Heading into the game tonight against the New York Islanders, the New Jersey Devils have won 5 of their last 6 games, the final 3 against Philadelphia, a 1-1 split against Boston, and the game on Thursday night against the Isles. It has been an impressive stretch of games, and one that has been enjoyable to watch, especially in comparison to how they have played the majority of the season.
Fans might take the winning a couple of different ways. Some fans, now that the Devils are clearly out and have done a good job of tanking on their own, would prefer to see the team keep losing. Indeed, a look at the standings from Friday has NJ 27th in the league, now ahead of Detroit, Vancouver and Anaheim. Had they gone 1-5 over their last 6 games instead of 5-1, there is a decent chance they could be the 2nd worst team outside of Buffalo, with the 2nd best odds at winning the draft lottery. As it is now, they could even end up passing Columbus too if they win out, which will seriously dampen their odds at a top 5 pick in the draft.
Others, however, will look at the positives that this winning has done. We want the team to do poorly so that they can draft good talent, but that talent then needs to develop. And when players are given NHL ice time to develop, as they are right now for this team, those players will develop more quickly and will grow into better players if they are playing on winning, competitive teams. More often than not, that is true. At this point, you really cannot have both with this team. You can either have them lose games for a better pick, at the expense of seeing strong growth out of young players on this team, or you can see strong growth from some young players at the expense of a higher pick in the draft this year. And the Devils, over their last 6 games, have mostly been going with the latter approach.
However, the interesting thing is that when you look at the numbers across the NHL since April 27, when the Devils had that first of the 3 wins against Philadelphia, their team numbers have not been great. Across the league, here are some of their numbers and ranks thanks to Natural Stat Trick, with everything here coming at 5v5:
So, what have been the positives for the Devils over their last 6 game stretch as compared to the league? Ultimately, shooting percentage, save percentage to a lesser degree, and PDO. So, essentially, the Devils have been massively lucky when it comes to 5 on 5 play. An unsustainable shooting percentage, with the team currently sitting at 7.81% across the entire season, 19th in the League. A 5v5 save percentage that is almost 3% higher than the season average, and a very high PDO, indicating that if the Devils were to keep playing over a long period, if the season were not about to end, things could crash back to earth, and do so sooner than later.
However, look at everything else. Since April 27, New Jersey ranks dead last in Shots For percentage, dead last in expected Goals For percentage, and dead last in high danger Corsi. They also rank 27th in actual Corsi For. But again, despite this, they rank 10th in the league in GF% thanks to their very high shooting percentage. Again, this is not the blueprint for sustainability. Actually, you would have to bet on it going horribly wrong basically any time now. How can a team that is dead last in xGF and the worst team when it comes to high danger, and the one who has the worst differential in shots for, manage to win many games? It just doesn’t happen too often, or for very long.
The good news for the team, at least in this sense, is that they only have two games left, the game today and a Monday tilt against Philly. That doesn’t give time to allow for regression. So, realistically, the team could end with two more wins by garnering strong shooting and save percentages, despite their poor underlying numbers as shown above. That would be great for the players and for morale, and would give the team a positive scope heading into the offseason and preparing for next year. However, it is not something to bet on considering that the underlying numbers are so poor at 5 on 5. In fact, if you were betting, you might want to bet against them winning specifically because of how poor they have been at possession, high danger, and expected goals at 5 on 5. They have won games despite that, but that is not something that should happen consistently, or for long stretches. The fact that it has happened 5 of the 6 last games is impressive enough as it is.