It’s been a rough season for the New Jersey Devils to this point. In a season where the team came in with expectations of competing for the playoffs, the team has struggled mightily. With bad goaltending, a mistake-prone defense, and a middling offense, the Devils have been battered by a tough schedule over the first two months of the season. Now sitting at 10-13-6, the team is in serious danger of being sellers by Christmas. Many thought the Devils might have a tough go at returning to the postseason after overachieving in 2017-18, but few foresaw a team that would be last place in a conference with multiple teams that seemed pretty much set up to tank this season. Here’s an unfortunate snapshot of the situation:
The question is: is it time to abandon hope on this Devils season? Plenty of fans understandably already have, but is there any chance to see this Devils team jump back into the mix in the East? Any turnaround would obviously have to start very soon (like, say, tonight) and the climb back into the playoff picture will be a long one from their current position. And yet? There are at least a few reasons to hold onto hope. Let’s run through them.
The Devils are in a tough spot right now. You don’t have to be a super-genius to determine that that is the case. But over the past 10 or so years in the NHL, teams have been in similar spots through this day of the season and bounced back to either make the playoffs or at the very least be in the mix until the end of the season. Last season, Tyler Dellow took a look at the so-called “point of no return” in the NHL standings over at the Athletic, which is the point total from which no NHL team has made the playoffs under the current system, given X number of games played. Through 29 games, the point of no return is 22 points, which the Devils are currently 4 points clear of, so a bounce back into the playoffs would not be unprecedented.
Here are some of the recent teams who have managed to rebound from a similarly mediocre/bad record on this date to make the postseason or at least play meaningful late season hockey (December 13th standings via ShrpSports):
- Florida finished with 96 points and missed the playoffs by just one point with a similar 12-14-5 record on this date last season.
- In 2015-16, Anaheim was last in the West at 11-13-5 on this date and ultimately came back to win the Pacific.
- In 2013-14, a 14-15-3 Flyers team bounced back to land the 7th seed by the end of the season (the 12-15-6 Devils rebounded to make a push for the playoffs but ultimately finished 10th with an 0-13 record in the shootout).
- In 2011-12 the Kings didn’t have quite as bad a record as this year’s Devils at 13-13-4, but after a coaching change they charged in the second half, got into the playoffs and blew just about everyone out of the water to win a Cup.
- In 2010-11, Buffalo was at 12-14-4 and a full eight points out of the playoff picture (though with fewer teams to jump over) but ultimately finished in 7th place.
- In 2007-08, Washington was 12-17-2 and tied for last in the league and went on to win their division and make the playoffs. This team was 10-17-2 (22 points) through 29 games, a full 10 points out of the playoff picture. This is the gold standard of pulling a season out of the fire in recent history. The Caps also had the benefit of playing in a crummy division (RIP to the legendary Southeast). That actually brings me to my next point.
The Devils are in a Crummy Division
This is an important one for the Devils right now, because while the team is technically very very far behind the second Wild Card, which is Montreal at 37 points (11 point gap), they are just six points behind the third place team in the Metropolitan Division, the New York Islanders. Six points is a substantial gap, and it’s not always easy to make up ground in the NHL, but if you string together four or five wins in a row, it’s a gap that can shrink very quickly. Whether the Devils can actually do such a thing before the gap grows to a much more unwieldy 10 or 12 points remains to be seen, but the Devils continue to be within a couple really good weeks of erasing their deficit.
The Devils... Aren’t Playing Terribly
I know, I know, I’ve been watching all of the games too, and it really doesn’t feel this way a lot of the time. Those perceptions are colored by the results we’re seeing though. If the Devils were even just 3-3 in games that went past regulation, the season would feel extraordinarily different. The Devils have been the victims of a lot of blowouts, but they’ve also delivered a solid amount of them themselves with a 7-10 record in 3+ goal games. Perhaps most importantly, the Devils are out-chancing their opponents pretty consistently over the course of most of this season. Plus, they’ve done it against perhaps the most difficult schedule in the league to this point.
The Devils have been getting out-attempted at times and they aren’t necessarily a dominant force, but their share of the shots and chances are consistent with a decent-to-above-average team and they are just not getting the results. Some of this is failing to capitalize on chances (it feels like the Devils have been stonewalled on an inordinate amount of breakaways, for example), some of it is uneven special teams, but most of it has been the failure to get good goaltending. The Devils’ team .887 save percentage is currently third-worst in the league. They have a starter who should be a backup, a backup playing like an ECHLer, and a defense that has scored on that backup four times themselves in the last couple weeks. Simply put, the Devils may look okay by the numbers, but they definitely have some serious issues to resolve.
The good news for them (if you want to call it that) is that goaltending, their biggest problem currently, is a notoriously fickle enterprise. Yes the situation has been bad over the past couple months now, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that one or both goaltenders heat up substantially at some point. Both of them have played lights-out in net for stretches of the last 14 months, there is nothing necessarily stopping that from happening again. But for the Devils, even something approaching just average would be a massive improvement. With competent goaltending and a couple more bounces to go along with a schedule that eases up substantially after Christmas, the Devils almost certainly will have a run in them at some point. The question is, by the time that happens, will it already be too late?