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The Tale of Two Devils Teams

The Devils started off the season 22-9-5 and have been a trainwreck since. I look at some of the possible explanations for the harsh change and determine if we need a change of course, or a change of luck.

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Chicago Blackhawks v New Jersey Devils Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Is it just me or is this team just impossible to figure out. Perhaps I’m just not used to this type of Devils team. I was born in 1992 and we were consistently good until 2012 (except 2011 where we were awful the first half and great the second half) and then terrible ever since. So I just don’t know what it’s like to have a team that’s so unpredictable.

We opened the season as one of the worst projected teams in the league. As an example, Dom Lusczomething from the Athletic projected the Devils to be the 31st best team in the NHL with 78 points. For those who are new to hockey, there are only 31 teams, and the Devils currently have 78 points with 13 games left.

The Devils bucked all of those expectations and came roaring out of the gate, to the tune of a 22-9-5 which tied them for 3rd in the NHL in PTS% on December 28th behind only Tampa and Vegas (Natural Stat Trick). This was despite, being 7th worst in CF% (S/V-adjusted) in the NHL, which was likely mitigated by our 3rd highest HDCF%. Since that 22-9-5 run to start the season, regression has come home to roost but in a very strange way. The Devils are 13-17-3 which is the 7th worst PTS% in the NHL over that span (Natural Stat Trick). We went from 3rd to 25th in the NHL, despite improving from 25th to 14th in CF% (S/V-adj.). Our HDCF% went down about 1.5% dropping us to 7th in the league, but the change in Corsi was more drastic and should have been more impactful. So why did this collapse happen? I take two guesses and evaluate each of their merits -- special teams performance, and reliance on High-Danger attempts. The results of these two hypotheses can be summarized in this chart, and I’ll analyze them more in depth below.

My first guess is special teams. According to Corsica, our 5v5 xGF%(adj) has remained largely unchanged — 50.16% (17th in NHL) before December 28th to 50.51% (12th in NHL) after December 28th. But our total xGF% (adj) went from 53.59% (3rd) to 49.38% (19th). Manny Perry’s (creator of Corsica), adjustment, though, heavily adjusts for strength state (PK and PP). If you remove the adjustment, we are once again, pretty steady 50.41% (16th) before 12/28 and 49.35% (18th) after. The culprit was likely a league-best PK in the first 36 games. We had 20% xGF% on the PK which was almost 3% higher than the 2nd best unit. That means that the Devils were expected to get 1 out of every 5 goals when shorthanded — that’s a lot (league average is ~12%). So despite the fact that our -14 penalty differential improved to a +11, our performance on the special teams decreased notably. Our PKxGF% went from 20% (1st by a lot) to 14% (4th), and our PP% went from 89% (12th) to 81% (30th). That’s a +9% to a -5% expected goal ratio which is a MASSIVE shift. I’ll leave you guys to hash out possible explanations for this in the comments, but I’d guess that some of the largest cuprits would be the Henrique trade, Gibbons injury, and either the sliding PP performance of Butcher or the switch from Butcher to Vatanen on the 1st unit depending on what your thoughts on Butchers performance has been. Or it could be that I wrote this article on exactly December 27th. My jinx was so powerful it broke into both special teams units even though I only commented on one of them.

My second guess at the problem might be due to luck, including some with the Devils most beloved statistic — High-Danger Chances (HDC). Whether intentionally done by coaches, players, or overall an accident, the Devils have been consistently one of the stronger teams in the NHL in HDCF% — so much so that I wrote an article evaluating the behavior of the stat. One reason for this poor stretch is likely a PDO shift from 1.014 to 0.975, so I wanted to investigate if that drastic shift could possibly be due to the Devils reliance on HDCF% rather than the more stable CF%. Before December 28th, the Devils were scoring on 13.2% of HD shots and saving 85.6% for an HDPDO — a stat I just invented — of 98.8, which is basically exactly average. After December 28th, those percentage went to 11.8 Sh% and 84.2 Sv% for an HDPDO of 96.04 — lowest in the NHL over that time span. If you’d like a comparison, the lowest team in HDPDO for the pre-12/28 portion of the year was the underperforming-at-the-time Pittsburgh Penguins. HDPDO had the power to make the Penguins a .500 hockey club (19-16-3) and the Devils are it’s next victim.

I’d love to tell you that it’s as simple as the goalies underperforming or Cory’s injury, but it’s just not that straightforward. Our HD shooting went down and HD goaltending both went down by 1.4%. Some better news is that, as I studied in the article linked above, and as Drag Like Pull confirmed in his piece here (I suggest reading his piece and perhaps skimming my response as well), high danger chances are not very repeatable -- which is to say that there is no reason to expect that poor luck to continue. Just ask Pittsburgh! However, there’s a reason I italicized “that” — our total PDO may not be so quick to rebound. The Devils fell from 24th to 30th in HDPDO but their total PDO fell from 6th to 30th to the regression of the frivolous HD stat can only be partially to blame. Offensive puck luck should be expected to even out, but if poor goalie play is due to poor goaltenders, than Sv% can stay low for a sustained time, just ask Carolina! So while PDO does seem to be an issue (whether due to luck, puck movement, goaltending, or all of the above), it doesn’t appear that the Devils HD-reliance has come back to bite them in the butt as much as a universal decrease in percentages.

This Devils team is very difficult to get a handle on. Every time you think they’ve finally phoned it in or righted the ship, they convince you otherwise. This was evident nowhere more than in what I called, on twitter, the #StreakOfStreaks. The Devils played 35 straight games of streaks. In those 35 games, there was never a time when the Devils won or lost a single game that wasn’t part of a larger streak. I wrote about not paying attention to streaks, but that doesn’t mean that stretch wasn’t a bit of a roller coaster. My two best guesses for what made this season take a turn for the worst are the special teams performance and bad luck HDPDO. Hopefully, with Gibbons getting healthy, the PK will improve. Hopefully Geoff Ward will decide to be useful for a change and address the PP struggles. And Hopefully the goaltending and shooting puck luck will improve to get back to early-season numbers. This current stretch of games which Mike dubbed the “Western Death March” may be somewhat mitigated by the positive regression I’ve described and that Alex pointed out here. Then again, we could just keep sucking.

So concluding, of my two best guesses, special teams are definitely a big cause of the downturn, PDO seems to be as well, although it is not specifically due to our reliance on HDCF%. Basically, if I’m going to some up my thoughts on what the current state of analytics says about how the rest of the Devils season will pan out in a few concise characters, the best I could do would be ...


Your Thoughts

What do you guys think about the difference between the early Devils and the recent Devils? What are the biggest changes? Do you think they are fixable? How should they be addressed? Or do you think we just need to stay the course and hope for better puck luck?

Leave your thoughts below and thank you, as always, for reading!