Six seasons ago to this day, it was the middle of the 2013-14 campaign. You may remember it mostly as the season where the Devils could not win a shootout to save their lives. It turned out to be the last full season for head coach Peter DeBoer and the penultimate season for legendary Devil, Lou Lamoriello Nearly five years ago to the day, Peter DeBoer was fired as head coach of the New Jersey Devils. Lou Lamoriello would no longer be the general manager of the New Jersey Devils in the 2015 offseason. Ray Shero took over in May 2015 and began to clean house from top to bottom in the organization, starting with the 2015-16 season. This is Shero’s fifth season with the New Jersey Devils. He has fired John Hynes back at the beginning of December and Superstar left winger and 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall was traded to Arizona in a deal that can be characterized as 50-to-60 cents received for a dollar. These moves plus the team’s awful record this season has raised questions about Shero’s performance so far. Let us dive deeper into the question at the heart of these doubts and increasing criticisms. Are the Devils really better off now than they were six seasons ago?
My answer is simple: Yes, but. The “but” must be bolded. A more pessimistic look at the team under Shero compared to what they were may have a similar answer: No, however. The “however” in that must also be bolded. Both words must be bolded after either binary answer because there are difficult details and facts that undercut each one that we must recognize if we are being real about the Devils. And what are we if we are not being real? This is not like any other blog, this is All About the Jersey where the hockey never stops, the People Who Matter are you - the readers, and being real is the only way to go.
Let us go into the difficult details and facts before we go back to at least my answer.
The National Hockey League is a results-oriented business at the end of the day. I do not know if I fully agree that a team is truly what their record is. After all, great teams have faltered in games so their record is not truly reflective of how well they play, and teams with great records can get blown up in the postseason or artificially boosted by hot sticks and/or goalies. But this does not mean a record is meaningless. You need to have a good record to compete for the right to be in the playoffs, much less contend in it. And a good record helps bring people in to care about the team because a bad record drives the away - and drives changes with the team. So let us look at the records, split up by season and the head coach. (The 2014-15 Trio is Adam Oates, Scott Stevens, and Lou.)
The records are enough to make anyone ask the headline question. The 2019-20 Devils are on track to owning the worst record in this group. They are on track to having one of the worst records in franchise history since the team moved to New Jersey as per Hockey-Reference. It is such a fall from grace from the success of 2017-18, which sticks out like such a sore thumb in recent history that I had to (mostly) highlight its season’s stats in yellow. Two seasons after a playoff appearance, that the team could have a worse record than last season’s trainwreck of a campaign is enough to make anyone question whether management is on the right track.
That stated, a team’s record does not say a lot about how the team performed. When Shero hired Hynes, he brought out the oft-repeated catchphrase of wanting to make the team “fast, attacking, and supportive.” We also know that Shero tore everything down in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons in the hopes for a brighter tomorrow. Did they become fast, attacking, and supportive? The “fast” is an unquestioned yes with all of the players they brought it in and based on the kinds of players they drafted from 2016 to 2019. As for attacking and supportive, let us take a look at the team’s on-ice rate stats - which also provide more of a picture of how they played.
The 5-on-5 Stats: 2013-14 to Current
The 5-on-5 situation in hockey is the most common and therefore is the most important. Natural Stat Trick has become an institution for hockey stats and it is the source for all of the stats for this section. If you are familiar with the month in review posts, then you should be familiar with the format. The difference is that I am not interested in how the Devils ranked in the league in each rate stat and each percentage. I am comparing the Devils’ seasons with each other. If you are unfamiliar with the abbreviations or how a scoring chance is defined at NST, then check out their glossary page for team stats. These stats are all 5-on-5 stats without adjustments as the adjustments really do not impact the values all that much. The adjustments do not turn the Devils to be significantly better or worse in a certain category.
I will note that I am including the for and against rates along with the percentages for this one point. The rates themselves show what the Devils created and allowed in 5-on-5 play. The percentages point to whether the Devils out-performed their opposition in that category. It is one thing to have a higher rate of shooting than past Devils teams in one season, but if the Devils are still below 50% in shots, then it still means they being out-done in that regard. That is not a good thing. As you will see, there are not a lot instances of the Devils finishing their season ahead of the break-even mark of 50%.
Also, for the sake of completion, I included the team’s stats under the current interim head coach Alain Nasreddine. I would take them with a grain of salt as he has been behind the bench for 10 games and with the aforementioned Superstar left winger not playing in half of them. Still, the high against-rate stats do not inspire much confidence in him seeing as he apparently ran the defense under Hynes as an assistant coach.
Lastly, I added a quick stat called Total C/60, which is just the combination of CF/60 and CA/60.
We can legitimately state that the Devils have become a more offensive team from 2017-18 to today compared to the beginning of Hynes’ tenure. They have been more high-scoring than even the end of the Lou Era. Their games have had more total attempts in 5-on-5 compared to those final seasons under Lou. While that is good for the “attacking,” they have not been a high-scoring team at all. The team’s GF/60 and xGF/60 rates stayed well under 2.5 Only once did the Devils top 30 shots per sixty minutes in 5-on-5 play since 2013, which was in that successful 2017-18 season. Ditto in topping 54 attempts per sixty minutes. There have been more events in 5-on-5 and the Devils have created more compared to the 2013-14 and 2014-15 Devils, but there remained a lot of room for improvement.
Worse, the Devils have allowed a lot more offense from their opponents. In recent seasons, opposing teams have been able to light up the Devils with attempts, shots, and scoring chances. Combined with goaltending that was getting worse season-on-season, and the goals against rate soared above 2.8 per 60 minutes. Without a doubt it is bad. And you cannot point the finger solely at the goalies as the xGA/60 was also higher in the past three seasons compared to the five before then. Yes, even the two tear-down seasons in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Therefore, the Devils under Hynes have remained to be well under 50% in nearly all stats. That is also very bad. The exception: high danger scoring chances. That did improve and stay improved from 2017-18 and onward. It is really is not that laudable given that they are still in the red when it comes to all scoring chances. That tells me that while the Devils may be relatively good at protecting their slot and crease as a whole, they are getting wrecked from the “middle danger” shots that they often allow and get scored on. Blackwood has been better recently than when I wrote this post about the team’s middle danger woes, but I think the general conclusions from it are still justified.
Looking back, it is sobering that the Devils barely made the playoffs in 2017-18 while not being a good 5-on-5 team. They were definitely better in the most common situation in hockey compared to the two seasons before then. But they fell off in the following two seasons. Yes, 2018-19 was littered with injuries to the forwards - but that was not the case in the first half of that season whereupon they also stunk as a team in 5-on-5.
In fact, the last time anyone could look at the New Jersey Devils and claim them to be a good 5-on-5 team was back in DeBoer’s last full season with the team. Look at those percentages. All of them were on the right side of 50%. Sure, they did it by being super-stingy. All five skaters would commit to defense and a low-event hockey game. I think when fans complain about the defensive efforts in recent seasons, they may look to a team like the 2013-14 Devils as an example of a sterling effort. They were great but I question whether any team can allow so few attempts, shots, and chances in today’s game. Still, I can understand those who remember the earlier part of this decade and look at the current team and be bewildered on what happened.
Of course, the 2013-14 team is not one that many fans would fondly remember. The 2013-14 team taught the Devils fans and myself the hard lesson that a team cannot succeed on CF% (or Fenwick For% or SF% or SCF%) alone. If only they did not play an old Martin Brodeur so much over a shining Cory Schneider. If only they were able to win half of those blasted shootouts. And since we’re being real here, if only they could have created more offense and buried more of their shots. Yet, none of the teams since then were on their level in terms of 5-on-5 play. Since the majority of all hockey games are in 5-on-5 situations, that is a big reason why the Devils have been so disappointing in this decade.
I find it remarkable that over the last six seasons, the Devils have consistently shot lower than 8% in every season. While shooting around 7.5% is not bad at all, the Devils have yet to be on the hotter side of shooting percentage for a whole season. There have been some colder runs, including the current one under interim head coach Nasreddine. Still, the better and more repeatable way to get more goals out of a team shooting within the 7% range is to create more attempts, shots, and chances. Under DeBoer, they were not. Under Hynes, they eventually did that but they also allowed a lot more and so they did not gain much from it.
We can at least credit Ray Shero and Hynes to making the team more “attacking” from 2017-18 onward. As stupendous as Hall was in that season, such a rise in team stats comes from more than one man. That speaks to the youth movement, the emergence of various other players, and a change in approach to the game. However, the general idea is to out-perform your opponent and the Devils have yet to do that over a season under Shero with the exception of one specific stat. Giving up a lot more attempts, shots, and chances is definitely not “supportive” as it undercuts how much more attacking the Devils have become. And let us not forget the goaltending. And with the team save percentage dropping in every season from 2016-17 to today, that has contributed greatly to the damage the Devils suffered in 5-on-5 hockey. It is definitely on Shero that it has been such a painful issue even if Mackenzie Blackwood is a real deal #1 goalie in this league. At least they are faster - when they do actually have the puck.
It appears to me that the Devils peaked as a 5-on-5 team in 2017-18 - even though that is faint praise since they were still often below 50% in most 5-on-5 stats. There are mitigating factors with 2018-19 and even 2019-20. Injuries really derailed 2018-19 and the departure of Hall has and will hurt the Devils even more in 5-on-5. But even with that in mind, it is difficult to look at these numbers and the team’s record and conclude that the team is going in the right direction. When the Devils become more of a selling team in this season, it will likely get a lot worse before it gets better. Is it better now than it was in the final years under Lou? With all of those below 50% percentages, not really.
The Power Play: 2013-14 to Current
Similar to what I do with the month in review posts, I am highlighting the team’s for-rate stats in power play situations from Natural Stat Trick alongside the scoring and success rates from NHL.com. Again, the point of this is to compare the Devils seasons with each other, not to see how they ranked in the league in their respective seasons.
I have criticized Geoff Ward in many recaps and in past posts on this site. I want to apologize to him. He was a better power play coach than Rick Kowalsky. That said, the Devils’ power play ranged from not bad to quite good through these past seasons except for this current season. The Devils have consistently shot above 12.5% in every season except this one. The Devils have been good at getting plenty of opportunities under Hynes and out-performing the expected goals model rate in every season - except this one. I think you get the picture from how ineffective the power play has been in 2019-20. Given that Shero added P.K. Subban and Wayne Simmonds - two players who have made a lot of money in their careers with their power play work - and the power play has hit a recent low, it really speaks to how out-of-touch Kowalsky’s tactics have been this season. Further, as much as I griped about the many do-nothing power plays, the majority of power plays do not convert, there is a lot of variation given its short and inconsistent situations, and the Devils’ offense was not that good in 5-on-5 so it stands to reason they would not become suddenly amazing when up a man or two.
That all stated, the peak is where you would expect it to be in this historical look back: 2017-18. They scored the most, they had their highest full-season xGF/60, they hit local highs in shot attempts, shots on net, scoring chances, and high danger chances. This also means there has been a downfall since then and that has hurt to a degree. A good power play supports the offense as a whole and can help the team win some games it otherwise would not. Further, it undercuts the idea that the team has become more attacking as the Devils did not build on that. The Devils’ power play even in 2017-18 was not a top one in the league in terms of on-ice rates. There was room for further improvement. That clearly did not happen even when Hall was healthy. Amid all of the lows over the past seasons, Devils power play was not a real detriment even in the really lost seasons unless A) it was giving up shorthanded goals and B) it was this season. Maybe the 2019-20 power play units will have better puck luck with their shots in 2020 and salvage some of their numbers in that regard. Although it will not mean much.
Still, is the power play better off than where it was? In a way, yes as their for-rates are better now than it was in the end of the Lou Era. However, it does not mean they have been good on their own. Again, there is a lot of room for improvement.
The Penalty Kill: 2013-14 to Current
Similar to what I do with the month in review posts, I am highlighting the team’s against-rate stats in penalty kill situations from Natural Stat Trick alongside the goals against and success rates from NHL.com. Just as the power play focused on what the Devils created and did, the focus here is on what they allowed. Again, the point of this is to compare the Devils seasons with each other, not to see how they ranked in the league in their respective seasons.
With a couple of exceptions, the Devils’ power play has ranged from good to great prior to this season. The against-rate stats in 2018-19 were utterly fantastic as the Devils had one of the best penalty kills in the entire league. While they were not as successful as the PK was in 2013-14, the against-rate stats were on par with them. There is a lot to appreciate here as the only time the Devils were close to giving up a lot in shorthanded situations was in DeBoer’s portion of 2014-15. The against-rates fluctuated from season to season but they have been better than that and generally rated well compared to other NHL teams. Only three times did the Devils allow a higher rate of goals against than the expected goals model and two of those times were portions of seasons before the coach was axed.
I do not think you can fault the goalies all that much for the variation either. With the exception of the goaltending under Hynes’ part of 2019-20, the goaltending has largely held up its end of the bargain in shorthanded situations. A save percentage of 86% or higher is more than acceptable and the Devils had that since 2013-14 with the exception of Hynes’ 26 games from this season. Whereas they were an increasing problem in recent seasons in 5-on-5 play, the netminders largely took care of business in shorthanded situations like this one.
The penalty kill is also the only situation compared to 5-on-5 and the power play where the Devils did not peak in 2017-18 and fall off from there. Their against-rate stats improved since then. Even into this very season, as bad as it has been this season. This is the one area of the team’s performances that is undoubtedly in favor of the notion that the Devils are on the right track. However, I see this as a luxury of sorts. It is true Devils have had very effective PK performances in the run of play as well as some very successful penalty kills relative to their peers in the NHL. While a team will need their penalty kill to perform to prevent their penalties from being costly, the clearly good shorthanded performances have not really helped the Devils from a record perspective. The Devils’ PK has not hurt them all that much - and that is pretty much the extent of its benefit. At least this was better off than where it was in 2015, although the 2013-14 team had an utterly fantastic penalty kill.
All Situations Expected Goals: 2013-14 to Current
As a final statistical look, here is a short chart of the team’s expected goals for, against, and percentage in all situations. One of the advantages of the expected goals model is that it can take special teams into account. The model focuses on where shots were taken and how they were taken and compare it with historical data. So as a final check, here is how the Devils performed by the model at Natural Stat Trick since 2013-14.
Again, we see a local spike in 2017-18 under both Shero and Hynes and it is still below 50%. Not by a much, so one could call it average. The Devils legitimately made gains in xGF/60 which appear to be sustained even into this split-up 2019-20 season. The Devils have not been below 2.3 xGF/60 since 2017-18 and before that season, they were consistently below. However, the xGA/60 rate has also soared. After the remarkable low of 2.1 in 2013-14, it has not fallen below 2.46 with the exception of the 26 games Hynes was behind the bench in this season. The increases in xGA/60 out-gained any changes in xGF/60, so the Devils have been out-done by their opponents in every season since DeBoer’s last full season with the possible exception of this season - although the last nine games suggest that 2019-20 will not be an exception for much longer.
This is all based on a model and as with all models, they are not meant to be perfect predictors or representations of performance. I find it is more appropriate to use it as a guideline to see how things are going. It matches up with what was seen with the 5-on-5 stats. That further supports the idea that the team peaked in that season under Hynes’ reign behind the bench and Shero’s regin as GM so far. More importantly, it shows that while things may be better now than what they were in Lou’s final season, they are not all that good and that justifies at least some of the doubt in how things are going.
Conclusions or Yes, They’re Better Off, But...
The preceding sections in this post outline the “but” part of this statement. To quickly recap:
- The Devils have not been a good 5-on-5 team since 2013-14. While the current team may be better than what Shero and Hynes started with, they are still consistently out-performed by their opposition.
- The expected goals model for all situations in hockey games support the previous point. It is better from 2017-18 to current compared to 2014-15 to 2016-17, but it still is not good.
- Despite its frustrations at the time, the Devils’ power plays have not been all that ineffective except for this season. However, the team peaked in this area in 2017-18 and has not built on that, so it is hard to believe it is really much better now than it was then.
- The penalty kill is the only area that has been anywhere close to consistently good. This is also the only area that has been clearly better off now than before.
- The past six seasons of Devils hockey have yielded some ugly records with only the 2017-18 team (the only playoff team of the bunch) exceeding the team’s point percentage from 2013-14. The current 2019-20 team is on pace to have one of the worst records in the franchise’s history in New Jersey. A record does not say much about how a team performs but we cannot avoid the bad results since at the end of the day, we want the team to perform well to get good results.
They all lend itself to support the answer to the headline question as “no.” If you feel this way, then I understand. I hear/read you. I get it. Throw in the harsh facts that the Devils had some of the best years of Schneider, some of the best years of Kyle Palmieri, the best ever season that Taylor Hall will ever have, the cheap years of Nico Hischier - who turned out to be a #1 center at age 18, and the Devils mustered up all of five playoff games, and it a stronger stance to believe that the team has not been better off. Again, I get it. So why is my answer “Yes, but...”? Simply: the current Devils have legitimate potential that the past teams did not.
You need to look at the make-up of the roster today and compare it to the rosters of the past to understand this. In DeBoer’s final season, this was the team’s roster as per Hockey-Reference. Out of the 34 players, only 18 were below the age of 30 as of February 2014 and most of those were not effective players. Only Travis Zajac, Cory Schneider, Mark Fayne, Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson, and to lesser extents Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, and Jacob Josefson were seen as a real part of the future. That Devils team still relied a lot on 30+ year olds like Brodeur, Elias, Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, and a 41-year old Jaromir Jagr. Not to hate on the older players as they did the best they could - Greene was a boss at age 31 and Jagr was magic - but it was not a team with a bright future. Combined with some draft classes that would turn out poorly, and a fall was coming. No matter how much better the 2013-14 team looked and played compared to, say, this season’s team; the 2013-14 season was a “last hurrah,” as indicated by the sharp downturn in the following 2014-15 season. It was not going to last and it did not.
This is why many fans believe that Ray Shero started with very little. Because he did for the most part. It was a correct belief. And so Shero correctly tore down the roster and re-built anew while collecting a lot of draft picks. As of today, the team has only three contracts from the Lou Era still on the books - Schneider is buried in the minors, Greene is in the final year of his contract, and Zajac is in the penultimate year of his contract. The Devils are absolutely Shero’s team now and has been for at least the last couple of seasons.
As a quick aside: I would ask my fellow Devils fans to consider putting that argument away. With every season, it becomes less and less of a reason to justify why the team is bad. Shero indeed tore a lot down. He built up a team that he thought would compete. It arguably has not. In Shero’s defense, it may be more accurate to say not yet.
Now look at this season’s roster at Hockey-Reference. Only six out of 32 players who have dressed for New Jersey are 30 years old or older. The defense’s leader in average ice time is no longer the much-older Greene, as 30-year old P.K. Subban followed by the 25-year old Damon Severson and 28-year old Sami Vatanen all have averaged more ice time than the captain. The goaltending is largely on the back of 23-year old Mackenzie Blackwood, who took the #1 job early in this season and has given little reason why he should not have it. (The other goalies gave more reasons to start Blackwood more.) The top five forwards in average ice time are Hall, Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, Zajac, and Jack Hughes (Blake Coleman is close at sixth). Only Zajac is over 30 among that group and that is because he plays in all situations. The depth has also been younger with Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, and the inclusion of Jesper Boqvist. It is undoubtedly a younger team and far less reliant on its older veterans for most of their play. Subban is the only one in his fourth decade of life mentioned here and he just entered it. Most of the names I mentioned could be around for years to come and contribute plenty along the way.
Several of those players are definitely players to build a team around. While Hischier’s entry level contract will end after this season, he is locked up through 2027 and set to be to be a top center for this team throughout the prime of his career. Jack Hughes may be in a scoring slump but he has the skills with the puck that will make him a star in time. Ty Smith may have faltered in his chance to make this season’s roster, but he remains as a legitimate NHL defenseman to watch for in the future. Mackenzie Blackwood has been given the opportunities to show he can be starting-caliber goalie for this team and he has proven that he could do it in recent weeks. While he has his issues, Pavel Zacha is at least a NHL player that can do more than take a few shifts. Jesper Boqvist and Jesper Bratt could be solid wingers for the future. In the next few seasons, the other prospects from the 2015 and 2016 draft classes should make more of a push in pro hockey and we will start seeing the 2017 and 2018 classes come to fruition after them. Not everyone will hit their potential or become significant NHL players as we hope. There are still holes in the system that need to be addressed and Binghamton needs some changes so their players can stop getting smashed every night. (Constantly losing is not really ideal for development.) But it is a far cry better than where the team was in 2014 and 2015. Just look at the Top 25 Under 25 from 2015 and compare it to 2019’s version. By both quality and quantity, the Devils’ pipeline is much better now than it was then - and that is a big reason why they are better off now. There are more pieces to put together an attacking and supportive roster than there were in 2015 (and 2016 and 2017 too).
I have the belief a lot of this season could have been salvaged with a more appropriate coaching staff and figuring out the goaltending. Blackwood may be part of the latter answer, so Shero would need to find another goalie (a #1A ideally). The head coaching decision is absolutely crucial and Shero needs to get that one right. As we have seen under Hynes, even if the team has made gains - and they did in their for-rates - they were often offset by increases in what they have allowed in their against-rates. A coach that can utilize the talent more effectively could stand to make them much more effective overall. They may not ever go back to their stingy ways from 2013-14 and earlier. But that’s OK as long as they are out-performing their opposition in terms of attempts, shots, chances, and - of course- goals. While the coaches cannot play, they can set up the roster, the tactics, and team philosophies to facilitate more of that. Hynes and his staffs from 2015-16 to today (Nasreddine was his assistant, so I’m including him here) have shown that what they have been doing is not working well. It is time for some more changes and fewer catchphrases.
Beyond those two critical areas, there is something going for the Devils as opposed to the 2013-14 and 2014-15 teams where what you saw was what you were likely going to get. The Devils are absolutely a faster team now compared to what they were in Lou’s final season and Shero’s first season. This is a team with plenty of offensively talented prospects. This a team with players young enough that could become much better than they are now with some of them being pretty good already. Throw in another high first round pick in 2020 (sigh) and potential second first (Arizona’s) in the same year, and that’s two more young players who could become really, really good one day. That combined with the decisions that will be made by Shero before 2020-21 could lead to a quicker turnaround than what it looked like when 2015-16 started.
And he will need to do so if Shero wants to keep his job. I will defer to CJ’s post from earlier today about that. As usual, you should read it because it is by CJ.
So, to repeat the question: Are the New Jersey Devils Better Off Now than Six Seasons Ago? Yes, but not as much better in many regards (e.g. 5-on-5 on-ice rates, the record obviously) if at all - yet there is real reason to believe there will be a better tomorrow compared to what the future held in after 2013-14 and especially after 2014-15.
I want to thank the comments from roundtable post about the Taylor Hall trade and laing226 in particular for the inspiration for this post. While I am not super pleased how the original discussion went, it is a valid question worth asking. And it is a good one to ask amidst a rebuild that you may or may not see as the same one started in the 2015 offseason or the second or third versions from them. It also your turn to answer the question. I spent over 5,000 words going into the details and coming up with the conclusion that I did. I want to know your answer. Are the Devils better off now than they were six seasons ago? Please provide your answer to that, any discussion from that, and whether this post changed your view on it