Another loss and a quarter done; how are the Devils’ new players performing
Ray Shero brought in five new faces — Jack Hughes, Nikita Gusev, Jesper Boqvist, PK Subban and Wayne Simmonds — who were expected to add offence to a Devils team that had been too reliant on Taylor Hall and the top line ever since the left winger’s arrival in New Jersey in 2016. The situation has not gone according to plan, to say the least: as the Devils hit the quarter-pole of the season (they played their 21st game against Pittsburgh last night) they sit 30th in the 31-team NHL with just 18 points in 21 games. They are 29th in goals-for and 30th in goals-against; their power play and penalty kill are both in the bottom third. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the Devils, while having a fair amount of talent, are fatally flawed and a Bluesian turnaround is just not going to happen.
While the new additions clearly did not mold the Devils into a playoff team, the current dilemma cannot all be blamed on them. Let’s examine how each has fit into John Hynes’ team and what we can expect from them for the rest of the year.
Jack Hughes — 10 points in 21 games played.
The number one pick has largely played to expectations: ultra quickness with great vision, but defensively naive and physically immature. John Hynes experiment of playing him in a third or fourth line role was mercifully short-lived. If Hughes isn’t playing with skill players, he cannot be in the lineup. Of players who have taken 200+ faceoffs, he is last in the league, winning just 41%. He has games where he is noticeably dangerous and others where the only danger is to the Devil’s netminders as he gets caved in the defensive zone. In short, it’s all to be expected for a slight, 18 year old junior star playing for a poor team. That said, he is clearly accruing knowledge as the weeks go by, becoming more adept at figuring out which moves will work against NHL defensemen and which will not. Last night against Pittsburgh — playing with Boqvist and Simmonds — was one of his best games of the year despite being kept off the scoresheet. It is a learning season for Jack Hughes and there is still a chance for some upside in the second half of the year… but if Hughes name is engraved on the Calder Trophy in 2020 it will be that of his brother Quinn, not Jack.
Wayne Simmonds — 9 points in 21 games played.
Of all the players coming to the team in the summer, Simmonds has found his role the best. No, he is not the dynamic power forward he was in LA and in his early years in Philly, but, lets face it, everyone knew the Devils weren’t getting that Wayne Simmonds. What he has done is fill needs in a Devil’s squad otherwise too one-dimensional: do the dirty work in front of the net — check; provide a physical presence on the wing — check; put home the powerplay garbage — check; don’t make careless mistakes and get the puck out of the zone in a bottom 6 role — check; ability to slot onto both offensive and checking lines — check. Yes, it took Simmonds a while to get going, but once he scored his first goal in game #11, he has been one of the Devil’s best and provides intangibles that are in short supply on the team. Given continued good health, the Devils could sign him to another deal, or get something for him at the deadline.
Nikita Gusev — 8 points in 18 games played.
From game 1 to game 20, no player has turned it around more than Gusev. Possessing possibly the best release on the team and a shifty style, the 27-year-old Russian was so poor without the puck he was almost unplayable, spending three games in the press box, and getting single-digit minutes in a half-dozen others. The last two weeks have seen a dramatic turnaround, as he seems to have figured out his defensive assignments and developed some chemistry playing with defensively responsible Zajac and Coleman. While that line may not be the best fit for him going forward, his increasing comfort level on the ice should allow him to be more successful in the season’s second half.
P.K. Subban — 5 points in 21 games played.
PK Subban is a nice upgrade over Steve Santini.
There it is.
If your mom or dad ever told you “if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all,” that’s about all you can say about Subban’s first two months with the Devils. The dynamic force of nature that won the Norris Trophy with Montreal and finished third in Norris voting in Nashville has not arrived in New Jersey. Inopportune pinches at the point, penalties taken because of poor positioning or frustration and close-ups of PK shaking his head as he heads to the bench after a goal leaks in have been de rigueur the first 21 games of the season. More surprising than the miscues, however, is watching just how little he contributes to the Devil’s attack: he is slow to move the puck in the neutral zone, was taken off PP1 on merit, misses too many home-run passes that lead to icing, and his shot is scarier to forwards standing in front of the net than to opposing goalies, whom he has beaten just once (with one empty net) in the first quarter. He has been so ineffective going forward that there have been games this season where he was the fourth choice defenseman — for the power play! Show me anyone who could have predicted that.
With two more full seasons after this one at a $9 million cap hit, PK Subban still has a lot of time to contribute offensively to a team badly in need of a spark; but how much heat remains in PKs embers?
Jesper Boqvist — 0 points in 8 games played.
In his very limited time in the lineup, Boqvist has shown qualities that the Devils have in short supply: a physical presence, defensive awareness, a diligence for the backcheck and a willingness to go to the net. With those qualities, it is criminal that John Hynes has chosen Boqvist as a healthy scratch in 13 games, and only played him more than 10 minutes four times all year. Yes, there are the mitigating circumstances of too many first-time NHLers in the lineup and someone had to sit… but there is still no excuse that Hynes never played him with the same linemates twice and given him a chance to develop any chemistry. Although he did not score last night vs Pittsburgh, he looked dynamic and a fine complement to Jack Hughes, who played one of his best 5-on-5 games. With the Devils’ season pretty much in flames, there is little reason to take Boqvist out of the lineup the rest of the year.
By Gilles Moncour