The New Jersey Devils are currently riding a 4-game winning streak and have suddenly crept within 8 points of the stumbling Boston Bruins for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot. This has, improbably, started to pull the word "playoffs" back into the mouths of the people following the Devils season. Eight points is still a wide gap in today's NHL but it is seemingly surmountable if the team can stay hot. This may lead to the Devils going in on making the playoffs and avoiding selling off any pieces at the deadline. Even if this team does manage to close the gap further before deadline day, though, they should absolutely be sellers, and they should be shipping out multiple people when it comes.
The object of any NHL team in a given season is to make the playoffs. The draw of a playoff spot inching within reach is a tough one to ignore, but for this team it is a siren song they should do their best to resist. The old mantra of the playoffs is just "get in and anything can happen," which makes a reachable 8-seed an extremely alluring proposition for any organization. Since the Kings buzz-sawed their way through the West and took out New Jersey for the Stanley Cup in 2012, everyone believes they will have a shot if they can just get on the dance floor, come April. So why shouldn't the Devils have a go if they believe they can swipe away that last playoff spot?
Not All 8-Seeds Are Created Equal
Yes, the Kings mostly dominated their way through the playoffs in 2012 as the final team in, but it is fairly well documented at this point that that Kings team was a considerably more threatening team than their regular season record let on. A possession powerhouse started churning once Darryl Sutter was installed as the coach in LA, and has been spitting out playoff series wins ever since. The Devils - a poor possession team this season, particularly under the Stoatesoriello administration - are a far cry from being as threatening as an 8-seed. More realistically, this is a team that sets up more like cannon-fodder for whichever team tops the conference.
That is not to say other teams haven't made runs as low seeds over the years. "Meh" teams will sneak their way through a few rounds sometimes, particularly behind strong goaltending, something the Devils certainly have right now, but the odds of making a run when you are not a particularly strong team outside of your goaltender are reduced significantly. The odds of this Devils team, they of the 44% Corsi for under this coaching regime, going far in this season's playoffs (on the very minute chance they do make it) rest almost entirely on the shoulders of Cory Schneider, a guy who isn't getting traded either way.
Their Playoff Chances Are Still Remote
The funny thing about the NHL's current points system is that it gives the illusion of many teams being in striking distance, when, in reality, only a few can really hope to close the gap. When you look at an 8-point deficit, your mind immediately frames that as only being 4 games away from catching that team. But taking into account how many NHL games reach overtime (about 25% so far this season), that means the gap is already wider than it looks due to the number of 3-point games happening. Plus, if you take into account the teams between you and the last spot, you have to outplay them too. Jumping over teams in the standings is more difficult than it looks.
If you head on over to Sports Club Stats, they have the full rundown of playoff probabilities. The Devils currently sit at 1.4% odds for the playoffs (about as high as they've been since mid-December), even after their recent winning streak and a favorable run of out-of-town scoreboard results. Going "all in" on a team that has a 1% chance of making a playoff they have a good chance of getting clobbered in anyway is probably not the most pragmatic approach to running an NHL team.
This Team is a Mirage
It's fun to see the team winning some games, even if it's ultimately hurting draft position, but the reality of the situation is that it's unlikely to last. As previously mentioned, the Devils are controlling only 44% of the shot attempts at even strength under the current coaching staff, and they've made most of their hay in the past month and a half at home against bottom-feeding teams. To their credit, those are still NHL squads and they are taking care of business in those games, but it still doesn't prove too much about their playoff mettle. However, when facing teams who are currently within the playoff picture, the Devils are getting run, going 3-8-2 since the 26th of December.
In addition to the fact that many of the wins seem to be coming against the Buffalos and Torontos of the world, the Devils have been getting those wins largely by riding the percentages. To arrive at the admittedly decent 13-9-2 record over the past couple months, the Devils have been riding an even strength PDO (team sv% + sh%) of 103.3. Even the most talented teams with good goalies will struggle to maintain a PDO over 101, so for a team like the Devils to be at 103.3 it means they are riding a wave of great luck. Cory Schneider is a great goalie, but even he isn't going to be able to maintain the .950 save percentage he's had over the last month forever.
Vets Unlikely to Return or Are Sell-High Candidates
Looking at this roster, if the Devils choose to be sellers, how many of the expiring contracts would they really miss over the stretch run anyway? Jagr, perhaps? Gomez? Zidlicky? The Devils have some rental candidates that they aren't even playing right now in Michael Ryder and Martin Havlat, and while I don't like that they are tanking the value of assets by sitting them in the scratch suite (good piece by Todd Cordell on that here), it makes even less sense to hold onto those players if you aren't even putting them in the lineup. Plenty of teams are in the market for a little bit of scoring help, and few of the Devils rentals are really cost prohibitive. The Devils should be unloading guys like Havlat and Ryder for any futures they can possibly get, even if they are mid-to-late-round draft picks.
Jagr has had a memorable year and a half in New Jersey (I know I've enjoyed him being here), but the writing seems to be on the wall for his tenure in Newark. Even Jagr is saying as much at this point, and we've now reached the point where the Devils would have to be crazy to hold onto the 43-year-old winger past the deadline, particularly in the face of his ice time being dropped. The position the team is now in with him is somewhat weakened based on the past few weeks but even if that is the case, they still absolutely have to make a move before the deadline. Teams dealing with injuries (hello, Blackhawks) or looking for that one last piece should still be willing to part with something decent based on how good Jagr has shown he can be, even with limited help, in New Jersey.
The Devils have some potentially strong sell-high candidates on the roster as well. Steve Bernier has had a very good couple months for the team, putting himself among team leaders in 5v5 pts/60, and Jordin Tootoo is apparently doing enough with his playing time to pique the interest of other teams' scouts, according to Elliotte Friedman (thought 10). If the Devils can get a solid return out of either of those two players, they should do it now. Heck, they should do it yesterday. Steve Bernier and Jordin Tootoo have had plenty of time to establish what they are in the NHL (4th liners), and guys like that can always be had in free agency (or even on waivers), so if a team wants to give you anything of value for them, the smart move is to take it.
Retool Not Rebuild
Something Lou Lamoriello has echoed over the past few weeks is that the Devils are not looking to rebuild, and while this mostly turns into a semantic argument, I can partially get behind what he's saying. A full tear-down rebuild takes major amounts of time and is not guaranteed to actually work, but at the very least, this team should doing a significant retooling of their roster. Part of that is being smart and knowing when it's time to sell off assets that have no long term future with the team. Most of these players with expiring contracts are not coming back, and realistically looking at the Devils odds to make the playoffs or do a whole lot even if they do get there, that means they have little value left as members of the organization.
This team is at a crossroads, and if they want to get back to being a contender in the East any time soon, they have to start making smart moves in terms of asset management. It doesn't necessarily mean you're giving up on the season, it just means you are having the foresight to look beyond this team's miniscule chances to give yourself a better shot in the future. Will Lou and the Devils actually do this? I suppose only time will tell.