Should New Jersey Devils Prioritize Defense or Goalie Additions?

The New Jersey Devils have serious holes at both defense and in net. Where should they focus their addition efforts?

Dallas Stars v New Jersey Devils
Dallas Stars v New Jersey Devils / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

The New Jersey Devils have been mostly mediocre this year, with a steep dip in quality from the 2022-23 iteration of the team. Many point to the goaltending woes as the main problem, while others blame the shoddy defending, both in-zone and off the rush. This article will discuss this difference of opinion and offer a compromise of sorts.

When looking at MoneyPuck or Natural Stat Trick, the Devils just seem to be getting unlucky. They rank 7th in xG% and have -11.56 Goal Differential Above Expected, which is 9th worst in the league. So it's simple: blame the Vitek Vanecek/Akira Schmid combo.

And one wouldn’t be wrong in this blame. Among starters, Vanecek has the single-worst GSAA with -13.2, the worst in the league. There really isn’t an excuse for his level of play., but that is not what this article is about.

Instead, what happens to the Devils when they do receive the league-average goaltending that the fans crave? Enter Nico Daws.

Daws has been perfectly adequate for a young goaltender coming off major hip surgery. While his counting stats, such as save percentage, haven't been fantastic, he has saved 0.6 goals above expected, which is about as average as one can get. Yet, the Devils remain below .500 in his starts. going 3-4-0 in his 7 games this season.

This is where taking a deeper look at the underlying stats could be useful. Using NST, we can garner the teams best at limiting unblocked shot attempts, better known as Fenwick. The Devils sit 6th in the league, so pretty good, right? Yet, taking a look at the xGA paints a slightly different picture. Of the top 10 teams with the lowest Fenwick Allowed (FA), the Devils have given up the most 5v5 xG bar three teams: Vancouver, Ottawa, and Buffalo. That is arguably the best team in the league and two of the worst. Not exactly the greatest company to be in. An interesting wrinkle is taking a look at the per-60 rates. Here, the Devils have the 5th lowest FA/60, but yet again, only Buffalo (in the top 10 teams with the lowest FA/60 rates) trumps them in xG/60.

So, the picture that is being painted here is quite simple. The Devils have not received any quality from Vanecek, yet the environment he is playing in is quite poor. While the Devils seem unlucky, their xG rates tell a story of a team who is trying their best to limit all chances, but the ones they do allow are of the dangerous type that leads to an overall worse defensive environment compared to their playoff counterparts.

It almost seems like Lindy Ruff and the coaching staff have prioritized the wrong sort of thing, focusing on eliminating low and medium-danger chances. But that only works when you have an elite goaltender, something the Devils evidently lack. Instead, the Devils should return to a more conservative style of defending, focusing on eliminating the easy turnovers when pucks are rimmed around the boards. They need more structure in their breakout and commit men to make the defensemen's lives easier. The "hope" plays when a defender throws a puck up the wall has to be a thing of the past. In other words, they might need to simplify and possibly slow down their d-zone to neutral-zone transitions to limit the costly turnovers. While this will certainly impact how the offense functions and probably hurt the rush and overall offense, it might need to be a necessary sacrifice.

With the current amount of injuries to key players, the Devils need to find a way to make sure they stay with the pack for a playoff spot. They are very close to taking over the Flyers for the third spot in the Metro. Making some adjustments (or a coaching change) might have to be the move to keep the Devils above water.