Hey, it’s that time of year once again! No, not the holidays — although this moment frequently comes in the same time period — it’s the time of the year when we get to look at the Devils playoff hopes and say “Well, that’ll probably just about do it.” We have made it through 28 games of this New Jersey Devils hockey season, just over one third of the way through and, as we all had hoped and dreamed, it’s looking like the last two thirds may be a formality.
The Devils are 10-13-5 through 28 games, meaning they have won 35.7% of the games they have appeared in. So, if you’ve watched every Devils game this season, you have seen close to two losses for every win. Of late, things have gotten especially ugly, with the team barreling toward the division basement with a 3-10-3 stretch that has taken them from contention straight to the gutter. The reasons for the slide have and will continue to be documented in the coming days and weeks, but for now let’s try to assess what hope we have left for a resurgence this season.
The Devils’ 25 points in 28 games gives them a .446 points percentage, good for 25th in the league right now. In terms of raw points, the Devils sit just six points out of the final playoff spot, held by Detroit, who they also have two games in hand on. Not bad, right? Well, take out the fact that the Devils are playing awfully, and you could certainly see it that way. Of course, the Devils’ bigger problem is that they need to jump other teams too, such as 9th place Boston, which is five points ahead of New Jersey with two games in hand on the Devils themselves. To realistically put themselves back on track, the Devils likely need to piece together a six- or seven-game winning streak sometime in the vicinity of now. Not an impossibility, but certainly not something the Devils have offered much evidence they are ready to do any time soon.
Speaking from a big-picture standpoint, the Devils’ 25 points in 28 games puts them into a group of teams that has very rarely made the playoffs. According to Stathead Hockey, there have been 264 teams to make the playoffs since the 2004-05 NHL lockout when the shootout was implemented. In that time, there have been five teams who made the playoffs after having 25 points or fewer at the 28-game mark. The Devils also have a minus-16 goal differential (not including shootout results, which NHL.com stupidly still includes in goal totals). Only six teams in the shootout era have made the playoffs with a -16 or worse goal differential at this point of the season. Put those together and only three teams have had a record and a goal differential as bad or worse than the Devils simultaneously and made the playoffs since 2005. Those teams were the 2007-08 Capitals, the 2020-21 Predators, and the 2018-19 Blues.
There’s a little bit of hope to be found, in that two recent teams in the Devils position have turned it around in the recent past, including the 2019 Blues, who of course would go on to win the Stanley Cup. But let’s take a closer look at some things those teams did before those turnarounds. The 2007-08 Capitals were in a bad way until they fired Glen Hanlon and brought in Bruce Boudreau, who turned the team around and turned them into the offensive force they were known for in his time there. The 2018-19 Blues were in a bad way until they fired Mike Yeo and brought in Craig Berube, who turned the team around into one of the stingiest defenses in the league. The 2021 Predators, unlike those others, set the blueprint for how to climb out of a hole like this without changing your coaching staff, which is “have your starting goalie put up a .946 sv% for the rest of the season and have his backup put up a .950 sv%.”
Okay, so if I’m interpreting the data right, the Devils may have two paths back from the wilderness: they could fire their coaching staff and bring in the right successor with the ability to get more out of the players they have assembled than the current regime, or they can hope that MacKenzie Blackwood and [guy] turn into a way better version of prime Dominik Hasek for the remainder of the season. I’m being a bit glib, of course, but it truly is difficult to conclude that what we have seen so far from this team is suddenly going to shape itself into something worth watching without a drastic shakeup in system and philosophy or a goalie deciding to flip it into God Mode. Since half of their starting tandem is injured and the other half has looked mediocre at best, the latter feels unlikely, leaving a coaching regime change as the obvious move to try and shake this team out of the coma they are in.
Whatever they do at this point, though, it isn’t likely to get them to the playoffs. The hole may be too deep to climb out of, at least on the trajectory the team is currently travelling. Some prominent models now put the Devils’ playoff chances at one percent and their projected point total far from the playoff cutoff. It is painful to see another Devils team go belly up before we’re even in shouting distance of the trade deadline, but at least we are well prepared by recent experience. I wish I could muster some belief that a turnaround was on the way, but have we seen any hint that that is in the offing? If I had any sense that the team was willing to admit the status quo isn’t working and make a change, perhaps I could open be convinced to wait and see, but as it stands, it seems that this season may be another with an early trip to “lost cause” territory. Enjoy the spins on Tankathon, I guess.