Remember the good times like two-three months ago when the playoffs seemed like not only a distinct possibility, but a real likelihood? Man, those were some good times. Truth be told, it is quite difficult nowadays to be solely positive in discussing this team, when on Wednesday, their playoff chances had fallen to a disastrously low 46.41% chance according to MoneyPuck. The next team below them with the best odds to make the playoffs, Dallas, was at 17.59%. So clearly, the Devils were the lowest of the teams with a legitimate shot. Now, there were some good events for the Devils between Wednesday and Friday, enough to move their chances back up to 51.3%. However, does that really make you feel considerably better about this team’s chances to make the playoffs, or even better, to make the playoffs not playing in the Atlantic Division bracket? Truth be told, it is becoming harder and harder by the day to discuss this team in a positive light.
To that end, you want a clear visual that showcases this team’s steady decline over the last two months? I’m sure there isn’t much you would want less, but I’m going to give it to you anyway, because these pictures so clearly showcase the decline that we have been watching on the ice since the beginning of February. The pictures below are from Sean Tierney’s (@ChartingHockey) Tableau, where he does great work. Please go check it out to get an immersive experience.
FYI, the main difference between the two is on the Y-axis. The top is specifically about expected goal differential per 60 minutes, and the second one is about the teams average expected GF%.
From around Thanksgiving until the beginning of February, the Devils were a plus team in terms of expected goal differential. What this means was that during this 2+ month span, the Devils were regularly expected to score more goals than their opposition. They were playing better hockey, and were expected to reap the rewards from it. It led to Mike expecting a playoff team around Christmas, and me as well not much longer after that. Their percentage to make the postseason was over 80% for large portions of that time as a result. The team was playing great hockey, and was being rewarded with wins, points, and a solid position in the standings.
Then, January ended, and so did the phenomenon of New Jersey playing good hockey. The trade deadline additions looked to right the ship, but to relatively no avail. Since then, just check out those charts. The graph for New Jersey is basically just a straight arrow pointing downward into the depths of negative xG differential. And when you think about how the team has been playing since the start of February, it fits. A little before the All-Star Break, there was a lot of confidence surrounding this team, and they were more than holding their own on the ice and in the standings. Since then, it has just felt like a steady slide into disappointment, and that chart almost perfectly showcases that. A slow, brutal quicksand where it seems impossible to escape from. Expected goal differential has just gone downhill as the losses have piled on. This is unlike a team like Carolina, which has continued to lose all season despite a relatively strong xG differential. No, the Devils are losing, and are expected to score less than their opposition. For New Jersey, it sadly all makes sense.
Still in the middle here of a vital back-to-back, is there a chance to turn it around and still find paydirt? Yes, it is not over, there is still a potential chance for this team to end up in the mid-90s in points, which would get them over the edge. However, with goaltending up in the air as it is, and secondary scoring a constant question, no one can blame you for feeling like the inevitable is coming, and the Devils end as the first team out in the Eastern Conference. That would be a big bummer after the great year they were having before the All-Star Break, and then going for it again at the deadline. It especially compounds if it demoralizes players like Taylor Hall from possibly signing a long term deal here. But in the end, all we can do as fans is watch, and hope that this team has something in it to find success over the last couple weeks of the regular season, and that at least one other team falls apart. Hey, you never know I guess!