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Are the Devils #ActuallyGood?

The Devils a 4-1-2 in their last 7 after a winless first 6 games. Which are the real Devils? Or is it neither? Here’s an attempt at realistic assessment of the state of the season...

NHL: NOV 02 Devils at Hurricanes Photo by Jaylynn Nash/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I get it, I really do. I know you think I don’t. I know you think that I have an underground love affair with John Hynes’s beautiful bald head and that I’ve convinced myself Kevin Rooney is a Hall of Famer to disguise my infatuation. And I know you have wanted him gone because he doesn’t get exceptional offensive production out of what you feel is a burgeoning exceptional offensive roster, or because you believe his system is the reason we’ve been struggling the last 5 years. And even ignoring Hynes, I know that early in the season it felt like the Devils would lose a game in whatever way they could — getting blown out, giving up a 3+ goal lead, keeping it tight and losing in OT/SO, you name it. This really led to some bad juju floating around the fanbase on social media and in person.

But what if I told you, we actually aren’t bad at all. What if I told you, we’re actually quite good. Would that surprise you?

There’s really no getting around the tough start, but I’m of the mindset that there were/are a lot of new faces and the coaching staff and players themselves needed time to experiment and click. And, to throw a bone to the Hynes-bashers, maybe they needed another set of eyes in AGM Tom Fitzgerald. Since 10/16 — when Fitz was moved into his current position. It was also coincidentally, when the shot location problem effecting xG models was fixed and so all metrics since that date will be entirely valid.

Bearing that in mind, how have the Devils fared since that point? Let’s check in at Natural Stat Trick.

Record: 4-1-2, 0.714 Pts%, (8th in NHL)

5v5 SVA xGF%: 55.53% (5th in NHL)

All-Sit xGF%: 59.98% (1st in NHL)

PP xGF/60: 7.83 (5th in NHL)

PK xGA/60: 3.97 (2nd in NHL)

So they’ve gotten top-10 results, while being in the top 5 at even-strength, the powerplay, and the penalty kill. They’re been not only good, but among the best in the league in all situations.

What is different?

Time. Of the 18 skaters that have been starting the most games, 6 of them are new to this team, and 2 of them are new to this league. Most of the lineup is not drastically changed — Gusev’s out of the top 6 and Zacha’s in is the only substantive one I can think of. But they’ve played 13 games together now and between the players gelling, and the staff getting more accurate assessments of their personnel, we’re starting to figure it out.

Here’s some things we’ve learned in the beginning of this season. Pavel Zacha appears to finally be putting some pieces together — he leads the team in shot and xG impact, and leads forwards in GAR. Jack Hughes is still learning and may struggle if unsheltered, but is a special talent — after going without a point for his first 6 NHL games, he has 7 in the past 7, and has put there remarkably bad impact numbers of his first two games far in the rearview. Speaking of which, thing #2 that we’ve learned is that Nikita Gusev’s learning curve is WAY bigger than advertised. Of the 622 skaters with at least 50 minutes played, Nikita Gusev is ranked 621st in RelT xGF±/60. He’s also in the bottom 5 in all of the shot metric impacts. He’s been, debatably, the worst 5v5 forward in the NHL during his start to the season. These are just some of the things that needed to work themselves out through experimentation and experience.

Goaltending is not particularly different actually. In this period of time, the Devils have 72.2 high-danger Sv% which is lowest in the NHL and a 79.6 scoring chance Sv% — also lowest. This sort of comes down to what I wrote about last week — our goaltending is obviously a problem, but with Blackwood’s play lately, you can already start to see hints of how even graduating from “terrible” to “below average” can make all of the difference in the results this team is getting.

So is this Devils team #ActuallyGood? I’m going to disappoint you here and say, no, not really. I don’t believe the Devils are good. I believe they’re fine. But that’s all they were supposed to be! John wrote this piece, and I wrote this one and this one in the offseason, because it’s important to know what the realistic expectations should have been heading into this season. “But CJ, all of those stats you cited show the Devils as one of the best teams in the NHL!” Yeah, but it’s only a 3-week span. We sucked the 2 weeks before that. The Devils were very bad for a stretch, and have been very good for a stretch, and that’s what fine teams do.

With that in mind, I do believe there should be a couple of points of clarity I believe we should take out of the tribulations of the first month of the season. One is that Hynes is fine. Fitzgerald coming down from the box seats to the bench may have done a little, but the lines, pairings, special teams, and scheme are all largely unchanged from the first 6 games — it’s that the players are finally executing. Secondly, Nikita Gusev is, until further notice, not an NHL-caliber forward. I referenced his ineptitude above, he’s been the least valuable player according to GAR, and playing him on a bottom line makes no sense because he can’t play defense with the likes of that line, and playing him up in the lineup makes no sense because you have to heavily shelter his minutes and you can’t do that to half of your top 6 and expect to do well. He’s useful in pockets, but he can’t be an everyday player until he demonstrates significant growth in his 200-ft game. Thirdly, and lastly, I do think Hynes has gotten a couple moves wrong — Boqvist and Tennyson.

Opponents are scoring 6.56 goals per hour against Matt Tennyson — the most on the Devils — and his 5v5 SVA CF% and xGF% are better than only Gusev. While GAR metrics seem to find a little more value in his game, they still rate Mueller as higher and the impact of Tennyson on Butcher (who’s been the Devils best analytical defender since entering the NHL by a large margin) is signficiantly negative. Boqvist also has a GAR case to be made against him (he’s -0.8 GAR in 4 games) but, again, he’s superior to his alternative, Gusev (though inferior to, say, John Hayden).

In short, I think that if the Devils learn from their first month of hockey, and adjust to the personnel changes that have been made on this roster, they will be convincingly #ActuallyFine.

What do you guys think about the last few weeks? Has it changed your opinion about the roster? About Hynes? About the prospects for this season? Are playoffs a feint hope again? How should this dictate decisions moving forward? Thanks for reading, and leave your thoughts on these and any other questions in the comments section below!