There are now four weeks left in the 2018-19 regular season. It cannot end fast enough for the New Jersey Devils. Hopes for the playoffs were fading by Christmas. The team has been horrible on the road all season long. The team were sellers by the NHL Trade Deadline and the team has been shooting up the chart for Man Games Lost due to injury. With nothing to play for and a forward group that is more Binghamton than New Jersey, there is little to be hopeful and excited for as a fan. As reader Dmac45 stated in the Gamethread for the recent 0-3 loss to Washington:
Yeah, I know sometimes we kind of joke around but I honestly don’t see how this team could win another game this year, it’s that bad. The only good thing is that Blackwood looks great
I sympathize with Dmac, although I do not agree. There are 13 games left in the 2018-19 regular season. It is very hard to lose 13 games, especially after being winless in the last six games. And the Devils were competitive in most of those six games. The Devils actually played Calgary, Boston, Columbus, and Washington closely. They were not at all doormats for superior teams who have something to play for. While the sample size is small, at Offside Review, the Devils have a CF% of 47.86% and expected goals for percentage of 57.33%(!!!) since the NHL Trade Deadline. While a CF% below 50% is not good on its own, it is actually outside of the bottom ten in the NHL. An expected GF% well above 50% is evidence that the Devils were doing good work at both ends of the rink - which matches up with what you and I have witnessed over the last two weeks. Expected is not reality; but all the Devils needed was one or two additional goals on those nights to achieve some results. Of course, with so many people unavailable at forward, the Devils played with arguably four or five NHL-caliber forwards that night. It is hard to get goals as it is, much less when a majority of the guys up front were in the AHL for a reason.
This is important to realize as the New Jersey Devils are starting to get some players back. Stefan Noesen returned last week. Kyle Palmieri and, to a lesser extent, John Quenneville returned to action in Washington. We may see Pavel Zacha back soon. As weeks go by, there is a shot that we could see Miles Wood or Nico Hischier return. If Taylor Hall wants to get in a game and show that his knee is functional, then that helps for one night. While not one of these players may not make a huge difference on their own (Hall possibly excepted), having NHL or better AHL players return can provide an improvement. Combined with strong goaltending from Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood, they can squeeze out of a couple of wins here and there. The roster on paper looks bleak. The play on the ice has been far, far worse earlier in this season. The team will not likely shelve as many players as they have now by the last week of the season.
Still, let’s consider the question. How many games will the Devils win in their last 13 games?
Models & Projections
Let’s look at some models and point projections as a place to start.
It just so happened that on Saturday morning, Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) posted up a a link to a game-probability spreadsheet on Twitter. It uses data from Evolving-Hockey to develop power rankings and based on the match-up, the power rankings are used to identify a probability of success for either side. After playing around with it before the Rangers game on Saturday, this is what the win probabilities are for the Devils’ remaining thirteen games. I doubt that result on Saturday will significantly impact this.
Ouch. Dmac45 may be right.
Digging into the source data, it seems to lean on CF/60, CA/60, shot and save percentages, and expected goals for the season. The Devils have done relatively well by expected goals this season. But not at all with actual goals; definitely not with save percentage; and definitely not with shooting attempts for or against them. The Devils are ranked as the second-worst in total and as such, they’re on the short end of the stick in nearly every matchup. Only against the New York Rangers and Arizona do the Devils come remotely close to having a 50-50 chance of victory. I repeat: ouch.
I think Sean would agree that the Devils are not likely to go 0-13, though. And he would also point out that this his first public release; there could be adjustments to switch things around in time. Still, I think this is pessimistic, so let’s consider some point projections.
Micah Blake McCurdy has regularly posted a team’s playoff chances on his Twitter account, @IneffectiveMath. This is what he has for the league prior to Saturday’s games. He has the Devils on pace for 73.9 points, the fourth-lowest in the NHL. The Devils have 59 points, which was fourth-lowest in the NHL after Saturday’s games. Rounding up to 74 points, this means the Devils will pick up 15 more points. With 13 games left, this could mean seven wins and a OT/SO loss, six wins and three OT/SO losses, or some other similar combination that ends up to 15 points. McCurdy does not break down how these points will be earned. I think it is optimistic as it would mean the Devils are earning more than half of the remaining points available.
Dom Luszczyszyn does daily point projections at The Athletic ($). He has the Devils on pace for 71.7 points with a record of 30-41-11. The Devils’ current record is 25-35-9. For the Devils to achieve the record in Luszczyszyn’s model, they need to go 5-6-2. That is just less than half of the potential points remaining for the Devils this season. I think that is a little more attainable than what McCurdy projects. I mean, I don’t see this team going on a run to win seven or more games. However, there is no breakdown as to how the Devils could go 5-6-2.
Sports Club Stats has been a long-time source for fans in all sports to see where teams project. While hockey playoff models have been done elsewhere, Sports Club Stats runs simulations to identify the most common record the team could achieve in the remainder of the season. For the Devils, that’s 6-5-2. That would put them ahead of Detroit and Ottawa in the East. Again, I feel that may be optimistic given the current state of the team.
So other than Tierney’s probability sheet, other’s projections think the Devils will break close to even in their remaining games this season. Does that pass the smell test? Let’s look at it another way.
The Opponents by Whether They Have Something to Play For
Out of the 13 games remaining, the Devils have six games against teams that also do not have much to play for in 2018-19. Edmonton and Vancouver are too far away from a reasonable chance at a wild card spot in the West. Ditto for Buffalo, Our Hated Rivals, and Florida. Detroit is the one team that the Followers of Sherman Abrams will be watching as that March 29 game could make a big difference as to ends up ahead of Ottawa in the East. All six of those teams are not going to make the playoffs this season short of a miracle run - and even that may not be enough. Except for Detroit, these teams have also been better than the Devils this season. So even though they may not have much incentive in the game, they can more than hang with the Devils.
I would like to point out that against this group of six, the Devils have wins over Edmonton, Vancouver, Buffalo, and Florida. This does not mean that the Devils will definitely get another win over them. Only Buffalo was beaten recently, too. It is something to keep in mind.
The other seven teams absolutely have something to play for as this season winds down. Calgary, Boston, Washington, and St. Louis will all be playing for a better position in the standings. St. Louis may be more “safe” by March 30, but if they keep getting results, they may have a shot at home-ice over Nashville, so I anticipate that they’ll want to take that game. I do not like the chances for Arizona or Colorado to take a wild card spot in the West. However, they are close enough to those spots that unless they collapse in the next week or so, they will have motivation to beat the Devils on top of professional pride and generally wanting to succeed. Carolina on April 4 is an interesting one. That’s Game #81 for both Carolina and New Jersey. It is possible that they get there with a playoff berth already secured by then. However, I expect Montreal, Columbus, and Pittsburgh to still be battling for the same spots Carolina is fighting for right now. I do not think any of them will fall apart over the next three weeks. So for the moment, I will consider it to be a Game of Interest for Carolina. Can you imagine if they need a win by the end of the season and they have the Devils, who not only will be just done at that point but also on the road? If they do not get up for that one, then they should get all of the criticism they would get.
On the basis of “do these teams have anything to play for,” then six or seven wins seems more plausible. Except the Devils have nothing to play for in nearly all of them, so your mileage may vary. I remind you that the injury-ravaged forwards of the Devils have had nothing to really play for over the past few months and they at least hung close with good teams like Calgary, Washington, and Boston so we could see some games like that.
What of Fatigue?
McCurdy also regularly posts on Twitter schedules for every team in the league with games highlighted with potential fatigue factors. Games where the team entering will have played the night before but their opponent did not, games where both teams played the night before, and games where the team is playing an opponent that played the night before. It can be a factor in how a game may go, or at least how it may start.
I’m not sure it really helps set any expectations. The March 13 game against Edmonton is the only one where the Devils will go into it tired. Since it is a road game, I already do not expect much of the game anyway. They’ll have the rest advantage on March 29 at Detroit and April 1 versus Our Hated Rivals. These are games the Devils, on paper, could probably win without an advantage but let us not forget that the Devils are a bad team. There is a reason why they’ll finish below the Rangers and could fall below Detroit. The St. Louis game is one where both teams would have played the night before. St. Louis has a purpose and playoff-level competency whereas the Devils do not, so I’m not confident about that one regardless.
What I Want...
I am a fan of the New Jersey Devils and I would like the Devils to win some games. I am not a full believer in the tank because of the lottery system. I also spend time and energy to follow and write about this team and writing about losses gets old after a while. I recognize that I will not see many wins. But I do hope and wish that the Devils can win at least four games remaining this season. I want the Devils to beat Our Hated Rivals. I want the Devils to pull out a win on Fan Appreciation Night, which would be the St. Louis game on March 30. If it means knocking them out of the playoffs, I want the Devils to beat Carolina on April 4 if only for the fun of it. I want the Devils to beat Arizona on March 23 because that could be the last game I can get to this season. Four games I would to see victories by the Devils. A rivalry win, two at home, and a potential spoiler. Give me that and I will probably complain a lot less about the other nine non-wins that could happen.
...But What I Think Will Happen
Let’s be strong and risk being wrong. I do not think I will get what I want. I think the Devils will somehow, someway get a win on this road trip. If I were to guess, then I would say it’ll be in Vancouver. If the Devils were not going to be in Calgary the night before, I’d add Edmonton, but I will not. Colorado and Calgary will take care of business to help their respective causes. In the four-game homestand, I could see the Devils beating Buffalo again. They did it already and back when the Devils were becoming more and more injured while looking to sell assets by the deadline. Arizona may cool off but if they’re within striking distance of a wild card spot, I think they will be extra motivated to not drop points in Newark - much to my chagrin.
Much to the chagrin of Sherman Abrams, I think the Devils will beat Detroit. Just as the Devils are tanking, so is Detroit and I have no reason to believe they’re just going to want to beat on New Jersey. They’re not in a state of disarray like Ottawa but they are one of the weakest home teams in the NHL by record. That could be New Jersey’s final road win of the season. I think they’ll lose to St. Louis, which will not be so appreciated on Fan Appreciation Night. I am hopeful the Devils will finally get to please the home crowd with a ‘W’ over Our Hated Rivals on April 1. But that will be followed by Carolina likely stomping on the Devils to walk through the door of the postseason and Florida picking up the most consolation of all consolation wins. In short, I’m expecting four wins but not necessarily the four I want.
Hockey is not a fair game and so wacky things can still happen. Maybe the Devils play Calgary, Washington and/or Boston close again - and win. Maybe the Devils get hot somehow. Maybe the Devils will get more hurt and end up not even winning four out of their last thirteen. Should the Devils succeed my low expectations and come close or match the point projections of McCurdy and Luszczyszyn, then I will be wrong and probably happier for it. Should the Devils do even worse and come closer to Dmac45’s lament and Teirney’s probability model, then I will be wrong and feel worse for it. Getting 4-9-0 or 4-8-1 or 4-7-2 or something like that, well, I will likely shrug about it.
Again: be strong, be (willing to be) wrong.
What Do You Think?
To that end, I now point the question to you, the reader. How many games will the Devils win out of their last thirteen? Why do you think that? Will you be happy if you’re right? Please leave your guesses in the comments. The most accurate guess gets the satisfaction that comes with being right on the Internet. Thank you for reading.