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I Admit It, Maybe the New Jersey Devils Won't Be a Last Place Team

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Back in October, I predicted the New Jersey Devils to finish dead last in the Metropolitan Division on this very site. After 35 games, the Devils have been on the playoff bubble for about two months now. I admit I may have been wrong and why.

All of these celebrations for goals and wins have put the Devils in a far better position than I expected prior to the start of the 2015-16 season.
All of these celebrations for goals and wins have put the Devils in a far better position than I expected prior to the start of the 2015-16 season.
Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

Predictions are funny things in sports.  If they hit just right, then they don't seem to go away.  If they don't, then they tend to just fade away.  Unless they turn out completely awry.  The predictions we had at All About the Jersey prior to the 2015-16 regular season fall into the latter.  Specifically my prediction.  Here's what I wrote back on October 2, a week before the season began:

John Fischer: From the moment Ray Shero was hired as GM and every time there was a change in the team's staff or management, I was reminded that this is a re-building team. I was not alone. By now, I think most of the fanbase understands and appreciates that this is not a good team and it will take time before they can be one. I've written before that I believe that most of the Metropolitan Division improved and that the Devils won't need to tank to finish high for the 2016 Draft Lottery. I still believe that will be the case.

Yes, the Devils are set in net with Cory Schneider. Yes, the Devils are led on defense by Andy Greene and a group of young-ish ranging from quite good to useful at one or two things. Yes, there's new coaches and all this talk about being relentless. I'm sorry - #Relentless. However, recall that last year's team that struggled to score goals, struggled to generate shots, and allowed too much in terms of possession and shots after the coaching change. There has been a lot of turnover from that team but the lack of talent - namely offensive talent - still remains. Whatever that went well percentage-wise from last season may not be repeated, whether it's an awesome shooting percentage on the power play or Schneider making saves out of his mind. That's a combination that only leads a team to finish rather low in their division. Quite possibly lower than last season. I think the Devils will finish in eighth place - dead last - in the Metropolitan. But at least they'll have a great shot at the lottery.

It's the Christmas break for the NHL and everyone is off until Saturday.  As of right now, the Devils sit at fifteenth overall in the NHL with a record of 17-13-5. They are right outside of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference now and they've been in and out of the wildcard spot regularly since mid-November or so.  Needless to say, the Devils have done the opposite to my expectations and those of many others.

Therefore, I figure now is a good time to admit that looks like that I will be proven wrong.  This is probably not a last place team in the Metropolitan Division.  This is probably not a bottom-five team.   They are in the middle of the league standings, they are in the middle of the division standings, and they have been in those places for quite some time.   If you had to force me to give a one word descriptor of the Devils, I'd have to use "average."  As much as some fans despise mediocrity, it is inherently superior to being below average, poor, failing awful, or abysmal. Why is this the case?  What did I miss that I didn't see in October?

Part of it is what some expected: Cory Schneider is an excellent goaltender.  Among goalies who have made at least eighteen appearances (roughly half of the season so far), Schneider has the fourth best even strength save percentage in the league at 93.7% and the seventh best overall save percentage in the league at 92.7%. This is the level of goaltending that can be considered on the level of elite. This is the kind of shot-stopping that keeps all kinds of teams in many games, whether it's preventing a deficit from getting worse or maintaining a small lead.  Schneider has been fantastic and that's been a big help. If anything, I underestimated how much of a big help that could be.

Most of it has been unexpected. The Devils' power play ran hot early on. Despite some hideously hard-to-watch man advantages, the Devils had one of the best conversion rates in the league. They're still above 20% and sitting twelfth right now in that rate. Their 24 power play goals have certainly helped them. Additionally, they've had a lot of production come from most of their top six. Mike Cammalleri was a top-ten scorer in the league not too long ago; his leading of the team in points continues to be a pleasant surprise.  He has been crucial for the team's offense and what's more impressive is that he hasn't picked up many cheap points.  Most of his twelve goals and twenty assists are legitimate. Adam Henrique has put up thirteen goals and eleven assists and Lee Stempniak has been a fantastic pick-up from a tryout deal given his eight goals and eighteen assists.  Kyle Palmieri has been a revelation in his own right with fourteen goals and thirteen assists.   I would agree the Devils' offense largely leans heavily on how well Cammalleri-Henrique-Stempniak performs on a given night.  I would agree the Devils' offense remains thin.  Before the season, it wasn't clear whether the Devils would have a top line at all.  They have that plus Palmieri regularly appearing on the score sheet.  As a result, plus some decent puck luck, the Devils aren't shooting at painful percentages at evens and the team isn't struggling to score goals every night.  A hot PP and four forwards piling in points was not something I foreseen back in October.

Speaking of luck, the Devils haven't been riding it to success.  At even strength, their PDO is a little bit below 100. Nothing too crazy.  Their shooting percentage is a decent 6.9% and the goaltending is below 93%. While the power play shooting percentage has fallen, I don't anticipate the Devils' percentages falling too much at evens - the most common situation in hockey.  The only good fortune I'm concerned with would be with part of their post-regulation play. The Devils have won five games in overtime and they've only lost once in them. They came really close to losing at least two of those five that they won.  I don't know if that will continue, but it's something that's been heavily in New Jersey's favor. Then again, they've had six games go to OT and be undecided. Shootouts have not been so kind to the Devils as they have a 2-4 record.  And if they're going beyond sixty minutes, they're still getting points in the standings - which has helped the Devils get to where they are now.  I may have guessed a 2-4 shootout record, but certainly not 5-1 (I think) in the new overtime format or a PDO near 100 as they keep getting good results.

In retrospect, while the Devils' month-by-month records haven't been too good, they also haven't been too bad. That's another point in their favor. They've played a variety of opponents. They've played some top teams, some teams on their level, some teams that have yet to be figured out, and some teams below them. The Devils' results have been mixed - which is still better than losing most of them.  So even though October and November (and December) will have both highs and lows, it's that balance of results that have kept them from the bottom.  It's also helped that Pittsburgh has been in some kind of disarray for about a month, Philadelphia is trying to move up but sometimes can't get out of their own way, and while they are no doormats, Carolina and Columbus has secured the bottom two spots in the division for months now.  Given that my prediction was that the Devils would end up below all four teams, that they're they are ahead of them and have been ahead of them for some time now suggests they won't anytime soon.  It won't take a full-on tank to end up in seventh or eighth place in the Metropolitan Division (or last in the NHL) this season, but expecting Carolina or Columbus to make up eight to ten points as the Devils falter is becoming less and less likely as the weeks go by.

This is not to say that you should totally save your money for playoff tickets and free up your calendars for April.  There's still quite a lot of hockey left to be played.  It's entirely possible for the Devils to crater somehow and play like we expected and feared when we made our predictions.  Or that Schneider gets hurt and the whole season goes askew.  Whatever you'd like to fear; it still could happen.  The last few weeks featured teams playing like they figured out the Devils' main strategies, such that they're not just defeating the Devils but controlling games against them.  My thinking was that "OK, now the fall is going to begin."  Yet, as it has been so far this season, the Devils have found ways to turn it around to avoid a long losing streak.  Like their last game before Christmas in Detroit. Wins like that (or games like that) weren't just enjoyable in their own right, but they keep a team in their place.  As it did for the Devils.  All that does is strengthens the team's belief in themselves and the notion that they're not at all a bad hockey team.  Not a great one, but not a bad one.

Ultimately, I have to admit my faulty prediction. The Devils may still be a low-scoring, low-event, and a poorer possession team than past Devils squads in recent memory.  They may still be leaning so much on a few players. But they have the results, they have shown they can be competitive, they have definitely had their fair share of close games, and their current position in the standings speaks volumes.  This isn't a team that will have a good shot at Auston Matthews in the lottery. This isn't a team that's going to be making their summer plans in January or February. Right now, from what I've seen in their first 35 games, the 2015-16 New Jersey Devils are not a last place team.

Now let's hope this mea culpa doesn't get blown up like my prediction in October currently looks like at the moment. Thanks for reading.