It’s been a roller coaster of a year here in New Jersey as the Devils continue to battle for a playoff spot. The Eastern Conference playoff picture is now shaping up to be a sprint to the finish line and the Devils will need their offense to continue to step up to guide them there. The Devils are currently 12th in the NHL in goals scored, a far cry from where they’ve been the past 5 years since 2012 (never higher than 27th). That has helped power the team to where they are in the standings, even with an underwhelming defensive corps and periodic struggles in goal. So who do we have to thank the most for driving this team’s offense to heights it hasn’t been in quite a while?
This seems like the obvious answer as the Hart Trophy candidate has put up a season like few that have been seen before in New Jersey. He is a dominant force on the ice just about every night and has the talent and tenacity to drag the team with him on nights when no one else seems all that interested in putting goals on the board. On the other hand, he only has a point in one out of his last three games so, you know, what have you done for me lately?
The first overall pick has been every bit as good as advertised this season and has been among the best playmakers in the entire league this season as the youngest player in the NHL. With what he has shown this year he could be on track to be the Devils’ first truly elite center in this league since... ever? He sees the game at an extremely high level and, despite still being small as an 18/19-year-old, has the ability to win pucks and make plays happen. Still, as a young player he can be neutralized in stretches and is only third on the team in points per game.
Almost a bit of an unsung hero on this Devils squad these days, Palmieri brings legitimate goal-scoring punch to the lineup and, if not for his injuries sustained this year, would be on pace for his second 30-goal season in three seasons as a Devil. One of the few true weapons on the Devils’ current power play, Palmieri helps drive a unit that is weak overall and often disorganized-looking to be middle of the pack in conversion percentage (17th). Palmieri is more primarily a finisher, though, and isn’t necessarily the guy truly powering the team.
Since coming over from Anaheim in the Henrique trade, Vatanen has been a huge stabilizing force on the back end and has helped shape the unit into something resembling an NHL defense. One of his biggest contributions though has been his ability to distribute the puck and to carry it in transition. His arrival has helped drive the Devils underlying shot and chance metrics higher and he has put up 26 points in 46 games to go with it. Still, it’s hard to say a defender is the secret to a team’s offense when they aren’t taking over games the way an Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns type might.
We have now arrived at the correct answer to this question. If the Devils want their offense to keep firing on all cylinders, they need Kinkaid in net. You might be saying “Hey Mike, how could a player who never gets closer than 180 feet from the opponent’s net be the guy driving the offense?” To that I say, it could be any number of reasons, but if the stat-heads want to take a look at what is really going on inside the brains of the players, which I have exclusive access to, they will see that the team does things like hang 8-spots on the Golden Knights because they have a goalie who they really believe in.
When we line up Kinkaid’s season against Cory Schneider's, we can see that the numbers show what an offensive impact he has when he's in net. While Schneider has the slight edge in goals against (2.86 GA/60 vs 2.95 GA/60), a stat that goailes have little control over, Kinkaid has a superior record due to his ability to make the team score more goals (3.09 GF/60 vs 2.83 GF/60), a thing that goalies definitely do. There may be some skeptics out there on this issue but any thinking NHL fan knows how crucial the goalie is to an NHL offense. Let’s go through some of the explanations, though:
Stick-Handling: Kinkaid helps drive the Devils offense because he can play the puck better than Schneider. His puck handling is what we in the biz call "alright, I guess" which definitely has a big time offensive repercussions and absolutely leads to a team scoring goals at a 10% higher rate.
Leadership: Kinkaid wills the offense on with his leadership style which I am very familiar with. For instance, like, maybe he yells sometimes to make people play better? I don't have any examples but it feels like something that could be true.
Non-Mutiny: I have decided the players just don't like Cory Schneider and just don't want to try to score goals when he's out there. Unlike other goalies, he has negative body language when he gets scored on. This makes his teammates subconsciously want to score less, obviously. Kinkiad's ability to not foster this mutinous behavior should be noted.
Intimidation: When opposing goalies hear they are playing Kinkaid, they know they are better off just not trying, so they let in a bunch of goals so they can just get out of there like Fleury did on Wednesday.
Put that all together and it's pretty obvious that the fate of the Devils offense is heavily reliant on Kinkaid being in net and also that they should sign him to be the starter forever. Now, I can just hear some Nerdy McNerd now thinking:
"But Mike, this seems like an argument with zero basis in anything but coincidence and unsupported conjecture. Why wouldn't you just point out that Kinkaid has played better of late and Schneider has been off as well as injured for a little while which warrants a larger share of the starts. That would be a much more convincing argument than saying he's just a winner who wins or saying that he has a significant, tangible impact on how many goals the team in front of him scores on a nightly basis despite, you know, being a goalie. It also holds more water than trying to point to nebulous character flaws that Schneider must have to result in him having less goal support. Goalies, particularly in a league of world-class professional athletes, can pretty much control one thing: how well they play their own position. They don't really have anything to do with how well their teammates are finishing their chances at the other end. Also, the idea that the Devils need to go with Kinkaid at starter long term seems like a wierd thing to declare after a career backup has a good month."
To which I say: Pipe down numbers boy. People who watch the games know who's driving the bus on offense.