In a couple of hours, our New Jersey Devils will play their penultimate game of 2018 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Definitely check out John’s preview from this morning to get a deep dive into the match.
Clearly, this is not a game played between Stanley Cup contenders. Both teams are near the bottom of not only the Metropolitan, but the entire Eastern Conference. The Devils are at the bottom, with 33 points, and the Canes are only two points up. This will be a game between two bad teams, no matter how you shake it.
Despite that knowledge, however, it is interesting to note how these teams have gotten to become bad. The Devils you know all about; you’ve watched the games and perhaps you’ve read some of the articles here at AATJ as well, analyzing the porous defense, the subpar goaltending, and the lack of depth in the forward group. The numbers bear much of it out as well, showcasing a team that is negative in possession, its expected goal differential tumbling sharply into the negative come December.
Carolina, on the other hand, does not have quite the same terrible underlying numbers to support their miserable record. In fact, in many cases, the numbers showcase a team that should be winning, that should be contending for the playoffs, not for higher lottery odds. In fact, if you look at many of the numbers, you might actually see many striking similarities…with the 2013-14 New Jersey Devils.
You remember those Devils? I do, that was my second season owning season tickets. That team was the one beleaguered with overtime and particularly shootout losses. They ended with 18 OTLs, 18 missed points. Had they even won half of them, being luck neutral, a decent expectation, they would have been in the playoffs easy, holding not only a wild card position, but in fact a divisional position, surpassing Philadelphia for the 3rd slot in the Metro.
But as it turns out, bad luck on the shootout is not one of the main reasons the Canes of this year are similar to those Devils. However, in many other areas, similarities abound. While the Canes are just short of halfway through this campaign, and things can change, they probably will not change significantly to maintain these similarities throughout the rest of the year, and definitely not enough to change who they will be in time for the opening faceoff in a couple of hours. Just check out some of these possession numbers, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick:
Comparatively with those possession stats, the Canes this year are actually better, much better, than those Devils were. And those Devils under PDB were a powerhouse possession club. Both of them were the absolute best at preventing attempts against, being 1st in the league. And both were the best at high danger attempts, holding the best percentage in their respective seasons. The 13-14 Devils, however, were much like the traditional New Jersey squads in sacrificing offense for defense; their Corsi attempts for were poor, near the bottom of the NHL. Not this year’s Hurricanes, however. They rank 3rd in the NHL so far in raw Corsi attempts for, and that is despite playing the 2nd fewest games so far!
When you look at those possession numbers alone, it is clear that the Canes this year are dominating the run of play at a significantly higher percentage than their opposition. Their record, despite those numbers, has to be quite frustrating to their fans; I know it was for me in 2013-14, just as it probably was for you as well. But that is not the only metric to show that Carolina has some good underlying numbers despite their poor record. I linked earlier to a Sean Tierney chart showing expected goal differential for all 31 teams. The Devils, if you click on them, have sharply declined throughout the season. If you click on the Canes logo, however, you see a team that has been definitively positive in xGD throughout the year, especially early on, but they have surged recently as well. That their expected goal differential is not currently on par with the actual -15 goal differential is crazy.
Also, you can check out their K ratings, also from Sean. If you look strictly at their positive traits, specifically their rates for and their quality for, they are dominant. Only Tampa Bay has more blue on their K rating than Carolina does. But here is also where you can see the doom of the Canes. Their shooting impact has decimated them, and where that comes to the surface is in the team’s paltry 2.5 goals for per games played, a number good for 28th in the league. Despite their dominant possession, and even their dominant ability to produce Corsi attempts for, they cannot score. 2.5 goals per game is not enough, especially given their 37.3 shots for per game is best in the league. And when you allow 2.89 goals against per game, only good for 14th in the league despite owning a league best 28 shots against per game, you will lose a lot more than you win.
Does that sound familiar? It sure as heck might. Those Devils of 5 years ago struggled as well to score, and were hampered with some subpar goaltending. We all love Martin Brodeur, as well we should, but his .904 save percentage in 39 appearances did not do the team any favors. For Carolina this year, Curtis McElhinney has been very good with a strong .930 save percentage in 12 appearances, and Petr Mrazek has been decent with a .920 save percentage in 16 appearances, but Scott Darling was quite poor in 8 showings, with a .875 sv%.
In the end, as you watch today’s game, you might now look at it a little differently instead of just seeing two bad teams playing some hockey around the midpoint of the season. One team, our team sadly, has some bad numbers to back up some bad play. The other team, while showcasing a bad record because of a real knack for being unable to score goals, actually has some really good underlying numbers that should project a competent, winning squad. And for us Devils fans, we can certainly empathize, having had a team very similarly miss the playoffs like that only 5 short seasons ago.