Devils Have Things to Work on After Loss to Flames

Advanced Stats, Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils

It was a rough affair for the New Jersey Devils in Newark last night. They fell to the Calgary Flames by a score of 5-3, as a slow start and four-goal first period from the Flames ultimately doomed any chance the Devils had to come back. But even though the team has things to work on, there were some positives to build upon as the game progressed. Here are some key takeaways, good and bad, from yesterday’s effort. 

Devils’ Slow Starts Becoming a Concern

Yesterday’s first-period disaster was not the Devils’ first slow start out of the gate. They got off to a slow start against the Washington Capitals last week and ultimately lost that game 4-1. The same was true just two days later against the Buffalo Sabres, but they were able to claw their way back and come away with a 2-1 overtime victory. Last night’s deficit was just too much to overcome. 

As Bryce Salvador said on the post-game show on MSG, the Devils have been outscored 7-0 in their last three first periods. In those three first periods, they have a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 41.2 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 24.6 percent at five-on-five. Suffice to say, that’s quite poor and will not cut it moving forward. They need to get off to better starts, especially with the schedule getting tougher in November. Otherwise, they’re not going to win many hockey games. 

Bratt Has Struggled, But…

It hasn’t been a great start to the season for Jesper Bratt. He has no points in five games and was benched by Ruff for the entire second period last night — it was a deserved benching, as he struggled mightily in the first period. But he seemed to get the message and responded with an impressive third period and ended up as one of the Devils’ better players at five-on-five. 

Even though Bratt did not see the ice for an entire period, his CF% of 70.6 percent was best on the team, while his xG% of 61.8 percent ranked third. He also led the team in shot contributions despite the limited ice time:

5v5 shot contributions for NJD forwards vs CGY. Nico was solid. Johnsson was a shot assist machine. Bratt made a couple big mistakes but threatened a ton in his limited ice. https://t.co/fZvrSohf90

A significant reason for Bratt’s resurgence in the third period had to do with Ruff moving him onto a line with Andreas Johnsson and Dawson Mercer. That trio finished with Corsi and expected goal percentages of 100 percent in the third period, which seems OK if you ask me. Johnsson and Mercer also teamed up for a pretty goal. I just mentioned how the Devils fared better with restructured lines at the end of recent games. Well, here’s one of them. Ruff shouldn’t overthink this; he needs to go back to this combo when the Devils take on the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday. 

Related: Devils Feeling Strain of Miles Wood’s Injury Absence

Johnsson and Bratt played well together last season, so there’s some previous history to work with there. Mercer has impressed early in his NHL career, with four points in five games. As for Bratt, he needs consistent linemates to be a consistent player; that’s just the way he is. He hasn’t had much of that to start the season, so let him get an extended run with Johnsson and Mercer and see how it goes. Early indications are it could yield positive results. And for what it’s worth, Bratt’s on-ice results at five-on-five are among the team’s best. He’ll figure it out at some point. 

Devils Still Searching for the Right Line Combos

Head coach Lindy Ruff mentioned the Flames being faster and winning most of the 50/50 battles as reasons why the Devils got demolished in the first period. He’s not wrong about that, but it’s safe to say he’s still searching for the right line combos at five-on-five. It’s early in the season, so I don’t think there’s anything unusual about shuffling lines and trying to find chemistry. But both the Sabres and Flames games might have offered a template on what works, as the team looked better with reshuffled lines after poor starts.

Pavel Zacha, Nico Hischier and Tomáš Tatar finished last night’s game together, just as they did against the Sabres on Saturday. They’ve played well together in a small sample size and deserve an extended run. With Jack Hughes out with a dislocated shoulder for the foreseeable future, it shouldn’t be hard to give them first-line duties. 

Nico Hischier New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

There’s a top-six with the Mercer unit, but there are still two more lines to fill out. Jimmy Vesey earned an NHL deal after coming into camp on a PTO, and he’s been one of the Devils’ most consistent players early on. He finished last night’s game on a line with Michael McLeod and Yegor Sharangovich, who also got benched in the second period, and the three of them looked good together as well. With that, here’s what the Devils’ combos could be, based on some recent samples:

  • Zacha – Hischier – Tatar
  • Johnsson – Mercer – Bratt
  • Sharangovich – McLeod – Vesey
  • Marián Studenič – Frédérik Gauthier – Janne Kuokkanen

Though he’s only played in two games, Studenič is third on the team in CF% and sixth in xG%. He skates well, plays fast and has been creating chances. He needs to be an everyday player until Miles Wood returns to the lineup from his injury. Having him and Kuokkanen, who hasn’t played all that poorly either, could help strengthen the Devils’ depth in their bottom-six. Given how things have played out recently, these combos could help Ruff find the chemistry he still seeks.

There Were Positives

The Devils may have played their worst game of the season, but there were positives to build on. Dougie Hamilton was an absolute monster at five-on-five and finished with a couple of assists. Hischier isn’t finding the scoresheet much yet, but there were times last night where the Devils did not look like an NHL team without him on the ice. Pavel Zacha has been of the team’s better forwards and is producing at a point-per-game clip at the moment. 

Related: Top 15 NHL Power Forwards

Other positives include Mercer playing well and Johnsson continuing to show that his rebound season may be coming (he’s on pace for 49 points). Ty Smith also had another good showing, his second since returning from a preseason injury. There are things to build on; it’s just a matter of putting the pieces in the right places. And last night’s third period with new line combos might help the team put the pieces in place.

The Devils conclude this month’s action against the Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets, their first back-to-back set of the season. Better starts would help, and how Bratt and Sharangovich respond to their benchings will determine whether the Devils get back in the win column on Saturday and Sunday evenings.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick

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