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What Is The Biggest Reason the Devils are Worse Than Last Year?

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I look at GAR metrics to determine what the biggest difference is between last year’s Devils and this year’s. The results are ... unsettling.

Montreal Canadiens v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Devils do still have some encouraging signs this season, analytically speaking. For instance, they still have one of the strongest K-ratings in the league. A truly unforgiving schedule, combined with some poor goaltending, and a little bad luck has certainly contributed to our current predicament. But it would be difficult to make any argument that the Devils are not performing at least marginally worse than last season.

I decided to look at Evolving-Wild’s GAR metrics to try and isolate the areas in which the Devils are suffering most in comparison to last season. Below is a Tableau viz of the changes in value since last season. On the left, it is broken into 3 categories, GAR of players to be on the team both seasons, GAR of players new to the team, and GAR of players that left (note that in this last one, a leaving player with negative GAR will appear as blue since their departure contributed positive value). On the right, it is broken into position.

Taylor Hall

Hall is very likely still the best player on the team. Let’s just get that out of the way now before I have to fend off the pitchforks. I’m not blaming him for this team being bad. First of all, I don’t think we’re as bad as our record. Second, I’m more blaming him for us being good last year.

He’s scoring at a point-per-game pace so one may be tempted to not sound the sirens. However, he was at 1.22 last season. He’s not BAD this year, but he won the freaking Hart trophy last year. A significant amount of people thought he was the single most valuable player in the entire league last season. This season he’s the 36th highest scorer in the NHL, tied with Max Domi.

The primary culprit appears to be the powerplay, where Hall is shooting less and scoring, well, not at all. I mean... actually. Taylor Hall has taken 29 shot attempts, only 11 which have even made it on net, and none of which have gotten past the goalie. Hall has zero powerplay goals this season. That can happen sometimes just due to flukes. What slightly more concerning is that he is taking 6 less shot attempts per 60 minutes and, shockingly, is getting shots on goal LESS THAN HALF as frequently as last year (15.26 vs 7.24 SOG per hour). That’s either an egregious failure of system, or a really harsh change in attitude from Taylor.

One final thing worth noting here: his shooting percentage (8.9%) is way down from last year (14%), but actually way closer to his career average (10.8%). Having shot 8.4% it’s reasonable to wonder if last year’s Hall is the stranger.

Goaltending

I’m going to talk less about this since I’m frankly exhausted on the topic. In July 2017 I wrote that Schneider would be a problem soon. Then I sounded the alarm on the goalie situation in general. And finally, last week, I suggested demoting Cory Schneider.

Make no mistake, Cory Schneider is a big problem. But Kinkaid played out of his mind down the stretch last season. Every time I looked at the hottest goalies in the closing weeks of the season, it was him, Anti Raanta, and John Gibson. Keith has been fine this season. But, very much like Taylor Hall, he played out of his mind last season. This season, we’re seeing what happens to the team when he comes back down to earth.

Forward Depth

The Devils have gotten excellent performance from Blake Coleman this year. I called him the best forward outside the top line and John, rightly, named him “Devil of the Month” for November. Brian Boyle is also having an excellent season — he’s 3rd on the Devils in GAR/60 after finishing as a negative value last year.

Other than them though ...

As you can see from the chart, the Devils have gotten awful seasons from Stefan Noesen and Miles Wood, the lost Brian Gibbons who, despite his late struggles, was a huge net positive for the team thanks to some early scoring and excellent PK work. The kids (Joey Anderson, John Quenneville, and Brett Seney) have been fine, but none have been anywhere near good enough to replace the excellent possession player Noesen was, that 19-goal scorer that Wood was, or the dominant killer Gibbons was.

If Taylor Hall isn’t going to put up a Hart-worthy campaign, then a dearth of depth scoring might very well sign the death warrant for this team’s offense.

Is There Anything We’ve Done Well?

Actually, after a year full of railing on the coaching staff for their deployment of the defense, I finally think they’re getting it right.

Will Butcher is playing over 2 minutes a game more than last season. The concern of many was that he wouldn’t be able to handle such increased responsibility (though both I and Corey Masisak contested that). With the extra time, Butcher’s GAR/60 has gone UP from 0.433 to 0.664. That rate is 12th in the NHL among the 131 defenders with 400+ minutes. The experiment is working with him, and I hope they continue to dial it up.

We tried the #1 defender experiment with Sami Vatanen, but it became pretty obvious early on that he wasn’t built for the ridiculous playing time we were saddling him with. In fact, if you look at the chart above, you’ll see that he’s the biggest value drop on the defense. I think GAR slightly undervalues him, but I also think that, at least for a little while, Devils fans and staff vastly overvalued him. This is why, Severson has taken over as the #1 defender.

I love Severson — I think he’s the closest thing to a modern #1 defender that this team has. He’s great at breaking out, he can be physical (and is doing better at that this year), and is big on pinching, but also offensively inclined to pass to forwards. His game aligns with how the current NHL works. He’s 37th in GAR as of right now, which is technically a #2 defender, though he’s been falling as he struggles with his new responsibilities. I think it was the right move to raise his playing time, but I think it’s worth monitoring his performance in the near future to see if, like Severson, the cross of #1D is too much for him to bear as well.

Concluding Thoughts

I wrote a piece about how the Devils weren’t “lucky” last year. I pointed to PDO, injuries, 1-goal games, and special teams.

If we were to re-evaluate this year’s edition of the Devils, we’d say that this team has been UNLUCKY. We’re 6th worst in PDO, have an average CHIP, we’re 2-1-5 in 1-goal games, and have an average special teams (good PK, bad PP).

However, I do think that I didn’t lend enough credence to a a point that was frequently made from the detractors — one that isn’t accounted for in these metrics. Each player has a distribution of possible performances. Notice I’m not saying “outcomes.” To say that would be to imply that the statsheet over-represented the quality of their play. Hall deserved his numbers last year. Kinkaid deserved his numbers last year. But these players are people, and they don’t play at the exact same level every year.

Hall and Kinkaid each dragged our team to competence through dominant stretches of last season. They played the best hockey of their respective careers. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to come to the conclusion that, maybe they just aren’t as good as they showed last year. It’s not that their number were doomed to fall, it’s that their actual play was. And in that respect, I think the coaches have a job in front of them.

Can Hynes bring the MVP out of Hall? Can Kowalsky figure out what’s ailing the PP? Can Nasreddine turn Severson or Butcher into a #1? These are questions that will play out in this season, but we perhaps won’t have answers until sometime next year — provided everyone keeps their jobs.

Your Thoughts

What do you think the biggest differences have been between this years Devils and last years? Is there a position or player you think is notably worse? Is it just an impossibly difficult schedule? Is it something more abstract like motivation or toughness?

Thanks, as always, for reading and leave your thoughts below!