The Devils Are Enjoying January in Jersey


Jack Hughes and the Devils are having a season to remember. (Courtesy of Twitter)

In 2021-22, the New Jersey Devils finished the season with an abysmal 63 points. That’s a measly 37 points beneath the playoff line, only good enough for seventh in the Metropolitan Division and two points ahead of the last place Philadelphia Flyers. After 46 games in the 2022-23 season, the Devils have eclipsed their points total from the previous year, collecting 64 points and sitting 10 points ahead of the playoff line with games in hand. New Jersey is in second place in the Metro, trailing the Carolina Hurricanes by just two points. Their 64 points are the third highest across the entire National Hockey League (NHL) as we inch into the second half of the season. An unlikely turnaround like no other has lifted the once lowly Devils into a serious contender, cementing their status as hockey’s surprise of the season.

The Devils became the first team in the Eastern Conference not called the Boston Bruins to win 30 games this season after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 in OT on Sunday, their first 30-win season since 2018-19, when they won 31. There are still 36 games remaining in the season.

It’s not entirely flukey, either, as one might guess. The Devils have largely dominated opponents in chance creation and pace of play as reflected by advanced statistics, as the Devils are second in the league in expected goal differential per 60 minutes (0.61) and have the second highest score adjusted for expected goals (56.05%), which measure how effective teams are at scoring and preventing goals compared to the rest of the league.

So, what has caused the Devils to become one of the league’s best after ten years of mediocrity? Of the many important factors, the most noticeable has been the top-end production from superstars like Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier and Dougie Hamilton, all of which are scoring points at a consistent basis like no core group of Devils players has since the early 2010s. Hughes’ emergence as a potential Hart Trophy candidate especially has lifted the Devils, as the 2019 first overall draft pick assisted and scored his career-high 30th goal on Sunday to improve his season points total to 58, a ridiculous 103-point pace on the season.

This star production is a consequence of patience in development, as draft picks like Hischier, Hughes and Bratt have blossomed into bonafide stars of the league, with Hughes being selected to his second straight All-Star game. In addition to the bigger names, secondary contributors like Dawson Mercer, Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist and Nathan Bastian have emerged as key young players in many different ways, improving special teams and neutral zone play among other refinements.

It’d be hard not to give credit to the Devils’ front office and coaching staff for not only putting together and committing to fielding the third-youngest team in the league (average age 26.1 years), but for eventually getting promising results out of it. As early as the second game of the season, Devils fans were chanting for head coach Lindy Ruff to be fired, but he has since won over the fans thanks to a drastically improved record. It’s been Ruff’s old school approach and attention to detail that has allowed for New Jersey’s young stars to reach this point. Coupled with general manager Tom Fitzgerald’s decision to keep the reins in Ruff’s hands even after a couple of dreadful seasons, the Devils have surfaced as a young team who can and will do damage in this league for years to come.

In addition to receiving improved production from skaters, the Devils have had reliable goaltending since acquiring Vitek Vanecek from the Washington Capitals in an offseason trade. While the Devils have not necessarily committed to Vanecek as its long-term starting goaltender yet, the Czech netminder has been a revelation in goal for the Devils, winning seven straight dating back to Dec. 30. Despite ranking 14th amongst starting goaltenders in goals saved above expected per 60 (.222), Vanecek has brought a dependability in net that Jersey hasn’t had since the early part of Cory Schneider’s tenure in the mid 2010s. A large part of the years of uncertainty in between the pipes for the Devils has been injuries, as they went through seven different goaltenders in 2021-22, none playing more than 25 games. For a few years, it seemed that Mackenzie Blackwood would be tipped to take over the starting goaltending job long term in New Jersey after a couple promising seasons, but injuries, inconsistent play and perhaps some shaken up confidence has left that up in the air. With Vanecek proving to be a top-15 caliber starter, the Devils have more than enough in goal to continue chugging along, especially since it has also gotten some solid secondary goaltending from Blackwood and Akira Schmid, who has been phenomenal in 2022-23 when brought up from the Devils’ AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets.

That’s not to say that the Devils haven’t hit their share of roadblocks in 2022-23. Namely, New Jersey only managed to win four games in 13 tries during the month of December. However, the Devils have since recovered from that slide and have looked more like the version of themselves that won a franchise record 13 straight in November. Through ten games in January, the Devils have won seven, four of which came in consecutive games on the road. Only the first place Bruins have won more over the same stretch.

However, with this refound success has come a glaring flaw: the Devils have been underwhelming at best when playing at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. This has been the story of the Devils’ season as New Jersey has far and away the best away record in the NHL, winning 18 of 22 games on the road, amassing 38 points total and becoming the first and only team in NHL history to sweep road trips of western Canada, eastern Canada and California. On the flip side, they have just 12 wins in 24 home games, totalling 26 points in games played at The Rock.

Since returning to New Jersey from their west coast road trip, the Devils’ triumph over Sidney Crosby and the Penguins is their second straight overtime victory on home-ice, dating back to their 4-3 win over the Rangers on Jan. 7 where they snapped an eight game home losing streak. Should New Jersey turn their home fortunes around and continue grinding out games at the Prudential Center, they are sure to be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference come playoff time.

The Devils will have another opportunity to make a statement at home when they take on the Pacific Division leading Vegas Golden Knights in Newark on Tuesday before they hit the road again for a pair of arguably tougher games against the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars. A third straight home win against a serious cup contender like Vegas ahead of the February All-Star break has the potential to be a massive boost for this already flourishing young team.