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The Mountain the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils Now Face to Make the Playoffs

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It is tempting to state that the New Jersey Devils have time to turn their season around. Is it true? With 65 games left, the proverbial mountain the team must climb to seriously compete for a playoff spot is larger than you may think.

Ottawa Senators v New Jersey Devils
John Hynes is the man behind the bench for a team that has to play incredible hockey for the remaining 65 games this season.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

On Wednesday night, the New Jersey Devils provided to the world their latest collapse in a hockey game. They entered the third period against the lowly Ottawa Senators 2-1. They left the third period with a 2-4 defeat with the remaining fans at the Rock giving the Devils a deserved chorus of disapproval. Like many Devils fans, I was very unhappy with the loss. When a wide open Justin-Gabriel Pageau put home a wide open rebound to make it 2-3, I tweeted out on the blog’s official account that “And that may be the season.” That may seem dramatic and I will admit I wrote it in the heat of the moment. However, I do not think it is totally false. Losses like that one have made the mountain the Devils now have to climb to compete for a playoff spot that much steeper.

The Point Percentages Needed Overall and Remaining

The current playoff qualification structure in the NHL has been in place since the 2013-14 season. The top three teams in each division are given playoff berths and the two best remaining teams in the conference receive wild card berths. This has made it more important to do well within the division. For teams on the bubble, it has also made it important to pay at least some attention to the other division in the conference. Since the 2013-14 season, the fewest amount of points needed to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference has ranged from 93 (2013-14) to 98 (tie: 2014-15 and 2018-19). That is the target number of points that any team aiming for a playoff spot should shoot for. The final number for this season may vary a little but it something to plan around. This means a team has to aim for a points percentage - the percentage of all potential points to be earned in an 82-game season - of 56.7% (93 points) to 59.7% (98 points) over the season. Note that even the fewest percentage is still well above the vaunted 50% mark. A .500 team has a nice round number and they would have missed the playoffs by quite a bit over the last six seasons. The goal for a playoff team is to earn 57-60% of the points. Again, the percentage to make it in for this season may be a little different but it is a range we can work with.

This is where the issue lies for the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils. Their points percentage for this season is currently 41.2%. This is nowhere near the range of results that a playoff team will ultimately earn. As much as we can bracket or filter out certain dates (e.g. a certain 4-1-3 run comes to mind) to note a run or a week or two where the Devils took 60% or more of the available points, it does not erase the poor run of results before and possibly after it. That awful start to the season has an impact. These lost leads in second and third periods of games has an impact. Slumps can be survived by a team that banked points early on. Not so much by a team that arguably slumped from the get-go. Yes, the Devils took 60% of the points on their five-game road trip. The thing is that the Devils have to achieve 57-60% of the points for the whole season.

Therefore, the Devils will need to do even better than earn points at a rate 6 of out of 10 (like going 3-2 in five games) for the rest of this season to get to that level. After the Ottawa game, the Devils have 65 games left this season. To earn 93 points, the Devils would need to earn a point percentage of 60.8% over the rest of their season. To earn 98 points, the Devils would need an even higher percentage: 64.6%. A team that maintains either of those percentages over a whole season would make the playoffs comfortably. They may even win their division. Since the Devils have a 5-8-4 record, the Devils need to perform so much better than they have been in their first 17 games somehow and someway. They also cannot afford many or even any more losing or pointless streaks because that will only drive the required points percentage that much higher. The margin for error is that much smaller now as the Devils need to average over a point earned per game to be in the playoff picture by the beginning of April.

No, a team cannot be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs in November; but they can realistically take themselves out of it. The Devils are in danger of that. So while, yes, they went 3-2 on their five-game road trip and that is good, the Devils need to do a little bit better than that over the remainder of the season from here on out. Every loss from here on out will requires the Devils to earn a little higher points percentage going forward.

You’re Not Chasing Just One Team, You Need to Gain Ground on Everyone

After the Ottawa game, I looked at the standings at NHL.com. The Devils have 14 points. The owners of the second wildcard spot on Wednesday night was Toronto with 22 points. As of this morning, it is now Pittsburgh - tonight’s opponent - who also has 22 points. That is a difference of 8 points. Plus, the Devils have a game in hand on Pittsburgh. That is a potential of two points that can be made up on them as well as the fact that tonight’s game will not use it up. The gap does not seem so large now, right?

Wrong. While everything I just wrote in the last paragraph was true, it ignores the reality that the standings are dynamic. Yes, after Wednesday’s games, Toronto owned the second and final wild card spot with 22 points in 20 games. 8 point gap plus three games in hand. By the time the Devils will start their game tonight against Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh now own that spot a different number of games played. Toronto is now the team just outside of the wild card spot as Carolina’s overtime win over Buffalo moved them into the first slot. (Oh, and Buffalo’s overtime loss keeps them in range of both.) With a constantly changing situation in the standings, what the Devils will need may vary from day to day. Moreover, this is not a spot that a team just rises up and takes. They have to work their way up the standings to be just below the wild card spot before they can actually overtake the last wild card spot. If nothing else in this post, realize that point because it is a key factor as to what makes the proverbial mountain so steep for New Jersey.

The Devils did not just lose in regulation to Ottawa. They fell to last in the Eastern Conference. By the end of November 13, 2019, the Devils and their 14 points in 17 games were dead last in the Eastern Conference and only a point of ahead of the two worst teams in the Western Conference. For the Devils to rise up and challenge for a wild card spot, they need to surpass seven teams right in front of them. By the end of Wednesday night’s games, those seven teams include the likes of Tampa Bay, Buffalo, and Carolina. Three teams who hit some early issues but are also much closer to challenging for the wild card spot. They also have the talent to rise back up and challenge for a top three spot in the division. If they do so, what that means is that another team that may be pretty good will replace them. And so they are another obstacle in front of the Devils.

Do not forget for a second that a NHL game can be worth as much as three points. Any game that goes beyond regulation gives a point to the losing team in overtime or the shootout. The winner still gets two. Since the Devils have so many teams in front of them to compete with, it is not enough to just get a victory over those teams. It has to be in regulation. Against a Western Conference team or even a sure-bet playoff team like, say, Washington, then it may not be a big deal to go beyond regulation. Of course, even if the Devils do take care of business in regulation against teams they are directly competing with in the standings, the other teams in the East are not just going to be idle. They are going to compete as well. They can get wins and post-regulation losses too. They will also play each other and that is where the three-point games can be especially challenging to the Devils’ cause.

As badly needed as wins are for the Devils, they do need help from others to move up in the standings. Now that the Devils now have seven teams to try to get ahead of before they reach the wild card spots, they need a lot of help. Games in hand can help the Devils get past a few of those teams but only if the Devils win and provided they are not against one of those direct challengers. Moreover, they cannot count on all seven teams helping them out to their benefit night after night, especially when they play each other. So, yes, the Devils are only 8 points away from a wild card spot, but seven other teams are even closer - and the Devils have to overcome them first in the standings to really bridge the gap.

Likewise, the Devils also have to watch for those teams behind them. The loss to Ottawa hurt because Ottawa was one of the few teams below the Devils in the East. The regulation loss to them on Wednesday sent Ottawa ahead of the Devils. Detroit won in overtime late last night too, so they also jumped the Devils in the standings. New Jersey suffered a real set back. If the Devils start charging up the standings, then winning those games against the teams below them are important if only not to lose any ground. With the Devils needing to take 61 - 65% of the possible points remaining the season, there is not a lot of ground the team can afford to lose.

By the way, this is a key reason why I put up the Metropolitan Division snapshot every Sunday. It gives a division-based look at what each team is doing because how a team ahead of New Jersey performs does matter to New Jersey in the larger scheme of things. I understand that few fans may want to watch scoreboards and standings in November. Knowing what is going on really puts the team’s situation in perspective. It also highlights when those games in hand the Devils currently have will be used; again, the team also has to win those games for them to mean anything.

The Other, Other Problem: You Also Have to Actually Perform Well

We recognize that the Devils need to earn a majority of points as if they are one of the better teams in the NHL. We recognize that to catch up, the Devils will need to out-earn the teams directly ahead of them first as they close the gap on the playoff spot holders. In order to do both, the Devils need to play a whole lot better than they have been.

Stats are big here at All About the Jersey. They help us understand how well the team is playing over a period of time when it comes to offense, defense, goaltending, and special teams beyond the record. It is not guaranteed that out-attempting, out-shooting, out-chancing, and/or out-performing the opposition in expected goals will lead to wins. All of that does suggest that the team may be playing well. It is also true that teams that do not well in 5-on-5 stats or special teams or even goaltending (to a degree) can still be successful and make the playoffs. The problem with the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils is that they are bad in multiple different areas. You are probably familiar with most of this, but here is a brief summary thanks to the team stats at Natural Stat Trick:

  • The Devils have one of the least prolific offenses in the NHL. Their rate of generating attempts, shots, and scoring chances (high danger and otherwise) in 5-on-5 play is among the fewest in the entire league. Related to that: they have Corsi, shots, and scoring chances for percentages below 50%. The exception is high danger chances, where the Devils’ stinginess in that regard at least has that above 50%. Not that it has resulted in wins. The Devils’ team shooting percentage is still pretty high at around 8.8% but with relatively few shots, the team has produced relatively few goals.
  • The Devils have some very good against rate stats, or rates of attempts, shots, and chances allowed. However, the defensemen have been beaten badly due to some seemingly preventable mistakes or a lack of effort at times. Their errors at the time of the game is just an event, so while you and I may recall and document these errors, the team stats do not necessarily pick it up. Also, the against rate stats are not so low that it makes up for the Devils’ lack of offense. If the point is to out-perform the opposition, then the Devils really have not done that.
  • Blame it all on Cory Schneider or hope Mackenzie Blackwood is still developing (congratulations to him just surpassing 90% in 5-on-5 save percentage recently). No matter what argumentative hill you want to proverbially die on, the Devils’ goaltending has been heinous. It is not the very worst in the league, but a team save percentage of just over 89% is still among the very worst.
  • I appreciate that the expected goals model has been more popular among Devils fans. I have a feeling it is because the model suggests the Devils are not so bad. The team has a 5-on-5 xGF% of 50% and an all situations xGF% of 51.8%. However, a model is just that: a model. It is not a guarantor of success, as indicated by the Devils’ record. Also: I would be wary of leaning on one or two stats that make a team look good while ignoring others that suggest otherwise. Boston is just barely ahead of New Jersey in 5-on-5 xGF%, but because they have been so good in other team stats, it is understandable that they have almost twice as many points as the Devils do in the standings.
  • Speaking of Boston, their best players have led the way for them. The Devils’ best players really have not. CJ wrote more about that in detail on Wednesday, so check that out to learn more.
  • Going back to team stats, the Devils’ power play and penalty kill success rates both sit in the bottom five of the league as per NHL.com. The Devils’ rate stats for power play offense are not that high despite averaging over six minutes per game on the man advantage. The Devils’ rate stats for defense on the penalty kill are not as shabby but they are nowhere close to where they were last season. Still, both sides of special teams have not provided a beneficial impact.
  • The team’s results in overtime: 0-1-4. The team’s results in the shootout: 1-3. That’s one extra point earned, five given away.
  • The Prudential Center has become a welcoming, inclusive environment for oppositions of all kinds to visit and leave with comeback victories. The Devils’ home record of 2-3-4 is one of the worst in the league, trailing only Columbus (3-5-1) in terms of points percentage; and one of only three teams with less than a 50% points percentage at home in the entire NHL. The Devils’ two home wins are the only games where the opposition did not make a come-from-behind effort to tie up or take the game. Not even Peter DeBoer would call it a tough building. At least not this season.

You get the point. It is not that the Devils have been deficient in one area. It is that they have been deficient in a lot of areas. A team can overcome one or two of these. Maybe three depending on the degree of the deficiency. But most or all of this? No.

Surely, this must all weigh on the team as a whole. Unless the goaltender plays out of their mind and the Devils can muster up enough goals and the team can minimize their mistakes and the opposition does not put up an amazing performance and the calls / bounces / whathaveyou are not killers, then the Devils can win the game. But it is not just one thing, it is often multiple contributing factors to the Devils’ record. And I think that also contributes to some of the absolutely lame second and third period efforts where the Devils enter it in a winnable situation and end it tied or losing with unhappy Devils fans all around the world. You and I cannot trust them with a lead or to come out with the right mindset to play, so I would not totally blame them if they cannot either. That results from multiple issues, not just one major issue about them. That in of itself is a major issue.

Just as it is not just one major issue with the 2019-20 Devils, it is also not something that will be resolved quickly. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Devils will just “turn it around.” As much as we all want to see Taylor Hall finally finish a few plays and shoot at 10% again or see the goaltenders play better, just one or two of things will not be enough provide the sustained level of success the Devils need to get back into the playoff picture. The stats show plenty of signs of real systemic issues with the team’s performance and they are concerning, especially given the level of apparent talent on the team. This also means that they are not going to be fixed after one game, one week, or even after one major change to the roster (e.g. firing John Hynes). With 65 games left and the team needing to earn 61-65% of the points in those 65 games, the Devils do not have a lot of time to wait for it all to be sorted out. Of course, even if they do, it may still not be good enough when the issues are resolved. The team may truly be better than their current 5-8-4 record but that does not mean they are truly as good as a team that can earn more than 57% of all possible points in a season.

I would very much like to see the Devils win tonight. It is possible and I want it to happen. However, succeeding consistently in anything is not like flipping a light switch. The Devils have displayed plenty of issues - systemic and otherwise - in their first 17 games this season. As much as I want them to make progress on them and that can start tonight, it does not make it anywhere close to likely that they will earn 79-84 points in their next 65 games. Not after earning just 14 in the first 17. It is more likely that the team’s multitude of problems and shortcomings would continue for many of the team’s remaining 65 games. That would likely be not good enough for the team to earn what they need going forward.

The Mountain

Due to the team’s first 17 games, the Devils need to earn about 61-65% of the possible points in their 65 games to achieve a point percentage for the season that makes the playoffs a real possibility. Due to the team’s first 17 games, there are seven other teams between the second wild card spot and the New Jersey Devils. Due to the team’s first 17 games, the Devils have not played like a team that can start earning lots of points and get ahead of these teams. They may be better than their current record but to believe they will now perform and get results on the level of teams far ahead of them in the standings is a very hopeful wish. There indeed is a lot of hockey left to play. However, the Devils cannot afford to continue their current way or even just be average in getting points if they really want to compete for a playoff spot this season.

I want the Devils to succeed. I really do. I take no pleasure in witnessing and documenting their continued struggles this season. Only the haters of and losers against the Devils, of which there are many, would take pleasure out of this season so far. However, it is not hating or being cynical or thinking like a loser to state the obvious. The New Jersey Devils have an absolute mountain to climb this season if they want to get back in the playoff picture and seriously contend for a playoff spot. They have a lot of climbing to do, and losses like Wednesday’s game against Ottawa did hurt that cause. I will again admit that it was dramatic for me to declare that loss to be the end of the season. The truth is that the playoff dream really is fading fast for New Jersey short of a massive turnaround that causes the Devils to play way, way better than they have so far this season that is seemingly unlikely to happen.

Sigh.

Thank you for reading.