As of December 7, 2014 Anno Domini, the New Jersey Devils have a record of ten wins, thirteen losses, and four post-regulation losses. They have 24 points, which has placed them fifth in the Metropolitan Division. They are four points from third-place Washington, which is a crucial spot as being in third grants an automatic playoff berth. That does not seem like a lot but the team is rife with problems.
Here's a quick summary. Good results have been rare as of late with only two wins in their last ten games. Twice in recent weeks, they had a significant lead and they blew it on their way to a shootout loss each time. As Mike showed in his last post, this isn't a new issue. Then again, otherwise the team has faltered in trying to get leads. The young defense has yet to "learn from their mistakes" to get good. Despite a decent shooting percentage, the team only has one player with more than ten goals so far this season: Mike Cammalleri, who is the latest to be added to the list of injured with a pulled muscle in his butt of all places. Considering the Devils do not have a functional second line, this is just another big problem in terms of forward depth. As a team, they are not a strong possession team as they have a modest 50.56 Corsi% at even strength. That is not good for a low-event team like the Devils. Regression to the mean isn't going to help as they actually have been decent in terms of team shooting percentage. The penalty kill has improved but they're still a massive sore spot over this season. Over the past five or six weeks, the team has just been difficult to watch as there are struggles at making passes to each other and getting the puck out their end or into the opposition's with control. Simply, this is not a good team and there is little sign of them suddenly becoming one.
So why try to do so? Why not just blow things up? Why not tank?
This is a subject that has become increasingly popular. Not just among Devils fans having just watched another dreadful performance by the team. Outsiders are raising the point, which makes it even more worth the discussion. Legendary hockey writer Larry Brooks may be tabloid-tastic, but he's never been one to pull punches or cover not-so-hot topics (e.g. union disorganization years ahead of the Incredibly Stupid Lockout of 2012) and the larger hockey media needs that. He made the case for tanking before the team's 1-4 loss to Washington in the New York Post. (Hat tip to NS24 on the Devils sub-reddit for posting the story.)
I'm not all that moved by Brooks' point that the team "blew their shot" at Mario Lemieux. Lemieux would have changed a lot - and not necessarily in the way things have went from 1987 through now. Besides, Kirk Muller was a very good player and the organization managed to become a rather strong contender for quite a while anyway. I regard the decision to not intentionally be bad for Lemieux to be a point of pride, actually. Furthermore, I don't know if I would put Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel on the level of arguably one of the top five players in NHL history. Excellent prospects, yes. Future sure-fire, no-questions-asked Hall of Famers? Let's not get hasty. However, he does point out that the Devils do have some assets to stockpile some selections and prospects that may help in the near future. It is at least possible.
Yet, I do not think the Devils should tank. I have two reasons for this.
Let's get the first one out of the way. I don't want them to. In addition to leading ILWT, I am a season ticket holder. I went into this season with the expectations, and reasoning behind said expectation, that this was a playoff caliber team. I have continued to spend a significant sum of money for tickets plus train tickets to get to Newark and additional funding on food at the game. I am not a big spender buying a box so I know I am just part of a crowd; but I do this because I want to see the team that I love play and compete to win games. I do not want them to compete to not win them in the hopes that an 18-year old player will be the team's savior of their many ills. That is not something I am willing to spend the money, time, and energy invested in going to games that they'll try to drop, then to come home and write about said games after dropping them. I do not expect success every night, but I do expect competence. I don't want to see more games like Saturday's dreadful performance. So as much as I loathe putting feelings over facts on this site, my feelings are against tanking.
So let's go back to facts. This team isn't good but they would have to intentionally try to be really bad.
One of the biggest pluses on the Devils is the play of Cory Schneider. You may not like some of the soft goals he's allowed this season, but there can be little complaint about a 93.2% even strength save percentage. This is a top-ten percentage among goalies who have played at least ten games. Schneider has kept the Devils in a lot of games, sometimes in spite of the play of the skaters in front of him. So unless the Devils plan to sit Schneider a lot more, that's going to throw a wrench in any tanking plans. After paying him so much and giving him 26 out of 27 starts already, I don't think that's happening.
Related to that, this isn't the 2010-11 Devils team that spent half of the season shooting below 6% as a team at even strength. The Devils are around the league median with a team shooting percentage of 7.43% at even strength per War on Ice. While that's not exceptional, it's not nearly as bad enough as to mean the Devils aren't scoring a lot of goals. They don't score a lot of goals because they don't attempt to shoot the puck a lot compared to most teams, thereby undercutting how many shots they do generate. But it's hard to be totally futile with a decent shooting percentage because it'll mean that there will be goals, which can lead to wins.
Let's also consider the teams worse than the Devils right now in the standings. There are seven teams with worse records than the Devils right now. From "best" to worst as of Sunday: Colorado, Arizona, Philadelphia, Columbus, Buffalo, Carolina, and Edmonton. Six of those teams have a PDO - the combination of even strength shooting percentage and save percentage - below 100, so they could have better fortunes in time. However, whatever gain may only lead to a short surge since a bunch of those teams aren't getting good goaltending anyway. More importantly, most of those seven teams are likely legitimately bad teams. While the Devils aren't a strong possession team, only Edmonton and Carolina in that group has a positive Corsi% per War on Ice. That suggets that they're not so terrible, though Edmonton on the verge of doing...something may undercut that. In any case, the other five teams are below 50% and especially so in the case of Buffalo, who are truly a wretched team. In order for the Devils to do worse, they need to get down to that level. That's going to be really hard to do even as a low-event team since the Devils do respond (somewhat) to score effects. Further, the Devils will have to hope those teams play better hockey while they themselves drop in the standings. As it is difficult to catch up in the standings, it's hard to drop to the level of teams that are simply terrible like Buffalo. All for a better percentage at first overall, too.
Making that effort harder is that the Devils will get a bit healthier, which will help their team out. Jaromir Jagr is already back. So will Travis Zajac and Mike Cammalleri, which will give the Devils a functional first line. Adam Larsson will return to the defense too, which will help matters from the back end. While Martin Havlat hasn't been useful at all - especially with Patrik Elias - he could theoretically do things elsewhere in the lineup. Amid all of this, the team still has a functional bottom six and a defensive corps that can do things even with warts at times.
So unless the Devils do decide to do what Brooks says and trade everyone with value away, their replacements cannot follow simple instructions, the team struggles to move the puck for all three periods instead of one or two, Schneider gets more nights off with a vastly inferior goalie replacing him, the team has to suffer losing more players to injuries, and the seven teams below them start to do better, then the team will have a shot at the bottom five and improve their chances of getting Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Followed by hoping either matches the hype so they can start to pick up the pieces from such a tanking season. Nevermind the serious issue of whether there will even be a quality team surrounding the young starlet players to get the franchise back as a contender.
That's a lot to has to happen for the Devils would have to plainly suck harder than an industrial vacuum. And the result might be a bottom five selection unless the lottery looks kind to them. That's what they would have to do because right now, this New Jersey Devils are not one of the five worst teams in the National Hockey League. The facts as they are show that they won't be either.
Therefore, I say no thanks to tanking.
What about you? Do you think the Devils should tank this season? If so, how? Just as importantly, would you continue to spend something (time, money, energy, etc.) to see the Devils tank 2014-15? Please leave your answer and thoughts about the subject in the comments. Thank you for reading.