The NHL has a parity problem these days. Sports leagues often worry about the level of competitive balance and whether there is enough of it. In the NHL these days, the issue isn’t that there isn’t enough competitive balance in the league, it’s that there seems to be far too much. The Devils have looked like a terrible team for a large chunk of this season. About 10 days ago, likely a majority of the fanbase was pretty much resigned to watching the draft lottery odds and researching what types of prospects would be available in the top 5-10 picks. Things were grim enough even just a week ago that I wrote this bit of cathartic bitterness. The pieces on AAtJ the past two days have been wondering if the future is looking bleak and who to offload before the deadline. Those two topics remain relevant as ever but upon checking the standings, you’ll see that the Devils are just 3 points out of the East’s final playoff spot with 36 games still to go.
That this is the case is a remarkable testament to how cluttered the NHL standings are these days. One good 3-0-1 road trip has vaulted a dead team walking back into an ostensible playoff chase. The Devils had arguably their worst month in over 30 years in December. They looked about as bad as a team could look for a substantial chunk of the season. In the 28-game stretch between November 17th and January 12th, the Devils picked up a grand total of FOUR regulation wins. For about two months, the team picked up one 60-minute win for every 7 games they played. I’m not even sure how that’s possible in today’s NHL but they managed it.
And yet... here we are, one week beyond that stretch with the Devils now only 3 points from 8th in the East. It defies logic that a team that consistently bad for that long of a stretch could be hanging around but that’s exactly where the Devils are. A look at the standings, though, will reveal that the situation isn’t quite as rosy as “3 points out” sounds. This is because pretty much the entire damn league is mired in the same quagmire as New Jersey right now. The Devils are exactly 5 points behind the 11th place team in the league. They are also only 4 points ahead of the league’s 28th place team. The are simultaneously a couple good weeks from being just outside the top 10 and a couple bad weeks from being in the bottom three. The top-10 have separated themselves a bit and no one is able to compete with the horror shows in Colorado and Arizona, but everyone else is pretty much mucking around in the same territory.
Is this a good thing? Well, that almost certainly depends on who you ask. The league and GM’s seem to love it because you can point to pretty much any team here at the halfway point and say “hey, they’ve got a shot.” As a fan of an NHL team, though (let’s say, for instance, the Devils) it’s frustrating to look at the standings have have almost zero indication whether your team is competitive or should be tearing it all down.
For those of us who have watched the Devils play hockey for the past couple months, it feels like this team is far away and should be a seller. But if they have another good couple weeks and find themselves sitting in the wild card or just a point or two out heading into a much softer February schedule, it’s hard not to start thinking “well, maybe.” It’d be nice to be thinking playoffs, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that this team just isn’t good enough at this point.
The NHL’s point system is a big part of the problem, though the nature of hockey itself and the balancing nature of the salary cap are also definitely factors. With so many 3-point games, it’s just tough for teams in an already pretty even league to separate themselves. The result seems to be a handful of good teams at the top, a couple of terrible teams at the bottom, and a sea of mediocrity in between. In the East, exactly one team is below NHL “.500” right now and only five are below it league-wide. People have started to wise up to the lie that is NHL .500, but the illusion of competitiveness connected to that number still lingers.
For the Devils, after seeming like they had answered the all-important “do you suck” question over the past couple months, we are now in danger of hovering back into the in-between zone where we don’t know the answer. This team could almost certainly use an impact player in this year’s draft, but it will always be difficult to root against the playoffs when they have a chance. So what to the next couple months hold? I’d be lying if I said I had the faintest clue at this point. My gut (and my eyes... and most of the numbers) tells me that this team should be focused on selling assets before the deadline to continue building. But the standings are stubborn and the Devils continue to have a punchers chance with every team so close together. If the Devils play middling hockey but are a point out of the playoffs a month from now, it’s going to be hard to resist feeling hopeful with a team that hasn’t seen the playoffs in five years now. In today’s NHL, staying out of the playoff race seems to be harder to do than staying in it.