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Devils Still Looking Up in the Division?

With the draft and free agent frenzy having taken place, there is no doubt that the New Jersey Devils are in a better position to win than they were at the end of this past season. Have they done enough, however? One WAR projection says no.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at San Jose Sharks Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

So for those who follow this website on the regular, I am sure that you have seen our articles here and there link to work done by Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey). Today, I want to link to his work to discuss what the moves so far done by Ray Shero starting with the draft have done for the New Jersey Devils moving forward.

Sean has a new tool where you can plug in a team’s lineup based on any new transactions, and it will generate a team’s potential WAR for the upcoming season, and then through extrapolation, their potential approximate standings points for next season. The tool can be found here.

A few days ago, given the moves NJ has made by bringing in Jack Hughes, PK Subban and Wayne Simmonds, Tierney did his own projection on the Devils lineup and how it might turn out this upcoming season if nothing else changes this offseason with signings or whatnot. The tweet with the picture for it can be found here, but here is the photo with his results:

So as you can see, the overall projection Sean gives for the Devils, based on WAR, is still not great. 86 points is not a playoff team, or really even a playoff bubble team. I would think reaching 90 points would be needed to qualify for the bubble, but that’s just my own opinion of how to interpret the term. According to this projection, the three major additions of Hughes, PK, and Simmonds will be good for an additional 14 points in the overall standings, given the Devils were at 72 this past season. That is a decent bump in performance, but given that the team wants to compete for a playoff spot as early as this season to keep Taylor Hall interested in staying long term, that 86 number really is not good enough.

When you look at the breakdown line by line and pairing by pairing, what is glaringly obvious here is what is also glaringly obvious with the eye test: the top line of Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri is pure gold. Their projected full season WAR of 9.0 is an excellent number. The dark blue shading behind that is the indicator he gives. For some comparison there, a projected line of Brad Marchand, Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron would generate a full season WAR of 10.6, not all that crazy higher than the actual, legitimate line of Hall, Hischier and Palms. In fact, if you plug in a line of Hall, Connor McDavid, and Nathan MacKinnon, you get a FSW of only 8.0, less than the Devils’ real top line. They really are exceptional together.

Tierney’s projected second line of Blake Coleman, Travis Zajac, and Kevin Rooney actually pulls a respectable 3.4 full season WAR from his projections. That compares well with Montreal’s projected second line of Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, and Artturi Lehkonen, who pull a full season WAR of 3.7 (he actually only has the top line of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Kaapo Kakko at 4.9).

After that, however, the warts we saw the last couple of seasons, problems with the bottom 6 generating positive movement, still seem to apply. The positive is that neither of the bottom 2 lines draw a negative full season WAR. Other teams have lines that are projected to do that currently. With the addition of Hughes, whom Tierney places as the third line center, and Simmonds as well, the third line pulls a positive 0.6 FSW and the checking line sits at 0.2. These are not amazing numbers, especially since Hughes is a number one overall pick, and Simmonds is set to make $5 million this season. But Hughes is still 18, and Simmonds has fallen off of a cliff lately. But when you look at the final standings of 86 points, this is a definite reason why.

On defense, with the addition of Subban, Tierney’s interesting choice of a top pairing of Will Butcher and Subban generates a mildly positive 2.1 number. He also moves Sami Vatanen alongside Damon Severson for a 2nd pairing output of 1.0. That leaves Andy Greene and Connor Carrick for Tierney, for a negative FSW projection of -0.1. Now, I doubt that this is how the pairings will look come October. I still think John Hynes leaves Greene and Severson together honestly, but the full season WAR numbers overall would most likely still remain poor. We can only hope that Ty Smith is ready sooner than later and can help bolster the blue line. This is also clearly an area that contributes directly to the poor overall standings number for Sean, and is really the biggest reason for the negative results.

Finally, Tierney is not high on Cory Schnieder at all, with a FSW of only positive 0.5. He saw Cory’s struggles over the past couple of seasons, and those weigh much more than his resurgence that came about this past season. Mackenzie Blackwood, however, draws a much more favorable FSW of 4.6. He clearly expects improvement from the young goaltender, which I also hope to see. A 4.6 full season WAR from Blackwood is a better number than a lot of established veterans. Tuukka Rask has a 2.7. Jaroslav Halak has a 3.7. Carey Price has a 3.1. Frederik Andersen has a 6.3. Throw Blackwood in there, and he is definitely a competent #1 goaltender, not really hurting the overall season projection of 86 points.

So at the bottom there, Sean takes all those numbers and compiles them. The bane of this team, according to this chart, is the defense. A defensive WAR of 3.03 is really bad. Even with the addition of PK, this WAR projection has the blue line as the major culprits for a potential season not playing in the playoffs again. If you look at this projection, it seems that the improvement still needs to come with the blue line, whether it is from the growth of Ty Smith or the addition of someone else. Yes, help on the bottom 6 is still needed, and Blackwood definitely needs to play to this projection, but defense is where we need to see more moves from Shero, if they are to happen. At least, again, that is what the projection says, and it is certainly interesting to look at, even if the season is a while off yet.

What do you think about this projection for the Devils this upcoming season? Where do you think this WAR projection gets it right, and where does it go wrong? What do you think a more reasonable season point projection would be given that lineup? Please leave comments, and thanks for reading!