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Polarizing Stats Only Work With a Positive Differential

The New Jersey Devils, as a team, have polar opposite stats: they are near the tops of the league in defense, but are at the bottom in offense. This could potentially work to win games, but only if the differential is positive...which is it not.

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

As has been discussed here this season, the New Jersey Devils are a team of polar opposites.  On the positive side, they are near the top of the league in goals against per game at 2.31 goals per game, as well as the 7th fewest shots per game at 28.5 shots per game (they were 1st in the league in goals against before the Columbus game). This generally keeps the team in most any game on any given night.  However, as is abundantly clear by now, they are also the worst offensive team in the league.  NJ is 30th in the league at 2.21 goals per game, and dead last in shots per game at 24.6 (all stats here were before last night's games).

Now, there is nothing wrong with a team playing a low event, defensive style of hockey to win games.  You always hear arguments that this style of hockey is boring and when a team does not score all that much, it will have trouble winning games.  It leads to teams pushing for more offense in lieu of a stronger defense (see: Edmonton).  However, our favorite team has stuck behind a defensive motto for a very long time, and except for the recent few seasons when the team lost a lot of talent, it does work.  The issue with the Devils this season, however, is that when you live on the extremes of being at the top in defense and at the bottom in offense, those polarizing stats only work if the overall differential is positive.

Just take a look at the standings.  In the Eastern Conference, before last night's games, there were only 6 teams that had a positive goal differential: Washington, both New York teams, Florida, Boston, and Tampa Bay.  The other 10 teams in the conference all have negative goal differentials, including the Devils, who are a net -10 (139 goals for, 149 goals against).  And when you look at the playoff standings, it becomes abundantly clear: the 6 teams that have positive goal differentials are all in divisional playoff positions, while the net negative teams are all fighting for wild card positions or are completely out of it.

The Western Conference has a similar scenario as well.  The 6 divisional playoff teams as of now are all net positives.  Of the 8 other teams, only 2 are net positives, and one of those teams is solidified in a wild card position.  The only other team is Minnesota.  So of all the 14 teams that have a positive goal differential on the season, only one of them is currently not looking at a playoff berth right now.

When looking at the splits, it becomes even more extreme.  For most of the teams, we're not just talking about a few goals here.  Look at the numbers for the top 10 teams in the East in goal differential as of yesterday:

Team

Goals For

Goals Against

Differential

Playoff Spot?

Washington

197

137

+60

Divisional

Florida

167

138

+28

Divisional

NY Islanders

170

146

+24

Divisional

Boston

190

170

+20

Divisional

NY Rangers

175

156

+19

Divisional

Tampa Bay

165

149

+16

Divisional

Pittsburgh

155

156

-1

Wild Card

Montreal

167

168

-1

No

Detroit

153

158

-5

Wild Card

New Jersey

139

149

-10

No

Look at the difference.  It is not like the teams in the positive are barely positive and are close to the teams in the negative.  Tampa is a +16, and then you have Pittsburgh and Montreal at -1.  That is a 17 goal difference.  And within the teams in a playoff position, you have the gamut.  You have the high flying offense with a porous defense in Boston, and the more defensive team with excellent goals against and only a decent goals for in Florida (and to a lesser extent Tampa Bay, go figure).  Of course, you also have the dominant all around team in Washington too.

So there are multiple paths to a positive differential and a successful season.  Boston is proving that you can do it one way, and Florida is proving that you can do it another.  The Devils can succeed with a defensive mentality, and will almost always have a chance in games with a good defense and excellent goaltender.  But the offense needs to score more than the defense is allowing.  That is the most obvious statement ever, but I feel that because the differential difference in the East is so stark, it's worth noting.

The scary part is just how far away the Devils offense is from the other teams on the list, all of whom are right in the playoff race except for Montreal.  139 goals for is 14 goals behind the next team on the list, Detroit.  However, on the side that the Devils excel at, goals against, they are not even in first place.  Washington and Florida are over 10 goals ahead of them, the Isles are just ahead, and the Devils are tied with Tampa.  So they are in the mix with the other stingy teams at the top of the goals against list, but they are not even competitive on the goals for list (games played plays a part in all of this, both positive and negative.  The Devils have played more games than most teams on that list, so their goals against is better than it looks, but their goals for is even worse than it looks).  That cannot happen if a team wants to be in contention for a playoff position over a long period of time.  The differential will come back to bite the team, and it already has with these crushing last two weeks where the team is 1-4 in its last 5 games, all against Metropolitan foes.   Barring a huge winning streak unlike anything we've seen the last few seasons, this stretch of losing has essentially doomed this team down the stretch, like it or not.

Conclusion

What does it all mean?  Well I guess the simple answer is that this team needs to improve on offense while maintaining its defensive prowess if it seriously wants to compete for a playoff position now or in the future.  That is an answer that everyone knows, however, so it is not like this is some groundbreaking stuff.  However, it really is just another way of showing how the Devils are really playing this season.  When you watch one team all year so closely like I do with New Jersey, and I'm sure many of you do too, you tend to just look solely at that one team and not look at overall perspective.  I knew that the Devils are a quality defensive team that has real trouble finding twine.  Anyone watching this team notices that.  But what I did not really look at was how bad the offense was vs. how good the defense was-€”that differential-”and how it compares to the rest of the conference.  And the numbers are very clear: if you want to seriously compete in a competitive conference, you pretty much need to be a net positive, and the Devils are just not that.  Pittsburgh and Detroit may be getting away with that now, but they're in wild card positions and not divisional positions for a reason.  The Devils are not getting away with it, and are in a pretty sizeable hole as a result.

Your Thoughts

What are your thoughts on this matter?  What do you think when you look at the differential numbers in the Eastern Conference and perhaps in the NHL as a whole?  Do you see this as a major issue for the Devils, or do you think they can still compete with such an anemic offense?  Do the Devils need to find more of a middle ground instead of being at the bottom in offense and at the top in defense?  Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.