The New Jersey Devils got off to a slow start – primarily due to injuries – but are starting to gain traction as they’ve won five of their last six contests. They now sit in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division with a 13-10-1 record (27 points). However, the kicker is that they’re only three points behind second-place Philadelphia, with two games in hand. The division has proven to be extremely competitive, as second and seventh place are separated by just five points.
This is the third edition of a biweekly series called “Devils Stock Market” – which will highlight who’s been on their game and who the team needs to see more out of.
The Devils’ recent success has been thanks to an increase in consistent even-strength play, as well as the defense cutting down on odd-man rush opportunities. However, goaltending has continued to struggle and the team has continued the trend of playing well for 45ish minutes, but not usually a full 60.
As always, during a season, players go through ebbs and flows. This series intends to look at the biggest standouts right now – both good and bad – and emphasize certain trends in their play.
So, let’s begin with the positive…who’s trending up?
Stock Up: Ondrej Palat ($OP)
After injuries made it difficult for Ondrej Palat to find his footing in New Jersey last season, the playoffs showed that he is still capable of performing at the high level that he showcased for a decade in Tampa Bay.
He was talked about all offseason as a bounce-back candidate in the regular season. However, he then started the season with only two points in 11 games, which immediately brought concern from the fanbase. Twitter, filled with its typically over-reactionary takes, was littered with trade proposals to unload the last four years of his contract ($6 million per year).
Even with the slow start, Palat was always one of the hardest workers on the ice night in and night out. Now, his work is finally getting rewarded as the points are finally starting to come. He has nine points (four goals, five assists) in his last 13 games and has continued to be a veteran leader and important voice in the locker room.
A few weeks ago, Palat was seen on the bench calming Dawson Mercer down after he was frustrated with himself after a bad pass. Since then, Mercer’s play has flourished.
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In virtually every advanced metric, Palat has been one of the best forwards on the team. His 63.98 expected-goals for (xGF%) leads the entire team, and his Corsi of 61.63% trails only Nico Hischier by just a small fraction of a percentage point.
In defensive metrics, he’s been limiting opportunities better than almost anyone else on the team, save for Hischier and Curtis Lazar. With that, Palat doesn’t need to be getting on the scoresheet every night to be valuable. He just needs to chip in fairly often, which he has as of late.
Furthermore, he’s meshed extremely well alongside Hischier and Jesper Bratt on the team’s second line. According to MoneyPuck, they’ve been the most valuable forward line in the entire league (min. 60 minutes time-on-ice – TOI) with a 75.3 xGF%.
Palat has been a perfect example of why not to overreact to small sample sizes. He’s been a big factor in the Devils’ recent success.
Stock Down: Vitek Vanecek ($VV)
In the last edition of Devils’ Stock Market, Vitek Vanecek’s stock was way down. He was performing among the likes of some of the worst goaltenders in the league.
In dire need of some bounce-back performances, he had four appearances since then. Each one was equally abysmal. In that span, he gave up 15 goals on 91 shots (.835 save percentage – SV%). He’s posted a sub-.900 SV% in eight of his last 10 contests.
His season numbers are now an ugly 3.60 goals-against average (GAA) and a .877 SV%. He’s been the second-worst goalie in the league with a minus-7.3 goals-saved above expected (GSAx), barely trailing Edmonton’s Stuart Skinner (minus-7.8 GSAx).
It’s gotten to the point where general manager Tom Fitzgerald can’t wait any longer to make a move. It already appears that 23-year-old Akira Schmid is now being counted on as the number one, but he’s been inconsistent himself. After a successful regular season last year, it appears that Vanecek’s confidence is entirely shot.
That was glaringly evident after he gave up a game-tying goal late in the third in his recent showing in Vancouver. It was the fifth goal he gave up in the contest after, yet again, he let a rebound pop out right to an opposing skater. This time it was Nils Hoglander who buried it. And Vanecek collapsed to the ice, sitting there with a disturbingly blank stare out into the distance. Like he saw a ghost. He simply looked defeated.
He seems to be moving around in the crease a ton, unlike Schmid who is much calmer in net. That is why even though Schmid has struggled in his own right, he’s usually been more likely to give the team a fighting chance in comparison to Vanecek.
The Devils’ offense has been so good that Vanecek has won nine of his 16 games. But his SV% in wins, yes wins…is .896. He’s not the reason they’re winning.
He hasn’t stolen a single game for the Devils all season. He’s been a class act as well as a fan favorite over the last 14 months in his Devils tenure – but they simply can’t afford to keep trotting him out there.
Stock Up: Nico Hischier ($NICO)
Since Hischier returned to the Devils’ lineup, they’ve gone 5-1-0. This season, they’re 9-3-1 with him playing, and 4-7-0 without.
Jack Hughes was very vocal about Hischier’s impact after their victory over the Islanders, “When Nico’s back everything just falls in line…we have a pretty good one-two punch and matchups are a little different and more spread out. That’s a credit to Nico.”
It makes sense. Not only did Hischier have 80 points in 82 games last season, but he finished 11th in the league with a plus-33 rating despite constantly matching up against the opponent’s best players. He also finished second in Selke Trophy voting, behind Patrice Bergeron.
Hischier has established himself as an elite two-way player in the league. If we’ve seen anything in the last couple of weeks, it’s that the captain is the glue that holds this team together.
His Corsi of 61.67% leads the team, and despite playing in just 13 games, the team has a scoring chance differential of plus-70 with Hischier on the ice. (via Natural Stat Trick)
High-danger chances have been approximately 60% in favor of the Devils when he’s on the ice. The Devils consistently tilt the ice with Hischier, and it’s a big reason why they’ve been landing in the win column more often. After being held from the scoresheet in his first four games, he’s performed at an elite pace since with nine points in as many games.
He’s also been dynamite in the faceoff dot with a career-high 58.8%. And above all, he’s a true leader as captain of the team. When they were down by two goals against the Islanders, Lazar cited Hischier’s intermission speech as the fuel that fired them up to come back and win in regulation.
Stock Down: Nathan Bastian ($BAST)
The Devils re-signed Nathan Bastian to a two-year, $2.7 million contract on July 1, 2023. It’s safe to say Bastian hasn’t even come close to living up to it so far.
He only has three points (one goal, two assists) in 22 games played, coupled with a minus-9 rating. He’s shooting at a very low 3.8-percent clip, and he’s since seen his average ice time go down almost three full minutes from last season.
The advanced statistics back it up as more than just being unlucky. He’s one of only three regulars (min. 20 games) who have an xGF of under 50%, with 47.23%. The opposition has scored seven more high-danger goals than the Devils with Bastian on the ice, which speaks to the level of dangerous opportunities that Bastian is allowing.
He doesn’t bring any other element that makes him worth trotting out every night in the lineup. Despite his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame, his physicality has gone down considerably. Last season, he averaged approximately 2.3 hits per game. This season, that mark has been brought to 1.7 – a 26% decrease.
In their recent contest in Seattle, Bastian was scratched in favor of moving Brendan Smith to forward. On Sportsnet’s recent 32 Thoughts podcast, insider Elliotte Friedman said the Devils were in the market for another depth forward, since playing Smith there isn’t ideal.
That could also speak volumes to how the organization feels about Bastian currently. When the season started, it seemed that Bastian would be favored over Lazar. Now, that’s not even a discussion. In virtually every category, Lazar has emerged as a much better option – and it’s not close.
Hopefully, Bastian can bounce back and become serviceable once again, like he was for most of the past two seasons since being claimed off waivers. But if his poor play continues, it would not be a shock to see him continuously scratched if the team is healthy.
Who Are You Investing In?
The resurgence of Palat has done wonders for the Devils, as well as the recent stellar play from Hischier. However, Vanecek and Bastian have continued to hurt the team more than…
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