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Moving Forward, It’s Clear: It’s Not the Offense

For the most part of this “rebuild,” the offense has been the main area that has been in need of an upgrade. Scoring has been a huge issue. This year, as we hit mid-season, preventing goals against is now the biggest issue.

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

Basically since the Stanley Cup Run in 2012, the biggest reason for the New Jersey Devils not making the playoffs, or performing poorly in the standings, has been the offense. Yes, sometimes the goaltending was troublesome, like when Keith Kinkaid couldn’t handle a larger role, or when Cory Schneider met father time, or when Johan Hedberg was overworked. Yes, sometimes the defense has been suspect, like when Marek Zidlicky used to pinch 25 times a game and forget to play defense, or when Bryce Salvador also met father time. In fact, the team has been fairly poor at GA/60 since their last playoff run. But for the most part, when you look back on the seasons since 2011-2012, you see that the offense was always near the bottom of the league, and without scoring goals, this team was not going to win many games.

This year, we are actually seeing a change, and as the team closes in on the halfway point of the regular season, I am ready to call it. The 2021-22 Devils are not faltering because of a lack of scoring, but rather are scoring at a decent enough clip to be more successful than they are. Rather, they are not preventing goals against. Here is a chart from JFresh showing expected goals for and against:

You can see the Devils there in the “everything is happening” category, where teams have both high expected goals for and expected goals against. The Devils hover in between Winnipeg and Edmonton, both teams that rely on scoring to win games, not necessarily their defense and/or goaltending. So far, the Devils have produced 107 goals for this season. As of yesterday, there were 10 teams that had not even scored 100 goals, and 15 that had scored under 107. The Devils produce 2.82 GF/60, which is definitely better than JFresh’s xGF for them sitting around 2.6. However, it is right in line with their 2.81 xGF/60 from Natural Stat Trick. Either way you look at it, the Devils are producing goals. This is in comparison to their 3.32 GA/60, a horrible number, 7th-worst in the league right now. The team is just giving up way more goals this year.

But the craziest part about those numbers right there is that while that GF/60 number ranks only 19th in the league, that still could be enough for success. The Rangers are ranked 20th in the same category, right behind New Jersey, so clearly that number is enough to win games, whatever you feel about New York’s chances to sustain their winning ways. The difference for NJ is in between GA/60 and xGA/60. The Devils give up 3.32 goals against per 60, but are expected to only allow 2.74 as per Natural Stat Trick, and just less than that from JFresh. The reality there versus expectation is killing this team. If they were the defensive team that played to expectations, or at least somewhat close to them, they would absolutely have more goals scored then allowed this season, and could be in a significantly better position. A GA/60 that was near their xGA/60 would put them around 10th in the league, making them a pretty good defensive team. But nope, that’s not happening in real life.

As we move forward and look for this team to make improvements, it is going to mainly need to be in the area of preventing goals against, not in scoring goals. Yes, we cannot rest with the offense, they still are not close to a top 10 scoring team. But without improvement on the defensive front, from all phases of the hockey team, they are never going to be a very good team. That is definitely a change from last decade, when I feel like every year this team needed goal scorers first and foremost. Maybe that change is good, but we will only find out as time goes on, and right now, it is not leading to a winning season.