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This is a Vital Month for the Devils

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With a fairly mediocre December for the New Jersey Devils behind us, let's take a look at the team's January schedule, and why I believe that it is so vital for this club to not slip up now. If they do, the results could be devastating.

He'll need to remain great this month.
He'll need to remain great this month.
Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

As we enter 2016, it is clear by looking at the standings that the New Jersey Devils have an extremely important month ahead of them.  The next dozen games or so can and perhaps will determine a lot about how the home stretch goes.  Should January yield favorable results, the Devils could be in a prime position to push for a wild card berth.  Should the team falter over those same games, however, then we may have another irrelevant March ahead of us.

Towards the end of December, both John and I posted articles in which we determined that the Devils were not going to all of a sudden become the team that everyone had predicted before the season started: one that was a bottom feeder without much talent other than a superstar goaltender.  Through the first 35+ games, it was clear that this was a better team that that, one that could perhaps play some meaningful games come the spring time.  These Devils managed to win games that they probably would have lost over the last couple years, and they were doing what they needed to do to maintain a competitive position both within the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference.

Now, we enter 2016, and while there still is a strong chance that the Devils can continue to play meaningful hockey throughout the rest of the season, what happens throughout the course of the January games will speak volumes.  Here is the team's upcoming slate until the all-star break, courtesy of the Devils website:

Date

Visitor

Home

Saturday, 1/2

Dallas

Devils

Monday, 1/4

Detroit

Devils

Wednesday, 1/6

Devils

Montreal

Friday, 1/8

Boston

Devils

Sunday, 1/10

Devils

Minnesota

Tuesday, 1/12

Devils

St. Louis

Thursday, 1/14

Devils

Colorado

Saturday, 1/16

Devils

Arizona

Tuesday, 1/19

Calgary

Devils

Thursday, 1/21

Ottawa

Devils

Saturday, 1/23

Devils

Winnipeg

Tuesday, 1/26

Devils

Pittsburgh

First, before we go into the importance of what happens in January, let's dissect the schedule a little bit.  It is an interesting month for sure.  The first observation would be that there are no back-to-back sets.  There is at least one day off in between each and every game, which is a very good thing for a team that generally does play a lot of back-to-backs.  Now because of that, the downside is that it seems like they play a game every other night throughout the entire month.  Only at two points does the team get two days off in between games, and both of those times come towards the end of the month.  Between January 2nd and January 16th, the Devils play a game literally every other night.  Also, that includes a road trip where New Jersey plays four games in 8 nights, and against four opponents that are not all that close to each other geographically.  So while there are no back-to-backs, the sheer repetitive and non-stop nature of the schedule could lead to some lulls if the team is not careful.

The other real interesting bit is that other than the game against Pittsburgh right before the all-star break, the Devils play 0 games against Metropolitan Division opponents.  In fact, seven of the team's twelve games in the month come against Western Conference foes, which is a large number.  This may lead one to believe that this month carries less meaning, as there are no real four point games this month.  If the Devils lose to a team like Colorado or Arizona, it is never as meaningful as losing to a team in the Metro that is right around them in the standings.  This is all true.

However, do not let that fool you: this month is still vital.  The Devils sit in a very precarious position right now.  Unlike at the start of the season, when Philadelphia and Carolina could not get out of their own ways, the division has tightened up significantly.  Since Thanksgiving, Philadelphia has gone 8-4-2, and Carolina went 7-4-1 between 12/5 and 12/29.  Those stretches really boosted their positions within the standings, catching up to a Devils team that went 5-5-3 between 12/1 and 12/26.  Before the Carolina game on Tuesday, the Devils were essentially tied with both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as both of those teams were only two points behind but each had a game in hand on NJ.  And Carolina was only two points behind them with the same number of games played.  It was super close, and still is, even with the two wins on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The problem for New Jersey is that they have essentially been just keeping even over the last month.  The team's December record is not one that is indicative of a team that is pulling away from the basement and looking to jockey for position with the two New York teams.  Instead, it is a record that instead states this team may end up having to fight just to avoid falling into 7th in the division (again, wins over the last two games do help cushion it a little, but it is a cushion that can easily disappear).  Now, while most of us (myself included) predicted that the Devils would finish 7th in the Metro, at this point in the season I would have to call it a disappointment if this team goes on a losing streak and finishes there.  They have shown that they are actually better than that, and they need to maintain that confidence both within the locker room and within the fan base.

Upcoming is a very tough stretch of games.  The first half of the month has the Devils playing against Dallas, Detroit, Montreal, Boston, Minnesota and St. Louis.  Combined, those teams had a record of 128-69-27 before the games on 12/30.  When averaged out, that is an average opponent that had over 47 points on that date. A team that had 47 points on 12/30 would have been in 2nd in the Eastern Conference and 4th in the Western Conference.  That is a darn good team.   The Devils have their hands full over the next two weeks, and they cannot blow it.

The bad news: if they Devils go 0-6-0 against those tough teams, their record would fall to a subpar 19-20-5.  That record would almost undoubtedly remove them from any sort of wild card consideration.  They need to be productive over these two weeks.  Wins need to come, not just overtime losses.  Going 2-2-2 would be very acceptable, but of course more wins would be hugely beneficial.

The good news: the Devils seem to be playing to their level of competition this season.  As I wrote earlier in the year, the Devils play surprisingly well against good teams, and surprisingly bad against bad teams.  At the time, the Devils were 9-4-1 against teams over 500, and 2-5 against teams under it.  That trend mostly continued through December.  The Devils found ways to lose to Anaheim, Colorado, Toronto, and both Philadelphia and Carolina, but also managed to defeat Florida once and Detroit twice, two very good hockey teams.  So while it makes no sense at all, perhaps playing stronger competition will bring out the best in New Jersey, who will rise to the competition and use the stretch against the better teams to better themselves.

The end of the month is no pushover either.  While the teams listed have much worse records than the first six teams, Colorado and Arizona will be played at the back end of a long road trip, Ottawa and Winnipeg are quality teams, and the tilt against Pittsburgh is perhaps the biggest game of them all as both teams jockey for position in the Metro.  So even if the Devils do make it out of the first six games of the month still in contention, they cannot let their feet off of the gas.  If they do, they will surely finish the month in bad shape.

So, while January only features one divisional game for the New Jersey Devils, the month is still a vital one for a team looking to remain in contention throughout the rest of the season.  The schedule over the next two weeks is downright brutal, and the later games in the month hold almost no hope for relief.  The Devils cannot rely on their competition to lose: if they want to play meaningful hockey down the stretch, they need to maintain their position throughout the mid-season stretch this month.  And that will require finding ways to improve and beat better competition.  If they cannot manage that, and lose a bunch of games quickly, they may find themselves in 7th in the Metropolitan before you know it.  And if that happens, say goodbye to a season that was full of way more promise than anyone expected.

Your Take

What is your take as we look forward to the January schedule?  Do you feel that it is as important for this team as I do?  What about the upcoming schedule scares you, and where do you think that the Devils can do well?  At the end of the month, do you still expect to see our favorite team in contention?  Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.