The Devils will emerge from their CBA-mandated 5-day break this Sunday, and as they do that, they will be between four and six points out of the final playoff spot in the East, likely with games in hand. Now, that isn’t necessarily an ideal spot for a team to be in in February if they are looking to make the playoffs. It does, however, give them a puncher’s chance at the postseason if they can play well down the stretch. That the Devils are in the hunt at all continues to feel miraculous, but it remains the case in the NHL’s vast expanse of mediocrity.
I’m not saying anyone should be expecting the playoffs for the Devils. On the contrary, it remains something of a statistical longshot (SportsClubStats currently has them at 4.3% to make it). The fact that so many teams are chasing basically one playoff spot means that even if you gave the Devils even odds with all of the teams around them, their chances are fairly low. But with the teams above them like Philadelphia and Boston continuing to flounder, the door remains open for pretty much anyone who can string together a few good weeks of hockey.
Projecting the Standings
So how do we determine what the Devils will need to do in order to make the postseason? For one, we can project the standings based on where everyone in the Eastern Conference stands today. This is an imperfect way to look at it, but it’s probably as good a method as any at this point in the season with so much uncertainty remaining. If we project out the standings at the end of the season based on everyone’s current points pace, this is what we end up with:
- Washington - 122 points
- Pittsburgh - 114 points
- Columbus - 113 points
- Montreal - 103 points
- Ottawa - 98 points
- Toronto - 94 points
- Philadelphia - 88 points
- Boston - 88 points
- Carolina - 87 points
- Florida - 87 points
- New Jersey - 85 points
- Tampa Bay - 82 points
- Buffalo - 82 points
- Detroit - 82 points
So that puts the Devils 6 points out of the playoffs at season’s end, with the Islanders capturing the last playoff spot based on their current points percentage. The striking thing about these standings is that not one team in the East in on pace to finish with less than 82 points and a “.500” record. As far as I can tell, that has never happened in either conference in the history of the NHL (I only checked back to the 2004 lockout, but it wasn’t even really plausible when ties were still a thing). Yay, parity, I guess.
What Record Do They Need?
Now that we have projected out the standings, we can identify a theoretical points threshold the Devils would need to get to in order to make the postseason. To avoid tiebreakers, where the Isles have an upper hand in ROW at the moment, the Devils would have to get to 92 points to make the postseason. That’s in the general neighborhood of the cutoff during a lot of seasons (if maybe just a shade low), so it seems reasonable.
The Devils will emerge from their break with 56 points in 54 games. That leaves 28 games remaining over the rest of the season. To get to 92 points, the Devils would need to come up with 36 points in those 28 games. That certainly isn’t an impossible feat, but it is the equivalent of a 105-point pace. The record that would get them there is 16-8-4 or any such equivalent that exchanges a win for 2 overtime/shootout losses (17-9-2, 15-7-6, 14-6-8, etc.).
Can They Do It?
Now comes the question of whether or not this Devils team can play to that level and make the playoffs. It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility, particularly if a couple of the right people, for instance Cory Schneider and Taylor Hall, get hot over a month or so stretch. A 105-point pace is too much to expect from this team over an entire season, but the Devils opened playing their first 15 games at a 115-point pace, so it’s not as if the team is entirely incapable of getting there over a couple-month span.
Now, if you’re asking me “will they do it?” the answer becomes much different. There is essentially one third of the season left for New Jersey, and while 16 wins in 28 games doesn’t sound like an overly impressive number, the Devils are still the Devils and playing that well for that long seems like a stretch. And this is all also assuming that one of the others in the logjam of bumbling teams around them doesn’t also get their act together and start driving up the threshold to make the playoffs in the east. If the Isles stay hot or Philly and Boston start playing better, that 92 points to make the playoffs could quickly become 95 or more. Given how inconsistent and mediocre those teams have been, that’s certainly not a guarantee, but it is definitely possible. Can the Devils be even better than that 16-8-4 hypothetical in such a case? That feels pretty unlikely.
I’ll leave you on a positive note, though, if you’re hoping for the playoffs. In the Devils last 10 games before the bye week, they went 6-3-1, gaining ground on a lot of the teams around them. What points pace is 6-3-1? It’s 107, meaning that if the Devils can replicate the success of the last 10 games over the remainder of the season, they will certainly have a shot. Given that they have 6 games in the 10 days coming out of the break, we’ll find out pretty quickly if they are up to that challenge.