This year has seen some great growth and improvement from the New Jersey Devils. The team did start out hot last year, but they ultimately showcased their true colors as November and December hit, falling back down to earth, and eventually all the way down to the bottom. This season, while New Jersey no longer holds the top spot in the Metropolitan, the team is still competitive and remains in a quality spot to nab a playoff position if it can avoid prolonged losing streaks.
Over the last couple seasons, I have written the preview for the team’s offense before the season starts. And over those last couple seasons, the scoring capabilities of the Devils have been quite atrocious. In each of those previews, I noted that the major catalyst for change had to come from the offense producing more points. It was the obvious answer. This season, thankfully, with a vastly changed group, the offensive points are coming much more frequently. Even with the team falling somewhat back towards the middle of the pack over the last few weeks, they still were scoring at a rate of 2.94 goals per 60 mins at all strengths before last night’s tilt, which is incredibly improved over previous seasons.
The reason I am bringing this up is that on Thursday night during the Montreal game, the MSG broadcast showcased a stat chart that really brought this truth to life. Without really digging into the numbers, it would be easy to assume that this year’s Devils are doing much better offensively, but perhaps are doing worse defensively, allowing more goals, which has led to some more losses. This would make some sense on the surface; the Devils have a really young defensive corps besides for Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy, and they have been known to act like Swiss cheese during many games, meaning that the Devils would need to score 4-5 goals just to get a point. However, check out the graphic that MSG put on the screen the other night:
Through 30 games, this year’s team has given up a grand total of ONE more goal than they did last season. However, the records are incredibly different. Last year, the Devils were at NHL .500 with 30 points and falling fast. This season, they were well over .500 with 38 points and still maintaining a top 4 position in the toughest division in hockey. Those 8 points in the standings are huge. 8 points in 30 games equates to approximately 22 points over an 82 game slate. Last season, only 21 points separated 3rd through 7th in the Metropolitan Division.
So what was the difference? Offense of course! Over the first 30 games, the Devils scored 22 more goals this season versus last. 22 goals per 30 games equates to approximately 60 more goals over 82 games. Last season, the Devils had a -61 goal differential. That difference last season would have put the Devils essentially at a 0 goal differential…which is basically where the Devils were this season, 92 goals for and 90 against.
And what is really good news is that these goals for are not all coming with the man advantage. Of those extra 22 goals, only 5 have come on the power play. That means 17 were at even strength, and that is a good thing. Most ice time is spent at even strength, and an exceptionally good power play is usually ripe for regression, but even strength goals could potentially stand the test of time better.
What does this tell us in the end? Well, a couple of things. On the positive side, it lets us know that the offensive changes that Ray Shero and Co. have been making over the last couple of seasons are paying off (not that you didn’t know this, but it is just another indicator). The new, young talent has really come in and produced well and gelled well with the likes of Taylor Hall to up this team’s offensive capabilities. On the negative side, it lets us know that this defense is still a serious work in progress. Trading for Sami Vatanen was vital in this regard as it provides the team with another top 4 defender, but Vatanen was known more for his offensive prowess in Anaheim than his defensive capabilities. It will take more time before we can really begin to see if his presence reduces goals against, or only helps to provide more offense. More offense would never hurt, and hopefully he can provide that, but the defense does need to get better at preventing attempts and goals against, and the jury is still out as to whether or not he will provide help in that area (against Montreal, him and John Moore were the worst players on the team in terms of possession and allowing attempts against, and they were on the ice together for over 24% of the night. And last night he was at just over 35% CF, better but still not a good number).
It will be interesting to see how these numbers change over the next 30 games. At 60 games, if the numbers are generally the same with around a +2 goal differential, that would be both good and bad. That would most likely mean the offense would be continuing to do well, but the defense would still be allowing too many goals. It could mean the opposite too, but that is an unlikely change in trends (although with all of the injuries up front, it might be tough to maintain high scoring rates without players getting healthy and staying that way). Would a +2 differential at 60 games played keep New Jersey in a playoff position in the hyper-competitive Metro? I guess we might find out!