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How Does Temporary Division Realignment Impact the Devils?

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Reporters around the league revealed the NHL’s proposed temporary divisional realignment to deal with travel issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial reactions had the Devils as unlucky victims in the shakeup, but a sober assessment seems to paint this as a mostly lateral shift for New Jersey’s outlook.

NHL: DEC 31 Bruins at Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After weeks in limbo, the NHL and NHLPA appeared to come to a tentative agreement on how the 2020-21 2021 season would proceed in the coming months. Based on reports from numerous sources, the league is targeting a January 13th start date for a return to play with training camps opening roughly two weeks beforehand. This was welcome news for hockey fans, but as is the reality for all things during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL that returns will be something of a funhouse mirror version of a standard season. The season will be a shortened 56-game run and the divisions will get a major shakeup, primarily owing to potential border-crossing issues in the midst of the pandemic.

To avoid the inevitable policy issues related to teams crossing the US-Canada border, the NHL will realign all of the Canadian teams into a single division and shuffle the US teams around as necessary to get evenly-sized and (to the extent possible) geographically-aligned divisions. The division breakdown that has been reported (with the caveat that details are apparently still being hammered out so swaps could still happen) is as follows:

Based on the latest reports, the swaps still being mulled seem to be those in the middle portion of the country (i.e. -Minnesota, Dallas, St. Louis), so the division proposed for the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic region seems perhaps more set than its other two US-based counterparts. Assuming that the proposed division that includes the Devils is the one they will move forward with, it means that their division will be largely based on the existing Metropolitan, with the following tweaks:

The initial reaction I saw among Devils fans was largely “welp, we’re screwed.” To an extent, it’s understandable. Nobody interested in winning hockey games wants the President’s Trophy winner to suddenly land in their division if they weren’t already there. Especially when it’s the Boston Burins, a team that has seemingly been terrorizing the Devils nearly every year for a decade now. In the aggregate, though, I’m not positive that this greatly injures the Devils or even that it’s really a net negative at all.

As far as the overall standings are concerned, yes you added one of the league’s best teams in Boston to the mix, but you’ve also seen two fairly regular playoff contenders (of late) leave the fray, while the second team arriving from the Atlantic, the Buffalo Sabres, are one of the few teams in the league that have endured more misery over the past eight or so years. In terms of combined standings points, there is little separating the total for Boston and Buffalo (168 in 139 GP) and Columbus and Carolina (162 in 138 GP). You’ve replaced a couple of middle of the pack teams with one perennial powerhouse and one perennial basement-dweller. It’s probably about as close to a push as you’re going to get for a realignment under these circumstances.

As far as the head-to-head aspect, yes, the Bruins have been the absolute bane of the Devils’ existence over the last 10 seasons, to the tune of an abysmal 7-20-5 head-to-head record for New Jersey in that series. The Devils have managed to finish above .500 against the Bruins only once in that span (2013-14) and have gone winless in the 3+ games four times. The Bruins have been eating the Devils lunch since Jacques Lemaire’s last go around behind the New Jersey bench. Balancing this, though, is the departure of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have regularly demolished the Devils in their head-to-head series in recent years as well, with the Devils going 7-18-3 against them since 2013-14 when they moved into the Devils’ division. The .304 points percentage in those Columbus games since 2013 are only very slightly better than the .297 the Devils have managed against Boston. As for the head-to-head matchups with Buffalo and Carolina, the Devils have had success against both over the past five years, with a 9-4-1 record versus Buffalo and a 11-8-0 record versus Carolina since 2015-16. Overall, the Devils actually have a better record against the incoming teams than the outgoing ones in the past five seasons.

All of this is to say that while this will be a shakeup and will change the dynamics of the Devils division to some extent, it’s hardly clear that the Devils are any worse off in this configuration than they’d have been in a standard Metropolitan Division setup in 2021. The biggest impact this realignment will have is likely at the top of the division, where the Bruins will threaten the Capitals’ division hegemony, which includes five consecutive years in first. The Devils are unlikely to challenge for a division crown in any alignment at this point, so that part is somewhat moot for New Jersey.

If anything, the Devils are beneficiaries of this setup. This new division will include one fewer team from 2020’s expanded playoff than the Metro did as well as one fewer 2019 playoff team than the Metro had as well. For a team like the Devils that is theoretically trying to claw its way into the bubble conversation and not win a division title, this is probably a lateral move at worst. The Metro has been a deep division in recent years, so the fact that this makeshift Northeast/Mid-Atlantic mashup is not an easy road is mostly a continuation of the status quo. Put simply, if they Devils aren’t competitive in this temporary division, they weren’t going to be competitive in the Metropolitan anyway.

Head-to-head records data and standings information in this article retrieved from Hockey-Reference.com.