Are the New Jersey Devils worse than expected?
CJ Turtoro attempts to answer just that in his latest deep dive.
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By CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil)
The New Jersey Devils opened the season as one of the most likely teams to win the Stanley Cup. Sportsbooks unanimously had them in the top-10, and some had them as high as 3rd. Public analytics models generally had the Devils as a 100-point team, but went as high as making them President’s Trophy favorites.
Fast forward and, as of this writing, the Devils sit at NHL-500 in 7th place. Not in the league, not in the conference, but in the Metropolitan Division – ahead of only the lowly Columbus.Blue Jackets.
The team has also given fans whiplash by playing their worst game of the season (shutout-loss to the Red Wings) and their best game of the season (7-2 win to Buffalo) within four days of one another.
If you asked the fanbase 48 hours ago, they’d have said we need to fire the coach, get a new goalie, beg Andrew Brunette to return, pray to the nearest deity, and make a voodoo doll of every opponent for the rest of the year.
Now, fans are singing a different tune since we were predictably good again after Jack and Nico returned. The Devils are still three points behind the Capitals (who have two games in hand) for a playoff spot and this won’t be team’s last rough stretch of the season. Let’s reassess and prepare for what to expect moving forward
So what’s the deal with this team? Do the Devils suck? Are they totally fixed?
I'll look here at things that fall into one of three categories: what is/was temporary, what is statistical noise, and what is a potential longer-term problem?
Patience for the patients
Jack Hughes (6.8), Nico Hischier (6.6), and Timo Meier (4.2) were worth a combined 17.6 SPAR (standings points above replacement) last season. That’s the difference between the Dallas Stars and the Buffalo Sabres. I don’t need to explain how good these players are or that this was bad luck, which will likely not continue.
However, a lot of people seem to think that is just an offensive problem and it doesn’t help explain the defensive struggles, which isn’t entirely true. There’s, of course, the obvious positive impact the three of them have on puck possession. You can’t have a defensive breakdown if you’re not on defence in the first place.
There’s also a massive trickle-down effect from losing the top two guys at the same position. Here’s an example of one such effect:
This is the graph of Michael McLeod’s zone starts. He started the year, as he always does, neutralizing defensive zone danger by winning faceoffs and attacking the puck using the same skillset that’s made him one of the best penalty killers in the NHL the last three seasons. But when the Devils lost Hughes/Hischier he was asked to step up. And he delivered! His line has generated offense reliably despite the loss of elite offensive talent. But someone then needed to fill in for him. And that went… less well.
Now, to be honest, Chris Tierney probably isn’t this much worse (-1.18 GAR is like losing Connor McDavid). But, this does nonetheless illustrate the compounding effect of losing not one, but two top players at the same position.
The Devils lost not only the huge offensive difference between Hischier/Hughes and McLeod, but also the huge defensive difference between McLeod and Tierney. Or the offensive difference between McLeod and Brendan Smith as a 7D, as the team has been doing lately.
Hischier and Hughes returning allows the Devils to put McLeod back in his spot and that will have a big impact on the defense. And Timo Meier bumps Max Willman back to wherever he came from, returning the Devils to one of, if not THE best forward group in the NHL.