New Jersey Devils fans aren't happy, and it's understandable why that's the case.
It seems like only a week ago the New Jersey Devils had a nine point cushion on their playoff spot, and although the team had identifiable areas of weakness, the play of Taylor Hall was making up for most of them.
Things seem different now. The conversation around Taylor Hall's case for the Hart trophy, awarded to the player judged "most valuable to his team" has started to shift from a focus on Hall's dominance, to his dominance relative to a relatively underperforming New Jersey Devils squad. One of the main talking points has been Hall's distance from the second-highest scoring player on the team, Nico Hischier. After March 8's loss to Winnipeg, in which Hall's point streak ended at 26 consecutive games played, the difference between Hall and Hischier sits at 31.
The commentary from the Athletic was more dire than the rest. Dom Luszczyszyn writes:
"Hall’s average Game Score is seventh-best in the league this season. The next best Devil, Kyle Palmieri, is ranked 93rd. That’s a massive gap and as it turns out the difference is actually the largest in the league this season."
Luszczyszyn's argument may be hard for Devils' fans to read, but it is a fair assessment, and worth subscribing for. While the recent play of Hall and the Devils could well result in a Devil taking home an individual award for the first time since Brodeur won the William M. Jennings trophy in 2009/2010 for giving up the fewest goals in a season, the overall picture is not encouraging.
The Devils sit in the first wild card spot in the East, but only retain a one point lead on a competitive Blue Jackets team. Florida, currently on a 17-3-1 streak in their past 21 games, have three games in hand. All in all, it seems like the focus on individual accomplishment has held Devils fans withstand a poor period of play that has come at the altogether wrong time. The remaining 14 games will be incredibly stressful, which in itself is an accomplishment for a rebuilding team.
I tend to be an optimist, and there are many ways to look at success in a season. For example, on episode 16 of the Devils in the Details Podcast, Ian and I discussed the change in expectations that have occured for Devils fans since September. Where once we were content with going young and fast and having a developmental year, the focus has shifted to actually making the playoffs. This is partly due to personal excitement, and seeing the team in a position where making the playoffs is not only possible, but likely, with probabilities sitting somewhere around 70-75% according to some models.
Another strong reason for this expectation or hope was that, yes, development is nice and all, but playoff experience trumps all. Having a young team marinate in the playoffs could help take this team to the next level, and getting that experience could be crucial in locking up Taylor Hall long term when the time comes.
Diagnosing the Problem
There has been lots of talk about what exactly is going wrong with this Devils team. At various points goaltending, depth scoring, and defence have each taken focus.
The likely answer is that the team is simply young and incomplete. Some of the rookie players have slowed down. Depth scoring that helped power the team in the early months of the season has dried up. Brain Gibbons has been injured, and only recently came back to the active roster to face Winnipeg on March 8. Brian Boyle has largely been quiet, with a recent offensive performance against Montreal earlier in the week. Marcus Johansson has been out of the lineup since being injured by Brad Marchand. Pavel Zacha's play has been stronger in the past month and the acquisition of Michael Grabner has helped him, but he has not always been able to convert good possession play into points. This team is full of players that are struggling to produce simultaneously, all at a time when the Devils need to heat up to secure a playoff spot.
I struggle to describe the goaltending situation. Keith Kinkaid put together a strong five game stretch during Cory Schneider's absence, but his play across the whole season has been inconsistent. Schneider's injury, and his play since his return, have also had an effect on the Devils' playoff race.
I don't think there is one primary cause of the Devils' recent woes. Secondary scoring is the most obvious and most likely candidate, but a comparatively weak (in relation to stronger playoff teams) defence and inconsistent goal tending must also be considered. What is most frustrating is that there are nights when this team plays the right way, dominates possession and shot-share, and still loses. There are also other nights when the Devils don't "deserve" to win, in that they get dominated in possession and shot-share, and they win. This makes things complicated, and it makes me feel like the Devils are at the mercy of the Gods of randomness and chaos.
I want to present you with a few dashboards comparing some basic statistics, ranging from possession (corsi-for/high-danger corsi-for), shooting percentage, and save percentage, so that you can come to your own conclusions about the Devils' recent slide, and the season in general. Often these statistics are isolated, and providing them in context will hopefully prove helpful.
As Ian and I often say, we are not experts. We are fans with a bit of an obsession. But even fans are capable of stepping back and examining context. I want to present these visualizations mostly without comment, in order to spur some conversation in a period of the season that is proving incredibly stressful.
What surprised me most about this team was both how dominant this team can be in high-danger play, and how inconsistent the play in net has been. I think that more than anything, we've been both unlucky in that several areas of play have declined at once - secondary scoring and goaltending - and the team's schedule has increased in difficulty as the season has progressed.
One of the benefits of the Devils current, yet precarious, position is that if they do make it, they will have fought through hell to get there. If they don't make it, they will have taught the rookies a valuable lesson is consistency and the need to push through the toughest parts of the season.
If you're anything like me, you're sick of learning lessons.
I want the playoffs.