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The Devils are Pretty Good, as Far as Embarrassingly Awful Teams Go

How do we wrestle with a team that seems so close and yet so far away at the same time?

New Jersey Devils v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

Truly, this has been another miserable season of Devils hockey, continuing a run that now essentially spans a full decade of futility. The Devils are the NHL's 28th place team, in shouting distance from the very bottom of the league. They are headed for their seventh top-10 pick in the past 10 seasons and potentially their fourth top-five pick in that frame. Their record is on track to be their worst since 1985-86, an ignominious era of Devils hockey. Their stated goal of wanting to play meaningful games late in the season was a spectacular failure, as the games have been almost wholly meaningless as far as the standings are concerned since December.

It has been exhausting to watch another Devils team circle the drain by mid-season and end up with 45 games of playing out the string. The number of comically awful results from the Devils this season may reach into the dozens. They already have more regulation losses than any Devils team since the 80s. Even the 2016-17 and 2018-19 teams that ended up with the top overall pick topped out at 40 and 41 regulation losses respectively. With eight games to play in this season, the Devils have a stout 42 of them. If the Devils were to lose out (given the multiple extended losing streaks this season, not impossible), they would end up with more regulation losses than any Devils team aside from the infamously terrible 1983-84 squad (yes, the one that yielded the Gretzky “Mickey Mouse organization” quote).

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was supposed to be a transition year for the Devils. They were supposed to emerge from the NHL’s doldrums and push their way back into the playoff conversation. Between the acquisitions the Devils made in the offseason and the players that were positioned for breakout seasons, they figured to be at least a scrappy playoff challenger in the East, even if they fell short of the bubble threshold. Instead, they were dead and buried by the time Christmas rolled around. The fanbase is as disgruntled as I can ever remember, and it’s hard to blame anyone ready to abandon ship on the whole enterprise. These are bad times for the New Jersey Devils.

And yet... the situation seems surprisingly fixable this time around. Certainly, compared to the teams of the mid-2010s that had little going for them and little in the pipeline. In 2015, the Devils were a bad team with a barren prospect pool and little hope for a return to contention in any reasonable time frame. The unicorn Taylor Hall trade helped give the Devils a brief dalliance with competence, but the foundation was not strong enough to support a consistently competitive team, as evidenced by [gestures broadly at past four seasons]. This version of the team really does seem to have the pieces to compete. They have multiple forwards playing at an elite level, a defense with a solid enough core group to compete, a reasonable amount of depth, and more strong prospects on their way up.

The 2021-22 Devils should be better than they are. The natural response to this is some version of the old Bill Parcells line “You are what your record says you are.” As far as 2021-22 is concerned, it’s true. You can dress it up however you like but it is undeniable that this season for the Devils was a disaster of monumental proportions. In a team building context, though, it’s sometimes crucial to separate what a team can be from what it is at this very moment.

The Devils are 13th in the NHL in overall 5v5 xGF%, sitting at almost 52% of the expected goals at even strength. Even when adjusting for score, they only drop to 14th and around 51%. They have displayed dynamism on par with some of the league’s top teams. To wit, the Devils have exploded for six or more goals 10 times, good for 6th most in the league. Their six games of seven-plus goals is tied for third most, behind only offensive juggernauts Colorado and Florida. They have a half-decent penalty kill too that ranks 8th in xGA/60 and 15th in GA/60.

The Devils have multiple players producing at a point or more per game in Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes. They have a captain coming into his own as a dominant two-way force in Nico Hischier. They have a breakout rookie (Dawson Mercer), a winger that can snipe the lights out (Yegor Sharangovich), and a bunch of cromulent depth pieces to fill out the bottom six. They have a player that has developed into arguably one of the best shutdown defenders in the league (Jonas Siegenthaler), an elite offensive defenseman and creator from the blue line in Dougie Hamilton, and capable middle-pairing workhorses in Damon Severson and Ryan Graves. Prospects like Alexander Holtz, Luke Hughes, Shakir Mukhamadullin, Arseni Gritsyuk, and a handful of other potential contributors in the minors mean more help is on the way as well.

The results are what they are, though. The Devils are in 28th. How do we square “this really is a promising group of players” with “the team largely constituted of the aforementioned players is getting pounded in the standings.” It’s admittedly tough to do, but the problems with this team are clear. They have gotten truly awful goaltending this season, which accounts for an enormous chunk of this team’s performance shortfall. They also have a dreadful power play that constantly sucks the wind out of the team’s sails. On top of those, they have a habit of maddening inconsistency and frequent rapid collapses on the scoreboard and on the ice. Whether it’s a lack of focus, a lack of preparation, or a lack of proper adjustments the team can turn a solid performance into a wretched result seemingly in the blink of an eye.

What’s clear is that the Devils need to recognize the strengths of this team while being willing to address its weaknesses, namely the worst goaltending situation in the league and a coaching staff that, at best, is just there and at worst has generated a frequently ill-prepared squad that gets itself run off the ice far more than should be happening. At a minimum, the Devils need to pitch out the man responsible for creating such an inept power play with a wealth of high-level playmakers to construct the unit with.

So many of the things that the Devils needed to happen to expect good things this year really have happened. The seasons they got from Hughes, Bratt, and Hischier are nearly ideal aside from some injury woes from Hughes. They have looked like a run-and-gun offensive force as frequently as many of the league’s best teams. They have enough talent on the blue line to keep up their end of the bargain while the offense cooks and a surprise breakout as a fantastic shutdown force in Siegenthaler. Go back to the standings, though, and you see the chasm between the Devils and 8th place and it’s enough to scratch your head how it still went so wrong. Hopefully the Devils can seize on the positives of this season and be proactive enough to fix the shortcomings on the back end and behind the bench. “Should be good” and the occasional offensive explosion is not enough. Expected goals are a good indicator of potential but if it’s never realized, it doesn’t matter all that much.