Through two games of the regular season in 2022-23, the New Jersey Devils were 0-0-2. Through two games in 2023-24, they’re 1-0-1. That sounds a lot better.
However, the first two games of this season haven’t exactly been executed to perfection by any means. Following the Devils’ 4-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings, Head Coach Lindy Ruff made it clear his team had some things to work on. After Game Two against the Arizona Coyotes, it was more of the same.
“We started the game slow,” Ruff explained. “We found our game more in the second or third period and started to skate (from there).”
He continued: “I didn’t think our execution was real good. Some of the passes we missed and didn’t execute. As the game went on, some of the plays we made were pretty good plays.”
New Jersey received an off day on Saturday following back-to-back contests on Thursday and Friday night to open the season. Back on the ice Sunday morning, the Devils looked a little different due to some tweaks in the forward group.
Devils Practice Notebook
It’s not out of the ordinary for Ruff to shuffle his lines. However, he’s been preaching chemistry since the beginning of training camp and has done his best to tweak it as minimally as possible. As of Sunday morning, here’s how the Devils forward lines appeared:
Timo Meier-Nico Hischier-Ondrej Palat
Tyler Toffoli-Jack Hughes-Jesper Bratt
Dawson Mercer-Erik Haula-Alexander Holtz
Curtis Lazar-Michael McLeod-Nathan Bastian
Ruff disclosed that Tomas Nosek is dealing with a lower-body injury and is considered day-to-day. Chris Tierney practiced as New Jersey’s 13th forward.
The J. Hughes line is the one constant since the beginning of training camp and preseason. The trio has far and away been New Jersey’s best line in their forward group. They’ve accrued a total of 10 points combined through two games thus far, Hughes scoring two goals and three assists, Bratt collecting two goals and an assist, and Toffoli contributing two helpers.
According to NaturalStatTrick, the trio totals 61.70 CF% and 66.21 xGF%. Individually, despite having the least of the raw statistics, Toffoli appears to be contributing the most to scoring chances leading the trio with 62.86 CF% and 64.56 xGF%. As a result, there’s been no reason to break them up.
The biggest change comes on the Hischier line. Originally, Alexander Holtz skated alongside Hischier and Meier through the majority of training camp. However, Holtz was demoted to the third line, a decision that’s likely best for Holtz’s integration into the NHL. Right before the start of the regular season, it was Mercer on Hischier’s right while Meier remained on the left. According to Ruff, the duo of Hischier and Mercer played an integral defensive role against the Devils’ opposition each night and he wanted to continue that this season. Instead, Palat receives a promotion from the third line to the “first” line.
“We’re just trying to see if we can get a little bit more offense out of the Nico line,” Ruff explained Sunday morning. “I think it’s early in the season and it’s a great time to experiment with some combinations.”
The veteran forward is certainly off to a strong start this season, collecting one point in two games. Palat’s analytics check out too, ranking sixth best among forwards with a 62.86 CF% and fifth best among forwards with a 57.77 xGF%, as opposed to Mercer’s 38.46 CF% and 37.57 xGF%. Mercer’s collected no points thus far. Time will tell if Palat can help inflate Hischier and Meier’s combined, unfortunate 42.22 CF% and 40.64 xGF% as Ruff searches for answers to New Jersey’s slow starts.
As for the defense, the pairs remain intact. Colin Miller remains the seventh defenseman as Brendan Smith continues to take reps alongside Luke Hughes on the Devils’ third pair.
Keith Kinkaid’s injury came in late September. He was part of the split squad that made its way to Montreal to take on the Canadiens. Akira Schmid started the first 40 minutes of the contest. Kinkaid was supposed to finish the game. Instead, Kinkaid’s injury forced Schmid back into play.
Kinkaid hit the ice at RWJBarnabas Arena Sunday morning practicing with the varsity squad for the first time in almost four weeks. Unfortunately, no update on his health was provided, although, his presence on the ice speaks to his health progressing positively. Regardless, once Kinkaid is good to go, he’s likely headed to the AHL Chicago Wolves, barring an injury to Schmid or Vitek Vanecek.