New Jersey Devils’ neutral zone & rush defense needs to be better
That's one area the team struggled mightily with this past season.
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By Alex Chauvancy (@AlexC_THW)
There's no doubt that goaltending was problem No. 1 for the New Jersey Devils a season ago.
They addressed that by acquiring Vitek Vanecek, although goaltending wasn't their only problem. Their defense, which was far from the worst in the league, was more in the middle-of-the-pack to the bottom half of the NHL.
One of the more notable flaws in the Devils' defense was in the neutral zone. After goaltending, it was arguably the team's second-most significant problem in 2021-22.
Fortunately, it seems general manager Tom Fitzgerald recognized the issue this summer with his defensive additions. Even then, the Devils will need some tactical changes to their neutral zone structure in 2022-23.
Devils were a bottom-5 rush defense
As mentioned at the top, the Devils were far from the worst defensive team in the league.
They gave up an average of 56.17 shot attempts and 2.48 expected goals per 60 minutes, ranking 18th and 14th in the NHL. They only allowed an average of 9.88 high-danger chances per 60 minutes, the fifth-best mark in the league.
When looking at Corey Sznajder's microstats data, some of that gets backed up by his work. For example, the Devils ranked 14th in defending shots off high-danger passes, 13th in defending one-timers and 10th in cross-slot passes against. So, while the Devils may have given up a bit of volume in their own zone, they did a relatively good job containing quality.
The Devils' in-zone defense was respectable, however, it was the opposite in the neutral zone. Per Sznajder's work, they ranked 32nd in possession entries against, and the rest of the Devils' neutral zone defensive numbers were in the bottom-5.
They ranked 27th in possession exits against, as well as possession exits percentage, meaning opponents were able to start the rush without much resistance from the Devils.
Essentially, it was too easy for opponents to gain possession exiting the Devils' offensive zone, and it was too easy for them to gain New Jersey's defensive zone off the rush.
Goaltenders should've stopped pucks more often than they did in 2021-22, but the Devils' inability to defend the rush didn't make life easy on their netminders. Fortunately, their two main defensive additions should help in that regard.
Smith, Marino will help defending the rush
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