Let me begin by stating that I am currently pleased with the New Jersey Devils. They won four games in a row. They had their first multi-goal comeback victory in years. They beat a hated rival. They won their game in regulation and maintained a lead to do it. They even won, get this, a shootout. Feelings for the Devils are high and they should be; they're hot at the moment. Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak, Cory Schneider, and the Devils are hot right now. You should feel good about the team. They're winning - even in dramatic fashion.
That said, as someone who predicted this team will finish dead last in the division, I am not at all concerned about the Devils suddenly being "too good" to finish in an advantageous drafting position for the draft next year. I do not think this is a team with the quality, certainly not the depth, to make a run at making the playoffs. This is still very much a re-building season and it will show in time. Playoff invoices aren't coming out soon and you don't need to clear your schedules for mid-to-late April 2016 just yet. At the risk of putting on an unflattering dress and wig and calling myself Debbie Downer, please allow me to explain why I think it's premature to think this Devils team is going to be to good for the bottom end of the league.
Yes, the Devils and the NHL has played roughly ten-percent of their season. It is true that the Devils are currently in the middle of the league standings as of 11:49 AM on October 25, 2015. They are sitting seventeenth overall with a record of 4-3-1; fifth in the Metropolitan Division. They are just outside of the playoff picture; just behind Philadelphia - ahead on the tiebreaker of playing one fewer game. Your bottom six teams right now are, in order from least worst to worst, Calgary, Toronto, Carolina, Buffalo, Anaheim, and Columbus. Seems like the Devils won't descend to their depths, even though that 25th place Calgary team is behind New Jersey by five points.
Let's go back a 364 days. As of October 26, 2014, here are the league standings. The Devils just played their eighth game of the season the night before and they won. Their record was 4-2-2 and they were tenth overall. They were ranked third in the Metropolitan Division. They weren't on the cusp of the playoffs, they were sitting in an automatic spot. The bottom six teams at that time were, in order from least worst to worst, Toronto, Edmonton, Colorado, Winnipeg, Buffalo, and Carolina. Keep in mind, Toronto and Edmonton were tied in points with Florida, St. Louis, and Arizona, they were 25th and 26th based on tiebreakers.
While some of those bottom six teams ended up in the bottom, there were still changes. The Devils crashed hard and finished with the sixth worst record. Carolina never climbed out of the Metropolitan basement, but did finish better than thirtieth. Winnipeg got it together and made the playoffs; Arizona crashed in; and Edmonton and Buffalo proceeded to have a tank battle for last. If nothing else, there's a lot of hockey left to be played and plenty can happen.
It's also worth noting that last season featured three teams actively trying to be bad. The Sabres were awful under Ted Nolan in 2013-14 and proceeded to keep him on for another season. Instead of trying to add talent, they arguably shipped more out and filled the roster with hopefuls, maybes, and never-will-bes. They earned their 23-51-8 record, for better or Jack Eichel. Edmonton has had plenty of experience of tanking and went in hard. Not punishing young draft picks for performing poorly? Check. Giving significant time to arguably the worst player as team captain since, well, Bryce Salvador? Check. Leaning on Justin Schultz so hard that the C&B named a verb for him: Jultzing? Oh, check. They were fine with the slog to the bottom, ended up third from last, and won the McDavid sweepstakes, yet another first overall pick to a team that previous ones couldn't save. Then there were the Arizona Coyotes. Mired among seemingly endless issues about the status of their team's location, they were just horrendous in all aspects and didn't really do anything to try and improve it. It was if the team collectively went, "Welp, we suck." and proceeded to suck so bad that they were only two points better than a Buffalo team that planned and executed one of the more obvious tank jobs in recent hockey history. So bad teams like Carolina, Toronto, and New Jersey never really had a shot at getting to the very bottom.
So far, 2015-16 is different. Buffalo did make moves - bold moves - to try to put a better roster on the ice this season. It hasn't paid off just yet, but the Sabres have been at least infinitely more watchable and competitive. Arizona are riding with the kids and so far, they've done better along with Mike Smith not being sieve. Edmonton may not be good but like Buffalo, they're making an active effort to be competitive. That's the difference. Whereas Nolan had the security of being incompetent, no one else has been. Columbus pulled the trigger on their coach with an 0-8-0 start. Anaheim may be the next to do it. Who knows about Calgary and Carolina. Both of those teams will be better off when the Blue Jackets goalies can stop pucks at an average rate (team even strength save percentage is an unsustainably bad 86.9%) and the Ducks can fire them in at a decent clip (team even strength shooting percentage is an unsustainably bad 2.5%). I don't get the impression that a team is going to give up, especially a mere seven-to-nine games into the season. It'll be more of a competition for the bottom instead of one to three teams actively seeking it early on. This also applies to the division; I don't think the Canes are going to just be idle if the Blue Jackets are making moves (desperate moves?) early on.
Let's go back to the Devils. Yes, they won four in a row. They were also winless before that winning streak with a mere point picked up in a shootout loss to San Jose. While the Devils have not been decisive losers in most of their losses, they have not been decisive winners either. They won two of their four in overtime and one in a shootout. Wins are wins, but if the Devils are supposed to be better than expected, then I would have liked to have seen them actually control play and win comfortably for a change.
More to the point, check out how they've got those results, good and bad. I'll agree it's early in the season to look at something like a team's Corsi For% and say "that's what you are." After all, they just got to above 50% Corsi at evens with their last win at Buffalo. But look at some of those other stats. Win or lose, the Devils have been the opposite of relentless - I'm sorry #RELENTLESS - with the league's lowest Corsi For and Against per sixty minutes. They're the lowest by a rate more than ten. Alex remains right: this is still a low-event hockey team. And with low events, it means that while the team is preventing the opposition from doing much, they aren't doing much good for themselves. Further, even with a streaking Henrique and Cammalleri, the Devils still has only seven goals scored and nine allowed at even strength. Their power play has scored six times out of 27 opportunities while their penalty kill has yielded eight out of 29 shorthanded situations. Again, the Devils aren't scoring a lot - even with two forwards being hot right now - and they're not conceding a lot. That leads to a lot of close games.
Over time, this will hinder them. In this past week, the Devils have been on the right side of them. Before that, they weren't. Given the lack of offensive talent and the fact we've seen it for multiple seasons, I see no reason to think they'll start bossing teams in terms of possession or create some decisive games. Henrique and Cammalleri will cool off and I'm not so hopeful someone will step up in their place. If an opposing team can keep the top two lines quiet, they're not going to be really threatened by a bottom six that doesn't feature any in the run of play. The defense is what it is but a defense is only going to contribute so much, especially given the state of their forwards. And I know Cory Schneider has been fantastic. He is fantastic. But with the way things are, the team has been and will continue to play as if they are on a knife's edge, and something slightly less than fantastic can be enough to yield losses. I know this and so you do because we saw this last season - another low-event, relatively unproductive offense. That helped their fall from a fairly good start all the way to the sixth worst record in the league.
What will also help would be their schedule. Not that there are any easy games, but November could potentially provide some hard messages about where this team truly belongs. They'll get their annual trip to Western Canada; they'll have a back-to-back with Montreal at the end of the month; two games with Chicago, a home game against St. Louis, a road game with the Isles, and a home game with Pittsburgh. There are no easy games, but these are definitely some difficult, unfavorable matchups. I'm not saying the Devils are going to drop all of these games. I don't think they're going to maintain a perfect overtime record (2-0, two to the shootout) or find a way to get equalizers in all of them either. They'll win a few of them, but I doubt they'll stay above NHL .500 in the process. It's one thing to get hot and get some wins and feel good. But most teams in the NHL will have that at one point or another; the good teams are able to win games when things aren't necessarily going so well and to do it throughout the season. Over time, I think this Devils team falls and given that I don't think anyone is intentionally tanking now, the bottom of the division and the league is very much a possibility.
Now if the Devils are in a similar spot by, say, Christmas, then I'll admit that predicting them to finish at the bottom of the Metropolitan was a mistake. Right now, I'm just enjoying the team now. As all Devils fans should. I'm just not convinced they're good yet. I think this team will eventually have a record worthy enough of plenty of odds in the draft lottery and a top pick. The current streak is just that: a streak.