Lindy Ruff had reason to smile. Not just because the New Jersey Devils were in the midst of a winning streak that would reach 11 games, but because the same fans who had called for his dismissal at the start of the season had audible apologized:
“Fire Lindy!” had become “Sorry, Lindy!”
That happens when your team is suddenly leading the Metropolitan Division, has the second-best record in the NHL and is dominating at both ends of the ice.
“I accept the apology,” Ruff said. “Someday, us and the fans are going to sit down and have a beer and laugh about that one.”
It’s been a while since the Devils and their fans had a reason to smile. Their last playoff appearance was in 2018, their only trip to the postseason since making the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. Last season was a disaster: a .384 points percentage, the team’s lowest since 1985-86, in a campaign defined by significant lineup absences.
“We had a lot of pain last year. We’re back to how we want to play the game,” Ruff said. “On different nights, we’ve got everybody that’s contributing to the win. On most nights, we’re giving ourselves a chance to win a hockey game.”
Through all the pain, Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald knew the potential for something special was there.
“I think if you look back to last year, you saw where we were trending. The underlying numbers told us we were definitely heading in the right direction,” he said.
How did the NHL’s hottest team find its stride? Can the Devils continue to dominate? Here are six reasons why New Jersey is the breakout team of the 2022-23 NHL season.
Creating off the rush
After 16 games, the Devils were third in the NHL in goals per game (3.75). Players like winger Jesper Bratt, star center Jack Hughes and team captain Nico Hischier were playing at better than a point per game pace. Forwards such as Miles Wood, Dawson Mercer, Yegor Sharangovich, Fabian Zetterlund and veteran Tomas Tatar were contributing goals. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton, a huge free agent signing in 2021, was in the top 10 in scoring for defensemen.
Speed and creativity are at their best when New Jersey creates chances off the rush.
“The Devils are all about high event hockey this season,” said Meghan Chayka, co-founder of Stathletes. “This team is operating like an offensive juggernaut.”
Chayka notes that the Devils are the best team in the NHL at generating shots off the rush through 16 games, averaging 14.9 shots per game at event strength. The league average is 11.8 shots.
The quality of chances has contributed to the Devils leading the NHL in expected goals (3.46 per 60 minutes) and high danger shot attempts (15.72 per 60 minutes) at even strength.
Their speed, puck possession and offensive flow can be downright overwhelming. There was a 7-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets where the Devils had a 24-1 advantage in high danger shot attempts. They had a 19-3 shot attempt advantage in the first period of a victory over the New York Islanders. One of their signature wins was a comeback victory at the Edmonton Oilers, when the Devils held a 31-14 shot attempt advantage.
The catalyst for many of the Devils’ chances off the rush is Hughes, whose velocity and creativity have already made him a highlight-reel mainstay this season. According to Chayka, Hughes is fourth in expected goals off the rush (0.15) and seventh in shots off the rush (2.12) per game. He’s first in scoring chances off the rush (17) in all situations.
“The wins are coming but we like our game. We like our style of play. Fast. The forward group works hard,” Hughes said. “When we’re skating, we’re a pretty good team.”
“We can roll four lines and dominate on the rush. When your four lines are clicking like that, we can be relentless at times,” Ruff said.
But Dimitri Filipovic, who hosts The Hockey PDOcast for Sportsnet, believes it’s the totality of the Devils’ offense that makes them special.
“They’re passing all the checkpoints for me honestly. Offensively, they’re finding different ways to score beyond just the rush,” he said. “Last year, I think only the Panthers and Avs were better off the rush, but the Devils were like 21st in scoring off the forecheck and the cycle. This year, they’ve balanced that out. The rush is still overwhelming when they get going, but it’s hardly just a one-trick pony.”
If you asked around the Devils last season about the status of Ruff’s continued employment, there was a common response: Anything good that his coaching produced was undercut by disastrous goaltending. Because of injury and ineffectiveness, the Devils had seven different goalies start games in 2021-22 that produced a .881 team save percentage. Only the expansion Seattle Kraken were below them in that category.
The mantra, internally: “If we could only get a save …”
The Devils have tried to remedy their goaltending problems for the past three seasons, seeking a veteran complement to now 25-year-old Mackenzie Blackwood. They signed Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford in October 2020, who never played for them and retired the following January. They signed former Detroit Red Wings goalie Jonathan Bernier in July 2021, who played 10 games before undergoing surgery on his right hip. His return remains uncertain.
Enter Vitek Vanecek. The 26-year-old played two average seasons in Washington before the Capitals traded both of their goalies in favor of signing Darcy Kuemper last summer. The Devils sent two draft picks to Washington to acquire Vanecek in July, placing their chips on the offseason’s goalie roulette table.
Their number might have hit. Vanecek had a .915 save percentage, a 2.17 save percentage and 0.6 goals saved above expected in 10 appearances. Not dominant, but not detrimental, and that’s where the bar is for the Devils.
“He’s a very competitive goalie,” Fitzgerald said. “He’ll throw his leg or blocker out to make a save. He’s on every puck. He fights through traffic. He’s a battler.”
Blackwood played seven games before being shelved with an MCL injury until around Christmas. While his overall play was below replacement — minus-2.9 goals saved above expected — he benefited from the team’s improved defense. Blackwood faced an average of 20.5 shots on goal in his four wins, which is a Martin Brodeur-level of defensive insulation. Like a young quarterback that’s suddenly playing behind an improved offensive line, the conditions are right for Blackwood to regain his form when he returns.
Fitzgerald sees a symbiotic relationship between his defense and goaltender that wasn’t there in the team’s previous seasons of struggles. Vanecek isn’t stealing games, but he’s giving them the baseline saves that they need to allow the Devils to attack with confidence. Vanecek, meanwhile, is benefitting from renewed defensive commitment.
Through 16 games, the Devils are generating 15.72 high danger shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play and giving up just 8.54 shot attempts on average. Only five teams averaged less than 10 high-danger shot attempts against per game last season. One of them was the Devils (9.88).
“Our guys are playing very confident in front of him,” Fitzgerald said. “If we don’t give these [goalies] a s— sandwich defensively, then all we’re asking for them to do is just make the save. I think that’s all that goalies care about. Don’t expose us.”
Preventing odd-man rushes
Jack Fraser, who runs the popular analytics account @JFreshHockey on Twitter, believes the Devils have preserved the best aspects of what they did well last season while addressing their biggest concerns. Namely, preventing opponents’ chances off the rush.
“Last season, they were a dynamic offensive team, playing with a similarly high tempo to what we’re seeing now,” Fraser said. “But they were also one of the worst rush defense teams in the league, worst [in the NHL] at preventing entries with possession and bottom five in rush chances against. All of a sudden they’re allowing the least chances, and specifically least rush chances in the league.”
Filipovic noted that New Jersey has been tremendous in its own zone, allowing the lowest shots on goal per 60 minutes at even strength (23.46) and expected goals (2.05) in the NHL through 16 games. Part of that has been terrific defensive play from Jonas Siegenthaler and especially John Marino, whom the Devils acquired in a trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the offseason.
Wrote about John Marino @EPRinkside
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) November 10, 2022
“He’s been so good as the last man back, that he’s either entirely erasing odd-man rushes himself or slowing down opponents enough for all of his teammates to get back and provide support,” Filipovic said of Marino. “They were such a rush-heavy team last season, which was great, but every time they didn’t score themselves, the team took the puck back the other way and countered with a rush goal of their own. This year that’s not really happening.”
Striking the balance between their rushing offensive attack and defensive responsibility has been the secret sauce for the Devils.
“Your offense starts in front of your goalie and your defense starts in front of theirs,” Fitzgerald said.
The Devils GM is all for being aggressive in the offensive zone, with defensemen joining the play and forwards cycling deep to keep zone time going. “But once in a while, the puck gets by you. Once in a while, they get caught,” he said.
The key for the Devils has been making sure their F3 forward is getting back defensively. That’s the designation for the third forward that enters the attacking zone on the rush.
“A lot of times in the past the F3 would drive down [into the zone] because they were so [excited] to get an offensive chance. We weren’t supporting each other,” Fitzgerald said.
Where the Devils have improved, according to Fitzgerald, is on the “track back” on transition plays. “Get back quick. Understand your assignment. End plays quick and start our transition,” he said. “Knowing who’s got the puck down there and when you should release to take a leap forward.”
Fitzgerald said that during his playing days — he played 17 seasons in the NHL from 1988 to 2006 — he always wanted to play on teams that made the opponent feel like “they had seven guys out there” defending. He’s seen that level of commitment from the Devils this season, using the word “connected” to best describe their efforts.
Fitzgerald would add another word: committed.
“We’re having success because we’re following instructions. Because if we can follow instructions, we got ourselves a chance to win,” he said. “I just think the team is maturing. Our younger players are maturing, understanding really what’s winning hockey.”
Improved special teams
Fitzgerald is more than happy to talk about “Bruno.”
Andrew Brunette was the interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season who earned a Jack Adams nomination for guiding them to a 122-point season. But after being outcoached in a sweep by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs, the Panthers moved on from Brunette and hired Paul Maurice as their new head coach. Brunette was a free agent. The Devils signed him as an associate coach, replacing assistant coach Mark Recchi as their power play architect.
“He’s like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to hockey,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s just so passionate about it. He had different ideas. I watch in practice at some of the habits he’s creating with our players.”
Much like with their goaltending, the Devils’ power play had a rather low bar to clear this season to be successful. They were 28th in the league (15.6%) in 2021-22 with a man advantage. Through 16 games, they’re at a 20.8% conversion rate.
“Now, I’d like to click a little higher on the PP. But at the end of the day, it’s about the players’ connection and understanding what Bruno’s trying to explain to them,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re moving in the right direction, that’s for sure.”
What’s interesting about the Devils’ special teams is participation. Every player that’s appeared in at least 15 games this season has seen at least 40 seconds of ice time per game on either the power play or the penalty kill, the latter of which is 11th in the NHL at 80.8%.
“Every single forward on this team plays a role on one of the special teams,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s part of something they have to take ownership on. We’re giving it to these guys because they earned it. They feel like they’re part of the team. Not every team does that. But for us, 12 out of 12 forwards have a role.”
Health of Hughes, Hischier, Hamilton
Along with improved goaltending and special teams, the other vital change from previous seasons the Devils needed was to keep their most important players in the lineup.
They haven’t been completely healthy. Free agent coup Ondrej Palat underwent groin surgery and is on injured reserve. Blackwood is on the shelf with an MCL injury. But the holy trinity has been healthy: Hughes, Hischier and Hamilton.
The Devils signed Hamilton to a seven-year free agent contract in 2021, seeing him as an essential puck-moving part of their scheme. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Devils’ “Triple H” of stars played in only 27 games together last season. New Jersey had a .444 points percentage in those games and a .355 points percentage when one or more of them was out of the lineup. Their goal differential was minus-14 in those 27 games; without them together, it was minus-45.
“When we were healthy last year, I think those numbers looked really good,” Fitzgerald said. “And we’ve been healthy this year, right? Knock on wood.”
As noted earlier, Hughes has been an offensive engine for the Devils, especially off the rush. His breakout offensive season was in 2021-22, when he scored 56 points in 49 games … but the operative phrase was “in 49 games.” Two of his three NHL seasons have been limited, as he missed eight games as a rookie and then 33 games last season. The timing of last season’s injury crushed the Devils’ momentum, as he didn’t play a game from Oct. 20 through Nov. 29.
Hamilton was limited to 62 games in his first season in New Jersey, missing nearly two months at the start of 2022. He would notch just three points in his last 18 games in a lost season. He had 14 points in his first 16 games this season.
Hischier has also struggled to stay in the lineup, missing a dozen games last season and playing just 21 games in 2020-21. Fitzgerald noted that he’s grown as a player — with there already being Selke Trophy talk for his defensive play — and as a leader.
“Having another year of Nico as a captain and understanding that role is big,” Fitzgerald said. “And having support around him.”
Fitzgerald could see it in training camp. His players, especially the young ones, had a strong summer of working out. Their level of enthusiasm and commitment in camp was obvious, too.
“There was a different vibe,” he said. “There’s excitement from the players who have been here on the additions that we made and the care of ownership and the understanding of management about building a team. Not just a collection of talent. But a team. Each guy brings something to the table.”
What motivated them was, for lack of a better word, disgust. As a group, the Jack Hughes era had yet to produce a team that came close to meeting expectations.
“They had a bad taste in their mouth from last year,” Fitzgerald said. “So we had to answer this: ‘What’s our why? Why are we doing this? What do we want to get out of this?’ It’s just been a different vibe.”
Their mindset has a produced a solid start and, more importantly, a proof of concept for Ruff and Fitzgerald.
“It’s not a ‘Jack and Nico carry the team’ situation — the whole group is clicking,” Fraser said. “I don’t think it’s crazy to say that this might be their 2020-21 Panthers moment where everything comes together and they don’t look back from here.”
That is, if they can keep it rolling. There are unforeseen factors, like injuries, the Devils can’t account for. But believing their own hype or failing to execute with the proficiency they have so far? Those are controllable. Those are part of the mindset.
“I’m a big believer in just staying in the now. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s not put the cart before the horse,” Fitzgerald said. “Let’s remember how we did it. Let’s remember how we got to this point. Let’s remember how we came out of training camp and we didn’t get the results, but we didn’t abandon the processes that we put in place. Just take ownership of your own game.”
Because of these six factors, there’s a belief that it’s time to give the Devils their due.
“They remind of the Panthers and Flames from last year and the Avalanche the year before,” Fraser said. “They’re dominating at both ends of the ice. Every one of their players is solidly above breakeven in every single on-ice stat at even strength, most of them by huge margins.”