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An Appreciation of How Truly Awful the Devils Were in December

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The New Jersey Devils did a nice service to the historians in their fanbase to close out 2016. For anyone wondering (or trying to remember) what it was like to watch a month of the “Mickey Mouse” teams of the 1980’s, the Devils treated them to a first-hand look.

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils
Pretty much.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The Devils are in a tough spot in the standings right now after a terrible month of December. The team has started off the new year on the right foot with back-to-back wins, but if you’ll indulge me for a bit, I want to dwell on just how horrendous the Devils were to close out the 2016 calendar year. The team showed a level of defensive ineptitude in December that we haven’t seen from a Devils team in decades. John did a great job of summing up how terrible the Devils were in his month in review, but to get some context on exactly how badly the Devils were lit up in the final month of 2016, we’re going to have to take a little trip back through time. Just let me get into my appropriate attire for this piece.

It me.

Ah, there we go.

Now, via Hockey Reference, the Devils gave up 56 goals in the month of December, which seems like a typo but isn’t. That works out to around 3.73 goals per game, which is a pretty impressive feat in a league where there are only about 5.5 goals per game, total. The team finished the month with a 4-9-2 record and it almost feels like that paints the team in a generous light. The Devils were pummeled night-in and night-out and, for a team that has for a long time been all about its defense, it was jarring to see things go awry to the extent they did in December. And that 3.73 goals allowed per game even includes the outlier 4-0 shutout victory over the Flyers. In the month’s other 14 games, the team gave up exactly 4 goals per night (which, for the uninitiated, is bad).

How long has it been since a New Jersey team was this sieve-like over an entire month of hockey? One has to travel back to the 1980’s to get that answer. Yes, the last month where the team gave up more than 56 total goals was the last month of that decade, December 1989, when the team gave up 62 over the course of the month. So not since the freewheeling 1980’s — when NHL defenses were all collectively out on a smoke-break and goaltenders had been replaced by a single sheet of tissue paper — has a Devils team failed to protect the back of their own net to such an extent. Call it a dead-puck era/neo-dead-puck era record for this 2016-17 team (yay!). And the worst part is that these weren’t fluky bounces going against them. For the most part, the team earned just about every one of those goals against and an ice cold Cory Schneider (.887 sv% for the month) certainly didn’t help matters.

Now, I’ll let the defense off the mat for just a second, if only to make sure the simultaneous poorness of the offense isn’t overlooked. While the defense was doing their best Kansas City Scouts impression over the course of the month, the offense was largely unable to compensate in any meaningful way other than a fluky comeback victory over the Nashville Predators. This is an offense that had aspirations to be better than the past few years of anemic teams but in December it was extremely reminiscent of the organization’s recent offensive futility. The team finished with 31 goals, working out to just a shade over 2 scored per game. While the defense floundered historically, the offense may have snuck under the radar but, make no mistake, it was also quite bad (if in a slightly more run-of-the-mill fashion).

You can probably see where this is headed, but while the Devils defense was putting up 80’s-level badness, the offense wasn’t counteracting it with any 80’s-level goodness, meaning we must have stumbled into some pretty hallowed goal differential territory. There is really only one comparable modern example to month the team just had (you might be able to guess it; hint: it was another December). Since the Devils became the New Jersey Devils in 1982, the list of months where the team had an equivalent or worse goal differential than the -25 in December 2016 are as follows:

So, besides the ignominious December 2010 end to the John MacLean era, the last times the Devils had a month this bad were the “Mickey Mouse” days of the early- to mid-80’s. Save for one woeful month in 2010, we all just witnessed a month-long level of ineptitude which predates my existence on this earth (and probably a number of yours). Perhaps (hopefully) this will be an unfortunate blip in an otherwise successful rebuilding process, but as it stands, we just saw what was probably the Devils’ second-worst month in over 30 years.

I’ll end this one on a bit of a high note though, depending on your perspective and/or membership in the “tank” or “non-tank” faction of the fanbase. Despite a historically bad December, the Devils sit just 6 points out of the playoff picture with a game-in-hand after 2 wins to open 2017 (largely thanks to the tailspin that the Flyers are currently in). It’s hard to say there’s a major takeaway from that other than “the NHL is terminally mediocre,” but either way, the Devils find themselves in relative striking distance of the playoffs in spite of their terrible month (month-plus, if you count the end of November). If this team can get itself figured out and play more like they did in the season’s first 5 weeks, they still, against all logic, have a shot to salvage this season. I’m personally not betting on it, given the aforementioned month we just discussed, but the opportunity exists for the Devils should they choose to take advantage of it.

All monthly stats and records looked up via the invaluable Play Index at Hockey Reference.