For a team that is offensively challenged like the New Jersey Devils, who are 28th in the league in scoring at 2.19 goals per game, maintaining a lead is of paramount importance. A team that cannot score, but also gives up leads when they actually do score, will not win very many games. Last season, despite not being a great scoring team, the Devils were fairly good at keeping a lead, going 19-4-0 in all games when leading after the first period, a .826 winning percentage in that category, good for 9th in the league. This important quality kept the Devils in the playoff hunt a lot longer than they probably deserved to be there, and that was a good thing.
This year, insanely enough, the Devils currently still sit only a few points out of the final wild card spot, so the argument can still be made that they are in it. However, what I want to discuss is just how many opportunities they have wasted to really be in a much better position. For whatever reason, the Devils have been unable to keep leads like they were able to do last season under John Hynes. In embarrassing fashion, the Devils are currently the absolute worst team at maintaining a lead after the first period. To date this season, NJ is 7-5-5 when leading after the first period, which is good for dead last in the NHL. That record equates to a .412 win percentage in those situations. Yes, you are reading that right, the Devils have a win percentage under .500 when they actually have the lead after 20 minutes of hockey.
Just consider some context really quick. This season so far, only one other team has a sub-.500 win percentage when leading after 1, the Detroit Red Wings at .455. But to really highlight the severity of the situation, only 2 other teams have a sub-.600 win percentage when leading after 1 (Colorado, and oddly enough, Edmonton). Last season, a grand total of zero teams finished the season with a sub-.500 record when leading after 1 period, and only three teams finished with a sub-.600 win percentage. In fact, since the 2004-05 lockout, only two teams have finished a season with a win percentage worse than .412 when leading after the first period: Washington in 2005-06 (.381) and Buffalo in 2013-14 (.333). So, since the Devils last won a Stanley Cup, they are on pace to be the 3rd worst team in terms of maintaining a lead in the remaining 40 minutes of a game.
To at least alleviate that sting a little bit, the 2016-17 Devils are not as bad at keeping a lead when they have it after two periods. Currently, when leading a game after 40 minutes of play, the Devils have a record of 11-0-4 overall. There are two ways to look at that record. The positive way is obvious: they have not lost in regulation when leading after 2 periods. Only 10 other teams in the league can still say that at this point this season. The negative way to look at that record is that 11-0-4 equates to a .733 win percentage, which is good for only 25th in the league. So while the 0 regulation losses is great, 4 overtime or shootout losses brings the team’s win percentage when leading after 2 down a considerable amount.
What could be the reason for the precipitous drop in the team’s ability to hold a lead from last season to this? It is hard to say. The easiest answers are defense and goaltending. While Schneider has picked it up in the calendar year 2017, he still only sports a .910 save percentage on the season, meaning he has leaked more goals than last season on average. Those could be coming when the team is ahead, leading to blown leads. The defense has also not helped him. Last year the Devils were second in the league in preventing Corsi attempts against at 49.2 attempts per 60 minutes, which meant that they were excellent at limiting the opponent’s chances in any given game. So when the Devils were ahead, the opposition could not just keep getting quality chances to score. This year, however, the Devils currently sit 14th in Corsi attempts against per 60 minutes at 53.7. The team is allowing more attempts, which can be leading to more goals against and thus more blown leads.
So, what if the Devils were as good at keeping leads after the first period this season as they were last year? This year so far the Devils have played in 17 games where they have had a lead after 1. If they rocked a .826 win percentage in those games instead of a .412, they would have somewhere around 14 regulation wins instead of 7. 14 wins on 17 games is good for a .824 win percentage. Even if they lost the other 3 outright, that is a 14-3-0 record instead of a 7-5-5 record. 28 points versus 19. Nine extra points right now and the Devils are sitting at least somewhat comfortably in a playoff position. That is the difference between being able to hold a lead fairly well and not being able to hold a lead at all.
In the end, I realize that an exercise like this is really irrelevant, as it is a “what if they were actually better at something?” article, but I feel nonetheless that it is something worth taking a look at. The Devils this season have struggled in many areas. Perhaps one of the more important areas, and one that may not be scrutinized as much as it should, is being able to play with a lead. This year, the Devils are just not really good at playing when ahead, at least when leading after the first period. And that deficiency has cost them some serious points in the standings. The Devils of the past, at least in my memory, were a team that was excellent at playing with a lead. That shutdown defense and preventative style of play just became stifling to the opposition. This year, however, that is far from the case. Just because the Devils have a lead, even a two goal lead, it is never a time to rest easy. You never know when the team will cough that lead right up and go on to lose.