Many Devils fans and writers, myself included, have talked about this season as a lost cause, at least in part, due to the near comical wave of injuries we experienced. After all, this was a thing for a little while, there.
But is that narrative accurate? How much of this season can reasonably be blamed on injury?
One way to look at this would be to see how the team has performed relative to their injury situation. NHL Injury Viz makes a viz for every team’s injury progression vs. their xGF%(adj.). The Devils’ is shown below:
The top half of the graph shows CHIP (Cap Hit of Injured Players). And the bottom graph shows individual game xGF% in bars with the red line as a rolling average. As you can see, the red stays above the zero-line almost through the 20th game. Then it dips below and seldom comes up for air afterwards. Of the first 18 games, 10 were positive — that’s more than half. Yet, over that span, the Devils were 7-8-1 which was the 3rd worst PTS% in the NHL and the worst in the Easter Conference. Early on the Devils were playing well, but lost some tough games, and had below average shooting and goaltending (more on that later). This seems to feed into a possible narrative that the Devils started genuinely okay, but the their record didn’t reflect it, and so once the injuries hit, the incentive wasn’t there anymore. But if we’d stayed healthy perhaps we could have competed?
... not so fast.
First of all, nothing special happened in game 18 — it’s just where our xGF dipped, not where injuries hit. Our lowest 5-game point in the season actually came from games 29-33, the beginning during which we were among the healthiest we’d been all season. Hall missed two of those 5 games (one of which was the only positive xGF%), the then-terrible Cory Schneider missed 2, and other than that we were missing only Stefan Noesen. Even at our healthiest we were still finding ways to lose games.
For a more common cutoff point, let’s look at before and after Christmas — aka before and after the Hall injury. Below is the Devils record and performance in a few select 5v5 score/venue adjusted metrics (From Natural Stat Trick) before and after the Hall injury.
One thing that’s clear is that we’ve been SOOOOOO bad since the Hall injury. We’ve been the worst CF% team in the NHL be a country mile. Our 43.2% is almost two and a half points below the second worst team — the laughingstock that is the Ottawa Senators — who sit at 48.5%.
The impact that the injuries have had isn’t when looking out our record, where we’ve been pretty similar. But it is VERY clear when looking at more reliable metrics. You might rightly point out at this juncture, that, although we are much worse post-blight, there’s still quite a bit of red in the “before” shot. While that is accurate, it’s not dissimilar from what we were all of last season. Here’s that same chart comparison, but looking at the 2017-18 Devils, who made the postseason, versus the pre-Hall-injury 2018-19 squad.
The CF%, SCF%, and HDCF% numbers were almost exactly the same. But this year’s team got slightly worse shooting, and slightly worse goaltending (again, we’ll get to that in a second). So while the results weren’t there early in the season, our team was clearly running the same software that earned us a postseason birth in 2018.
I’m NOT saying that the Devils would have made the playoffs if it hadn’t been for the injuries — I think it’s actually unlikely that they would have given how competitive the East is. What I’m saying is that, assessing the progress of the rebuild is not as easy as “we were worse so that means we took a step back” or “we were bad because of injuries — still on track.”
If you were to ask by personal opinion, I think that this year’s team and last year’s team are basically the same with 2 exceptions. The first is Taylor Hall — a) he was injured for over half the season, and b) he wasn’t as good as last year even when he was healthy (0.936 GAR/60 in 2018, 0.593 GAR/60 in 2019 via Evolving-Hockey). The second is goaltending. According to Evolving-Hockey, the Devils had 235 xGA (expected goals against) and 240 GA (goals against). That means that goaltending cost us about 5 goals which is actually NHL-median performance NHL. This year though, the Devils, so far, have 215 xGA and 256 GA. Goaltending cost us about 41 goals this year which is 2nd worst in the NHL only to Ottawa (-49 goals).
To put this in perspective, this season, the Devils have had about 3.5 WAR lost from injury, which is about 1.5 wins more than NHL average. If you add the 1.5 wins to our total, it doesn’t get you a much different season. But if you take the two aspects I’m focused on — Hall + goaltending — you get a better picture.
Taylor Hall was worth 4 WAR last year and 1.1 this year, so let’s say he was healthy and good — that’s about 3 wins. Let’s say our goaltending was average, like last year — that’s 36 goals which is about 6 wins. Last assumption: those 9 wins are moved proportionally from our L (~7 games)and OTL (~2 games) columns. That would change us from 29-39-9 (43.5 PTS%, 28th in NHL) to 38-32-7 (53.9%, 17th in NHL).
So when I say “Injuries Aren’t the Reason” in the title, I’m talking mostly about that “s.” There’s one injury that really mattered — Hall. And there’s one other thing that’s really worse from last year — goaltending. When constructing the narrative of what needs to be addressed heading into the offseason, we should keep in mind where we would be this year had those two things not taken the nosedive that they did.
Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments section below!