The New Jersey Devils were able to win a crucial game against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night, going into the Christmas Break with at least some positivity. It's been a rough two months, with injuries to Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Timo Meier, and a likely season-ender to Dougie Hamilton. Losses compounded due to bad goaltending. The rest of the division is playing well, and the Devils find themselves three points out of the last Wild Card spot, but they are competing with the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning for it.
While goaltending is an obvious issue, defense can arguably be called an even bigger problem. Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid have had their fair share of terrible moves that led directly to goals, the amount of defensive lapses would far outshine the goaltending mistakes. The terrible pinches, awful positioning in the defensive zone, bad passes right to the other team, and other bonehead plays across the first 32 games of the season are not getting better.
With 50 games left in the season, the Christmas Break is coming at the right time. The Devils can really evaluate what's going wrong on defense. The overall numbers are actually better than some might expect. Analytics expert Meghan Chayka had a really good snapshot of what is happening to the Devils defense.
As you can see from the above, the Devils have awful goals against counting stats. They are at the bottom of the league in save percentage, save percentage versus expected, and a few other goaltending stats. However, some of the defensive stats are actually near the top of the league. The Devils don't allow odd-man rushes or rush shots against. They deny the entrance rate into the offensive zone better than everyone besides one team.
Yet, the Devils still rank 25th in expected goals against. That's a stat that removes the goaltending from the equation. First, let's look at the stats. The Devils allow 51.87 chances per 60 minutes according to Natural Stat Trick. That's third-best in the NHL. However, when looking at high-danger chances, the Devils give up just over 11. That puts them in the middle of the pack.
It shows that the Devils are really good at lowering the volume of shots against their goalies. However, the shots that do get through are of the high-danger variety at a much higher clip. We could all tell you why. The Devils allow way too many offensive players to just sit in front of the goalie. It leads to simple passes to a wide-open man or an easy rebound chance to get in the back of the net.
On top of all this, the Devils goalies are awful against high-danger chances. Of the players who've played at least 10 games this season, Vanecek is last in high-danger save percentage at 5v5. He's stopped just 72.6% of shots at even strength that are considered dangerous. When considering all strengths, Vanecek's high-danger save percentage drops slightly to 72.5%. Schmid is better, ranking 20th out of 58 players in high-danger save percentage at all strengths. He stops 78.6% of high-danger shots.
So, with a team whose shots against are often high-danger shots, and goalies who struggle more than others against high-danger shots, it's a recipe for disaster.
The Devils defensemen need to watch the tape. They need to spend Christmas watching the moments when the team is failing. Just about every one of these mistakes are self-inflicted. As weird as this sounds, that's a good thing. Self-inflicted wounds theoretically can be fixed. It's about changing philosophy and making better decisions. With the right coaching and effort from the defensemen, the high-danger chances will lessen. It's about taking better angles on forwards coming into the zone and better positioning as the play develops.
Now, the defense has to actually do it. That takes commitment. Will they get that? If the Devils want to survive this season without a major upgrade in net, that's the only choice.