(Note: All stats referenced in this article do not include games played on Tuesday, November 8)
The New Jersey Devils have been the talk of the NHL through the first few weeks of the 2022-23 season, jumping out to a 10-3-0 start and storming into first place in the Metropolitan Division. They turned heads after back-to-back wins at home against Colorado and Columbus that were impressive for different reasons. The recent sweep through Western Canada has reinforced the notion that opposing teams need to take the Devils seriously moving forward.
None of that hasn’t stopped detractors from trying to poke holes in the team or find flaws. It’s 2022 and that’s what people do on the internet, after all. Some of those critiques don’t really carry a lot of weight, such as a supposed soft schedule. The Devils can’t control who they’ve played to this point, but beating Colorado, Edmonton, and Calgary should show this start isn’t a product of a soft schedule. But there are valid big-picture concerns with the Devils that are fair to bring up when evaluating the team. The big one, which we have discussed ad-nauseum here and has been a recurring problem for the Devils the last few years, is getting quality goaltending.
John took a look at the numbers last year and came to the conclusion that even with average goaltending, the 2021-22 Devils likely would not be a playoff team. I’d recommend going back and reading that post if you haven’t, but I agreed with his assessment at the time. The 2021-22 Devils were not good enough offensively to overcome average goaltending, never mind the worst goaltending in the NHL by far. They also weren’t good enough to overcome the barrage of injuries they had at the position that forced them to use seven goaltenders over the course of the 82 game season.
That was then and this is now, and while the sample size for 2022-23 is still relatively small, the Devils might have improved enough offensively where they can overcome average goaltending. Let’s take a look at the numbers.
The biggest area where the Devils have made an improvement has been going from a middle-of-the-road offensive team to, through 12 games, one of the best offensive teams in the NHL. The fact they’re doing this with a relatively pedestrian shooting percentage (9.4%, T-21st in NHL) is encouraging. The fact they’re doing this without Jack Hughes exploding is tantalizing, even considering that he is currently just below a PPG pace. There might be a few performances that we’re seeing from individual players that might be unsustainable. For example, I have my doubts that anyone on the Miles Wood-Michael McLeod-Nathan Bastian line is a 0.5 PPG player or better over the course of an 82 game season. Taking that into consideration, the Devils should be good enough and talented enough up front to finish Top 10 in most offensive categories, if not Top 5. This would be a huge improvement over the 2021-22 season and put the Devils in a good position if they’re pumping in around 3.5 GPG.
Of course, the Devils playoff hopes ultimately comes down to the goaltending, but through the early portion of the season, it appears the Devils might have perfectly adequate, average goaltending. Mackenzie Blackwood has more or less looked similar to the goaltender we’ve seen throughout much of the last two seasons where he would have his good days and bad days, but Vitek Vanecek has played to the back of his hockey card, posting a .908 save percentage through 7 outings. The Devils will need Vanecek to step up and continue playing at or above this level, especially in the aftermath of Blackwood’s MCL sprain. But is “perfectly adequate, average goaltending” good enough? Is a .908 save percentage good enough? Is Vitek Vanecek, unquestioned #1 goaltender because Blackwood is out 3-6 weeks and Jonathan Bernier is still working his way back from hip surgery, good enough? He passed a big test last night against Calgary, but can he keep it up?
My opinion is that the Devils will need to outscore other teams to make the playoffs. “No kidding”, you might be thinking to yourself reading this. What I mean is that the Devils very well may need to be one of the best offensive teams in the NHL this season to make the playoffs. Its not that they’re incapable of winning a game 1-0 or 2-1, but more often than not, they’ll need to be able to win games 4-3 or 5-2, like they did throughout their Western Canada road trip. Through 12 games, the Devils have been good enough offensively to do just that.
I was curious as to which teams were the best offensive teams to not make the playoffs over the last decade or so. I went back and compiled a list of the teams with the most goals per game (GPG) that missed the playoffs in their respective season to see if there was a number the Devils should be aiming for over the course of the 82 game season. I also pulled up the xGF/60 as well as their save percentage of those non-playoff teams to see if there were any trends we could pick up.
Please note that there are a few shortened seasons in there due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the 2012 lockout. I also did not grab the numbers from the 2019-20 season, as there were essentially 24 playoff teams that season (whether the NHL wants to admit it or not is a separate issue) with the “Return to Play” format, and there were a few qualifying round upsets in the bubble. I did want at least ten 82-game seasons to draw upon though, so here are those numbers.
You’ll notice that the GPG of the teams that missed the playoffs the last few seasons has trended upwards since 2017-18, but I think that can be chalked up to offense being up in general across the NHL. Part of that is having transcendent talents like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews in the league, sure, but part of that is also the recent expansion to Vegas and Seattle and there not being enough quality goaltenders or defensemen to go around. Just to give you an idea of how much offense is up in general, Jamie Benn led the NHL in scoring in 2014-15 with 87 points. Nineteen players equaled or exceeded that mark last season.
The recurring theme with most of these teams though is that most of them couldn’t get a save. It’s hard enough to make the playoffs with average goaltending, but its almost impossible to make it with bad goaltending. Sure, there might be extenuating circumstances for some of these teams. Vegas had a bunch of injuries to significant contributors last season that put them in a tough spot. The 2020-21 Rangers might have been a victim of the one-time divisional realignment with divisional-only play. But for the most part, none of these teams were great offensively with one interesting exception in the 2014-15 Dallas Stars. A team that coincidentally enough was also coached by Lindy Ruff.
No, I promise that this wasn’t an elaborate way of me trying to dunk on Lindy Ruff. Those who have read my writings here regularly know where I stand (or should I say, stood) as I thought he should’ve been fired numerous times. I can admit that since then, Ruff has done a great job, making a fool of me in the process and I’ll take the L while I eat some crow. But since I brought up Ruff, let’s talk about the 2014-15 Stars. Ruff had some success in his four seasons in Dallas, including the #1 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs in 2015-16. The 2014-15 Stars finished 10th in the West and missed the playoffs by 5 points. A big part of the reason why they missed the playoffs was they only got .903 goaltending from Kari Lehtonen over 65 games. There are some similarities in the rosters of the two teams, as Dallas had Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin at the peak of their powers and a very solid Jason Spezza as their 3rd leading scorer. In terms of point production, the trio of Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt compare favorably. Both teams have puck-moving defenseman who can put up points as Dallas had a 22-year old John Klingberg and Alex Goligoski. I think Dougie Hamilton and Damon Severson compare favorably there. I think a lot of the roster similarities end there though as I think this year’s Devils team is deeper and frankly better than what Ruff had to work with that season. Where’s the John Marino or Jonas Siegenthaler on that Dallas blueline, because with all due respect to Trevor Daley, he’s not that guy. Is there a potential 50-point scorer like Yegor Sharangovich or Dawson Mercer on the Dallas roster outside of their Top 3? Dallas’s roster was flawed (which was part of the reason why they missed the playoffs that year), but they stayed the course with their skill guys, jettisoned the bad players off of their roster, added a good veteran winger in Patrick Sharp, got slightly better goaltending from Lehtonen and newcomer Antti Niemi the following year, and was the #1 seed in the West. All while leading the NHL in scoring with 3.23 GPG and despite a .904 save percentage. So in theory, it can be done. The sportsbooks seem to think the Devils can as well as they’re -240 to make the playoffs on Fanduel and -320 on Draftkings.
The easiest way for the Devils to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18 would be to continue what they’ve been doing offensively. By being an elite offensive team, they can give themselves enough wiggle room to still make the playoffs if they can continue getting this level of goaltending they’ve gotten thus far. It helps that in addition to their top playmakers, they have good defensive defensemen in John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler to help shore up things on the back end. We’ve seen the Devils can win games if they play smart, make good decisions with the puck, and don’t put their goaltender in a position where he has to stand on his head. And of course, there’s the old adage “The best defense is a good offense”. If the Devils have more games like the one against Columbus where they flat out say “LOL you will not have the puck and there’s nothing you can do about it”, they’ll be in a good position.
You’ve heard from me and I’d like to hear from you. Unlike last season, is this year’s Devils team good enough to overcome average goaltending and make the playoffs? Do you need to see more from the offense? The goaltenders? The defense? The team in general? Can the Devils get by if Vanecek isn’t playing to what his Hockey-Reference page says he’s done in the past? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading.