Generally, the mark of a good, competitive team is that they are always in every game. Rarely are they blown out and out of a game after 40 minutes. If you compare the New Jersey Devils of this past season, when they made the playoffs, versus the year prior when they were considerably worse, you can see that wisdom in action. Thanks to Natural Stat Trick, here are the time on ice numbers for the Devils from 2016-17 and 2017-18. The “Within 1” numbers encompass being tied, up 1, and down 1. All minutes showcased are at 5 on 5 action.
So, if you look at the “Within 1” time, which covers all 5v5 Close time on ice, the Devils ranked 4th in the NHL this year in 5 on 5 close minutes. This is as compared to last year, when the team was ranked 23rd in the league. That is a significant jump, and showcases that the Devils were in many more games this year as opposed to last, and within each game, more time was spent playing a close game.
I added the specific times related to Close TOI as well, which would be when the game is tied, when NJ was up a goal, and when they were down a goal. This year’s team played way more minutes when both leading by a goal and when down by a goal. However, the interesting outlier is that the 2016-17 Devils actually played a lot more minutes when the game was tied. This year’s team did not play nearly as many minutes in a tie hockey game. There could be different reasons for this, but my guess would be that NJ was more a more prolific scoring team. The 2016-17 Devils scored a measly 180 goals, while this past season they scored 243. Those 63 extra goals certainly helped to break ties earlier in games, whereas the team from 2 years ago played 0-0 ties for longer.
I think these minutes are a positive for New Jersey, and show movement in the right direction. Where I really think this is evident is in the “Down 1” stat. The Devils played around 150 more minutes this past season when down 1 goal from the year prior. However, the team as a whole improved significantly in the overall standings. That means that even though NJ was down a lot this year, they managed to come back and get points out of many of those games, whereas the team from a year prior was not able to mount the same comebacks. The ability to always be in a game, and to be able to come back when down a goal, is significant, and the Devils improved in a big way here.
Of course, I also would not go overboard with this, either. As mentioned, the Devils ranked 4th this season in 5v5 Close TOI this year. The three teams above them were Carolina, Arizona, and Philadelphia. Philly was a playoff team like NJ was, and Carolina was in it for the majority of the season and probably should have made it if not for atrocious goaltending, but Arizona was a downright bad team throughout the entire year. So there is not a direct correlation between playing close minutes and being a competitive team. Arizona was noncompetitive.
In the end, however, I think these numbers are good for New Jersey. When the Devils were last in the playoffs, in 2012, that year they were also 4th in the league in 5v5 Close TOI. Back in 2007-08, the first year we have numbers for, NJ was 2nd in the league, and in 2009-10, they were 8th. These were both playoff years. Again, it is not a direct correlation, however, because in 2008-09, another playoff year, the team was ranked 28th in Close TOI. Generally, however, when the Devils were good and making the playoffs, they were playing more Close minutes than most teams in the league, and that was true again last season. If they can keep that up this year, they should remain competitive.