Last week, I predicted that the defense of the New Jersey Devils should be improved offensively this season. I do not expect the defense to all of a sudden light the lamps on a regular basis, but I do believe that someone on the blue line should reach 30 points this season, something that has not happened often for the Devils this decade.
The logical next question after that, at least in my mind anyway, would be something along the lines of, “well ok, but now how much improved will the overall team offense be?” It would be great if the defense can chip in a little more with scoring, but if the offense continues to struggle, then that minor defensive improvement in the offensive zone is rather useless. The Devils would still be a bad offensive team.
Therefore, if I want to take last week’s prediction to the next level, I need to predict that New Jersey’s offense as a whole will improve. One way to do that is to predict the total number of goals for the team will have by season’s end, especially in comparison to the team’s number of goals against. This is obviously a very relevant and meaningful stat, as a team with a negative GF-GA ratio is most likely not winning as much unless their per game ratios are very skewed. Last year, the Devils managed to produce 182 goals in all situations, which was the worst in the league, four goals behind Vancouver’s 186. Their goals against were considerably better in terms of the league average, 8th overall, but they gave up 202 goals, which was 16 more than they produced. That is not a good ratio. In fact, in this decade the Devils have only had a positive ratio twice: in the 2011-2012 season when it was 216-205, and in 2013-14 when it was 197-195. That was the year they dominated in possession but had zero puck luck and could not win a shootout to save their necks.
Back before the 2010 season, however, when the Devils were perennial playoff contenders, they had a positive ratio on a yearly basis. Between the 2004 lockout and 2010, the Devils had a positive GF-GA average every single year. In fact, the only year they fell short of having 200+ goals for was in 2007-2008, when they ended with 198. Despite falling short that year, that iteration of the Devils still had a positive GF-GA ratio, and that GF number is still higher than all of the years in this decade barring the year of the Stanley Cup run.
This year, it would be a stretch to predict that the Devils will all of a sudden go back to the dominance we saw in Lou Lamoriello’s heyday. That will hopefully come at the end of this rebuilding process, but probably not in the middle of it. However, if this team is to continually improve and become more competitive each year, the underlying stats need to improve as well. One thing that eventually needs to happen is that the team’s GF-GA ratio needs to creep back into the black. I personally think that could happen as soon as this season, and since I’m going on this bold streak, I might as well continue that and predict that it indeed will happen this season.
There are two ways that this could happen. The first, and probably less likely way, would be for the team’s goals against to drop. Last season, the Devils were 8th in the league in terms of goals against, giving up 202 goals. That was pretty good, and is already the mark of a quality defensive team. The Devils have one of the best goaltenders in the league, Cory Schneider, who when combined with a stingy defense in a defensive system, keeps goals against down to a minimum. The defense might not be as good as last season because of the departures of Adam Larsson and David Schlemko, but there are new additions as well which could offset that, and if someone like Steven Santini breaks out this year, the defense could maybe even improve some. But regardless, I doubt that it improves or gets worse to the point that the Devils’ overall GA will change drastically from last year. Anywhere from around 195-205 goals against would be a solid guess in my opinion, and those numbers should again put the Devils in the top 10 of the league, or at least very close to it.
The other way that a positive GF-GA ratio would happen would be from an improved offense. Considering how poor the offense was last season, this is where I have to bank the majority of my prediction on. New Jersey essentially bottomed out on goals two seasons ago, when it produced 176 goals in the 2014-15 season. Yes they only had 171 in 2010-11, but that was before this rebuild. That 176 signifies the Devils at their lowest point, when the rebuild started to take place. Last season, they improved by 6 goals to 182, which was improvement, but was still bad enough that they finished dead last in goals for in the entire NHL. Despite the improvement from the year prior, no one was praising the offense. Yes it was great to see that both Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique reached 30 goals, but I think anyone would agree that the overall improvement of the entire offense was minimal at best.
This year, with the lineup changes, especially with the addition of Taylor Hall, plus the addition of Beau Bennett and a healthy Michael Cammalleri, the improvement should hopefully be even greater. So, I think we can logically say that at the minimum, the Devils will improve by another 6 goals for, as that was the baseline from two years ago to last season. 6 more goals will have the Devils at 188 by season’s end. 188 is still lower than the 195-205 goals against I suggested before. At the minimum, then, the Devils realistically need to improve at least 13 goals over last season to not be in the negative. +13 goals over last year, plus a 7 goal improvement in goals against would have the Devils end at 195-195. That is plausible, but I’m not sure the defense will improve by 7 goals against unless Keith Kinkaid or whoever the backup is really does better. Therefore, I would say that we need to see a solid 15 goals for improvement over last season, if not more.
That sounds like a lot, but here is how it could happen. First, we need to see a healthy Cammalleri. He produced 14 goals last year in only 42 games played. That was a great number. If he can extrapolate that out over a whole season, he would be a potential 30 goal scorer, or at least close to it. His production would certainly be higher than a replacement level player. That right there is a solid handful of goals. Next, Taylor Hall clearly brings improvement at the forward position. If he is not scoring 30 goals himself, he should get close to it. Then, his ability to make plays for his line mates also improves their ability to produce goals. Finally, the hope is to see improvement from the likes of Reid Boucher and Joseph Blandisi. If they take the next step this season, they will definitively help improve the scoring capabilities of the overall offense. A productive Pavel Zacha would also be nice, but perhaps could be premature at the NHL level. We will see there. Then there is the addition of Beau Bennett, who has never really been an offensive dynamo, but has also never really been healthy enough to showcase his full potential over a full season.
So from everything I just mentioned, if it all played out perfectly (nothing is ever perfect, but we can always dream), a 15 goal improvement over last season should be no problem. If most of that happens, but say Cammalleri or Bennett get hurt again or Blandisi turns out to be nothing more than a fourth line grinder, a 15 goal improvement could still be achievable. That combined with a 5 goal improvement in goals against would put the Devils at 197-197. I could see that happening. Could you? Remember, the Devils were at 197-195 in 2013-14, when the Devils had Martin Brodeur rocking a .901 save percentage in 39 starts. Improvement towards a ratio like that would greatly help this team in its path to become competitive again in March and April and potentially beyond.
What are your thoughts about this? Do you think the Devils have a chance to end the season with a positive goals for-goals against ratio? What are the potential barriers preventing this from occurring, and what are the potential strengths of this team that could make it happen? What would a positive GF-GA ratio do for NJ this season in the standings? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.