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The Devils Are Bad, But Not Bad Enough

The Devils are bad, but once again not terrible. We won’t make the playoffs — again. And we won’t get a top 5 pick — again. What do we do to take the next step?

Ottawa Senators v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Devils Are a Bad Hockey Team

The Devils are a bottom 5 team in the NHL. I’m sorry if that is news to you, but it’s almost as factual as a claim as nebulous as this can get. Don’t get confused by encouraging performances by guys like Miles Wood, or recent surges from guys like Pavel Zacha, or verifications of offseason hopes from guys like Taylor Hall, or massive improvements from guys like Jon Merrill, or returns to form of guys like Cory Schneider. These are all great things, but they do not make us good. If you are unconvinced let me point out a few things.

Despite being over NHL .500 and only 6 points out of the playoffs, the Devils have the 4th worst GF% in the league (GF% is the ratio of goals for to goals against). But sometimes that can be a fluke. What about the advanced stats? Well xGF% is “Expected Goal Ratio” and it uses things like shot location, rebound/rush shots, and other adjustments to calculate the expectation. The Devils are 4th worst xGF% in the league as well. Both of those can be found at Corsica.

That’s only one source though. Corsica is great but they aren’t the only fish in the sea and they use a lot of number crunching that some of you less statisticky people might not like. So how about SRS? This is a “simple rating system” from Hockey reference that takes into account only two things, goal differential, and strength of schedule. Guess where the Devils rank in that one ... yup, 4th worst in the league.

There are a few more obscure stats floating around the statosphere like SIT which has a class of stats including WIT (win impact total). Methodologies for this class of stats seem to mostly including weighting goals and assists based on impact. It seems to still be relatively green and doesn’t seem to include any non-goal events which reduces the validity, but nonetheless it’s still new, interesting, and an attempt at assessing better than standings do. The Devils have the 4th lowest WIT as well.

Not only are we not very good. But we are also clearly not going to be THAT bad. The Avalanche are completely uncatchable in their ineptitude. The Coyotes are accidentally playing kinda well right now (7-4-1 in the last month) but they are also really far away. So that means our lottery pick is locked in as 4th at highest (Las Vegas is 3rd). In fact, the Devils are the most likely team in the NHL to finish outside the playoffs, but also not get a top 5 draft pick.

Why is that important? Well , by some measures, the 5th overall draft pick has about half the value of the first one. This is hugely consequential for a rebuilding team such as us. And we were just never bad enough to acquire that kind of talent. We pulled a top 5 pick swap in the Larsson for Hall trade, but other than that roster spot, there are no top 5 picks on this team. In fact, the only other player even picked in the top 20 is Zacha. If you project forward McLeod and add him to the list he was 12th overall.

Building a Successful Franchise

This is the list of teams that have had one or fewer top 5 picks.

The Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers have had zero. Arizona Coyotes, Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Vancouver Canucks have had 1.

The Rangers went out and got Rick Nash who was a 1st overall, and Zibanejad who was 6th overall, and have 5 others drafted in the top 20. Ottawa struck gold on Karlsson (15th overall), but also have acquired Turris (3rd overall), and Ryan (2nd overall), Brassard (6th overall) and Phaneuf (9th overall). The rest of the teams on this list are all below league average in standings points per game.

So to sum up, the Devils are a bad hockey team. But, once again, we are not THAT bad. We are bad enough to sell at the deadline again if we so choose to continue to stockpile mid-level draft picks. But it looks as though we will once again miss out on getting one of those potentially franchise-changing players.

Take a look at the teams with the most regular season and playoff wins since the lockout. The Capitals, Penguins, and Blackhawks have been dominant due to those types of players, and it looks like the Oilers and Maple Leafs might become the next ones. The Lightening have a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd overall pick on their team.

The Sharks have had Thorton (1st overall) and Marleau (2nd overall) this whole time. However, 7th-rounder Pavelski and trade acquisition Burns are clearly a bigger cause of their current success.

In the Kings Cup run, their top 5 scorers were all 1st rounders, and Gaborik and Doughty were top 3 picks. The Blues and Ducks have managed to hit reasonably big on several 1st round draft picks, though no single one stands out.

The Devils Path To Success

So it seems, to me, that there are three options for building a contender. Draft a franchise changing player or players in the top 3 (Caps, Pens, Hawks), draft consistently well in the first round (Ducks, Kings), or acquire first round talent to complement your own high-draft talent (Blues, Sharks).

The Devils have late first rounders like Schneider, Zajac and Palmieri; and overachieving early rounders Henrique and Severson. But, the future of this team is going to be defined by Hall, Zacha, and whoever the next BIG piece is that we go and get. The Devils either need to start sucking, drafting consistently strongly in the first round, or opening up the pocketbook big time. Continued improvement, and development plus quality additions isn’t enough. In order to take the next step the Devils need at least one more Hall-esque addition.

I’m not suggesting tanking. I’m merely pointing out how its unfortunate that we are overachieving by a few standings slots as opposed to underachieving by a few to get the next big piece. What do you guys think?