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Reassessing Expectations: How Far Will the Devils Go? And What Is Acceptable?

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The Devils have added quite a bit of talent this offseason? With so much change to the roster, what should the expectation be for the 2020 season?

Goose Festival in Gus Zhelezny, Russia Photo by Alexander Ryumin\TASS via Getty Images

In our offseason coverage here at AAtJ, before free agency, I had the following things to say about what the state of the franchise was and how it should dictate the approach:

When you’re a team with not one but several good-to-elite players on excellent contracts, that’s when your building job is done, and “go for it” time has arrived. ...

I don’t want to praise GM restraint and resort to optimism for the future, I want to declare finally that the Day of the Devil has returned — the rebuild is over: we are built.

I said that about free agency. By independence day, we had acquired Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban (profile here), and signed forward, Wayne Simmonds. But it turns out we had to be a little more patient than expected because possibly our biggest move was still yet to come. On Monday, the Devils acquired the rights to reigning KHL MVP Nikita Gusev.

Adding those 3 names plus #1 overall pick, Jack Hughes, is a tremendous amount of talent ... but the Devils have a long hill to climb from last season. Will these additions, plus a healthy Taylor Hall make up the 79 goal gap that separated us from the playoffs last season?

First of all, let me acknowledge at the onset that this is not a simple game of goal-counting. There are a lot of variables that have to be considered here and simply counting GAR will not account for all of it. It does give us the best available baseline for expectation though. So let’s review a little bit of what we have coming into this season.

Subban replacing Santini/Lovejoy

In this piece on Andy Greene I showed a projection model that has P.K. Subban projected for 5.9 GAR/82. In 90 games, Lovejoy and Santini combined for 1.8 GAR which would be 1.6 GAR over 82 games. That means that the improvement in just that position should be worth about 4.3 goals.

This is a fairly conservative estimate with regards to how Subban’s potential — he averaged 13 goals with of value in the seasons before last, but he’s aging and last year may be evidence of that. His heavy usage (especially in comparison to Lovejoy/Santini) also will factor into the calculus. He may take many of his minutes from those two, but also some from Severson and Vatanen — who he’s still better than, but not by as much.

All said, it seems fair to assume +4.3 goals of value added here.

Hughes addition

Jack Hughes was the first overall pick. It’s difficult to assess exactly what value he is capable of adding to the team, because prospect data is pretty bad and every player is different. We could approach this in one of two ways. First, we could look at historical 1st overall picks, second, we could look at Hughes’s specific projection. We’ll start with historical top picks. This is a list of the first forward selected in every draft and their GAR/82 in their draft year.

Even if we use the most conservative of those 3 estimates, that’s about 8 GAR worth of value. Is Jack Hughes the typical 1st overall pick? Well if we use my projection model (and impute missing data equivalent to his current projection) then Manny Perry’s WAR model, under my projection used in the Greene article cited above would project him for just under 5 GAR in his age 18 season. Between that and the projection model above, it seems safe to say that we could reasonably expect about 7 goals of value from Jack Hughes.

Adding Nikita Gusev

This is the toughest one to project. There are so few comparables for what Nikita Gusev has done in the KHL, and even fewer that have played in the NHL. It’s difficult to use Manny’s model again here, because it’s ceiling seems very low — a feature that likely impacted the Hughes projection above as well. Gusev was assessed as just 1.18 GAR/82 of value last season which seems low. If we use that, he’s projected for around only 3 GAR of value this year. Looking at his comparables tells a different story though.

Gusev is entering his age 27 season. I looked for a couple examples of players who played age 23-26 in the KHL and then moved to the NHL. He compares very favorably to some very good players there — I looked at Radulov and Dadonov (let me know if there are other recent ones worth comparing).

On average, he was his Pts/GP were at about 1.5 times that of Dadonov’s and 0.8 times that of Radulov’s. In other words, he should be somewhere between them in value. The two of them have been DEMONSTRABLY above the 3-GAR figure from Perry. In fact, since entering the NHL, the two of them (who were both older than Gusev is now) have averaged 13.4 GAR/82. Let’s continue the practice of being conservative and give 27-year-old Gusev the same value as 30-year-old Radulov — 11.3 GAR (roughly the same as Palmieri’s value last season).

Addition by Subtraction — Forward Depth

The Devils were in some really dire times due to injuries last season. As such, a lot of forwards that shouldn’t have received significant ice time did. This is evidenced by the staggering 10 different forwards the Devils had last yer with negative GAR values: Noesen, Mcleod, Anderson, Pietila, Lappin, Quenneville, Gabriel, Tangradi, Stafford, and Gignac. Throw in Dea as well since he’s no longer on the team and was barely in the black and you get 251 man-games worth a combined -18.7 GAR. Several of those players have been traded, some not brought back, but ALL will likely see their playing time decrease unless they impress (which would be better anyway). Simmonds projects as a roughly replacement level player at this point, but that’s still a big improvement over what we had. The 3 new additions I’ve just listed (Hughes, Gusev, Simmonds) would add up to 246 games if they are all healthy. That means that the +18.7 goals figure is almost completely removed. Lets say we still give McLeod or Anderson 20 games, or so — that would give us about +16.5 GAR of value from improved forward depth and health.

Health of Taylor Hall

This one’s tricky again, because counting on him to be healthy is likely not a great bet. Also we’ve already taken out a lot of the dead weight so we have to figure out where these games are going to go. Hall missed 49 games last year, which is very close to the 47 that Boyle played. Hall’s per game GAR would have projected him to be worth 10.1 over that span, and Boyle was worth 5.1 over that span. That means that we get another +5 GAR of value from that switch.

As a side note here, there are small changes involving the likes of Johansson and Agostino for more healthy from Hischier and Bratt that we could entertain, but between the size of those corrections (small) and the potential for injuries to happen anyway, we’ll ignore those for the time being.

Goaltending

If the last two categories were tricky, this one is a damn labyrinth. Goaltending is notoriously difficult to predict. I think that the simplest way to do this is to just reallocate the shots that Kinkaid faced evenly to Schneider and Blackwood. Schneider finished the year strong and appears to be the healthiest he’s been in years so perhaps that offsets any potential regression we see from Blackwood.

I feel pretty good about this projection because it has us improving measurably since last year, but still below league average and so it doesn’t seem too ambitious. All told, that is another +15 GAR of value.

Conclusion

With all of these transactions, we expect to get ... *drum rolllllll *

59 goals worth of value from these transactions and from a little added health. Now, draglikepull had referenced 79 goals as the benchmark — which we seem well short of — but if you just add 59.1 to our actual GAR total from last year, 66.6 (yes the DEVILS GAR was 666), then you get 125.7 GAR which is 9th in the NHL or exactly what the Islanders were this past season. Why the discrepancy? Skater GAR is based of GF and xGA, and Goalie GAR fills in the differential between GA and xGA so this should really just boil down to goal differential shouldn’t it? Well there are some things GAR does that “goals” do not — the most obvious of which is accounting for competition. If you try to compare GAR to GD, you’ll see that the biggest underachievers are Toronto, Tampa, and Boston (tough schedule) and the largest overachievers were the Ducks and the Flames (easy schedule).

So what does this all mean? Here’s how I boil it down. I think we should expect that Devils to play like a top-10 to top-15 team this season. It’s hockey, so sometimes that doesn’t get you in the playoffs. If we miss the postseason again this year, I will obviously be disappointed. But, my main concern is if we improve our level of play. And as such, it will not be “unacceptable” to me if we miss the playoffs — especially if it is due to the Metro being very good. What would be unacceptable (and fatally so for Hynes) is if we do not play like a playoff team. If we do that, postseason appearance and success won’t be far away given the youth and potential of this lineup.