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How About a Faster Start This Year?

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Last year, the New Jersey Devils were the last team in the NHL to win a hockey game, losing seven straight contests before getting that all-important "W". Will this year be better for the team, or are the Devils set up for another tough October?

The Devils open the 2014-2015 season against the Flyers.
The Devils open the 2014-2015 season against the Flyers.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the New Jersey Devils had the worst start of any team in the league.  The team suffered seven losses, four of which came in regulation, before finally shutting out Our Hated Rivals 4-0 on October 19th.  By the end of the month, the team was a paltry 3-5-4, which was good for 10 points in 12 games.  It was in fact the only month of the entire season in which the team had more regulation losses than wins.  The start undoubtedly put the team in a big hole, one that it was never fully able to climb out of.  Back at the beginning of the season, Jerry Tierney wrote an article about the importance of the first month of the season. To quickly sum up a fact relevant to this article, between the 2004-2005 lockout and the start of last season, only 5 teams that have scored 10 points or less in October have made the playoffs.  So if the Devils want to have a better chance to make the dance next season, they need to come out of the gates a little hotter.  The question, however, is will this October be easier, similar, or more difficult than last October?  How difficult will it actually be to get off to that important good start?

Comparing the Schedules: Last Season

Last season, the Devils' October schedule looked like this:

Date

Visiting Team

Home Team

Result

Thu, 10/3

Devils

Pittsburgh

L, 0-3

Fri, 10/4

NY Islanders

Devils

L, 4-3   S/O

Mon, 10/7

Devils

Edmonton

L, 5-4   S/O

Tue, 10/8

Devils

Vancouver

L, 3-2   OT

Fri, 10/11

Devils

Calgary

L, 3-2

Sun, 10/13

Devils

Winnipeg

L, 3-0

Thu, 10/17

Devils

Ottawa

L, 5-2

Sat, 10/19

NY Rangers

Devils

W, 4-0

Tue, 10/22

Devils

Columbus

L, 4-1

Thu, 10/24

Vancouver

Devils

L, 3-2   S/O

Sat, 10/26

Devils

Boston

W, 4-3

Tue, 10/29

Tampa

Devils

W, 2-1

To take a quick look at the results, three shootouts occurred during the month (I don't need to let you know what happened in them), plus another overtime loss to Vancouver.  In fact, both games against the Canucks were one point heartbreakers for the Devils.  Our favorite team also stunk it up bad against Winnipeg, Ottawa and Columbus.  Of the three wins, the one against the Rangers was the sweetest (obviously), but the one against Boston was perhaps the most surprising.  In the game, the Devils would mount an amazing comeback thanks to some heroics (or luck?) on the power play.  The month ended well, with a nail-biting 2-1 win over Tampa which gave the team a two-game win streak entering November.

Now, let's look at how difficult the October schedule was last year.  To do this, we need to look at the quality of opponents as well as the frequency of games and travel.  First, we will start with the quality of opponents.  The list below will showcase each team the Devils faced, as well as their records both for October as well as at the end of the seasonNote: teams in bold made the playoffs

Team

October Record

End of Season Record

Pittsburgh Penguins

9-4-0, 18 points

51-24-7, 109 points

New York Islanders

4-5-3, 11 points

34-37-11, 79 points

Edmonton Oilers

3-9-2, 8 points

29-44-9, 67 points

Vancouver Canucks (faced twice)

9-5-1, 19 points

36-35-11, 83 points

Calgary Flames

5-5-2, 12 points

35-40-7, 77 points

Winnipeg Jets

5-7-2, 12 points

37-35-10, 84 points

Ottawa Senators

4-6-2, 10 points

37-31-14, 88 points

New York Rangers

5-7-0, 10 points

45-31-6, 96 points

Columbus Blue Jackets

5-6-0, 10 points

43-32-7, 93 points

Boston Bruins

8-4-0, 16 points

54-19-9, 117 points

Tampa Bay Lightning

8-4-0, 16 points

46-27-9, 101 points

To quickly analyze that chart, five of the eleven teams that the Devils faced were indeed playoff teams, so their quality of competition was not awful.  However, they also played the cellar of the West.  The bottom of the Western Conference, in order, went Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg.  Those are all teams that New Jersey could have and arguably should have beat, but they lost all five of those games, taking only 3 points out of a possible 10.  Granted, it should be noted that four of those five games were during a bear of a road trip that saw the Devils travel Western Canada and play four games in under a week.  Nonetheless, 3 out of 10 points against those opponents is unacceptable.

More interestingly are the team's October records.  This gives us a little more indication of how each team was playing at the time.  Frankly, most of the teams were beatable.  Only the Penguins, Canucks, Bruins and Lightning had winning records at the end of the month (note: clearly Vancouver was hot at the start of the season, so playing them twice in October was rather unlucky).  Funny enough, however, is that the Devils beat two of those teams, Boston and Tampa.  They also got two of four points against Vancouver, meaning  they played well against tough competition for the most part.  What does this tell us?  That the quality of competition, at that moment in time, was not overly hard.  New Jersey could have done better, and arguably should have.

Looking at the schedule portion of it, the Devils of course had that Western Canadian road trip mentioned above.  That is never easy.  Only four games were at home, where the Devils had a much better record last season (21-11-9), so being on the road for eight games was not helpful at all.  To comment on that further, none of the home games were back to back, meaning that the Devils never got to settle in Newark for a long stretch.  It is debatable how much that can impact a team, but it should be noted.  Finally, the team played two back-to-back sets, where they gained a combined 3 points out of a possible 8.  So the scheduling portion was certainly not the best.

Overall, I would say that the team's October schedule last year was one where they absolutely should have produced more points than they did.  Yes the schedule portion of it was not ideal, with a long road trip and no home stands, but the quality of competition was extremely beatable at that time.  Losses to bad teams are hard to swallow, and it happened more than enough that month.

Comparing the Schedules: This Season

This season, the Devils' October schedule will look like this (note: playoff teams in bold):

Date

Visiting Team

Home Team

Opponent's Record

Thu, 10/9

Devils

Philadelphia

42-30-10, 94 points

Sat, 10/11

Devils

Florida

29-45-8, 66 points

Tue, 10/14

Devils

Tampa Bay

46-27-9, 101 points

Thu, 10/16

Devils

Washington

38-30-14, 90 points

Sat, 10/18

San Jose

Devils

51-22-9, 111 points

Tue, 10/21

NY Rangers

Devils

45-31-6, 96 points

Fri, 10/24

Dallas

Devils

40-31-11, 91 points

Sat, 10/25

Devils

Ottawa

37-31-14, 88 points

Tue, 10/28

Devils

Pittsburgh

51-24-7, 109 points

Thu, 10/30

Winnipeg

Devils

37-35-10, 84 points

Again, let's look at the quality of opponents as well as the frequency of games and travel.  As for the quality of opponents, six of the ten games will be played against playoff teams.  That makes it a little tough.  Of the non-playoff teams, Florida and Winnipeg were bottom feeders, but Washington and Ottawa book-ended New Jersey in the standings, as both had similar results to our favorite team.  Overall, this makes the quality of competition pretty tough this October.  However, I would not say that it is completely bad.  Only Tampa Bay, San Jose, and Pittsburgh scored over 100 points last year, and Tampa got swept in the playoffs.  If the Devils do indeed have an improved squad over last season, they should be able to hang with the majority of these opponents (or so I hope).

Moving onto the schedule portion, New Jersey plays only one back-to-back set, which is great news.  They also play only 10 games over the course of three weeks, which is very manageable.  The season does start with a four game road trip, which is far from ideal, but it is an east coast/Florida trip, which is not nearly as brutal as a Western Canadian trip, even if the teams on the east coast are tougher.  The three game home stand is also very nice, as the team will be home for a solid week.  Of course, that home stand also involves playing the Sharks and Stars, who will arguably be two of the toughest opponents of the month.

Comparing the Schedules: Overall Conclusions

In the end, I think that the October schedule this season is not much more difficult or easier than last season's.  If I were going to say which season has the tougher quality of competition, I would say that this season will probably see that.  San Jose and Dallas are two of the West's top teams (Dallas now with all of their offseason moves), the Rangers and Flyers games will be high intensity as usual, and Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay are anything but pushovers.  Last season saw some tough games as well, especially since Vancouver was hot at the time, but I do not think it can compare.

Where last season was tougher, however, was in the scheduling portion.  The trip to Western Canada was brutal for the Devils, and the team also played an extra back-to-back set.  October last year also saw 12 games instead of this year's 10, which most likely had to do with the Olympic break.  This meant shorter rest periods, which is never a good thing.

Overall, I think that the schedules are similar in difficulty, but if I had to give an edge to either one, I would say that this year is going to be harder simply because of the quality of opponents.  What does that mean for our favorite team?  Well, it means that they cannot come out of the gate limping.  A slow start could really put the team in a deep hole, especially since they do not play many teams who were worse than them in the standings last year.  In that article last year, Jerry wrote that NJ needed to score at least 10 points to give themselves a shot moving forward.  Considering that there are 2 fewer games in October this season, the team might not score much more than 10 points.  However, I have to think that has to be a requirement again regardless.  A record of 5-3-2 at the end of October would give New Jersey 12 points and a positive record moving forward.  While that is not ideal, it is a realistic goal that I think the Devils can certainly achieve.

Your Turn

Now that you have looked at the information and read my opinion, what do you think?  Do you think that this October will be easier or tougher than last year's was?  What about this October is easier or more difficult than last year's?  What is a realistic expectation for New Jersey in the first month of the season?  Please leave your comments below, and thank you for reading.