald performed so well, the Devils have trusted him to conduct interviews for the team’s head coach vacancy too.

Overall, Fitzgerald made several moves that bettered the Devils for the future. And after taking over in mid-January, this was not an easy thing to do. He should definitely be a top candidate to take over full-time. 

Not Trading Kyle Palmieri

One of the biggest “what-ifs” of the season was the trade rumors surrounding Devils’ forward Kyle Palmieri. With another year left on his contract and the scoring prowess he brings, he generated a ton of interesting around the deadline. Ultimately, in another smart move be interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald, the Devils held on to Palmieri

Trading the hometown kid and a leader on this team would not only go over poorly with fans but also most likely in the locker room. Palmieri turned in another solid season, as he led the Devils with 25 goals and 45 points in 65 games. He also led the team with a goals above replacement (GAR) of 11.8, which ranked 38th among 558 qualified forwards league-wide. 

Palmieri, and his lethal shot, need to be a cornerstone for this franchise for the foreseeable future. Fitzgerald, or whoever is the Devils’ general manager come next season, should look to extend the 29-year-old immediately. Maybe even make the Jersey boy the next captain of Jersey’s team. 

Nikita Gusev

What a revelation the “rookie” from Russia turned out to be. After struggling, more so defensively, to start the season, Gusev turned it around in a big way. 

He tallied 13 goals and 31 assists in 66 games, including 33 points in the last three-plus months of the season. His GAR also ranked third among Devils’ forwards. Gusev was the Devils best forward for the second half of the season. And given where his game was the first month of play, specifically defensively, it was remarkable to see him adjust and become the player he did by season’s end.

Overall, Gusev is arguably the Devils’ best offensive forward. Devils’ fans should be eager to see what the 27-year-old has in store come next season, as “Goose” was certainly electrifying this year.

Jesper Bratt

The former sixth-round pick keeps getting better and better each season. He tallied a career-high 16 goals in only 60 games. His season point total (32), would have also likely surpassed his career-high if the season was not shortened. He also ranked second on the team (minimum 20 games played) in expected goals for (xGF%), with a 50.62 rating. His 9.6 GAR only trailed Kyle Palmieri among team’s forwards, and 65th league-wide among 558 qualified forwards. This number was better than the likes of T.J. Oshie, Matthew Barzal, and Jamie Benn, all of whom played more games than Bratt.

The above chart is courtesy of evolving-hockey.com.

The most remarkable part of his play is how reliable he has become in his own zone. Above you can see a RAPM chart, the last two columns show Bratt’s impact in two important defensive metrics, both of which are well above the league average. Add in his silky hands and creative ways offensively, and the Devils may very have a reliable two-way, top-six forward blossoming before their very eyes.

Damon Severson

Damon Severson was relied upon heavily this season. He played in all circumstances and got a ton of five-on-five ice time. He owned the 35th most five-on-five ice-time league-wide (303 qualified defensemen). And, for the most part, he handled this time well.

His Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 48.07 and xGF% of 49.94 were the best out of Devils’ defensemen who played at least 11 games. His relative CF% (CF% Rel) of +3.10 was also tops on the team. He did all this while playing against opponents’ first-lines while also logging a ton of ice-time on a nightly basis.

The above chart is courtesy of evolving-hockey.com.

He could have been a bit better offensively at even strength, but he did well on the power play. Per the RAPM chart above, Severson was great defensively. A top-two role is probably going to get to be a bit much, but due to his performance this year, he is no doubt a solid, top-four defenseman.

Mackenzie Blackwood

Mackenzie Blackwood was terrific this season. He single-handedly ensured the Devils weren’t even worse than the team already was and willed them to several victories. After struggling a tad at the beginning of the season, he finished with a .916 save percentage. This number is comfortably above the .910 league average, which is insane given how dreadful the team was in front of him, as well as how poorly he began the season.

One downside to Blackwood’s season is he played so well that interim head coach Alain Nasreddine may get a lot more credit than he deserves. Down the stretch, Blackwood was so good, he inflated the Devils’ win total. As you will see in the analytics section below, the team in front of Blackwood performed poorly. 

Overall, it seems like the Devils finally have the number one netminder they have longed for since Cory Schneider went downhill during the 2016-17 season. 

Binghamton Devils

The greatest kept secret of what went right for the Devils this season occurred in Binghamton. After starting 9-17-4-0 through 30 games, and sitting at the bottom of the North Division, the “B-Devils” turned it around in a big way.

When the season was stopped, Binghamton had a record of 34-24-4-0, ranked fourth in the North Division. The team was well on their way to its first playoff appearance since the 2016-17 move from Albany to Binghamton. Consequently, the turnaround started when the New Jersey Devils made a coaching change. In return, the system the team played in the AHL changed and prompted the 25-7-0-0 run. 

As for the team’s top offensive performers: Brett Seney (44 points in 61 games), Ben Street (42 points in 49 games), Joey Anderson (34 points in 44 games), as well as an AHL All-Star appearance, and Nick Merkley (19 points in 28 games). Defensively, Josh Jacobs and Dakota Mermis led the way. Additionally, Zane McIntyre had a .977 save percentage and Gilles Senn had a strong second half, finishing with a .901 save percentage. 

Thanks to moves by interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald (adding Janne Kuokkanen who had six points in four AHL games and Nolan Foote), coupled with strong development by Mark Dennehy and his staff in Binghamton, the Devils seemingly finally have a strong farm system. This also has been confirmed by many through rankings of the league’s prospect systems. 

The Bad

How Long it Took to Fire Head Coach John Hynes

The Devils waited way too long to fire former head coach John Hynes. He was able to coach 26 games, which saw a team with the highest expectations falter and put together a 9-13-4 record. This included a six-game losing streak to start the season, numerous blown multi-goal leads, and embarrassing blowouts such as a 7-2 loss to Buffalo and a couple of 4-0 losses to Hudson River rivals the New York Rangers.

Additionally, Hynes’ way of coaching just did not fit the Devils’ roster. His system was a slow-it-down type of hockey that relied on defense rather than speed, which doesn’t make sense on a roster with smaller, skilled forwards.

The Devils waiting to fire Hynes not only cost the team the season but also resulted in a seller-mentality at the trade deadline, as well as the failure to retain former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall.

If the Devils fired Hynes after the team’s 0-4-2 start or 2-5-4 start, there may have been the possibility of a turnaround to the retention of some of the players the team was forced to trade due to the seller-mentality at the trade deadline.

Interim Head Coach Alain Nasreddine

The above point of being competitive after firing Hynes sooner may have been mute if Nasreddine wasn’t still the guy that took over. Because after the switch on Dec. 3, the team — believe it or not — performed worse in several categories (see below).

Full analysis of Nasreddine’s performance since taking over can be found here.

Although the Devils put together a 19-16-8 record after Hynes was fired, the success relied heavily on superb goaltending (see below) rather than Nasreddine’s new system. For a full breakdown on how bad the Devils actually were under Nasreddine check out this link here.

Full analysis of Nasreddine’s performance since taking over can be found here.

The Analytics

Those who love underlying statistics, like me, may feel physically ill after examining the Devils’ season. The team ranked last in CF%, 30th in Shots For % (SF%), 29th in xGF%, and last in Scoring Chances For % (SCF%) at even strength.

The most alarming aspect of these numbers is the fact that the team ranked behind the Detroit Red Wings in a few of them. Yes, that’s right, the historically bad Red Wings team that went 17-49-5 and whose 39-point total is 24 less than the 30th ranked team. 

So why didn’t the Devils have a worse record? The team’s goaltending, specifically during Nasreddine’s tenure was spectacular. Mackenzie Blackwood turned it on, and Cory Schneider even experienced success after being called up before the season’s end.

These terrible analytics have a lot to do with the bad coaching and the system that was implemented. The Devils must make the right hire with the team’s next coach, as it is unacceptable to have a season such as this year’s again. And we all know in almost every case bad analytics equals a bad hockey team. 

P.K. Subban

One of the reasons the Devils were dubbed “offseason champions” was because of the move the team made to land former Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban. He struggled a bit in the previous year with Nashville, so some were a bit skeptical that he has already started to regress. And if that season was any foreshadowing, this seems to be the case.

Subban recorded a career-low in several categories, such as shots, assists, points (both even strength and power play), plus/minus, CF%, and GAR. His -10.1 GAR was tied with Johnny Boychuk as the worse in the entire league (856 qualified). 

Now that seems awfully bad, and it really is. However, I would not write Subban off just yet, as he most likely played way too much ice time on a team that was all-around miserable last year. Getting used to a new environment probably did not make it any easier either.

Subban should still be a formidable second-pairing defenseman. But it is unsettling to see the 31-year-old making $9 million for the next two years after having the worst season of his career. And it is unknown whether the next head coach of the Devils will use Subban correctly to curve his regression.

Jack Hughes

First overall pick Jack Hughes had an underwhelming rookie season. He was only able to tally 21 points in 61 games, along with a minus-26 rating. His analytics were also a sight for sore eyes, as he owned the 30th ranked CF%, and 18th xGF% of 34 qualified rookies. He also held a terrible -3 GAR. His lack of size and strength was the epicenter of his issues.

Do not jump the gun yet. Even though his rookie season did not go as planned, fellow rookie Kaapo Kakko struggled even more. And fixing the strength issue will go very far in helping Hughes in his development. However, it is not ideal that his point total was the least amount for any first-overall pick in their first season since 1999.

Jesper Boqvist

The promising Swedish prospect did not have the rookie season many expected. After shining in preseason and training camp, Boqvist was kept on the Devils’ roster instead of being returned to SHL. In the end, he played 35 NHL games while bouncing around between the big league and the AHL, tallying only four goals and a minus-11 rating. His CF% of 45.28 and xGF% of 39.74 ranked 343rd and 380th respectively of 389 qualified forwards league-wide. 

Now, it was not all bad for the 21-year old forward. When he played in the AHL he was extremely productive, racking up 11 points (eight goals, three assists) in only 19 games. It may take some time to get adjusted, and this year may have very well just been some growing pains for the young Swede. Nonetheless, it was not an ideal rookie season for Boqvist.  

Conclusion

The 2019-20 season certainly did not go as planned for our Devils. However, the team seems to be better positioned than ever for the future. With three first-round draft picks, $20 million-plus in cap space, as well as a solid young core, Devils’ fans everywhere should be excited.

Thank you for following along with us here at DAB for another season. And make sure to stay tuned to your page this offseason for everything related to Devils’ hockey and the NHL.

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