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The 2020-21 Devils and Luck

Today at AATJ, let’s take a look at how lucky or unlucky the 2020-21 New Jersey Devils were.

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Over the course of the last several offseasons, either I or CJ have done a post looking at how lucky or unlucky the New Jersey Devils have been. With the new season right around the corner, it is the right time to keep that tradition going and take a look once again at the Devils and luck from the past season.

As the quick background, Rob Vollman, in his book Hockey Abstract, dove into the topic and came up with an analytical approach to quantifying luck in the game of hockey. Nothing can perfectly encapsulate luck of course, but he was able to narrow it down to five stats, which when looked at together, can give a pretty good approximation of what teams were lucky over the course of a season and which teams had none. The five categories are: shooting and save percentages (PDO), the impact of special teams (STI), injuries in the form of the total cap hit of injured players (CHIP), a team’s record in games that go beyond regulation, and a team’s record in one-goal games. Let’s take a look at all five of those from the Devils’ perspective in the 2020-21 season and see just how lucky or unlucky our favorite team was.

PDO

The first category is PDO, a stat easily tracked and found all over. Simply, it is taking a team’s shooting and save percentages at 5 on 5 and adding them together. It is a basic luck stat, and tells part of the luck story. Any team with a PDO over 1.00 is lucky, any team under that is unlucky, and anyone at it is luck neutral. Realistically, if you track this during the season, you should realistically expect regression to that luck neutral 1.00 number. There are always factors which can skew PDO and make it not entirely reliable when gauging luck, such as consistently poor goaltending, or an extremely porous defense which leads to many more shots on goal, and thus more goals against. However, it is worth checking out.

The Devils, according to Natural Stat Trick, had a 5 on 5 PDO of 0.989, which ranked them 25th in the league. Overall, this is a fairly unlucky number. The luckiest team in terms of PDO was Minnesota, which posted a 1.023 PDO, and the unluckiest in terms of PDO was Buffalo, which posted a 0.977 PDO. There was a fairly consistent spread among the 31 teams, with 15 having PDOs above 1 and 16 below 1. The Devils did not get especially unlucky because of either their shooting or save percentages. It isn’t like one was good but the other tanked the PDO number. Their team shooting percentage at 5v5 ranked 22nd in the league at 7.77%, and their team save percentage ranked 24th in the league at 91.12%. Overall, it was not a lucky year for NJ in terms of PDO, with poor shooting and save percentages dooming the team at even strength.

Special Teams Impact

Special teams impact works similarly to PDO, although unlike its counterpart, it is not a stat you see regularly posted. STI combines a team’s PP percentage and PK percentage and adds them together. The closer to 100%, the more luck neutral a team was. This is another quality indicator of luck as it tracks what happens outside of even strength, helping to fill in the larger picture that PDO cannot. And since the PP and PK only happen for a few minutes each game, a fluke or lucky goal here or there can really impact these percentages, adding to that luck factor.

According to NHL.com, the Devils ranked 28th in the league in PP percentage at 14.2%, and they ranked dead last in the NHL in PK percentage at 71.0%. Combined, that gives the 2020-21 Devils an STI of 85.2%, an atrociously unlucky number. They had the lowest STI in the league last year; the only other team to post an STI below 90% was Anaheim, who ended with 88.8%. Every other team had at least 90%. The really poor and unlucky number here definitely comes from multiple places, no one person on the team can create an STI that unlucky, but perhaps the largest contributor was Mackenzie Blackwood, who posted a penalty kill save percentage of 0.825 last year, good for 39th among the 42 goaltenders last year who played at least 100 PK minutes. He needs to get better at special teams goaltending, plain and simple.

CHIP

The next statistic attempts to look at which teams were the most and least affected by injuries. One way to do this is to look at man games lost. This tracks how many players were injured on a team for how many games, and adds them together. This works, but it doesn’t tell the entire story. For example, losing Nico Hischier for as many games as he missed last year had a much bigger impact than, say, if a fourth liner were hurt for the same amount of games. But in terms of man games lost, it would be the same number.

So, to represent the difference in the quality of player lost, it is better to look at the overall cap hit of injured players. Losing Nico puts on a $7.25 million cap hit per game, as opposed to a fourth liner who would carry a much smaller number into the CHIP. The NHL Injury Viz actually takes this a step further and has what they call the “net CHIP” which compares a team’s CHIP versus their opponent for each game and comes up with a net positive or negative number across the entire season.

In this sense, despite the large number of games lost by Nico and his large cap hit, the Devils actually ended the season fairly luck-neutral. The cumulative difference over 56 games for New Jersey was -$0.8 million, really close to the $0 luck-neutral. On the one end, you had Florida who ended at +$5.9 million, and at the other end you had Chicago at -$8.1 million, but NJ was very close to the middle, which you cannot complain about. It isn’t the positive luck you need after the two really negative lucky stats in PDO and STI, but it isn’t terrible either.

Post-Regulation Record

The last two categories have to do with record. First, we will look at the team’s record in games that go beyond regulation. For this, we are talking about both games that end in overtime and games that go to a shootout. Both of these are largely driven by luck over the course of a season, and luck-neutral teams should be around .500. Now, that won’t exactly be true for everyone: better teams with better skill players, especially on offense, to go along with strong goaltending might perform better overall in these games. However, it should never be exceptionally skewed one way or another without a strong luck influence.

Given that, last season, the Devils played in 11 games that went beyond regulation. In those, they had a record of 4-7. This is somewhat unlucky given that luck neutral would have them either 5-6 or 6-5. However, it is not crazy skewed either, needing only one game to have a different ending to get to neutral. But it is still definitively unlucky, an overall trend for the Devils last season. It isn’t like that year where they lost every single shootout and seemed to be in one every night, but it still was not ideal.

One-Goal Games

Finally, we look at their record in one-goal games. This is similar to the last one in that these are close games, and when strictly looking at luck, teams should end up somewhere near .500. When games get out of hand, with multiple goal leads, teams change tactics and play differently, leading to different outcomes. In one-goal games, however, teams are still employing optimal strategies to score and win, which makes these more reliable in terms of statistics. And when it comes down to one goal, anything can win the game, from a wild deflection to a lucky bounce. Given that, you would expect a team, across a full season, to have their share of lucky bounces both go their way and go against them, leading to a somewhat even record here.

In this, the Devils would prove analysts correct. Last season, they played 16 games that did not go to overtime but ended after 60 minutes with the winning team winning by only one goal. In them, they were an even 8-8, perfectly luck-neutral. They lost many more games by multiple goals than they won, but when the games were close, and there were a decent amount of them, the Devils were perfectly .500.

Conclusion

In the end, of the five categories, three of them showcase the Devils as having bad luck last year, while the remaining two show them as being luck-neutral. Add those all together, and you can definitively state to anyone who wants to hear that the Devils were an unlucky team last season. Their PDO was 6th worst in the league, their STI was worst in the league by a long shot, and their post-regulation record was slightly unlucky. Their CHIP and record in one-goal games were neither lucky nor unlucky, but none provided the luck needed to balance out the unlucky nature of the other three stats.

This upcoming year, if you want to talk about ‘addressing luck’, however you go about doing that, their clearly needs to be improvement on special teams. While some of that STI number is definitely luck, some of it is also bad play. The Devils being the worst PK team in the league last year is not simply unlucky, it is also a result of poor performance. Blackwood needs to be better when the team is down a man, and the team needs to be able to clear the puck more often. Beyond that, just an overall improvement in 5v5 save percentage would do wonders to boost PDO, which would go a long way to helping this team find some luck.

Again, I am saying this like luck is something you can consciously improve. I get that this really isn’t luck or what luck is intended to mean. However, the best teams make their own luck to some degree, and the Devils need to start doing that this year. Be better, and those bounces and deflections start going your way. And they can definitely be better, and hopefully should this year. Let’s hope that next year, this article shows a much luckier team than the one that played in 2020-21.