This Devils season felt brutal.
We made big offseason splashes with additions like P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, and Jack Hughes. Despite that it took us 7 games to get in the win column. Losing substantial leads became something of a trademark over the first half of the season. This hopeless start moved us to fire our head coach of 5 seasons, then trade our Hart Trophy-winner, and finally part ways with the GM who built it. It’s hard to imagine a steeper fall, but perspective is probably warranted here. Is this the toughest time in franchise history? Was this the worst Devils team?
Worst Devils Seasons
Rather than skirt around the issue, I’ll start off by going right for the jugular — finding the worst team. There are a few different ways one could feasibly assess a team’s overall quality and it’s not clear which is best. The most obvious is what percent of available points they got (PTS%), but we do have different point systems over the course of Devils history and those don’t account for the differences in win margins. You could look at the ratio of goals for and against (GF%) to fix those issues, but that doesn’t adjust for strength of schedule. Hockey-Reference combines schedule and goal differential into a simple rating system (SRS), but that is still subject to puck-luck. We could then use the ratio of shots for and against (SF%), but that’s probably least descriptive of the experience of watching the season. I’ve decided to use all of these. The chart below is every Devils team that had an SRS below 0 (below-average NHL team) and their ascending ranking among all 37 Devils seasons in the 4 aforementioned categories (1 = the #1 worst team).
I sorted it chronologically for some perspective. The below-average Devils teams are exclusively confined to 2 decades, the 1980s and the 2010s. Of the two, there is a clear winner with regards to ineptitude, and it is the 1980s.
The Devils first 2 seasons after coming to NJ from Colorado were the worst two in franchise history, objectively. The only category in which they weren’t the 1st and 2nd worst Devils teams in history was in shot ratio which was remarkably held by the 2015 Devils after 25 consecutive seasons of being basically even or above 50% (there was 1 season where w ewere 49.9%). There’s also an argument to be made that the 5 worst seasons all came in the first 5 years in NJ. The only team that makes a case for being included in the dubious top-5 is the 2017 Devils who notoriously won only 3 of their last 24 games that season (3-18-3).
So the 1980s Devils, particularly the first years, were certainly worse than now, which makes sense. This Devils team was in the Stanley Cup less than a decade ago, and had a Hart Trophy and a playoff appearance just 2 years ago. The 1980s team had never even tasted success before. But, furthermore, it’s tough to argue that this was even the worst team of THIS decade. In 2017 and 2019 the Devils had worse GF%, PTS% and SRS than this year’s team. One could fairly argue that this team is, in fact, only the 3rd worst of Hynes’s 5-year tenure.
But I’m leaving out some details here...
Success that Mattered
A lot of inflationary success for this team came from Mackenzie Blackwood’s Vezina-caliber run to finish the season. Most of the anguish was from the beginning of the season and the swift elimination from contention prevented us from enjoying almost any of the subsequent success. I used the Wayback Machine to take a snapshot of the Devils team at an earlier point in the year — the closest I could find was 12/13 — and I put their numbers from that point of the season into the chart above again and re-ran it.
This time around, we get a picture of a team that was second only to the 1984 Devils in ineptness in goal ratio, and in the bottom 3 in Points and SRS as well. The almost-50% shot ratio shows that this Devils team was suffering from some fairly tragic luck early in the season — some of it shooting, most of it from league-worst goaltending.
Does this mean anything about how you experienced watching the team as a fan? No. They still lost. In fact, sometimes, it felt like the fact that we were outperforming teams and still losing actually made things feel even MORE hopeless. Remember this game? The Devils were absolutely peppering Tampa Bay — one of the best teams in the league. We were up 5-3 going into the 3rd and gave up 3 goals to go down 6(!)-5. The plucky Devils found it in them to get the equalizer with the goalie pulled, attempting to prevent their season from sinking further into the abyss. Then, a minute into overtime, we give up the 7th. We lost 6-7in a game where we outshot them 42-23, had an expected goal margin of 4.85 - 2.08, and about an 82.5% chance of winning. Again, 7 goals against on 23 shots that were expected to produce just 2.
So this Devils team was not good during the period of time in which we were paying attention. It could be argued that they were a bottom-3 Devils team all-time in that sense. But the difference is that it wasn’t at all surprising for those first two teams ...
As I said at the top of this piece, this Devils team hit the offseason guns a-blazing with 3 high-profile acquisitions. Expectations may not have been sky-high, but they certainly were expected to at least threaten for a playoff spot. Was this a historically disappointing season?
Short version ... not even close.
The historical Vegas preseason figures only go back to 1985 and they don’t have O/U information for much of it so instead I built a model that converts “Odds” into O/U information. So if the numbers look different than you remember it’s because they’re approximated. Also, because of inconsistent games played, I converted it all expected and observed point totals to an 82-game pace.
As you can see, the Devils were about 5 points below their approximate Vegas projection (their real projection was 90.5 so it was closer to 10 points off but still). This is obviously not what we want, but it’s also nowhere close to the biggest disappointment — that title goes to the 1989 team.
We were riding high after our first playoff appearance and Vegas oddsmakers had the Devils tied with the Islanders and Capitals for 7th in the Stanley Cup favorite list going off at +1500 which, on my model, equates to about a 95-point 82-game pace expectation. The Devils ended up with 66 points in 80 games — just 5 above the league basement. The Devils didn’t have Bruce Driver for most of that year and injuries compiled late, especially, but mostly it was a disappointing year for some of the young forwards, with Muller, Broten, and Verbeek all producing at a much lower pace. Imagine the 2019 Devils except, Bruce Driver got injured instead of Taylor Hall.
Just as the Devils disappointed fans after their first playoff appearance, they repeated that sin after their first Cup. In 1996 the Devils were reigning Cup champs and were given worse odds to win that season’s championship that only Detroit Red Wings team with 7 Hall of Famers, and the Lemieux/Jagr Pittsburgh Penguins. Their +800 odds translated to an expected 82-game pace of 101 points. Not only did they miss their dominant expectation, they missed the playoffs entirely thanks to the 2nd-worst offense in the NHL.
All this is to say that the Devils have produced more disappointing results than the 2020 season.
Conclusion and Your Thoughts
The 2020 season sucked, don’t get me wrong. But it was not the worst season — the 80s had somewhere between 2 and 5 teams that were much worse. It was not the most hopeless season — the first two seasons in NJ were. And it was not the most disappointing, we underachieved severely after both major franchise landmarks.
But enough from me, what do you guys think? Was this the worst season in Devils history? The saddest? Most disappointing? Where does this rank in the annals of annoyance? Leave your depressing thoughts in the comments section below.