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This Season is Dead, but That Doesn’t Mean the Rebuild is as Well

With a season as far off the rails as this one now is in New Jersey, it’s easy to say the team needs to blow it up and start all over again. The Devils can still succeed next year with a healthy roster and a good summer.

New Jersey Devils v Chicago Blackhawks
The 2018-19 Devils playing their version of hockey.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils are a bad hockey team right now. It’s tough to draw any other conclusion than that when you watch their performances of late. These poor performances have a lot of people concerned about the state of the rebuild and that, quite frankly, is a tough sentiment to argue with. I’m going to go ahead and put on my best spinning shoes and argue why people should try not to get wrapped up in the bleakness of the on-ice situation right now when evaluating how far away this team is from a roster building perspective.

This season has been a strange one in New Jersey. A run to the playoffs last season understandably elevated expectations for the team. Many felt that the Devils were a team that still had problems to fix and could take a step back from 2017-18, but few predicted just how poorly things would go. The Devils are now sitting somewhat comfortably in second-to-last in the league, ahead of only the hapless and hopeless Ottawa Senators in the standings. A promising 4-0-0 start to the season long ago has given way to the 21-28-8 mess that we now bear witness to. Its actually astounding just how little has gone right for the Devils since that point.

It didn’t have to go this way, though. Early in this season, and really up until mid-December, there was evidence that this team was playing decent or at least passable hockey. They were just beaten down by terrible goaltending and a pretty brutal early season schedule. Rolling shot and expected goal differential charts from Sean Tierney are helpful in telling this story.

The Devils’ rolling xG differential for the season.
Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey)
The Devils’ rolling shot attempt differential for the season.
Sean Tierney (@Charting Hockey)

The Devils were a team that, early on, were keeping pace (and even coming out ahead) in expected goals and, to a lesser extent, shot attempts. The struggles of Cory Schneider and, after the brief hot start, also Keith Kinkaid largely sunk a team whose score-adjusted underlying numbers were actually pretty good over the first two months of the season. What we’ve seen since mid-December and, particularly, since the turn of the calendar to 2019 is a much different animal. The Devils have been a bad team playing badly and losing most of their games.

Since inching back to within a game of the great marker of mediocrity, “NHL .500,” on January 4th after winning 4 of 5 when MacKenzie Blackwood initially burst onto the scene, the Devils have won just 5 of the following 17 games and now are on pace to finish with just over 70 points on the season. The Devils have been coming by these losses honest, too. For the most part, they’ve been getting beaten up in the run of play in these losses. The specter of bad goaltending remains as the non-Blackwood portions of the goaltending battery are 2-9-1 since that January 4th date (Blackwood is 3-2-0), but the Devils aren’t a decent team being sunk by their netminders any longer, they are just a bad team made worse by poor play in net. Corey Masisak of the Athletic touched on the disparity between the current team and earlier in the season a few nights ago during the disaster in St. Louis on Tuesday:

This is clearly a bad on-ice product right now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean things are as far away from the ship being righted as they may seem at this point in time. The Devils are starting to close in on the point where they have played half the season without Taylor Hall, the situation in net (outside of the brief Blackwood interlude) has largely been an unmitigated disaster, and other injuries have started to pile up over the last month as well.

By the end of this season, things are bound to look grim, given the trajectory of the team and the lineups they are currently icing on a nightly basis. And while the Devils surely have problems to fix during the offseason, I don’t think the stretch run is going to be indicative of how far off this team is. You can tank as hard as your heart desires and the good news is that all those losses go away when you show up the next season. I think user snwbdgislife summed it up well in a comment in the recap from the 8-3 loss to the Blues:

What happens in these games is really not relevant to 2019-20. Just like the disaster down the stretch in 2016-17 did not impact 2017-18. And people evaluated players (like Coleman) based on performance during a lottery management stretch when they team knew there was more there. Maybe just chalk this up to a team trying to accomplish its goal. Regardless on whether you agree on the goal.

As you may recall, the Devil lost a staggering 21 of their final 24 games in 2016-17 season and it had little resemblance to the team that showed up on the ice in September 2017. I think we need to heed that lesson before people start discussing tearing it all down and starting over again. The bottom line is that the Devils have pieces to build around and a roster that still skews young, aside from a couple outliers. Their performances earlier in the year were better than the results they got, and when looking at where this team is in the rebuild, I think that is closer to where this team is at when they are something approaching full strength than the death spiral we are currently witnessing.

That’s the nice thing about sports: when a season goes off the rails, you still get to start all over with a clean slate the following year. This season has very obviously imploded for the Devils, but if they draft well and make smart moves over the summer, they can still be right back in the mix next season. With a healthy roster and an improved goaltending situation, this team is not as far off from contention as it may feel right now. And tanking, while unsavory on its face, is the best way to improve your odds to get difference makers in the draft.

So lament the way this season has gone and worry about the holes the Devils still need to plug in their roster in the offseason, but don’t necessarily take what we are seeing from a team now somewhat obviously in the midst of a tank as a harbinger of what we will see in 2019-20 and beyond. So embrace the tank, and take solace that we get to start next season with the same 0-0-0 record as everyone else.