The first quarter of the 2023-24 season is officially in the books, and many teams have gotten off to hot starts across the NHL. However, two teams many expected to catch fire in the early going have instead been ice cold: the New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Devils entered the season fresh off their first playoff series win since the 2011-12 campaign after they defeated the New York Rangers in seven games. The team followed that up with a successful offseason in which they re-signed star forward Timo Meier and trading for winger Tyler Toffoli to help bolster their scoring depth.
Meanwhile, the Penguins failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 16 seasons after falling just short of a wild card bid. New general manager Kyle Dubas was aggressive over the summer as he traded for star defenseman Erik Karlsson in addition in re-signing goaltender Tristan Jarry.
Both teams have lofty expectations this season, so their early-season struggles are a cause for concern. The Devils currently own a 13-10-1 record (27 points) and are in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division. On the other hand, the Penguins possess a 11-11-3 record (25 points) and sit in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division.
Let's take a closer look at what's contributed to the Devils and Penguins being two of the league's biggest disappointments thus far.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils certainly have a dynamic offense that can scores goals at will. After all, this is a team currently averaging 3.63 goals-per-game, which is good for fourth in the NHL.
While the scoring has been there, the biggest issue for the Devils has been goaltending.
The Devils currently have a 3.67 goals-against-average as a team, which is the second-worst clip in the league behind only the San Jose Sharks. The franchise elected to roll with the same goaltending tandem as a season ago in the form of Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid.
Vanecek has started 16 of the team's 27 games, but he hasn't exactly been a brick wall in between the pipes. The veteran netminder has put together a 9-5-0 record, a 3.60 goals-against-average and a .877 save percentage.
Vanecek has struggled to thwart the opposition's second chances throughout the season. According to Money Puck, Vanecek has a 0.017 rebounds above expected rate (44th in the NHL) along with just 14 puck freezes (also 44th in the NHL). That scenario reared its ugly head during Tuesday's 6-5 win against the Vancouver Canucks as three of the Canucks' five goals came via a rebound chance.
Meanwhile, Schmid currently has a 4-5-1 record, a 3.03 goals-against-average and a .902 save percentage this season. The 23-year-old really thrived after he replaced Vanecek during the Devils' opening-round playoff series against the Rangers in the 2023 postseason.
Schmid ended up recording a 2.35 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage, while recording a pair of shutouts during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, that success hasn't translated into this season. According to Money Puck, Schmid has -1.9 goals saved above expected, which is 44th among NHL goaltenders.
Obviously, it's still early in the 2023-24 season, so there's no reason to panic just yet for the Devils. After all, the team is just four points out of second place in the Metropolitan Division. If Vanecek or Schmid can rise to the occasion and improve their play this season, the Devils certainly can reach the postseason and make a deep Stanley Cup run.
During Ron Hextall's time as the Penguins general manager, the team made the decision to pursue one last Stanley Cup rather than electing to get younger. During the 2022 offseason, Pittsburgh re-signed veteran Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin to big contract extensions in an effort to keep the team's core together.
During the 2023 offseasaon, the Penguins were under the leadership of Dubas after he parted ways with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Dubas decided to re-sign goaltender Tristan Jarry and make a splash by trading for star defenseman Erik Karlsson.
Despite making all of those moves in recent years, the Penguins have gotten off to quite the disappointing start in 2023-24.
The Penguins are currently 20th in the league in scoring with just 2.96 goals-per-game. As a team, Pittsburgh is averaging just 2.1 goals-per-game over their last 10 contests, including scoring one goal or fewer in three of those games.
Pittsburgh has struggled mightily on the power play as they're converting just 9.9 percent of their opportunities on the man advantage. That's the third-worst clip in all of the NHL.
The rough start to the season may raise the question of whether the Penguins should've made the move to acquire Karlsson. The All-Star blue-liner did get off to a slow start with his new team as he recorded just two goals and four assists over the first month of the campaign. To make matters worse, Karlsson has been held without a point in four of his last five games.
While the Penguins were criticized by many for bringing Jarry back on a large contract extension, the goaltending hasn't really been the issue as the team has a 2.60 goals-against-average as a unit.
Simply put, the Penguins are going to need to improve offensively if they want to climb back into the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
The Penguins are going to need to start taking advantages of their power play chances if they want to right the ship. They chose not to ship out some of these veterans and chase another Stanley Cup, so this is a process they'll need to see through.
If the Penguins fall short of a playoff berth for the second consecutive season, it would be quite a lackluster start to the tenure of Dubas after the moves he made early on.