Let’s face it: losing Taylor Hall for 3 weeks or perhaps a month is brutal. The Devils were 8-3-3 with him to start the season, and that is way better than most people predicted out of this team. The Devils were winning, and were doing so by doing things like actually outshooting and out-attempting their opponents. How often has that happened since 2012?
As it is plainly obvious, one of the biggest reasons for the turnaround that has made this team competitive early on has been the play of Hall. As Corey Spina wrote the other day, Taylor Hall has not just scored and done what he was supposed to do coming over here from Edmonton, but he is making the entire team better, lifting them to greater heights than they may have otherwise reached. I think that was plainly true against Dallas on Tuesday, as I’m unsure if the Devils of last year or two years ago would have pulled that game out. The pessimist side of my fandom says no, and Thursday night’s game against Anaheim only fuels that thought.
So, beyond just the offensive capabilities that he brings to the table night in and night out, not to mention his amazing ability to control the puck for clean zone entries and whatever else, losing him for a few weeks can really have the potential to knock this team down a few rungs. Gerard discussed how and why the team should not panic the other day, and it is a great thought. They need to tread water until he gets back, maintaining a spot preferably at or near a wild card position. I know it is super early to be looking at that, but over the last few seasons, once the Devils have been 5-6 points back, they have never recovered. Maintaining a position in the hunt is much easier than trying to climb uphill into one.
The million dollar question, of course, is whether or not New Jersey will be able to maintain. Their showing against Dallas on Tuesday was definitely a positive sign in that direction, but blowing a 2 goal lead to Anaheim was the exact opposite. Both of those teams are playing at a similar level so far this year, Anaheim having 21 points and Dallas 19, which is right around NJ’s 21. So they have both been decent, yet the Devils played 2 different games and had 2 different results. How does the schedule look over the next few weeks? Will the Devils have a decent road to maintain a positive record, or will staying above .500 be a real difficult task given the competition? Let’s take a look. The record next to each team is their current record.
11/19 – @ Los Angeles 8-9-1, 17pts, 4th Pacific
11/21 – @ San Jose 9-8-0, 18pts, 3rd Pacific
11/23 – vs. Toronto 8-6-3, 19pts, 5th Atlantic
11/25 – vs. Detroit 8-9-1, 17pts, 7th Atlantic
11/26 – @ Pittsburgh 11-4-2, 24pts, 3rd Metro
11/29 – @ Winnipeg 9-8-2, 20pts, 3rd Central
12/1 – @ Chicago 12-4-2, 26pts, 1st Central
12/3 – @ Nashville 7-6-3, 17pts, 6th Central
12/6 – vs. Vancouver 7-10-1, 15pts, 5th Pacific
12/8 – @ Montreal 13-3-2, 28pts, 1st Atlantic
12/9 – vs. St. Louis 9-6-3, 21pts, 2nd Central
12/11 – @ NYR 13-5-0, 26pts, 1st Metro
Two days after that game against New York would be 4 weeks from the Dallas game, which is hopefully the longest it should take before Hall returns. If that is the case, there would be 12 more games to play without Hall, 14 in total if you include the 2 already played. Hall played in 14 games with the team before getting hurt, so you are looking at approximately the same number of games without him as with him to start the season if it takes the full 4 weeks to return. That should put into perspective just how much can change before he returns.
In terms of the schedule, there is another long road trip to deal with as well, besides the current SoCal road trip, that will take the Devils to Pittsburgh and 3 Central teams. Of the 12 games listed, only 4 are at home, where the Devils have played significantly better than on the road. So never mind even looking at the opponents, just the fact that so many of these games are away makes maintaining a strong position within the standings quite difficult considering that the Devils are currently 3-4-2 in away games versus 6-0-1 at home. The Devils realistically need all hands on deck over the next month to try and reverse their road fortunes, and it looked good at Dallas on Tuesday, but that did not transfer to Anaheim on Thursday.
However, we can also then take a look at the opponents. Of the 12 games listed, 7 of them are against a team that is third or better in their division, meaning that they are currently in a playoff position. Only 5 of those teams, however, have as many points as the Devils. So you can look at that one of two ways: the Devils are playing a majority of teams that are currently slated to be playing beyond 82 games, or you can say that less than half of the teams are as good as or better than NJ given their total points. Realistically, given that the Devils are playing mostly on the road, I would have to lean towards the former because again, the Devils have played worse on the road than at home, so you have to consider the 3-4-2 record as much as you do the team’s overall 9-4-3 record.
So, what would be an acceptable outcome? That is of course near impossible to conjecture, as it all depends on how everyone else does. Right now the Metro is arguably the toughest division in hockey, with the Devils currently in 4th place despite having 21 points (good for 3rd in the Atlantic, 2nd in the Central, and 1st in the Pacific). So if that maintains throughout Hall’s absence, then the Devils will need to be pretty good. They had 8 wins vs. 6 combined losses (regulation + overtime) when he was playing. If they have 5 wins in the upcoming 12 games, and manage to eke out 2 overtime losses as well, that would put them at 14-9-5, good for 33 points. That would also give them as many wins as combined regulation and overtime losses. Frankly for me, that would signal a huge success. While that may not keep them at 4th in the Metro given how Columbus or Philadelphia plays, it would keep them in the hunt. I doubt they would fall 5-6 points back. Given their road-heavy schedule, and what Hall means to this team, a 5-5-2 record while he is out is successfully treading water. Now of course, given how everyone else plays, they may need to perform a little better or they might have a little more wiggle room. In the end, however, if the Devils are 14-9-5 on 12/12 (especially if one of those wins is the night prior in Madison Square Garden), I think they should have a great shot to maintain their competitive position within the standings well into the 2017 portion of the season.
What are your thoughts about how good the Devils need to play before Hall returns? Will a 5-5-2 record be acceptable to you while he is out? Do they need to perform better than that, or perhaps do they have more wiggle room for losses than I think? How important do you think it is to remain in a competitive position despite it being early in the season still? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.