Boy is this March stretch of games nerve-wracking huh? Heading into today’s St. Patty’s Day game in Los Angeles, you could easily make the point that this is another must-win for the New Jersey Devils. With Philadelphia going 3-6-1 in their last 10, it finally seems as if the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl Effect has fully worn off, and having them enter and create a 4-team race for the last few playoff spots in the East is a nice addition. However, Columbus is just on fire, and Florida basically is as well. The Devils need to keep winning, despite this extremely tough schedule. I don’t think I’ve really ever said I want this team to play to the level of its competition, because that usually means playing terribly against poor teams, but considering the schedule coming up, we need this team to play to the level of its competition, if not better.
Given the gray hairs that can come with the stress of watching each of these upcoming hockey games, however, I think today we should take a quick timeout to check out some perspective. It still is so weird seeing this team take a different path to success than the one we were used to seeing for two decades. Also, it is so clear how much this team has improved from the doldrums of the past half-decade. Here is a quick chart showcasing basic goal differential for the four teams on the playoff bubble right now, stats courtesy of nhl.com:
If you just looked at the differential numbers without looking at the team names, wouldn’t you probably guess that the Devils were the team with only 198 goals for? I mean as a fan of this team for a long time, that is the knee-jerk reaction. The Devils thrived forever on playing low event hockey, which meant having a great GA while scoring enough to win. Over the last five years, in this drought, the team was simply unable to score, keeping their GF low. Even in those years like 2013-14 when they had an amazing Corsi, GF is what kept the team down, as they ended with only 197 GF in 82 games despite having a fairly quality 208 GA to end the year.
This season, however, is the exact opposite. Of those four teams vying for the final 3 spots in the East, the Devils have the most goals for. That is quite insane. We keep complaining right now about this team’s lack of secondary scoring behind the top line, and especially behind Taylor Hall, and that is legitimate. Even with that, however, they are still crushing it overall on offense, at least for a Devils team. I mean come on, last season the Devils ended with 183 GF over the entire season. NJ this year has 212 goals with 12 games still to play. If they are to make the playoffs, you know that number needs to probably be over 240 as well by the end of the year, maybe they might even need to be over 250 given what could happen with the goaltending.
Is the main reason for that bump in scoring Taylor Hall? Surely. 76 points in 65 games is no joke. No Devil has scored over a point per game pace since 2011-12, when Ilya Kovalchuk produced 83 points in 77 games played. Hall is on an even better pace than that. However, that is far from the only reason. Secondary scoring is certainly an issue, with Nico Hischier, the second leading scorer on this team, currently having 31 fewer points than Hall. But when you look at this team in general, one area that has hugely boosted goal production has been rookie points. As I just mentioned, you have Nico who is second on the team in scoring with 45 points in 70 games. You may wish he had more, but just think if the Devils did not win the lottery and get him. They most likely would have picked around 7th. None of the players who went around that pick in the draft are playing significant minutes in the NHL, if at all. So Hischier’s 45 points are purely a bonus from the lottery, which without NJ would have no chance to be in the postseason.
Beyond Hischier though, who is doing very well as a young rookie, the Devils have gotten 35 points from both Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher, which ties them for 3rd in scoring behind Hischier. Between those three rookies, that is 115 points, which is exceptional production from rookies. They might only have 30 goals between them, but they have been great distributors, and without their ability to set up others, the Devils would be nowhere near 212 goals at this point in the season.
So while we go through this anxious stretch where New Jersey is literally playing a must-win game each and every time they take the ice, it is still cool to see why they are in this position of potentially making the playoffs. It is not because of the reasons that made this team good in the past, namely strong defense, great goalie play, and overall low event hockey. Instead, of all the teams on the bubble, the Devils are actually outscoring all of them at this point. And if they want to keep playing beyond 82 games, they will need to keep that up, scoring even more to keep getting points from games, because who knows what quality of goaltending will show up each night. Should that happen, it will truly be an incredible turnaround from a team that had no ability to light the lamp over the last few seasons.