The Devils were given a gift from the NHL in the early season schedule. After the season opener against he lowly Oilers in Sweden, the Devils open the season on a 4 game homestand. So far we’ve played 3 of them, 2 of which were against teams on the 2nd game of a back-to-back (Washington and Dallas) — both of which featured the backup goalie of the opposing team.
The Devils have taken full advantage of the opportunity, going 4-0 and leading the NHL in goal differential in the process. The Sharks were the only game in which the game was even mildly in question. But even that part hasn’t been without it’s luck. Keith Kinkaid, a career 91.3 Sv% goaltender has stopped 99 out of the 103 shots he’s face (96.1%) — shutting out the two teams that were on short rest. Kyle Palmieri (career 11% shooter) has 7 goals in 4 games and is shooting 38.9%. If just those two guys were playing at career norms, we would have allowed 5 more goals and scored 5 less goals. In other words, we’d have a goal differential of +3 rather than +10.
That’s still good! A plus-3 differential after 4 games is, like, a +60 pace. That would have made them the best team in the NHL last year. But between the schedule, the fluky level of performance from Kinkaid/Palms, and some good old-fashioned luck, it’s tough to know what parts of the Devils early-season success are real. I’m going to pick a few things that I believe are real.
The Penalty Kill Is Amazing
This isn’t surprising. In my opinion, they had the best PK in the league last season. The only concern was that the unit lost a few key players — namely Brian Gibbons and John Moore, who both played heavy minutes. Coming into the Dallas game, the Devils had the 2nd highest xGF% on the PK and had allowed only one goal in 16 minutes of shorthanded time and only 19 shot attempts period — the stingiest rate in the NHL (via Corsica).
Coming into town was a Dallas powerplay that was the best in the NHL through their first 5 games — ex: they had a 12.6 xGF60 (1st in NHL by 1.5). The Devils shut them down in all 3 of their opportunities.
Blake Coleman is likely one of the best penalty killers alive, Andy Greene is a battle-tested crease-clearer, and Kinkaid is playing out of his mind to boot. And the one name that isn’t given enough credit in this is Alain Nasreddine. In consecutive years, despite notable personnel changes, the Devils have one of the fiercest penalty kills in the league.
This pairing has always been good — over the past 3 years, Greene and Severson have a better CF%(adj) and SCF%(adj) with each other than with anyone else (according to Natural Stat Trick) but their goal proportion had never followed. Well now it looks like that final cog has clicked into place — the pairing is out-attempting opponents (around 55-60% of shots depending on metric), outscoring them 6-2 (Severson’s assisted 4 of the 6 goals), and, somewhat ridiculously, are out-chancing opponents in the high danger zone 17-4(!).
That’s MADNESS. Seventeen to four? To put that all into one comprehensive stat, according to Corsica’s pairing tool, the pairing (as of last night before the Dallas game) had a +1.84 expected goal differential — the second highest on the team was a +0.69 (Lovejoy-Butcher). Their xGF% of 68.8% is 4th highest in the NHL out of the 86 pairings with 30+ minutes played.
Perhaps this is because Severson’s ability as a puck-mover and Andy Greene’s reliability in the defensive end are a perfect marriage. Or perhaps Severson drags an aging Greene to respectability, as evidenced by his point-per-game pace. Or maybe Greene, excelling after going from the least favorable zone starts in the NHL to the most favorable on the team, has salvaged Severson’s floundering career. Whatever the reason, this pairing is just working.
The Devils Look A LOT Like They Did Last Year
This is, in a sense, thoroughly unsurprising, given the fact that their roster remained virtually unchanged from last year. Some people thought Pavel Zacha would finally start to fill up box scores this year or John Quenneville would crack the top 6 and do so — they are the only two Devils skaters (defenders included) to remain pointless on the season. Only narrowly above them (1 point) is Marcus Johansson, a player who we had hoped would return to pre-trade form and be a legitimate top 6 contributor.
Some figured the distribution of ice time among the defenders would flatten out with Vatanen getting a less proven partner, Greene going down to the 2nd pair, and Butcher being a year older/better. Vatanen averaged 24:45 after getting traded to the Devils last season. He’s averaging 24:48 this year.
Many assumed that Cory would eventually be given the starting job again after Kinkaid cedes the role during last year’s playoffs and Cory did well. Rightly, some said that we’d need him if we were to make a run. Keith seems to have different ideas. Keith was one of the two best goalies in the closing months of last season (along with Anti Raanta) and he’s been THE BEST GOALIE IN THE LEAGUE to start this season. I wouldn’t saddle in for this level of success from Keith moving forward, but, as is well-documented (ex: here and here), I’m not sure how much Cory has left anyway. I think this is likely Keith’s job this year.
This awaits injury news about Will Butcher — a development that has the potential to completely upend the deployment of every defender on the team. But until we hear anything, it looks like your 2017-18 Devils are back and better than ever.
Concluding Thoughts and Questions
The Devils are not THIS good. They’re not one of the best teams in the NHL. The ARE a good team, though. As I said in the preseason, they weren’t lucky last year. They were, and are still, a good hockey team. Just remember that we have a lot of away games, and many back-to-backs still to come during which we’ll likely be less fortunate than we were for these games. Tougher times are ahead — how we handle it is going to determine which side of the bubble we end on.
What aspects of the team do you guys think are real and not? Is Kyle going to score 144 goals this season? Is Keith going to have 41 shutouts? What early season narratives are surprising you?
Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts below!