The New Jersey Devils dominated from start to finish last year. They did it thanks to equal parts dominant offense and suffocating defense. Jack Hughes turned into a star. Nico Hischier became the two-way dynamo we all thought when he was taken first overall. Dougie Hamilton was well worth the price. Everything went right for the offense and defense.
Fast forward to this season. The Devils started the season with three wins and three losses. The offense is hitting on all cylinders. The power play is the best in the NHL. Jack Hughes leads the league in points by a lot. He has 17 after six games. It’s wild. He can’t be stopped.
Something else that can’t be stopped? Any offense going against the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils defense has been awful this season. Full stop. This defense is the polar opposite of what it was last season. While last season there was their share of 2on1s, that was really it. Only the Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild allowed fewer high-danger chances than the Devils at 5v5 last season. This year? They are below average.
Lindy Ruff has kept the same pairings all season. It seems like the wrong decision. We’ve been pushing for a John Marino-Luke Hughes pairing since the offseason. Yet, we’re still looking at a Marino-Kevin Bahl pairing. They are both good on their own, but they’ve been like oil and water together. One or the other seems always out of position. The other team is dominating with them on the ice.
Bahl has been on the ice for as many high-danger chances for as he has been on the ice against. Average is probably fine for him in the long run, but not on this Devils team. He has plenty of opportunities to be on the ice for solid chances. Yet, he’s falling into the point of average a few games into the season. Bahl honestly hasn’t been that bad in a vacuum, but he’s been bad when looking at the totality of his season so far.
Meanwhile, Brendan Smith is in the lineup every single night. It’s not ideal, to say the least. Smith is a seventh defenseman, but he’s playing on a line with prized possession Luke Hughes. It’s a net negative every night.
Some might say the Devils penalty kill can’t afford a Colin Miller or Simon Nemec in the lineup. Well, so far, the Devils lineup can’t afford Brendan Smith. Also, the penalty kill has been bad anyway. What could be worse? We even saw Dougie Hamilton on the PK when *checks notes* Brendan Smith (or John Marino) takes a penalty. He did fine enough to keep him there in a smaller capacity.
The fact that the Devils have had two back-to-backs and haven’t used Miller, Nemec, Cal Foote, Santeri Hatakka (although he is hurt), or any of the talented defensemen on the Utica Comets is asinine. Eventually, the defense will gel, but Lindy Ruff shuffled the lines when the forwards weren’t clicking. How are we not doing that on defense?
The Devils need to do something. It’s not at “drastic” positioning yet, but they need to at least change the pairings. Start by pairing Hughes and Marino and then Smith and Bahl, and see where to go from there.