Back on Christmas Eve, I wrote this mea culpa for my last-place-in-the-division prediction for the New Jersey Devils. It was fully justified. The Devils were essentially riding the wild card playoff bubble throughout most of the season. They won too many games to be on the level of Columbus, who was taking that spot with authority. Were the underlying numbers ugly? Yeah. Were they getting results? Yeah. In the face of evidence of the team's standing and their general run of results - no extensive winning or losing streaks - I wrote what I wrote. The Devils did not appear to be the worst team in the Metropolitan, nor would they.
Three months and several ugly losses - particularly those that closed out February - later, the situation has changed. The Devils had their playoff bubble worse and fell on the outside quickly. Their poor performances caught up to them. Cory Schneider couldn't make every bailout save. The breaks just weren't there as often. The goals were even scarcer to find between Mike Cammalleri being and remaining injured, Lee Stempniak getting traded at the trade deadline, Kyle Palmieri hitting a slump, and the level of offensive talent on the team. It's one thing to lose, it's another to follow up a massive win with a 1-6 beatdown by the eighth-place team in the division and a 0-4 pasting by a potential division winner. The situation was bleak. Schneider getting hurt and missing at least two weeks of a season with five weeks remaining, I think, was the tipping point for many. Now, there's a hope that the Devils will slide down the standings for better draft picks - to a point where they could be the last place team in the Metropolitan.
Funny how so much can change within a season. I've went from predicting they'd be last in the division, to apologizing for that prediction, to explaining how hard it would be for the Devils to fall in the standings - just this past Monday! - and now to point out what has to happen for the Devils to go down and potentially overtake Columbus for the basement spot.
Today, I will explain what you should cheer for around the league if you still have that hope. Again, this will not be easy but this isn't going to be about that. This will be about what you should want if you want the Devils to slide.
Before I go into it, here's an updated set of league standings before the games played on March 10. So it doesn't include Carolina beating Boston (good!), Ottawa losing to Florida (not so good!), Edmonton beating Minnesota (OK), Buffalo and Winnipeg losing their games (Eh...), and New Jersey stunning San Jose (for the purposes of dropping: Ugh). Please pay attention to who's where in this chart. I'll be referencing it.
And additionally, here's New Jersey's remaining schedule: @ LA, @ Anaheim, vs. Minnesota, @ Columbus, vs. Columbus, @ Pittsburgh, vs. Washington, @ Carolina, vs. Boston, @ Florida, @ Tampa Bay, vs. Buffalo, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Toronto. In other words: eight games against playoff bound teams, one against one battling hard for it (Minnesota), and five game against non-playoff teams.
What You Want the Devils to Do:
The Obvious: Lose - In Regulation.
This whole hope for a slide down the standings won't work if a minor miracle happens, the squad gets hot, and the Devils go on an extensive winning streak to close out their season. Nope. The wins have to be few and far between for the rest of the way. That's obvious. How can you go down if you keep earning points? You don't unless somehow everyone around you loses more.
The wrinkle is how they lose. Since every game could potentially be worth three points, it's imperative if that the Devils lose, that they do so in regulation. Going to beyond regulation gives a point to each team. The Devils need to limit this occurrence as much as possible. Even if they fall in overtime or in the shootout, they'll get one more point they did not have before. With the bottom fourteen teams tightly packed as-is, one point absolutely makes a difference. For the purposes of falling, it's better for the Devils to break hearts and give up a late one in the final few minutes of regulation than to concede an OT goal.
I will caution you that the Devils are not likely to go 0-14-0 for the rest of the way. Just look at last night; they beat San Jose, 3-0. A good San Jose team, 3-0. They'll find a way to win a game. Or perhaps the opposition will have a bad night. Or it'll be close because Keith Kinkaid got hot and the Devils eke one out. Or some other possibility. Or a combination of matters. I wouldn't suggest regretting or getting salty every win. That's no fun. If the Devils end up going, say, 5-9 or 4-10, that should do to fall a number of spots. The goal is really to hope they don't go anywhere near .500 or better. Until that last week of the season where Buffalo and Toronto come to New Jersey, it's a tough schedule for New Jersey. It's very doable.
Cheer for Status Quo for the Roster.
The Devils are currently missing Mike Cammalleri and Cory Schneider among their injured players. Cammalleri was a significant scorer for the first part of this season. Schneider has been undoubtedly the team's most valuable player throughout this season, keeping the Devils in many more games than they probably had any right to be in. These two players could, if they get back to their usual playing form, help the Devils. That can't happen. They must stay out. Fortunately, time may force the Devils to shut them down for 2015-16. Cammalleri's status remains unknown. Who knows if or when he'll be back this season. Schneider will be re-evaluated in about a week-and-a-half, which will mean his next update will likely come with nine games left - and hopefully very little for New Jersey to play for. If you want the Devils to fall, then you should look for this.
Likewise, John Hynes has certainly entered the "well, let's try it" phase of the season. Between the injuries and poor performances, Devils fans who stayed up late last night got to witness Tyler Kennedy actually play with Adam Henrique and Devante Smith-Pelly for at least a little bit. Yes, that is a line expected to get significant minutes. It speaks to the team's lack of depth and talent that Smith-Pelly, who's well-suited for a bottom-six role, was thrown right up top after the trade deadline. Adding Kennedy just means Henrique is the only reason why it's not automatically seen as one. Yet, for the purposes of setting up for failure, this kind of decision is desirable. On defense, John Moore, Damon Severson, and Jon Merrill have been struggling as of late. Yet, two of the three continue to get minutes. You should want that as their respective slumps endure through another rough night. While there's no active roster limit, the team is pretty much is what it is and all Hynes can do is mix-and-match. Provided he keeps having to do so.
One more thing: Don't expect any help from Albany. The team can only make four non-emergency call-ups from the minors. We may see them used in the last week of the season. Yet, the players you'd want to see from Albany have been here or are here now. Just look at their roster. Mike Sislo was the team's leading scorer and this isn't his first stint with New Jersey in this season. Reid Boucher and Joseph Blandisi were two young players with some hope and they've been here for quite some time. Paul Thompson (now hurt), Brian O'Neill, and Jim O'Brien had their shots and proven to be AHL-level talents. There's not really anyone in the Capital District who's playing so well that they deserve a look in New Jersey. In fact, the only non-top scorers on Albany that the Devils haven't seen already are two players who don't have NHL contracts and therefore can't be called up: Matt Lorito and Corey Tropp. So that's it for forwards. As for the defense, what you see is what you get. There won't be a defender coming soon as Seth Helgeson makes it eight on the blueline, so the Devils have plenty of bodies. Besides, Albany is playoff-bound. Let them heal up, keep their guys together, and have them receive NHL reinforcements for the postseason.
Cheer for the Status Quo for the Performances, Too.
These last few weeks have featured some really ugly hockey by the Devils. It's one thing to be bad, it's another to just owned by all manners of opposition. This isn't a "fun bad" team where the Devils will keep it interesting and exciting until the eventual 'L.' This is a squad that's prone to some blowouts. Unfortunately, you'll have to be willing to stomach more games like their losses to Pittsburgh, Columbus, Tampa Bay, and Dallas (among others) for the Devils to have a real chance to go down in the standings and remain there. Again, you want the slumping-half of the defense to continue. You want plenty of bodies up front contributing very little in games. You want Keith Kinkaid to play like Keith Kinkaid and not do a Schneider impersonation. It's not going to be pretty. But losing for a better draft pick rarely is. All the same, hope Hynes and his staff doesn't coach the Devils up to be something better than they have been. As tough as that will be to watch - and write about! - this is what to look for if you're all about the fall.
What You Want Other Teams To Do:
Cheer for non-playoff teams to get a win against playoff teams - and go beyond regulation against other non-playoff teams.
Basically, for the Devils to go down, they need to do more than lose. They need help. That help must come from teams worse than them in the standings to win some games. When they play teams that are playoff bound, how it comes about does not matter much. Whether it's Columbus busting Detroit in sixty minutes or Calgary taking Nashville to overtime to beat them there, the wins help the non-playoff teams gain points. As the Devils lose, this will move them closer to New Jersey and, eventually, surpass them. This is the goal, obviously.
What isn't so obvious is the fact that, again, games can be worth three points. While bad for the Devils as they would get at least one point, they're very good for the Devils if they're between the non-playoff teams. As I noted on Monday, plenty of the non-playoff teams don't have as many games against playoff teams as New Jersey. They will be playing each other more often than the Devils will play a team outside of the sixteen playoff teams. For those non-playoff vs. non-playoff team games, cheer hard for the game to go beyond sixty minutes. Someone has to win, but it'll mean the loser gets a point - and moves up in points.
Here's a recent example: The Devils got a break in the standings while they were idle before they began their California road trip. Carolina and Ottawa played each other. The game went beyond regulation and Carolina won in a shootout. This was great because the Devils went from being in a three-way tie in points with those two teams to being behind them by a little bit. All because Carolina got two for the win and Ottawa got one for playing beyond sixty minutes. That's something to cheer for as you look around the league. A regulation win for Carolina would have helped Carolina go up and away from New Jersey for a bit, but the Senators would still be right there. The three-point game is a good thing in this regard.
Now, I understand that relying on bad teams to spoil some legitimately good teams and/or be about even with other bad teams is that reliable. They're bad teams for a reason. Like the Devils, they could lose plenty of games just because their roster isn't productive enough, prevents enough goals, or struggles at major aspects of the game. That's why this is a hope and not a guarantee. Still, it's what to cheer for if you want the Devils to dive deeper from the 19-21 position.
Look and be happy for returning players for these teams.
Whereas the Devils should consider shutting down their injured players that can help the team, the fans can be happy when other non-playoff teams can welcome back players. For example, Columbus will soon get Sergey Bobrovsky back in net. As the Devils are chasing Columbus among other teams, the return of a talented goalie can help the cause. OK, it may not help them for when they play Pittsburgh but for future games - like the two against New Jersey - this could help. According to what I see at Rotowire's injury report for the league, plenty of the teams who are similar to New Jersey's situation have players who are day-to-day or due to return in March or April. While players, especially those who have been out for a while, need some time to get back to how they were playing before the injury, they can help their team's causes. Time may be short, but even a little extra strengthening of the roster helps those teams (e.g. Ottawa, I was going to say Montreal but without Subban...that's bad) can help them get some extra points. By extension, they can help the Devils go down a little further.
Know the Odds
While I've went on long enough about what to look for in great detail, there's one more thing to understand. The draft lottery itself. For this year, there will be a drawing for the first, second, and third overall picks in the first round. The percentages in the standings chart are for the first overall pick, which will likely be super-prospect Auston Matthews. However, it's more important to note that this lottery set-up means that there are five possibilities for the non-playoff teams. They can either win one of the top three draws, they can stay where they are in the standings, or they can move back if someone ahead of them in the standings wins the lottery. The latter is clearly undesirable but we or the team can't control lottery numbers.
Micah Blake McCurdy has done the math to figure out the probability for each spot. I'd bookmark this page at Hockey Viz and use it as a reference to see how the odds change as the Devils go - down, for these purposes - for these last few weeks of the season.
One More Thing...
Of course, this is all applicable if you want the Devils to fall in the standings. While it is be too late to challenge for the very bottom, this is something where if the Devils really want to drop, then they almost have to go all-in. That's easy for me to say. I'm a
sucker hockey blogger who handed the team my money for the whole season and I'm willing to watch a lot of bad hockey. Watching it isn't any fun or entertaining. It's very frustrating, enraging at times, and then just plain sad in time. Therefore, I can understand those who want to check out these last few weeks. I also can't imagine the sales department is down with dropping a lot of games and potentially kill some potentially decent home crowds as this season ends. (I think the Minnesota game and the Toronto game will still be big crowds; the rest, who knows?) Plus, there's the whole pride in one's profession factor. I don't think the players, coaches, or management want to necessarily fail. I don't think the players are good enough to avoid plenty of failure, but they'll try all the same.
Still, if you want a better draft pick than where the Devils currently are, then this is all you have to look forward to. Essentially, this has all of the scoreboard watching and hopes the Devils do what they need to do in their games of a playoff race. Only in reverse, with hoping the teams around the Devils succeed while the Devils themselves do not. Enjoy...?