New Jersey Devils, Nico Hischier, Timo Meier, Tyler Toffoli

The Three Biggest Issues Facing the Devils After the First Week

Heading into Game 3 last season, the New Jersey Devils were deflated. After brimming with hope coming out of a stellar preseason and having added veteran depth and goaltending, the team was primed for a breakout season. Then disaster struck, back-to-back 5-2 shellackings by teams that finished nowhere near the playoffs. The losses bracketed a now-famous comment from forward Miles Wood, indicating that he was sick and tired of losing.

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Heading into the third game against the Anaheim Ducks, the vultures were circling for head coach Lindy Ruff, and the team was in a desperate situation. Then came the Anaheim game that would alter the course of the season. The Ducks jumped out to a two-goal lead in the first period as the “Fire Lindy” chants began to echo through the Prudential Center. The next two periods went a long way in deciding the fate of the Devils’ season. They battled back with intensity, grit, and desperation, scoring four unanswered goals to defeat the Ducks and leaving their shaky start in the rearview mirror.

After closing out the Ducks, the Devils headed to Long Island for their fourth game. The Devils played what was arguably their most complete game of the year, dominating the New York Islanders in every phase of the game and announcing to the NHL that this young, upstart team was ready to not just take on, but to defeat a talented, veteran-laden team, on the road. What does that have to do with this year’s team? They played an underwhelming first two games followed by more of the same to start the third, then played with speed and desperation and were a post away from erasing a four-goal deficit. Like last season, the team knows it has not played up to its standards, and like last year, the team now heads out to Long Island with a chance to get right and redirect the course of the season.

Nico Hischier New Jersey Devils
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Will history repeat itself? While the team waits for the opportunity to play on Friday, here is a look at three issues the team must confront.

Scoreless Swiss

One has to wonder what the odds would have been before the season that the Swiss player with the most points after three games was Jonas Siegenthaler. Even longer shot odds would have been given had one wagered on whether Siegenthaler would have more points than Timo Meier and Nico Hischier combined, but that is the situation the Devils are currently facing. In three games, neither Hischier nor Meier have any points. The fact that the Devils have scored 10 goals in three games without contributions from Hischier and Meier speaks volumes about the depth of the team.

Timo Meier New Jersey Devils
Timo Meier, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The captain is certainly struggling and is clearly pressing. His on-ice expected goals for percentage (xGF%) is a dismal 37.1. Ruff often matches Hischier against the other team’s top line, which should impact his expected goals numbers, but last season he played to an xGF% of 59.

After the Florida Panthers game, Hischier was clearly frustrated and bewildered when speaking with the press. When asked why he thinks the team is having a rough start, he opined, “Probably gripping our sticks too much. I think we just have to stick to the simple game to begin and start skating.” He went on to say about the state of the locker room, “After that loss right now, not great. We can’t get too low, we have to come in buckle up learn from our mistakes, and do it better on Friday.”

“We know we’re capable of more… We know the support we have from the fans, they have high expectations to us. But so do we to us. We believe in our group here. We hope the fans believe in us, too. There’s going to be ups and downs, but what’s going to make this team strong is that we keep together.”

Timo Meier, Oct. 17, 2023

Unfortunately for the Devils, Hischier isn’t the only one off to a slow start. His linemates Meier and Dawson Mercer are the two lowest-ranked forwards in expected goals with both sitting under 30 percent. Both players also have been held scoreless. The Devils will need more production from this duo moving forward, especially Meier. He was benched for almost all of the third period against the Panthers for taking penalties. He currently leads the team with six penalty minutes. He spoke after practice on Oct. 17 about his play and a conversation with Ruff, “I knew what happened,” Meier said Tuesday. “Me and Lindy talked, so I think we both have the same view… You just try to go out there and work as hard as you can. What’s in the past is in the past, look forward and do the best that you can.”

Solutions

The positive news for Devils fans is that Meier has acknowledged both internally and publicly, that he needs to play better in certain areas. Likewise, few players are as introspective as Hischier who conceded, “Obviously there (will be) some changes right now, it wasn’t working for sure. I can just talk for myself that I’m gripping my stick a little too hard, I gotta figure it out, but we’ll just make some changes and we are going to do our best.”


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Ruff has seen enough and has chosen to split up the Swiss National Team teammates, placing Hischier between Jesper Bratt and Tyler Toffoli who thus far have seven combined points in the three games. He has also moved Jack Hughes, the NHL leader in points, to center Meier and Mercer to try to re-establish the connection they shared in the playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. Another positive note for the Devils and Meier is that he is a notoriously slow starter — did not score a goal in his first nine games last season, but he still finished the year with 40 goals, a number the Devils would happily sign for right now.

Too Much Time in the Penalty Box

The Devils currently sit in fourth place in the league with a total of 17 minor penalties; over the course of their three games, they have averaged over 11 minutes of penalty time. The Devils are always at their best when they can roll all four lines and use their depth to create matchup nightmares. The influx of penalties not only takes their best players off the ice for long periods of time but it also disrupts any flow and the ability to feed off the other lines.

Lindy Ruff New Jersey Devils
Lindy Ruff, Head Coach of the New Jersey Devils (Kristy Flannery / The Hockey Writers)

Ruff is clearly agitated by the constant penalties. He made sure to mention after the Panthers game that Meier was benched because, “He can’t take the penalties he took, we’ve talked about not taking penalties.” Ruff called his team undisciplined in their play. He got the team’s attention on Tuesday with a tough, physical practice that included several sprints. His benching of Meier sent a message out to the team that resonated throughout the league, the Devils will not accept anyone not adhering to their standards, even their highest-paid player.

Solutions

Ruff must continue to hold his players accountable and the players must police each other. He simply declared Monday night that he won’t, “play them if they take penalties.” Last season the team could weather killing penalties because of its deep, veteran defense corps. This season, they are trying to integrate new penalty kill partners and are having only mixed success. The only real solution to this issue is playing a more disciplined brand of hockey. While some penalties are inevitable, they need to cut out the lazy trips, holds, and hooks that have permeated the first three games of the season. Ruff said as much after practice Tuesday: “It’s how you react when you’re frustrated as a player or when things might not be going right. Although maybe sometimes you don’t think they’re penalties, it’s careless. And penalties have hurt us as a team.” The Devils must respond to the challenge and hold each other accountable.

5v5

Last season the Devils rode their success in 5v5 play to the third-best record in the NHL. While their power play was stuck in the middle of the pack, their ability to generate offense and score at 5v5 set them apart. They finished the year second in the NHL with a 56.02 xGF%, a full two percent better than the third-place team, and outscored their opponents at 5v5 by 42 goals. Conventional wisdom was that with the addition of Toffoli, and a full season of Meier and Luke Hughes that the increase in power-play scoring would ease some pressure on the team at 5v5. Thus far, the power play has held up its end, but the 5v5 has not.

Related: Devils’ Ideal Power Play Units in 2023-24

In three games, the Devils have three 5v5 goals. Seven of their 10 goals were scored either at 4v4, on the power play, or into an empty net. Considering how the Devils are built and its recent history, this is the biggest issue facing Ruff and the team. They are currently between 19th and 23rd in the league in 5v5 xGF%, depending on who is doing the tabulation, and have been outscored 5-3. While defensive coverage is certainly an issue, the Devils are simply not cashing in on chances at 5v5. In fact, they have scored over two goals fewer than expected at 5v5. They are still out-chancing teams at 5v5 but unable to score. Some of that is likely attributable to the high number of blocks in the Panthers game but not the entirety.

Ruff recognized this after the Panthers game, “Sometimes you won’t score, but the numbers we’re generating right now aren’t high enough in those first two periods. It’s one thing if a line goes out and generates five, six chances, but the goaltender makes unbelievable saves, it’s another thing to not generate anything. And were not generating anything.” While the analytics may slightly disagree with Ruff, the chances have been there overall, but the finishing has not. Turning 5v5 into an advantage is a must if this team will reach the heights it did last season.

Solutions

This is another case where fans will have to have faith in Ruff and faith that the players will eventually play close to their career averages. This is no longer a team dominated by inexperienced players. It is reasonable to believe that over time, as they develop more chemistry, Meier and Toffoli will reach at least 35 and 25 goals, respectively, and that Hischier will return to the 70-point scorer fans know he is. For example, last season at 5v5, Hischier averaged just over two shots per game. Thus far in three games Hischier has a total of two 5v5 shots. You can count on Ruff mixing his lines until he finds the right mix and blending players who are playing well with those who are struggling. With the talent at his disposal, this issue should be fixable.

Tyler Toffoli New Jersey Devils
Tyler Toffoli, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

There are certainly other issues facing the team. These include finding the right mix on the blue line to allow Hughes to grow while not blowing coverages and opening up high-danger scoring chances, and whether Vitek Vanecek’s early season stats will rise to his averages from last season. How quickly the Devils are able to solve their issues will go a long way to determining where the team finishes at the end of the season.

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