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Let’s Pretend 2019-20 Didn’t Happen for the New Jersey Devils & Simulate it in Eastside Hockey Manager

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With NHL hockey on pause, why not pretend 2019-20 never happened for the New Jersey Devils and simulate it from the beginning in Eastside Hockey Manager? This post shows what happens to the Devils in a simulation and asks you, the People Who Matter, about re-doing it ourselves.

Eastside Hockey Manager is back on the table for another AAtJ Let’s Pretend series.
Eastside Hockey Manager is back on the table for another AAtJ Let’s Pretend series.

Right now, there is no professional hockey going on in the world. The National Hockey League is paused. So is the American Hockey League. The Canadian major junior leagues ended their seasons but are hoping they can fit in their playoffs and the Memorial Cup. The Russian KHL and MHL playoffs are also on hold. The USHL, ECHL, Liiga (Finland), SHL (Sweden), DEL (German), and National League (Switzerland) are all cancelled. The World Championships for both men and women are not happening. Neither is the World Under-18 tournament. As a result of a lack of actual hockey going on, more and more are turning to other means.

The New Jersey Devils plan to and have been streaming their season’s games through NHL 20 by EA Sports. The NHL series by EA is the most popular series of video games for hockey in the entire world. They have dominated the market for close to 30 years. Their decades-long blend of on-ice action with plenty of details and modes to make things more (or less) realistic have often hit the sweet spot on the spectrum for gamers between arcade-style and realistic play. However, those who primarily game on the PC have been left out of the cold since NHL 09. And those who prefer a more realistic simulation may find EA Sports’ offerings to be wanting. Fortunately for both groups, there are a few options. It may be a niche within a niche, but it is passionate one and the game of choice remains Eastside Hockey Manager.

Eastside Hockey Manager (EHM) is the result of a small team lead by Risto Remes. The initial releases were freeware and the second version caught on among many hockey fans online that wanted to run a hockey team as a general manager. In 2002, Remes was brought in by Sports Interactive - most known for the Football Manager series of games - to make a commerical version of EHM. When Eastside Hockey Manager 2005 came out, it resembled FM much more than the freeware versions. Given that FM was (and is) a massive series for sports simulations, that was not a bad move. There was a sequel in 2007 and again in 2015. The 2015 version is the latest one available (PC only and on Steam for a cool $20) and the community at EHM The Blueline has kept it alive with roster updates, face packs, and logo packs through Steam’s Workshop function. While the Franchise Hockey Manager series, by Out of the Park Interactive, has maintained annual updates, EHM remains the king of hockey sims and PC hockey games for now.

With no actual hockey going on in the near future, I am going back to EHM to ressurrect the Let’s Pretend series. I first started it in the 2016 offseason, re-doing the Devils’ 2015-16 season through a series of videos. This time, I’m going to use screenshots for most of the action and attempt a number of different ideas provided by you, the People Who Matter. In fact, one of you requested this not that long ago. As per this comment by alslammerz:

I posted this in the news thread (sorry) but maybe we can do like we did a few years ago where John played through the Devils season on Eastside Hockey Manager. Wasn’t it Reid Boucher who scored the 2OT goal against the Rangers? Lol.

I will do that. Updates will be posted on Sunday since there are no weekly Metropolitan Division snapshots for the foreseeable future.

However, I think we need a baseline to start from before we attempt to re-do 2019-20. The real-life Devils fell flat on their face in 2019-20. After an offseason generating a lot of hope and optimism, the team fell apart. The coach was fired; the GM was fired; the team’s best player (Hall), long-time captain (Greene), and popular winger (Coleman) were all traded; and the Devils were effectively out of the playoff picture by Christmas. I hope we can do better than that in this sim. But how would the game handle the 2019-20 Devils season given the roster that started the season?

To that end, I created a GM named Trial Run, downloaded the The Blue Line Rosters v12.3.1 database for the start of the 2019-20 season, set the NHL as the only enhanced playable league, and went on vacation until June 26, 2020. Trial Run clearly needed to become tanned and rested before not running any more teams. This simulated the remainder of the 2019 offseason, the 2019 preseason, the entire 2019-20 season and playoffs, the 2020 NHL Draft, and the NHL Awards show, which is somehow scheduled after the draft in EHM. I then looked at the Devils and the league to see what happened.

Did the EHM Devils do better without any human involvement than the real-life Devils? Yes. What did they do? Let’s just say the artificial intelligence (AI) in charge of the Devils was very active throughout the season.

The Trial Run of the 2019-20 NHL Season in EHM

The home screen of one Mr. Trial Run.  He is about to see how the Devils and the NHL did.
The home screen of one Mr. Trial Run. He is about to see how the Devils and the NHL did.

Upon not reading the emails since they did not really apply much to Mr. Run, let us look at the season standings. First, the Western Conference:

The EHM 2019-20 Western Conference Standings for Trial Run
The EHM 2019-20 Western Conference Standings for Trial Run

St. Louis absolutely dominated the West and the league. They entered the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak. Colorado just got ahead of Winnipeg for the second spot in the Central. San Jose also did not fall apart as they did in real life. They had a safe lead in the Pacific from Vancouver. Minnesota was on the right side of above average and Las Vegas edged Nashville for the final wild card spot. Of note is that Edmonton missed the postseason by a healthy amount and Los Angeles absolutely stunk.

As for the East, well, this hurts.

The EHM 2019-20 Eastern Conference Standings for Trial Run
The EHM 2019-20 Eastern Conference Standings for Trial Run

The New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs by one point. One! They lost their last three games, all decisive losses to Pittsburgh (1-3), Buffalo (1-4), and the Isles (1-6). They did not even need to win any of them. They just needed a point as they would have pulled ahead of Boston based on ROW (regulation wins was not a tiebreaker back in EHM 2015). They were so close and yet so far. Those 11 post-regulation losses with a 2-5 shootout record hurt. Had this happened in real life, I think everyone here would be really salty about how the season ended. I know I would be. Seriously, three goals scored and thirteen against in must-win games? By the way, note the 257 GF and 272 GA for the Devils. This should give you a clue as to why the Devils primarily fell short.

Elsewhere in the East, Tampa Bay dominated the conference and finished second only to St. Louis in the league standings. Pittsburgh won the Metropolitan, which like in real life, was very contentious from third on down. A mere two points separated eighth place Boston with twelfth place Carolina. Detroit was amazingly not the worst team in the East. Ottawa was even more abysmal - but not to the level of Detroit.

The EHM 2019-20 Metropolitan Division Standings for Trial Run
The EHM 2019-20 Metropolitan Division Standings for Trial Run

Again, the Metropolitan Division was a slaughterhouse. The last place team went 41-35-6. That is madness. Had the real-life Devils not faltered so badly, the division could have looked more like this screenshot. Alas. The Devils at least finished ahead of Our Hated Rivals.

The EHM 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs for Trial Run
The EHM 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs for Trial Run

The playoffs were brisk. No series went to seven games save for Boston absolutely scaring Tampa Bay. The Bolts went on from strength to strength from then on out. Toronto fans, likely pleased that they didn’t see Boston in the first round and won a first round game, got a dose of Lightning reality in the semis. Washington, who smacked down the division leaders in Pittsburgh, went on to face TB. TB prevailed. Out West, Colorado stunned St. Louis in the semis, who were then stunned by Vancouver - who also stunned San Jose - in the Western Conference Finals. A whole lot of stunning there. I am sure the city of Vancouver took it well when Tampa Bay lifted up the Cup at the Rogers Center in a sweep of the Canucks.

Going back to the season, here is who led the league in scoring - and the top 24.

The Top 24 in overall scoring in 2019-20 NHL for Trial Run
The Top 24 in overall scoring in 2019-20 NHL for Trial Run

That’s right. AI Ray Shero never traded Taylor Hall. Hall went out and had a splendid season. He finished tied with Johnny Gaudreau in points with a 35 goal, 45 assist campaign. The EHM system must have thought Nikita Gusev fit like a glove in New Jersey. He put up a very nice 69 points in his first NHL season, placing him 20th in scoring. The Devils are further represented in the bottom half of the Top 50 scorers too:

The 27th through 50th in overall scoring in 2019-20 NHL for Trial Run
The 27th through 50th in overall scoring in 2019-20 NHL for Trial Run

The Pride of Montvale New Jersey, Kyle Palmieri, was healthyy for most of the season and put up an excellent amount of production. Nico Hischier made a jump in points to get up to 66. Being among the likes of Eberle, Panarin, Johnson, and Johansen is excellent.

What was a total surprise was the list of overall scoring leaders among defensemen in the NHL. I assure you. I did not manipulate this screenshot.

The Overall Scoring Leaders among Defensemen in 2019-20 NHL for Trial Run
The Overall Scoring Leaders among Defensemen in 2019-20 NHL for Trial Run

Sami Vatanen! He out-produced every other defender in the NHL! With just 136 shots on net and a shooting percentage of 5.1%! Seriously, the AI running the Devils thought Vatanen needed prime power play time and minutes and so that represented about 38% of his 58 points. The remainder, I suspect, often involved Hall, Palmieri, Gusev, and/or Hischier. But Vatanen had an awesome season.

As for rookies, EHM looked at the skillset and potential of Jack Hughes and thought well of it. Hughes did not go off on the scoresheet, but he did well compared with his peers in terms of rookie scoring.

The Overall Scoring Leaders among Rookies in 2019-20 for Trial Run
The Overall Scoring Leaders among Rookies in 2019-20 for Trial Run

I do not think anyone would have minded Hughes finishing just short of fifty points in real life. He produced more than his brother Quinn, Kakko, and a lot of other rookies. His average rating of 6.56 suggests it was an inconsistent season for the 18-year old. But that may work itself out as he gets older and develops in-game. By the way, I have no idea how Ivan Provorov or Pavel Buchnevich qualified as a rookie in this databasse. I think it was an oversight. It stinks because Provorov ended up finishing third in Calder voting.

One of the hallmarks of the FM series is rating. Every player gets a rating from 1 to 10 in each game. A 6 is about an average night. A 10 would be an undisputed fantastic night, one of the best of their careers. Anything lower than a 6 ranges from not-so-good to terrible. It goes into more than whether they produce, but also how effective are they area at what they do. The average of this rating over the season or a number of games is a good indication of whether they are playing well or not. Every player has their average rating available on most screens. Anything in the high sevens is quite good. Vatanen’s is 7.55. Who led the league in this stat?

The Top Average Ratings in 2019-20 NHL for Trial Run
The Top Average Ratings in 2019-20 NHL for Trial Run

Andrei Vasilevsky (a.k.a. Andrei Vasilevskiy), who was also the league’s best goaltender. Who is right behind him? Hall. His 8.26 rating is utterily fantastic. Only five players in the NHL averaged above an 8 all season. Alas, Hall was not a Hart Trophy finalist in this EHM 2019-20. As this is for all players, goalies dominate the upper end of the list. There were a couple notable Devils in this stat. Gusev (7.59), Palmieri (7.58), and Vatanen were the only other Devils to average above a 7.5 in 2019-20.

Since this run ended after the NHL Awards were announced, I can tell you that the Devils were largely shut out of the trophies. There were some finalists, though:

  • Hall won the All-Star Game MVP, finished second in King Clancy voting (I think EHM uses average rating to determine this one), and finished third in Lady Byng voting. 18 PIM for Hall is exceptionally good.
  • Another weird result was Travis Zajac finishing third for the Mark Messier Leadership Award. Zajac was not even the captain of the Devils. Greene was and played 76 games, so he was a captain for a majority of the season. I do not know how the game handles this one.

Lastly for a look at the league, here is the top end of the first round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. While the other European, U.S. college and junior, and Canadian major junior leagues were not playable, they were simulated as well. One of the strengths of EHM is that you could run one of those teams if you wanted to. The databases are that deep.

The top end of the first round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft for Trial Run
The top end of the first round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft for Trial Run

After Lafreniere going first overall and Byfield going second, the EHM world is very, very different than the real one. After all, they simulate those other seasons so it is possible that some of the real-life top prospects for 2020 had bad seasons or were not as well regarded. And, like real life, there was some real drops like Alexander Holtz going to 14th overall. This is made possible by the top ten picks. Seeing William Villenueve go third is wild. Ditto for Kaiden Guhle and Jeremie Poirier. The Devils traded down to 19th to get defenseman Christoffer Sedoff, who was picked 14 spots ahead of his ranking. That is what we would call a reach. Good job, AI Shero and Castron?

This is a good jumping off point to focus on the Devils in this EHM game.

The New Jersey Devils in the Trial Run of the 2019-20 NHL Season in EHM

When you start a new game in EHM with the NHL league made playable, you will have the option of starting on August 8 of that year or July 2 as an early date. Unlike real life, the NHL GMs of EHM are not just chilling and grilling in the dead of the summer. They are wheeling and dealing. At least the AI Ray Shero was doing that. He was making moves as early as August 14. Significant moves, too. Some of which would bring great joy to Devils fans here and elsewhere. Others of which will make you cringe. Here is the list of deals made in 2019-20 for the Devils.

Devils trades in 2019-20 for Trial run
Devils trades in 2019-20 for Trial run

Your eyes are not deceiving you. About a week in and the computer running the Devils dumped Mirco Mueller for a goalie and two fourth rounders. Then they likely upset the fans by moving Ty Smith and Patrick Moynihan for Jeremy Lauzon and John Beecher. February was a busy month as Kevin Rooney, John Hayden, Case McCarthy, Michael Vukojevic, Joe Morrow, Josh Jacobs, Xavier Bernard, and Graeme Clarke were all out. In return, the Devils brought back Adam Henrique, added Carl Dahlstrom and Casey Nelson, and a slew of picks. Moving Rooney and Hayden would have been cheered. Moving Clarke would not have been. But the return of Henrique would have been a big hit. In June, the Devils traded down a few spots in the first round to get a second round pick from Philly and moved up in the fourth round for some reason.

In addition to that, the Devils did sign a number of players to NHL deals.

Players Incoming to the Devils in 2019-20 for Trial Run
Players Incoming to the Devils in 2019-20 for Trial Run

The Devils signed Jason Pominville, who became a regular for the Devils in 2019-20. They also handed out ELCs to Aarne Talvitie, Reilly Walsh, and Mitchell Hoselscher. They signed goaltender Aidan Porter just before the draft. Among all the things you could say about the computer GM in EHM, the computer was not sitting around doing nothing.

That makes one thing about the team very odd. Here are the team’s basic stats for the season. I think you can figure out where the issue was for the 2019-20 Devils.

  • Goals per Game Average: 3.13, fourth highest in the NHL. Fun fact: NJ was never shut out in the season.
  • Shots per Game Average: 29.27, fourth highest in the NHL. The Devils’ shooting percentage was 10.71%, the eighth highest in the NHL.
  • Power Play Success Rate: 21.6%, tied for eighth highest in the NHL. They scored 61 out of 282, both ranking sixth in the NHL
  • Goals Against per Game Average: 3.32, 29th in the NHL. “Fun” fact: They only had one shutout all season.
  • Shots Against per Game Average: 26.66, fourth lowest in the NHL.
  • Penalty Kill Success Rate: 77.1%, 29th in the NHL. They allowed 53 goals out of 231 shorthanded situations. The 53 allowed is around the league median at 16th fewest. The 231 situations is the 26th most in the NHL.
  • Team Save Percentage: 87.56%, 30th in the NHL. Right in between Ottawa and Los Angeles.

The 2019-20 Devils in EHM were sunk by their goaltending. They limited a great number of shots. They created and scored a lot of goals. More often than not, though, they just could not buy a save. Despite moving Mueller for a goaltender, Jonas Johansson never got an appearance at the NHL level. Despite all of the other actions made, there was no move for a goaltender except for signing one out of college on June 18 - well after the season ended. AI Ray Shero and AI John Hynes rode with MacKenzie Blackwood and Cory Schneider all season long. It went poorly. Very poorly.

Devils Goalies in 2019-20 for Trial Run
Devils Goalies in 2019-20 for Trial Run

Blackwood led all rookie goaltenders in games played with 60. With an overall save percentage of 89.1%, I am baffled that he received 60 games. And that he had an average rating of 7.18. You would have to go back at least 30 years to consider an 89.1% save percentage to be good. (As a quick aside, the only other rookie goalie to play a majority of their team’s games was Igor Shestyorkin, who put up a 90.2% overall save percentage. Ilya Samsonov and Elvis Merzlikins also put up less-than-good percentages with 32 and 30 games, respectively. The EHM season was not kind to rookie goalies.) Then there is Schneider. Those who lamented him in real life were also vindicated in this hockey simulation. An 86.9% overall save percentage is abhorrent. How did the AI keep giving him games, much less 25 of them? Both of these goalies were bad and yet the computer kept them in place with no replacements. These were the only two goalies to play for New Jersey in 2019-20. The league median team save percentage in EHM was a low 90.13%, but NJ fell way short of that. Had either been closer to that, then the EHM Devils would have been in the postseason. This did not even happen in real life and I literally did nothing in the game and this still bothers me.

Let us look at some other stats for the team.

Devils Forwards in 2019-20 for Trial Run
Devils Forwards in 2019-20 for Trial Run

The forwards were clearly led by Hall, who had an outstanding campaign. Gusev, Palmieri, and Hischier all had very good seasons, too. They were the leaders among the forwards. The AI John Hynes did not favor Miles Wood. He was kept to just 36 games. While Pominville plays on the other side, clearly his addition bumped a forward off and so he went. Joey Anderson, Kevin Rooney, Ben Street, and Brett Seney were all call-ups. The virtual Pavel Zacha produced about as well as he does in real life. Wayne Simmonds was more productive and took way more penalties; but he did manage to have a decent average rating. Blake Coleman did not go off on the scoresheet, but he did fire quite a few pucks and play many more minutes than the other bottom-six players, so the game got that right. Adam Henrique added 9 of his 42 points with the Devils as he was a mid-season acquisition. He was just OK-ish like Travis Zajac. The forward group has to be seen as a big positive as the Devils did take many shots and score many goals compared to the other teams in the NHL. They had a top-five scorer and player in Hall. If only the team had decent goaltending.

While not seen here, Gusev and Hischier were power play point machines. Gusev had 15 PPGs and 26 power play points; Hischier had 11 PPGs and also 26 power play points. Only four players in the whole league had more than 26 power play points (and three of them were on Colorado). Hall and Vatanen were no slouches with 22 power play points themselves. Speaking of Vatanen:

Devils Defensemen in 2019-20 for Trial Run
Devils Defensemen in 2019-20 for Trial Run

Again, I remain mystified that he put up 58 points. I know this is a video game. This is not real. It is still stunning. He was legitimately New Jersey’s #1 defenseman and outscored all others in his position in the entire league. That is simply bonkers. Will Butcher and P.K. Subban each had far better seasons in this simulation than in the actual 2019-20 season. Andy Greene still played significant minutes and while was not bad, he was a step below Vatanen, Butcher, and Subban in general. There was defintiely plenty of movement beyond those four. Damon Severson had a season to forget. The acquired Robert Hagg filled in for what Mueller did and was kind of there for it. Jeremy Lauzon did not finish the season in New Jersey; he was sent to Binghamton. Seeing as he was part of that Ty Smith deal, that would have went over poorly. Carl Dhalstrom and Casey Nelson never made much of an impact. You did get some spot appearances from Dakota Mermis, Matt Tennyson, and Connor Carrick - all with much more limited minutes. As a whole, you cannot complain too much since they did allow fewer than 27 shots per game on average. If only the team had decent goaltending.

Did the results lead to any firings or changes in staff? No. Here is the staff page for the Devils at the end of the season:

Devils Staff Listings as of June 26, 2020 for Trial Run
Devils Staff Listings as of June 26, 2020 for Trial Run

The Devils made no changes to their staff. Ray Shero is still the GM. Tom Fitzgerald is still the assistant GM. The coaches from John Hynes to Roland Melanson are all the same. I am not sure why Mike Regan is listed as an assistant coach. In real life, he is a video coach with NJ. Perhaps that is another oversight in the database. No matter. Missing the postseason by a point did not lead to any changes. Neither is blowing up their salary cap. The acquisition of Henrique and Hagg among others put the Devils at $73.955 million in cap space and $65.58 million for next season. Good luck, virtual Shero.

As a last point, here is who the Devils drafted in 2020 by the AI Shero, guided by the AI Paul Castron and his team of scouts:

Devils 2020 Draft Class for Trial Run
Devils 2020 Draft Class for Trial Run

Given that this is all simulated, perhaps these would have been good picks within the game. It will not be like this in real life. But the AI in charge did make a point of it to get four picks within the top 100 slots, even if it meant trading down a few spots in the first round to make it so.

Your Turn. No, Really, It’s Your Turn

The above is an overview of how the 2019-20 Devils season played out in a simulation starting with the roster they had as of October 12, 2019 in real life. The EHM Devils did much better than the real-life team. Many predicted the real life Devils to be a bubble team in 2019-20 and the simulation agreed with that. Alas, despite being aggressive in making deals, the AI never addressed the goaltending. That is what ultimately kept the Devils from making the postseason despite another stupendous season from Hall, great performances by Vatanen, Palmieri, and Hischier, a great debut season from Gusev, and even a fine rookie season out of Hughes. The bloggers and Devils fans online in that world would have likely been irate about how it all went down. Especially with the season ending on a three game losing streak when all they needed was one more point in the standings. Alas.

Trial Run’s time is over. As interesting it would be to simulate a season without any involvement, it is more fun to play games. I do not play EHM regularly, so there is the added possibility of possibly entertaining failure. But I do want to effectively re-do the 2019-20 season for the Devils in EHM. I will use the same database as the Trial Run used, with a few more playable leagues for the sake of drafting and call-ups if I can get it to work. I want to see if I can get them at least into the playoffs. I want your help to do that. This is what I would like to know from you at the start; please respond in the comments:

  1. A first and last name for our GM.
  2. Which players should I try to deal away from the 2019-20 season?
  3. What kind of assets should I try to acquire? (e.g. picks, goaltenders, etc.)
  4. Am I moving Taylor Hall now, later, or not at all?

Whatever suggestions you may have, I will try to do. I cannot guarantee they will work. The AI in EHM can be exploited but I do not know exactly how and I am certain it is smarter than Peter Chiarelli. My plan is to make a weekly post for each month of the season. Next week’s post will combine August and September right up until the beginning of the season. Let me know what you want me to do and anything else about EHM in the comments. Thank you for reading.