Nearly a month into the regular season, and the New Jersey Devils are still winning! After Wednesday night’s game against Vancouver, the Devils were on top of the Metropolitan and had three games in hand on the second place team, Pittsburgh. This also went along with a division-high goal differential (+11), thanks to the second highest goals scored in the division (42). Of course, last night’s brutal loss hurts that goal differential, but the winning start is still very much relevant.
The debate among many, including fans and pundits, is whether or not the winning for this team can be sustainable. This will be the debate anytime a team that was expected to be bad actually plays really well. Since no one truly expected it to happen, most people will assume that the other shoe has to drop at some point and that the team will come back down to earth. Most people will probably admit at this point that the Devils are a better team than they expected, but you will probably still not find many people who expect them to continue to be this good and maintain a division lead throughout the season.
For those who want to defend the Devils and say that this start is legit, there are some stats out there to help with that. According to the new and improved Corsica, the Devils are one of the best teams in the NHL in expected Goals For (xGF) in all situations when the stats are globally adjusted, sitting at 53.81%. That is meant to showcase that the Devils are not scoring more than they are expected to, given the underlying numbers. They are expected to score a lot, and are scoring a lot. That number should dictate that the scoring can continue.
However, not all is peachy either. The other side will throw out numbers too, and that is what I want to highlight today. Now, I don’t want to be a Debbie downer here. I love what the Devils are doing this season, and they are way more exciting to watch and are performing way better than I ever expected them to. I don’t want that to change, and in all reality, I don’t expect them to all of a sudden become a really bad team again like they were last year. A dozen games is enough of a sample size to show us that this team is pretty legit. They might not be the best team in the Metro legit, but they could possibly be legit enough to contend for a chance to play in the second season come April. This is a better team than most anyone predicted, and that should remain largely true.
However, if they want to continue to be competitive for a playoff position, some trends and numbers will need to change. As I said, not all of the underlying numbers are so amazing. Like for example, that xGF% listed above is so good because it does in fact include all situations. The Devils have been one of the top power play units in the NHL, boasting a 26.8% PP percentage rolling into last night’s game. That will definitely help to boost the team’s xGF%. However, what about when you filter out all situations and instead look at even strength xGF%? The Devils fall into the bottom half of the league, with a much more modest globally adjusted xGF% at 48.31%. Now, if NJ continues to have a dominant power play throughout the season, then this does not matter that much. Their special teams success will make up for their even strength issues. But if the power play starts to struggle somewhat? Then you could be looking at a sharp regression in xGF% in all situations, and many more losses instead of wins.
While the power play is still great, however, one area that the Devils definitely need to improve on right now is the run of play. Before even getting into stats, this can clearly be seen with the eye test. I mean, just look at some of the recent game recaps from this website. The Arizona game? Great special teams, but the Devils looked poor at even strength and got steamrolled in the run of play. The Vancouver game? More sloppy play where the Devils’ goals were scored against the general run of play. Stats do not necessarily need to tell us that New Jersey is struggling right now at maintaining strong possession and control of the neutral zone at 5 on 5. That is fairly obvious just by watching the team play on a nightly basis.
However, the numbers only make the situation seem worse. As per Natural Stat Trick, the Devils were dominated in the run of play in those two games listed above. In the Arizona game, at even strength, the Devils only had 37 Corsi attempts to Arizona’s 52. And that was to a team that was winless at the time. In the Vancouver game, the Devils were crushed even more in the run of play, with 38 Corsi attempts for and 66 attempts against. That percentage, a 36.54 CF%, has been the worst so far this season. Even back four games ago, against the Sharks, the Devils had 27 Corsi attempts to San Jose’s 46, another paltry attempt at controlling play at even strength.
Of those games, the Devils only lost the San Jose game, so it has not been killing them as of yet. However, this is some incredibly important stuff. There is almost no doubt that in many ways, Vancouver played a better game than New Jersey did on Wednesday night. Perhaps more than anyone or anything else, we have Cory Schneider to thank for that win in British Columbia. That type of winning is not sustainable by any means. Over the last recent stretch of games, the Devils are winning despite the run of play being against them almost all of the time. That does happen, as possession does not directly lead to goals; however, that never lasts. When the opposition has substantially more attempts on net than you do, over a large sample size you will lose more often than you win. And the season is still quite young, with many, many games left to be played. If the Devils want to remain in the top half of the Metro, they will need to change around their even strength play pretty soon and start controlling play a little more. They might not need to get into positive ratios there, but a 37% possession rating at even strength cannot keep happening.
Now again, I am not saying all of this to dampen the awesome new energy surrounding this team. This is an exciting and fun team, and they are way more competitive and better than almost anyone expected. That should hopefully continue for much of the season. However, if it is to continue, we will need to see some things change, and the run of play is one of those things. The ice has been tilted against the Devils recently, and they are winning some games despite it. If they want to continue winning, they need to tilt the ice back the other way.