I was wrong.
If you are reading this, then this means the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils have secured a playoff spot. For the first time since 2012, the Devils are going to the postseason. Given where they were on April 8, 2017, this is a massive achievement. Tomorrow, the Devils will play their final game of the season. The game does have implications on who they will play in the first round; but regardless of what happens, the Devils are definitely going to the playoffs at all. On Monday will be the standard annual All About the Jersey Season Awards, but this amount of success warrants further celebration and commemoration.
As much as I would love to detail how much the Devils making the playoffs is a crushing blow to the haters and losers - of which there are many - doubting the team ahead of the 2017-18 season, I am in no position to do that. Because I absolutely did not expect this season ending this way.
Where They Were
Especially after last season. Last season, the New Jersey Devils were bad. Not mediocre. Not average. Not even below average. They were bad. They finished the season with a 28-40-14 record worth 70 points. They finished fourth from last place. They were creamed in the run of play. They struggled to score, they allowed too much, and both sides of the special teams weren’t very strong. In short, they crashed out. They were soft. Surely, they would have to be better in 2017-18. It would be really hard not to be even marginally better than the 2016-17 season.
There were signs of hope. The Devils drafted Nico Hischier first overall; a present member of the future. Ray Shero acquired Marcus Johansson from Washington to further boost the top-six. Later in the summer, Shero would gain Will Butcher’s signature to bolster the blueline. Was it enough? In my view then, no.
I Was Wrong Then...
With those signings and others, my expectations were still only modest. As I wrote back in July, I wanted the 2017-18 team to be average on their way to being good again. Specifically: “...I’m going to wish for a more average 2017-18 squad as I hope they push for the postseason in the following season.” I turned out to be wrong.
To that end, when Pavel Zacha told fans at development camp on July 12, 2017 “We have to make playoffs next year,” I assumed he meant 2018-19. The year after 2017-18. That’s when the Devils should “go for it.” I just wanted some gains in 2017-18 ahead of that push. I turned out to be wrong.
In October, I had the opportunity and privilege to talk with Kevin Weekes about the Devils’ upcoming season. Preseason was promising and some players like Jesper Bratt were emerging to make the NHL roster. Weekes offered the following thought as a marker of success: “play meaningful games in March” and that they should aim to miss the playoffs by a few points and then strive for the following season. I tended to agree. I turned out to be wrong.
When it came time for the annual season preview, we did our usual thing and ended it with predictions for the season. This is what I wrote as my prediction for the season after preseason ended:
The problem for the Devils is that I do not think this is enough to progress in a really, really tough division. The starting goaltenders in the Metropolitan is a remarkably talented group. While it could be argued they are worse, Pittsburgh and Washington remain as the teams to beat. The two New York teams will try to contend along with a feisty Carolina team that may finally have their goaltending issues sorted out, a Columbus team that probably did not get worse, and a Philadelphia squad that remains a tough out. Unless something unforseen like injuries or a really low PDO run wrecks one of these seven teams, I find hard to believe the Devils will move up in this season. Even if they do, making the playoffs out of the Eastern Conference is tough. The potential bubble could also include Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Toronto, and Boston from the other division. It would take a perfect storm of luck, performance, strategy, and talent for the Devils to be playing playoff hockey in mid-April.
I’ve grown to like Kevin Weekes’ idea of the next step for the team: playing meaningful games in mid-March. Even if they end up shy of the postseason, it would at least prove that the 2017-18 Devils are more competitive and on their way to being a better team. It would be important as the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons are crucial for the futures of several “veteran” players like Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Marcus Johansson, Andy Greene, Cory Schneider, and more. I like to think the Devils will be more offensive, their defense may be a bit better, and their special teams will not be such a struggle (being without Travis Zajac for months will hurt). But given the division and the fact that a lot has to go right for the team to move up, I think the Devils will still finish eighth in the Metropolitan Division. I think they’ll be the best out of the last-place teams in each division. They may even finish outside of the bottom five. But I think they’ll be in the Metropolitan basement. As usual, I could be wrong.
I was wrong. I was wrong with a lot of this. The two New York teams did not contend and one of them actively and publicly stated that they would stop trying in February. Carolina did not sort out their goaltending issues - or their scoring issues. Columbus and Philadelphia were both strong teams with some weak runs. Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto were not on the bubble; those teams finished in the top three in the Atlantic Division.
Adam Henrique did not make it to end of the Devils’ season, Marcus Johansson did not even play half of the season due to concussions, and Cory Schneider was bad and injured in the 2018 portion. Most of all, the Devils did not finish in the Metropolitan Division basement.
The only parts I ended up getting right were that the Devils were more competitive - obviously, given where they finished the season - and that they did see some gains on offense, defense, and special teams. 2018-19 and 2019-20 are important seasons but the importance will be to keep the team in playoff contention and improve - not just make it.
Why was I so wrong? Because I did not anticipate how much would go right for the Devils in 2017-18. A lot went right in 2017-18.
...Because of What Went Right
Taylor Hall went right. Oh, so very, very, very right in 2017-18. I did not count on Taylor Hall having one of the greatest individual seasons in franchise history. Per Hockey-Reference, Hall became the fourth player ever in franchise history to put up more than 90 points in season. Hall’s 2017-18 was the tenth season in franchise history to put up at least 1.1 points per game. Hall finished the season with at least 37 power play points; keep in mind that the Devils scored 54 power play goals as a team. Hall was a huge cog in the power play machine that sometimes worked well. Hall set a franchise mark for most consecutive games with at least one point with 26 games played in a row. That streak ended. Did that send him into a tailspin. Nope. He enters the final game of the season with another point-streak snapped. You know, just nine games that propelled him to 93 points to further establish that he’s having one of the best Devils seasons ever by a skater.
Whether it was to break a game wide open, come through with a big opportunity, create opportunities for others, or just to keep the run of play going in the right direction, Hall did it all and wowed the crowd. Not since Zach Parise’s 2008-09 did a Devils player receive MVP chants and Hall earned a lot of them from the fans and some int he media. I expected Hall to be the leader on offense - and he was in 5-on-5 play and power play situations per Natural Stat Trick. I didn’t expect him to effectively put the offense on his back. I know better now for this season really established that Taylor Hall is a Superstar.
Nico Hischier proved to be the right pick at first overall. The Devils put him with Hall for most of the season and it was the right call as he became one of the better rookies in the whole league. The rookie went into dirty areas and won pucks, drew calls, and made plays. The rookie back checked effectively enough to keep being used on a top line against tough competition. The rookie read plays and made decisions such that he worked well with Hall and Jesper Bratt as well as Hall and Kyle Palmieri. Even without much power play success, Hischier became the first rookie to crack the 50-point mark since Henrique in 2011-12 per Hockey-Reference. His 51 points lags behind Hall’s 93, but Hischier has 41 5-on-5 points compared to Hall’s 46 and they matched in primary points (goals and primary assists) with 35 per Natural Stat Trick. Hischier proved to not only be a NHL player right away but a very, very good one. He’s only 19 and he’s already a significant contributor. I did not expect that to happen. That went very right for New Jersey too.
There was a big deal that brought Sami Vatanen to New Jersey in exchange for Adam Henrique. I figured Henrique was increasingly expendable back in July. I didn’t think the deal would come in November 2017. The Vatanen trade turned out to be a boost for New Jersey. In Vatanen, the coaches have put him next to Andy Greene for big minutes. The results: Vatanen became the team leader in average ice time per game; his 5-on-5 numbers are superior to Greene’s previous partner, Steve Santini per Natural Stat Trick; and while a 46% CF% isn’t great for a first-pairing, Greene benefitted with Vatanen much more than Santini. All this and 28 points in 56 games too. Could it be better? Sure. But Vatanen was an asset for a player I did not expect to see traded in this past season. That the deal turned out as well as it did for both sides is something that went right for New Jersey.
The biggest win on defense was the Will Butcher signing. CJ wrote about him at length last week so I recommend that you read all of that. The short version is this: Butcher has been an excellent asset on the power play, he’s been excellent on the third pairing next to Ben Lovejoy (Aside: Moving him to the third pairing was also a win and smart move by the coaching staff), and he’s got loads of points to show for it. The hype around this signing was real in the Summer and Butcher lived up to it. That’s another thing that went right for New Jersey.
Brian Gibbons’ first two months of the season was absolutely fortuitous and was another big win for the Devils’ campaign. I was surprised he beat out Joesph Blandisi for a roster spot. I absolutely did not expect Gibbons to shoot above 30% and lead the team with five goals in October. Or to do it again in November with a 37.5% shooting percentage and six goals in November. Reality set in for his production from December onward, but Gibbons was an effective fourth-liner and penalty killer even when his stick cooled off. Blandisi became a throw-in for the Vatanen deal. Gibbons showed that he was a NHL player in New Jersey after being a tweener between the AHL and NHL for several seasons. His inclusion on the roster from the beginning of the season onward turned out to be the right call.
Blake Coleman was another emergence that proved to be a big help. Coleman became one of the most prolific attackers on penalty kills in the NHL. He is among league leaders in shorthanded shots on net. Coleman skated with pace and provided plenty of good, useful energy in the run of play as a bottom-six player. After months of not being able to score a whole bunch on some good chances, he finally got a run of puck-luck in March. Coleman tied Palmieri to finish second on the team in goals in March with seven. Whether it was a backhander beauty while falling down or finishing a shorthanded rush up ice, Coleman eventually did contribute on the scoresheet. Even before, he found his niche in this league and that helped the Devils in many ways. This is another right call.
Jesper Bratt cooled off, but he was another rookie sensation to start this season in the right way. Bratt finished the 2017 portion of this season with ten goals, fourteen assists, and 59 shots on net. Only Hall had more points and Hischier tied him in points. He showed off his slick skating and puck-handling from prospect camp all the way to the NHL roster. While he’s found his way off the roster more than a few times in recent weeks; Bratt showing that he can be a NHL player is a big win for the youth movement and another thing that went right in 2017-18.
Stefan Noesen, like Coleman and Gibbons, proved to be an effective player to keep around in the bottom six. Noesen got hot in December with four goals and six assists; his ten points tied Hall (!!) and finished behind Brian Boyle for the most in that month. Unlike Boyle, though, Noesen was a positive 5-on-5 player all season long. According to Natural Stat Trick, only five regular players finished above 50% CF% in this season: the third pairing of Butcher and Lovejoy, Taylor Hall & his amazing season, Hischier, and Noesen. Noesen does not get regular special teams time; but he tends to make the most of his 5-on-5 minutes. Like Beau Bennett in a previous season, that has its use and Noesen provided it along with 13 goals and 27 points this season.
Though the team does need some more secondary scoring, they had plenty of support from Kyle Palmieri. He missed quite a bit of time as he can only play 63 games at most this season. Much of that was in 2017, where he only put up five goals. But Palmieri’s 2018 portion of the season was a big bounce back for the right winger. Palmieri enters the final game of the season second to only Hall in points (32), goals (19), power play goals (8) and shots (132). You read that right: Palmieri nearly scored 20 goals in just three months of this season. Palmieri played quite a bit with Hall as he showed that he really could be a finisher with #9 on the ice in even strength and power play situations. If only he was healthier all season. Still, as Mike wrote at the end of March, Palmieri has been an important part of the re-build and he remains a key forward for the New Jersey Devils.
Speaking of re-build, Miles Wood has had some ups and downs and a whole lot of mad-dashes up ice in hopes of chasing down pucks this season. He has also improved as a player. Wood has not been a total drain in the Devils’ run of play in 2017-18 like he was in 2016-17 per Natural Stat Trick. In fact, he’s likely to finish this season close to the break even mark of 50% CF%. Wood has been able to get into at least 15 more games (it’s 16 assuming he plays tomorrow, which he should) and his production has risen with that. Wood went from 105 shots to 165, evidence that he’s able to turn his rushes up ice and play off the puck into opportunities. He went from 8 goals to 18, including the team’s only hat trick of the 2017-18 season (assuming no one gets it in D.C. tomorrow) in a stunning 7-5 win in Chicago and the go-ahead goal in the 2-1 win over Toronto that punched the Devils’ ticket to the postseason. He even backchecks sometimes. Wood improved quite a bit over being just a big, fast dude who can chase pucks and take a load of penalties. That was yet another thing that was in New Jersey’s favor in this season.
Cory Schneider did not sustain it, but he was excellent in the 2017 portion of this season. He was a big reason why the Devils were in a playoff spot at the new year. In 30 games, Schneider put up a 92.7% save percentage at even strength and a 87.8% save percentage in penalty killing situations. His December was especially good as he was the Devil of the Month despite not being named Taylor Hall. Unfortunately, his season fell apart in January and went down further after returning from injury in March. But from February onward, Keith Kinkaid emerged from his horrid 2017 to put up a very strong run of play. He faced a lot of shots, he was tested a lot, and since February 1 (let’s not talk about January), Kinkaid has posted a 92.2% even strength save percentage and a 88% save percentage in PK situations. His rise was crucial timing for a Devils team that needed some strong goaltending to keep their playoff hopes alive. Neither goalie can claim they had a good whole season. Anyone who will argue otherwise isn’t looking at the whole picture. But Schneider’s first three months and Kinkaid’s last two months were very good and went very right for New Jersey.
And this isn’t everything. This is just a lot that immediately comes to mind. I could go on and on and on and on. Let’s not forget about Brian Boyle’s huge 11-point December. Or the team’s winning streak before 2017 began? Or the overtime success from Hall, John Moore, and Brian Gibbons. Or some of the team performances like going 4-2-0 on a road trip against Nashville, Vegas, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, and Pittsburgh - all tough opponents - and returning home to beat Tampa Bay. Were there let downs? Sure. Could some aspects of the team be better? Absolutely. There is much work to be done by the team, by the coaches, and by management in order for the Devils to keep making the postseason. But that should not take away from what’s happening now. A lot went right for the Devils in 2017-18. And I could not expect all of it to happen and not when they happened either.
The 2017-18 Devils succeeded beyond my expectations. It became one of my favorite seasons ever to write about and to enjoy as a fan. The New Jersey Devils are going to playoffs. So disregard my initial thought. Let the haters and losers, of which there are many, be on their own. Pay them no mind for the haters are the critics both recent and long-time of this franchise that have little of value to say. The losers, well, you know who they are: supporters of the Rangers and Flyers. Who cares about them anyway. We should focus on what matters: the New Jersey Devils.
Let us celebrate this achievement by the Devils. We should smile when we see the word “playoffs.” We should appreciate that the Devils made Fan Appreciation Night worth it by securing a postseason berth on it. We should be happy that there will be more New Jersey Devils hockey this Spring. Most of all, we should be excited to see how far the Devils can go. Starting tomorrow, the Devils have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
I did not think this would happen back in July 2017 or October 2017 or in between or, to be honest, early on in the season. Even at points during this season for one reason or another, I would try to be cautious in my optimism at best. I feared that it would all fall apart, be it with that slump in January or being on the knife’s edge of the wild card spot in March or something else bad happening. That did not happen. I’m strong enough to write what I wrote and justify why I wrote what I wrote. I like to think I’m also strong enough to write: I was wrong. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Thanks to all of the writers, readers, listeners to Talking Red, hosts of Talking Red, Tweeters, posters, commenters, and everyone else that supports this team and this site for what turned out to be an outstanding success of a season. Nothing is over, but the Devils achieved their first playoff spot in five years. That alone means they succeeded this season. Most of all, thanks to the New Jersey Devils.
Were you wrong about the Devils like I was? What do you celebrate the most about this season? What happens now? Please leave your answers and thoughts in the comments. Thank you again for reading all season long. There’s one more regular season game and then - I love writing this - the playoffs will begin.