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What If the Devils Don’t Make the Playoffs?

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The Devils are obviously the most set up to make a postseason run they’ve been in years. So what’s the expectation and what are the consequences if we fall short?

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Listen, I get it, it’s hard not to be excited. You’ve probably seen every article about hte Devils in the last few weeks start with the obligatory “The Devils have added Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds, etc.” and then goes on to say something vague and encouraging like “they’re building something good in New Jersey” before saying something noncommittal like “they’ll want to compete for a playoff spot.”

I talked about this fairly comprehensively in my piece breaking down where the Devils added and lost GAR. I had the Devils in the middle 3rd of the league (10th-20th area).

Season projections are probably coming out pretty soon, and so it’s worth taking a minute to talk about the perspective they should offer. I highly doubt that we’re going to be a clear playoff team in too many models. I think we’ll be on the right side of the bubble more often than not, but it’ll be close. Here’s an early example using Sean Tierney’s lineup creator and projections.

Via Sean Tierney’s Tableau

Let’s zoom in there on just the standings projections and filter for just the East teams.

Via Sean Tierney’s Tableau

On Sean’s projections, the Metro will once again be ruled by Ovechkin and Crosby as Washington (105 pts) and Pittsburgh (98) are accompanied by a Columbus (91) team that managed to successfully mitigate the loss of Duchene, Panarin, and Bobrovsky with Gustav Nyqvist and a strong, young, deep blueline. The East is still ruled by the Lightning (125) and the cannibalistic Bruins (111) and Leafs (103) atop the Atlantic. And the two wild cards are currently slated to go to Montreal (96) and Florida (94), with the Devils (89) and the entire rest of the Metro Division bunched up at 9 through 13.

The Devils additions are good, but there are a lot of unknowns including the aging Simmonds and Subban, the health of Taylor Hall, the crapshoot that is our goaltending situation, etc. When centering the potential impact of all these things, the Devils are much less impressive than our social media fan groups would have you believe.

THAT SAID...

Shero has done his job. I have literally never met a Devils fan that didn’t approve of the job Shero has done. I knew a few that were growing impatient, but his high-value trades have earned him a lot of prosecutorial inertia. And this was his big offseason. He immediately filled out the top 6 and got us the #1 defender we’ve needed for years. That will likely impact perception of Hynes’s performance. My guess is that his seat will be pretty darn hot if the Devils miss the playoffs. It’s his 5th season as head coach now — tied for 5th longest-tenured coach in the league — and we will have had just 1 playoff win to show for it.

But I have a few things to say with regards to that potential future. First of all, we need to grade on an injury curve. If there are significant trips to the infirmary— like last year when Joey Anderson led all forwards in ice time due to injuries — that should not fall on Hynes. Secondly, goaltending is everything. I will guess that if things go really sour, more than just the goalies will get blamed, even if it’s really only the goalies’ fault. And lastly, it matters how we play. Not how our record is.

As you see in that chart above, all of the Metro teams are competent and the East contains all of the top 4 best teams in the league. The Devils have a neutral schedule with regards to days-of-rest impact and, if anything like last year, their strength of schedule will be more difficult than anyone other than those 3 bottom-dwellers in the Atlantic.

What I’m intimating is that this chart says — as I’m sure many projections systems you’ll see between now in the beginning of the season — that the Devils are far from a lock to make the postseason, even assuming nothing goes terribly wrong. How do we use this information? What should the reaction be if we miss out again?

Let’s nest it in caveats for obvious situations: 1) If Devils make the playoffs, Hynes keeps his job. You may disagree, but I don’t see a coach bringing a team to the playoffs twice in 3 years after 5-year drought being dismissed. 2) If Devils finish bottom of the league AGAIN with a relatively healthy team, I don’t see a way Hynes isn’t put on the hot seat, or even fired. He’s been given a LONG leash for ineptitude and this roster is entering the “no excuses” territory for the fanbase.

In all the intermediate area, though, in which the Devils do not make the playoffs. I think you have to view it more analytically. For some examples of questions: A) What level are players performing at relative to their projections? B) What is Hynes’s impact on results through coaching? C) Did the Devils get bad luck?

I’ve been working on an age-weighted GAR projection on Twitter that would help us in setting expectations for “A)” and I’m not alone in projecting that king of thing.

Micah McCurdy has been investigating coaching impact for “B)” as well. Here is Hynes isolated coaching impact by season.

Hyne’s appears to have a consistently excellent defensive impact, which, even after controlling for his negative offensive impact, nets out as a consistent plus.

And with regards to “C)” and luck, we’ve looked at that kind of thing in the past, here at AAtJ. Again, this is something that can be assessed empirically.

In my last piece about GAR added, I said the Devils don’t have to make the playoffs, but that have to play LIKE a playoff team. I stand by that, and I’d like to elaborate on the coaching aspect. Hynes does not NEED to make the playoffs to have my support. If we improve our play measurably, and his coaching impact remains positive, but we have poor luck and a difficult schedule — that is a scenario that results in us missing the playoffs, in which I do not think Hynes should be on the hot seat.

As always, we should use evidence to support our decisions, not emotion. If we miss the playoffs, yeah that will suck. But it’s very possible that dismissing Hynes would make it worse.

Thanks as always for reading, and leave your thoughts in the comments below!