This has been a bad season to be a Devils fan. I argued back in December that this might be the worst in the history of the franchise, at least in terms of the enjoyment-to-expectations ratio. The Devils currently sit in 29th place in the NHL and seem unlikely to climb any higher than 25th or 26th by the end of this season. They were effectively eliminated from realistic playoff contention in mid-December. They fired the coach and traded their best player before Christmas. Things could be going better. We know this.
If you’re like me though, you have moved past your various stages of grief by now and accepted this season for what it is. It’s certainly been freeing in a sense, in that when the Devils get steamrolled or, alternatively, lose a heartbreaker, it’s easy to just shrug and move on. We know what we’re dealing with here. Recently, the Devils have taken on a quality of playing generally interesting and, dare I say, fun(?) hockey.
Since around Christmas, the Devils have exhibited the qualities that you might have expected from this team coming into the season. Occasional brilliance from a roster dotted with talent, some accompanying defensive catastrophes, and a lot of fairly wide-open and high-scoring hockey.
Game pace— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) January 30, 2020
I have no idea what NJD is doing but it's (getting even more) fun! pic.twitter.com/PMKWWra5C2
Prior to John Hynes’ firing on December third, the Devils owned the third-worst (29th) all-situations goal-scoring rate in the league. That, coupled with an equally dismal second-worst (30th) goals-against rate, led to a lot of miserable evenings watching the Devils over the first two months of the season. Post-Hynes-firing, the goal-scoring numbers have improved modestly, though not by as much as you might think. The Devils sit in 25th in goals for (seventh-worst) since the firing and 26th in goals against.
That is an improvement, but to capture the dividing line between the buttoned-up and often tense-feeling Devils of the early season and the more wide-open (though still not particularly good) outfit we see now, I think the Taylor Hall trade serves as a convenient dividing line. I do this at the risk of cherry-picking a little bit, but I’m not making any scientific claims here, and the trade is a reasonable psychological dividing line and also has major similarities to a previous turnaround in Devils history from 2010-11.
If you can recall that season, after John MacLean was fired, the Devils continued to bottom out for another couple weeks under a new coach before they a) got comfortable in the system b) had a major looming distraction removed via trade. That year the coach was the legend Jacques Lemaire and the player departing was the declining (and occasionally mutinous) captain Jamie Langenbrunner. This season has a lot of parallels to 2010-11 and the transition from Hynes to Alain Nasreddine and the departure of a team mainstay (in this case, Taylor Hall) shortly after, while perhaps not exactly mirroring the situation in 2010-11, definitely echoes that transition period.
Now, the differences between that situation in 2010-11 (bringing in a legendary coach; trading a declining and possible malcontent role-player) and this season (promoting an unproven assistant from the previous failed staff; trading a player 18-months removed from winning league MVP) probably explain the difference in magnitude of the respective turnarounds (the 2010-11 team turning into an unstoppable juggernaut; the 2019-20 team turning into a team that at least doesn’t make you want to slam a car door on your head while watching), but the similarities remain. So what do the Devils look like since the Taylor Hall trade saga came to a close?
The defense, as you may be able to predict, remains bad. The Devils are third-worst in the league since December 18th in goals against in all-situations. The GA/60 is almost identical to what it was before Hynes’ firing. The big shift has come in the goal-scoring, though. Since the Hall trade, the Devils are up to 17th in the league in goals scored, adding about six tenths of a goal to their per-60 output to push it over the three-goal threshold. This is made extra impressive by the fact that they did it while removing their best offensive producer from the roster.
The result is that the Devils still aren’t a particularly good team (results-wise, they are 8-7-3 since the 18th, an 87-point pace), but they’ve been considerably more watchable. They have played some highly entertaining games, including barn-burners with the Leafs in late December and the Predators last night, They have had some impressive demolitions of opponents, including a 7-1 dismantling of the Blackhawks before Christmas and a surprising 5-1 romp of the Capitals a few weeks back. They have, of course, also had some stinkers, including a rough 6-3 loss to the Rangers and a listless pre-bye week 5-0 shellacking at the hands of the Blue Jackets. Put together, though, it has made for generally entertaining viewing and has the looks of an unpredictable, defensively challenged, but sometimes dynamic squad — i.e. something more in line with pre-season expectations.
Now, how much of this improvement is ephemeral? It depends on how you look at it. Though the goals against rate is largely the same for the post-Hynes-and-Hall Devils, the all-situations xGA numbers have actually slid from looking solid under Hynes to middle of the pack under Nasreddine. At 5v5, those xGA numbers have actually cratered from 7th to 29th. By a number of measures more intricate than “how many goals are going in the net,” the team has regressed defensively post-Hynes. Yet, for what its worth, and perhaps thanks to an intermittently sharp Blackwood, the defensive results have been largely the same in both versions of the team (bad).
The xGF numbers have clearly improved under Nasreddine, though, particularly at 5v5 where the Devils jumped from 25th in the league to 17th. The improvement in all-situations xGF (19th to 15th) has been more modest than straight goals, but those numbers have increased by around 0.2 expected goals as well. Combine these numbers with the defensive numbers and is the result a better team? I think that’s debatable. The xG share for the team has actually fallen, so there’s certainly an argument to be made that it is not. Is this a considerably more interesting team to watch at this point? I would argue absolutely yes. If the result is no playoffs either way, give me the team with a decent offense and a dismal defense over the one that consistently attempted (and failed) to clamp down on opponents each night and ended up getting blown out anyway.
Again, I don’t think anyone should mistake Nasreddine Devils hockey for good hockey right now, nor does this early stretch give me much confidence that Nasreddine is the solution at head coach in New Jersey. However, given the choice between the type of games the Devils have played of late and the interminable slog of the first two months of the season, give me this scrappy, run-and-gun squad every time.
All stats for this piece researched via Natural Stat Trick.