Yesterday, the New Jersey Devils lost to the Carolina Hurricanes, 2-3. That was their last game within the Metropolitan Division for the 2015-16 season. Their exciting 7-4 win over Minnesota back on St. Patrick's Day was their last game against a Western Conference team in this season as well. The Devils will have six more games to play. All against opponents in the Atlantic Division.
But let's take a step back. I will agree that the New Jersey Devils did defy pre-season expectations of being one of the worst teams in the NHL. I was one of those who stated that I expected them to finish last in the division. While I can't agree they were a good team by any means, they did hang around a wild card spot in the standings for most of the season. They were successful enough - and Columbus was not - to avoid eighth place. This will happen short of a massive collapse by the Devils and a massive surge by Columbus in the standings. Still, I understand the praise for the Devils being closer to the playoffs than anyone would have expected. Therefore, I think it is fair to question why they fell out. Why didn't they make a playoff run.
On this very site, myself and the other writers pointed out their many issues with the team either in recaps, previews, or other posts. However, this isn't going to be about stats reflecting their performance. The National Hockey League is a results-oriented business. Today, I want to look at the results. With the season completed against three of four divisions in the league, now is a good time as any to take a closer look at how they did against teams in their own division and in the Western Conference.
For these breakdowns, I just kept it simple. I used the full schedule at the team's website, which has the results of every game the team played this season. I made a visual chart showing when the Devils played each opponent and used a color to highlight the type of result. I also made a more traditional numerical chart specifying the type of win from regulation win or loss (W or L), an overtime win or loss (OT W or OT L), and a shootout win or loss (SO W or SO L). I calculated from those values the number of points the Devils earned and the number of points the Devils gave against that opponent. I summed it all up to show how well the team did against the Metropolitan Division and the Western Conference. Doing this at least highlights who the Devils were very successful against and who enjoyed playing the Devils. Let's start with the Western Conference.
The Western Conference
Like every team in the Eastern Conference, the Devils played 28 games against the Western Conference in 2015-16. They played each of the fourteen teams twice, once in Newark and once in their building. Due to scheduling issues related to travel for both teams, these two games may have came closely together or far apart in the season. Still, the games were played. Here's how the Devils did. First, the visual chart:
As you can quickly see, the Devils happened to find more of their success in the second game against Western teams than the first. They got both games in regulation against Minnesota and Chicago for four points each. While they handed the opponent at least a point, the Devils also got two wins against Arizona, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. Given that three of those teams are playoff-bound, that's pretty impressive. The only Western Conference teams to take all four points from the Devils were St. Louis, Anaheim, and Colorado. Still, they got points against the majority of the conference.
Here are the numbers. In total, the Devils went 16-11-1 against the Western Conference. They earned four more points than they gave away due to five of those wins coming in overtime. Still, there's little impact on handing teams in another conference points. The goal is to get them for yourselves and the Devils did just that. It's also worth noting that the collective Western Conference has provided the majority of the team's nine overtime wins this season. Those bonus points helped the Devils get to where they are. An even closer look may not be as rosy. From a big picture perspective, it certainly does. The Devils did well against the West.
The Metropolitan Division
However, teams have more incentive to take care of business in their own division. The Devils played four games against five of their opponents in the division and five against two others for a total of thirty games. Not only are there more games to play, the results directly affects the division standings; and those standings are important since the top three teams are guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. Important enough that I do a weekly snapshot to show where everyone is and what's coming up. Two teams close to each other in points could change positions within a game or two. Combined with the fact that some of these opponents are hated rivals of the Devils, the games within the division matter much more.
Unfortunately for the Devils, their play within the division helped their demise in this season. They only won multiple games against four of their seven divisional opponents. Worse, they've only picked up more than two wins against one opponent: the New York Rangers. It's great to put a hated rival in their place. In the larger context of the division, there are faults elsewhere. Like losing all four games to the Washington Capitals, who admittedly did that to a lot of teams this season. Like dropping three straight to the New York Islanders after pulling out a win on Halloween. Most of all, they had ten games against the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets. They are two teams who have spent most of the season near the bottom of the Metropolitan. The Devils went 3-7 in those ten games and it's a reason why the Devils are now among them instead of clearly above them.
The numbers are more telling. The Devils split their post-regulation results, so they did not earn or give up any extra points over the whole division. Dropping three points in total isn't the issue. Their regulation win-loss ratio was 1:2. That's never good. They given up a collective sixteen points within the Metropolitan. Team by team, the Rangers were the only opponent where they earned more points in their games than them. If you're a big believer that a team needs to perform well in their division to succeed, then these two charts are an indictment of the Devils' 2015-16 campaign. One could also interpret this to mean that Devils were an "easier opponent" to others in the division. They may not have been always easy games or easy points to lose, but the results speak louder than the performances in the bigger picture.
Again, the opponent the Devils enjoyed the most success was the Rangers. When it's a rival, that's always good to recognize. It helps justify the notion that the Rangers indeed suck. (Remember that 3-1-0 record for trash talking when they blow it in the postseason.) Yet, the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Islanders, and Capitals (ordered by results) were all problems for the team. I'd like to think if the playoffs were a realistic goal, then they would have done better than picking up six points to teams expected to not make them. They would have . One of these teams presenting issues all season long is one thing. Four? That's another issue altogether.
I think the main one is pretty obvious. The 2015-16 Devils did rather well against the fourteen different teams in the Western Conference. The teams they got nothing against weren't doormats - Colorado was in a playoff race until recently - and they earned plenty of points against some strong teams like Chicago and Los Angeles. The Metropolitan Division was problematic. As enjoyable as it was to see the Devils succeed over Our Hated Rivals, they dropped several games to both playoff-bound teams in Washington (no wins) and the Islanders (a shootout win!) and non-playoff teams in Carolina (two wins out of five) and Columbus (one loss out of five). The latter two especially hurt as the Devils played them more than anyone else in the division. I will admit that one could go deeper to identify who they struggled against in shots, possession, and/or even just scoring margin. But the results really do stand out between the Devils against their division and the Devils against the West.
Keep in mind, the overall point isn't necessarily that the Devils just needed to be better in their division and so we would be talking about a playoff spot instead of thinking about the offseason. It is true that better results within the Metropolitan combined with their other results would put them on the bubble at a minimum. However, I think that should be treated as a metric for success the Devils instead of something specific they should strive for. Instead, they should strive for making improvements to how well they move the puck, how they attack, how they possess the puck, and their roster for talent (especially offensive talent). By doing that, the performances will be better. That will lead to improved results because the Devils will simply be a better team. That's ultimately the goal. Would it be great if the Devils do better within their division next season? But one or two wins more is technically better. A more significant improvement will come from an improved roster, improved game plans, and improved performances. We'll see how it goes.
One last thing, I didn't mention how the Devils have done against the Atlantic. There's six more games against those teams. They've suffered most of their shootout losses to them (4) and are 9-5-4 against them overall. How these last six games against Boston, Florida, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Tampa Bay again, and Toronto will drive whether it was a good run against that division or if it's closer to their Metropolitan Division record.
What's your take on this. Surprised the Devils did well against the Western Conference in retrospect? Surprised the Devils lost sixteen out of thirty games in regulation against teams in their division? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this closer look at the Devils' results this season against their own division and the Western Conference in the comments. Thank you for reading.