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Devils Moving Away from Close Games?

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The New Jersey Devils have historically been a defensive team, with their strong defense and stellar goaltending leading them to success. This also created lots of close games. Are the Devils now moving away from a culture of playing close hockey?

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since I can remember, the New Jersey Devils have always been billed as a defense-first team that uses its tough defensive play and stellar goaltending to win games.  That has sometimes been somewhat of a false narrative, as there were seasons around the turn of the century where the Devils were a stout offensive team as well, but nevertheless this has generally been an accurate description.  One side effect, whether you want to look at it as a positive or negative side effect is up to you, but a side effect nonetheless has been that the Devils usually play a boat load of close games.  Rarely am I at the Rock where I can rest easy after the second period because my team is up 4 goals.  It does happen from time to time, but it is certainly rare.

Last season, however, was somewhat of an anomaly on this front.  New Jersey was not one of the top teams in the league in terms of close minutes at 5 on 5 play.  5 on 5 close is a statistic kept in analytics that determines when a game is considered "close" at full strength.  For the stat, a game is considered close when it is tied at any point, and also if it is a one goal game in the first two periods.   Just to show you where the Devils ranked this past season, here is a quick chart using information from Hockey Analysis:

Rank

Team

5v5 Close Minutes

1st

Buffalo Sabres

2678:11

2nd

Carolina Hurricanes

2677:14

3rd

New York Islanders

2668:32

4th

New York Rangers

2629:35

5th

Vancouver Canucks

2607:58

17th

New Jersey Devils

2498:08

So as you can see, this past season, the Devils were almost 110 minutes behind the 5th highest team in 5v5 close minutes.  That is very uncharacteristic of New Jersey.  Just to show you how uncharacteristic it is, here is a 2nd chart!  This one will tell you the Devils 5v5 close minutes and their league ranking for each of the past several seasons.

Year

NJD 5v5 Close Minutes

NJD League Ranking

2015-16

2498:08

17th

2014-15

2511:11

10th

2013-14

2641:02

1st

2012-13

1496:26 (strike-shortened)

6th

2011-12

2557:46

4th

Of the last five seasons, this past year was the only one where the Devils were not in the top 10 in 5v5 close minutes.  In 2014-15 they just cracked the top 10, but the three seasons before that they were considerably higher on the list.  You can even take this back further.  In 2009-10, the Devils were 8th, and in 2007-08 they were 4th. Sadly the statistic does not track further back than that on Hockey Analysis, but I would have to guess that in a good amount of the seasons before that, the Devils were in the top 10.

One question that you can inevitably ask is why were they not playing more close minutes this past year? That is harder to discern.  The Devils were certainly better than they were in 2014-15, but played less close minutes.  Is that because they played less overtime games?  Games that go to overtime are the pure essence of close games, as the game was tied by the end of the third.  These games usually rack up 5v5 close minutes for teams.  Let's look at the past three seasons to compare.

Devils Overtime Games, Last Three Seasons:

2015-16: 19

2014-15: 20

2013-14: 27

So the Devils played less overtime games as compared to the two prior seasons, but it was only one less than the year prior, so that is not a major number.  8 less than 2013-14 is a large amount, and remember that so many of those 2013-14 games went to shootouts as well, which is why the 2013-14 Devils were first in 5v5 close.

How about one goal games that did not make it to overtime? Did the Devils play less of those? Again, let's compare to the previous two seasons:

Devils One Goal, Non-Overtime Games, Last Three Seasons:

2015-16: 23

2014-15: 14

2013-14: 23

Well, one goal games were definitively not a reason as to why games were not close this past season.  The Devils played in 23 one goal games that did not make it to overtime.  That is the same number as in 2013-14 when the Devils ranked 1st in 5v5 close TOI.  In 2014-15, NJD only played 14 one goal, non-overtime games, which is considerably less than this past year.  There is no pattern here.

In truth, I am not exactly sure as to why the Devils were not higher on the list in 5v5 close minutes this past season.  I would guess that the most obvious answer is that there was a change in the coaching staff, and the new style of play created a system where games were not always super close.  That is certainly possible, and perhaps likely.  It definitely helps that Lou was not the GM this past year, as I would bet that his direction for the team was a big reason for the Devils playing lots of close minutes.

The major question I have is whether or not moving away from a system that promotes close games is a good or bad thing.  I felt that the Devils improved this past season, and their record did prove that to be true as well.  And improvement is indeed good.  But when a team plays in lots of close games, they simply are always in games.  Anyone can win a tie game at any point, even a team that is getting heavily out-possessed but manages a late goal against the run of play.  And the Devils were always in games.  Even against the toughest teams in the league, I knew that if I was watching my favorite team, there was a good chance that they would be in it with 10 minutes to go in the game because they were always playing close games.  And the 5v5 close minutes for previous seasons backed that up. But this past season, that was not the case.  The Devils were not regularly racking up close minutes.  Some of that was because they were winning by 2 goals or more, that is true, but there were definitely many cases of it being because they were down by 2 goals or more.  And given the 30th ranked offense we watched last season, a 2 goal deficit was as good as a nail in a coffin.

So that is the question that I pose to all of you: is moving away from a system that promotes close games a good thing for this team, for a team with a notoriously bad offense? Or even further than that, are the system and the new personnel changes actually promoting a move away from close games, or do you think that this past year was more of an anomaly, and we will see the Devils return to the tops in the league in 5v5 close this year?  Why did the Devils drop so far in 5v5 close minutes this past season?

For me, I think that the new coaching staff and direction of this team as a whole probably did contribute somewhat to the decline in close minutes, and I do not think that it is a great move.  Again, a 2 goal deficit for a bad offensive team is death, and no one was worse on offense last year than NJ.  I pray that the offense improves this season, given the new acquisitions on offense plus another year for the group to grow and develop.  But even still, they will not be a top 10 offense next year.  Playing in close games gives this team a chance to win night in and night out.  A system that promotes close games could have its benefits.