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Can a NHL Team Actually Improve by At Least 30 Points Over a Season?

The 2021-22 New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs by 37 points last season. Has any NHL team actually improved by at least 30 points in the following season? This post provides an answer with the biggest turnaround in Devils history, an even bigger one by a divisional opponent, and what can we learn from both.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Florida Panthers
A clue as to the answer to the question.
Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

The title of this post is a question. Betteridge’s law of headlines would state the answer to this question is ‘No.’ However, we must break this ‘law’ because of a little hockey history. The answer is actually ‘Yes.’ And you may even know the examples I am about to provide. (Quick aside: No, I’m not including differences between shortened and 82-game seasons. Apples to apples here.)

But first: Why ask this question? This question is highly relevant to the New Jersey Devils for this upcoming season. They missed the playoffs last season and by a massive margin. With 63 points earned, the Devils finished 37 points behind the 100-point Washington Capitals. The patience among the People Who Matter has become thinner as the team has made the playoffs just once since their Stanley Cup Final run in 2012. Given the hiring of Andrew Brunette as an associate coach and not as a mere assistant, I think there is pressure on head coach Lindy Ruff to lead the team to success beyond the first few weeks of the season. Additionally, general manager Tom Fitzgerald - who has been in the Devils’ front office since 2015 - has put together teams with two straight seasons that did not have many meaningful games in January much less March or April as GM. A third straight lost season for New Jersey may lead to New Jersey telling Fitzgerald to get lost. Realistic or not, the Devils need to at least be in the mix for the postseason in 2023 before we start writing about Rebuild 3.0 with a new GM in charge.

As you may expect, a team making up a difference of over 30 points from a previous season is not at all easy. Teams that tend to be real bad in one season do not often flip it entirely around in the next. It certainly is not a common occurrence in the NHL. If often takes more than just one offseason or one season to make the improvements as to why they were bad. Fortunately, there are two recent examples that I think that are worth taking lessons from that show it is possible. Even if it is only the People Who Matter, the fans, who listen and use them to temper their expectations for this coming Devils season.

The Biggest Turnaround in Devils History: 2016-17 to 2017-18

The first is an “internal” example. Based on the history listed at Hockey-Reference, the Devils have never had an improvement of over 30 points from season to season. This is not the example that says ‘Yes’ to the headline question, but I want to go over it first. This is a Devils blog so starting with the Devils always appropriate. It is also a different turnaround from the other example. And, besides, an improvement of 27 points is just a couple of bounces away from being 30 in this sport. That’s just one extra win and overtime/shootout loss or some combination thereof. It is also an example that many of you have actually witnessed: the 2016-17 to 2017-18 seasons.

The Devils entered their first proper rebuild with the hiring of Ray Shero. Lou’s last season with the Devils was a 78-point campaign that missed the postseason by 20 points. It was a veteran team with not much of a future in the prospect pool. The days of low-scoring hockey yielding results were over with the 176 goals scored by the team just not being enough to get results. Lou was kicked upstairs briefly before moving on to Toronto. Ray Shero, formerly of Pittsburgh, was brought in as the GM. The teardown both on and off the ice began in 2015. The 2015-16 Devils did provide some solace that the Devils’ world was not over. The team was legitimately improved over the 2014-15 squad. They earned 84 points, an improvement of six points, and missed the playoffs by 12 points. The team was not an eye-sore to watch. Perhaps this rebuild would not go so badly. Plus, Adam Larsson was turned into Taylor Hall, one for one.

Then it went badly in 2016-17. While the 5-on-5 goaltending was not bad at all in 2016-17 compared to 2015-16, the team conceded 39 more goals in 2016-17 compared to 2015-16. The issue was the scoring; the lack thereof. The team finished dead last in the NHL in 2015-16 with 182 goals scored and managed to score two fewer goals for 180 in 2016-17. Thanks to awful seasons by Vancouver in Colorado, the 2016-17 Devils did not finish last in scoring but it was still terribly low. Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique did not repeat their 30-goal seasons in 2015-16; Taylor Hall put up 20 goals and 53 points in his first season with the Devils; and the contributions of Travis Zajac, Michael Cammalleri, and P.A. Parenteau did not make up the differences either. Giving up more goals and not scoring more will and did lead to plenty of losses. The 2016-17 Devils were difficult to watch, won just 28 games, and earned 70 points. They finished 14 points worse than their first season under Shero, finished last in the East, and missed the postseason by 25 points. By the way, yes, this team earned seven more points than last season’s Devils team.

It was thought that the 2016-17 Devils hit rock bottom. History shows that, at the time, they did. The 2017-18 Devils would have plenty of new faces though. The Devils won the 2017 Draft Lottery and ended up taking Nico Hischier over Nolan Patrick. Trades were made to bring in Mirco Mueller and Marcus Johansson. Cammalleri and Devante Smith-Pelly were bought out. Brian Boyle was signed on July 1 as their major signing of that day. A bigger free agent was signed later in the Summer: Will Butcher, who decided on hitting the market instead of signing with Colorado (Patrick Roy telling him he would never make in the NHL may have led to this situation). Travis Zajac was ruled out for several months with a torn pectoral muscle; the team signed Drew Stafford late; and a young winger from the 2016 draft class surprisingly made the team in 2017: Jesper Bratt. As much as I wanted Shero to do more on July 1, 2017, he was quite active to change some things with the Devils going into the 2017-18 season. The biggest and most important change had less to do with Shero and everything to do with Hall.

You probably remember the 2017-18 season as the last one where the Devils made the playoffs and the one where Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy. No Devil has ever won the Hart. Hall absolutely deserved it as he had a season for the history books. Hall was a Superstar. Hall’s jump from 20 goals and 53 points to 39 goals and 93 points was both massive and the high-point of his career to date. You can count on three fingers the number of Devils who have earned more points in a single season than Hall. Hall’s sensational season paved the way for a 2017-18 Devils team that scored 243 goals - an improvement of 63 goals over the previous season. Hall provided a chunk of that with 19 more goals from him alone. Of course, there were plenty of other additions. Nico Hischier put up 20 goals and 52 points in his rookie season. Bratt provided 13 goals and 35 points. While he just had the five goals, Will Butcher put up 44 points as he was put on the power play unit right away as a rookie. Miles Wood emerged to add 19 goals. Brian Gibbons, Brian Boyle, Blake Coleman (this was his emergence too) and Stefan Noesen each put up 12 or 13 goals while being in the bottom six. The Devils offense as a whole was a far sight better than the previous two seasons that carried them to plenty of wins. Production improvements really carried the day as the the Devils allowed about the same amount of goals from the previous season, 240 in 2017-18. While the goaltending was still concerning - Schneider was good for three months and then he was not; Keith Kinkaid was good for two-ish months after that - the overall results were the same there.

The Main Lessons to Learn: You can score your way to success. The big turnaround in the standings was driven by the Devils’ offense as they were mainly responsible for turning a -61 goal differential in 2016-17 into a +3 (+4 if you include shootouts) in 2017-18. The goals against count between both the terrible 2016-17 and the much better 2017-18 season was about the same even if 2017-18 marked the what would be the end of Schneider as a legit starting goalie. Better goaltending would have added more icing on the proverbial cake. The cake itself was their offense. The Devils went from 114 goals in 5-on-5 play into 160. That is a massive gain responsible for many additional wins on their own. The power play went from 45-for-251 to 54-for-252; so the Devils’ power play punished opponents a bit more often. They even scored six more shorthanded goals compared to the previous season.

Given what we know about goal differential and standings points - an improvement of 6 guarantees a theoretical win - we can do some math. The 5-on-5 improvement of 46 goals, the power play improvement of 9 goals, and the shorthanded improvement of 6 goals, gives us 61 more goals. That’s 10 wins. The 2017-18 Devils won 12 more games; throw in some variance with post-regulation and there you are. Offensive improvements are team improvements.

This can absolutely apply to the 2022-23 Devils. It has been pointed out that the Devils’ offense was not the real problem in 2021-22. However, I do not believe in not improving what could be better. The Devils finished last season with 245 goals scored, which put them 19th and just below the league median of 250. Better injury luck for Jack Hughes, Dougie Hamilton, and Nico Hischier probably would get the Devils to exceed the median alone. Other improvements may come within too: A healthy Wood; a second season for Dawson Mercer; and a more consistent season from Yegor Sharangovich, Andreas Johnsson, and/or Tomas Tatar would help. The additions of Ondrej Palat and Erik Haula could theorethically contribute to an offense (that should be) looking to score more goalsnext season. This is also why those wanting another scoring winger, perhaps one who used to play for Calgary, had reason to want it. But, again, better injury luck is probably enough to see some gains in general offense.

The biggest area on offense for the Devils to improve would be the power play. Their 34-for-225 season was not just painful to watch but legitimately held the team back in games. The success rate was low. So was the number of PPGs as the league median for PPGs last season was 50. Even if the 2022-23 Devils PP, coached now by Brunette, gets to just 50 and is outside of the top ten, then that’s at least two wins from that alone right there. Possibly more given how the PPs shake out in reality; an extra goal here and there probably turns some of last season’s losses into wins or post-regulation losses. (Aside: If you worry about teams “taking liberties” with the Devils, then a lackluster power play probably contributed to that more than anything else. Who cares about fouling someone if you’re not going to suffer for it? This helps that too.)

So the main lesson from the biggest one-season turnaround in Devils history: Improve the scoring. There was admittedly a lot of luck involved. No one predicted Hall being that good. No one predicted Coleman’s emergence or the likes of Gibbons and Noesen being hot enough to provide at least 10 goals. No one predicted Bratt making the team at 19 and being so good in the first half of that season. No one predicted Hischier from making an immediate impact. No one predicted special teams providing 15 more goals than the previous season. But the Devils were able to fill the net more, get more successes from their special teams, and get more victories to get them to 97 points and a playoff berth. It was a successful season even if Tampa Bay dispatched the Devils in five games.

Alas, that success was not sustained. And that is partially why the Devils are where they are. Now let us move onto the other example. This one did have a season turnaround of at least 30 points. This one is also a team name that you have heard of and dreaded for years: The Columbus Blue Jackets. Coincidentally, this turnaround happened just before the Devils.

32 Point Improvement & Somewhat Sustained: The Columbus Blue Jackets from 2015-16 to 2016-17

While the New Jersey Devils were starting a new era with Ray Shero as the GM, the Blue Jackets were still figuring things out. In 2013-14, the Blue Jackets made the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. The team took a step back and missed the playoffs in 2014-15 by nine points with a decent-ish 42-35-5 record and 89 points. That was Todd Richards’ third full season as head coach of the team. He would not reach a fourth in 2015-16. Columbus fell flat on their face and lost their first seven games of the season. No over-time points. No shootout losses. Seven straight regulation losses. Richards was fired on October 21, 2015 and was replaced by John Tortorella. A coach with both success and infamy in his history. Jeff Little wrote that he was exactly what the Jackets needed over at The Cannon. Little would turn out to be correct - but he and the Columbus faithful would have to wait a season first.

The Blue Jackets did win some games in 2015-16. Not a whole lot of them as the team finished 34-40-8 with 76 points. The Blue Jackets finished last in the Metropolitan - eight points behind the Devils - and missed the playoffs by 20 points. Only Toronto was worse than them in the East. Columbus’ goal differential of -31 was not obscenely low. They were even close to the league median in goals for with 213. It was the back end that was the problem. The team allowed 248 total goals, the second most in the NHL; which included 53 power play goals, the sixth most in the NHL. The Blue Jackets were in the higher end of allowing shooting attempts and shots on net in 5-on-5, which only led to more opportunities for the goalies to get beat. Which happened quite a bit. Sergei Bobrovsky was not as good as he was with a 90.8% total save percentage at even strength, a 91.6% even strength save percentage, and only getting into 37 games due to injuries. Curtis McElhinny and Anton Forsberg were real bad, with the former coming in 18 games. Joonas Korpisalo emerged as the team’s best goalie with a 92% total save percentage in 31 games - and made many fans wonder if he needs to take over Bobrovsky’s job.

The wondering continued as the Blue Jackets went on to do not a whole lot in the 2016 offseason. Columbus did make a huge deal in the middle of 2015-16: Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones, a swap of fourth-overall picks. This did help the blueline. Past that, the only trade made prior to the 2016-17 was sending Kerby Rychel to Toronto for Scott Harrington and a conditional pick. Hardly a move causing a sea change in Ohio. Their free agent additions were Sam Gagner and some two-way deals, including the aforementioned Harrington. At the draft, Columbus drafted Pierre-Luc Dubois at third overall instead of the favorite Jesse Puljujarvi or a defenseman like Olli Juolevi. Dubois would go back to junior for 2016-17. Even in retrospect, I am shrugging my shoulders going, “That’s it?”

This was hardly the offseason that one would think Going back to The Cannon after the 2015-16, it read to me that the team needed to do a lot more than just draft a defenseman. The offensive side of things had its own flaws - David Clarkson’s injuries really caught up to him - but it had its pluses and high points such as 30-goal seasons from Boone Jenner and Brandon Saad. But the defense and the goaltenders were the main issues. Yet, the team did not really address in free agency. It appeared the team was going to run it back with a full season under Tortorella and hope things - especially the goaltending - would turn around. In that last link, MrSwift13 wrote the following about Bobrovsky:

Bottom line for Bobrovsky: he has to put up the numbers that made him a Vezina winner next season. He absolutely has to. Otherwise, it may be time to start looking elsewhere for help. A $7.5 million dollar cap hit for an oft-injured goaltender with average numbers just isn’t going to cut it.

Oh, he would. In fact, he would have the best season in his career in 2016-17. Bobrovsky was healthy and appeared in 63 games for Columbus. The Blue Jackets won 41 of those 63 games. He had a mind-boggling 93.1% save percentage in all situations and 93.8% in even strength situations. Bobrovsky was not just the best goalie on Columbus by a mile, but he was the best goalie in the entire NHL. He dominated the votes for his second Vezina trophy, made the NHL First All-Star team, and finished third for the Hart behind Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. It would end up being the cornerstone of what would be an amazing 2016-17 season for Columbus. The Blue Jackets went from 29th in the NHL with 248 goals allowed to 2nd with 193. Sure, McElhinney had some great times in his 7 games and Joonas Korpisalo was kept to just 14 games as he did take a step back; but this was largely the result by Bobrovsky being the best goalie in the world during the 2016-17 season.

However, the gains made by the 2016-17 Blue Jackets go beyond just having the best goalie in the world. The team finished 2016-17 with a 50-24-8 record for 108 points - their best record ever in franchise history. They improved by 32 points. They went from a goal differential of -31 to +54; a huge swing in of itself. So huge it was bigger than Bobrovsky in the crease that season. The reduction in 55 goals allowed alone would not cause that. That makes this turnaround more interesting to look at - Columbus made other improvements despite not doing a whole lot in the offseason. Some of the main ones (thanks to this post from The Cannon for the inspiration).

  • The Blue Jackets were better in 5-on-5 hockey as they cut down on the rate of attempts and shots allowed. In other words, their defense was better in addition to the goaltending led by Bobrovsky.
  • Seth Jones turned 22 and played his first full season with Columbus. It was a big jump in both production and in 5-on-5 rates. Jones ended up leading the blueline in average ice time per game and added 12 goals and 42 points. His emergence definitely helped the blueline make improvements over the prior season.
  • Zach Werenski made his NHL debut and had a fabulous rookie season with on-ice rates even surpassing Jones’ on-ice rates and his 11 goals and 47 points led all Blue Jackets defensemen in scoring (and 13th among all defensemen in the NHL). He finished third for the Calder Trophy behind Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine and way, way, way, way ahead of the other defensemen receiving votes (2 fifth-place votes for Provorov, 1 fifth-place vote for Skjei). Werenski’s rookie season definitely helped Columbus’ blueline out. The combination of Jones and Werenski meant playeers like David Savard, Jack Johnson, and Ryan Murray could play fewer minutes.
  • The power play was more efficient. While the 2015-16 Columbus team scored 43 PPGs, it was out of 248 opportunities. The 2016-17 Blue Jackets went 42-for-211. This did run hot at the beginning of the season but grew colder as the campaign went on. Still a gain of 2.6% success rate even if it did not help the goal differential.
  • The penalty kill did help the goal differential by allowing 14 fewer goals. Combined with 56 fewer shorthanded situations, this aspect of the game was better. Another improvement for the defensive side of the game.
  • While Saad and Jenner did not repeat their 30-goal seasons and Scott Hartnell did not score 20 goals again, more Blue Jackets chipped in than in the prior season. In 2015-16, only 7 skaters scored 10 or more goals. In 2016-17, 12 skaters did. Cam Atkinson broke out with 35 goals and 65 points. Nick Foligno rebounded from 2015-16 to have a 26 goal, 51 point season. Alex Wennberg put up 13 goals and 59 assists to be big producer. The one signing of Sam Gagner proved fruitful with 17 goals and 50 points. Bottom six players like Josh Anderson put in 17 goals and Matt Calvert put in 10. The two defensemen, Jones and Werenski, added 23 between the two of them. Even with some notable drops in production from the prior season, the group more than made up the difference. The scoring-by-committee led to the Blue Jackets scoring 34 more goals in 2016-17 going from 213 goals to 247 - the sixth most in the NHL in 2016-17. There is the other part of that massive difference in goal differential.

Again, the result of all of this was what is still the best season in Columbus’ entire history as a franchise. They earned 50 wins. They finished with 108 points. The Metropolitan Division was as strong then as it is now so the Blue Jackets finished third in the division - with the fourth best record in the NHL. This is a team that went from the basement to near the penthouse in just a season and with not very many changes from the prior season. This season not only revived Bobrovsky’s reputation, but Tortorella’s as well as he had the Jackets running through walls if he requested it. But I want to emphasize that this turnaround was more than just Bobrovsky playing out of his mind.

Likewise, I want to emphasize that 2016-17 was not a failure because Pittsburgh - who finished ahead of the Blue Jackets - knocked them out early. That was the Penguins team led by Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel down the middle and won the whole thing in 2017. What makes it a success was its massive turnaround in points, 32 (take that, Betteridge), and goal differential (over 80 goals). Moreover and almost as impressive, this was not just a one-and-done thing like the Devils’ big turnaround. While the Blue Jackets did not repeat having a season over 100 points, they did make the playoffs in each of the following three seasons with 97, 98, and 81 in 70 games, respectively. It may have been through wild card spots, but they remained in the mix even when Bobrovsky returned to Earth, Saad was traded for Panarin (June 2017, in fact), the Matt Duchene trade, and a whole host of other changes. Not coincidentally, Tortorella was Columbus’ coach for all of those seasons and stepped away after a bottom was hit in 2021 with a Blue Jackets team that went 18-26-12 (and finished ahead of the Devils, but nevermind that).

The Main Lessons to Learn: If you want a big and unlikely turnaround in the standings, then you need more than just one thing to go right. You need a lot of things to go right. Recall that the 2015-16 Columbus Blue Jackets had an OK offense, a not so OK defense, and unimpressive and not OK goaltending. All three were massively improved as the Blue Jackets went 50-24-8 in the following season.

Goaltending was “fixed” by Sergei Bobrovsky’s best season ever both in terms of performance and appearances. I wrote at length that the Devils needed more than league average goaltending back in April, but did point out that elite level goaltending alone could turn things around. The 2016-17 Blue Jackets got that and it was a big part of their sudden improvement. The reduction of 55 goals against would yield at least 9 wins alone, again using the 6 goal differential theory.

The defense got a whole better with Jones having a full season with the team and getting older and better in the process. Werenski coming in and having a smashing rookie season was a huge help. Their success meant others who were not as exceptional or talented like Murray or Johnson could take fewer minutes and easier roles. Combined with Tortorella’s other changes in 5-on-5 and taking fewer penalty calls, the team was better defensively - which only helped the goalies out further, and even contributed to the offense.

And the offense did not just “settle” for being around league median again. Even with drops in goal production for Saad, Jenner, and Hartnell, the other gains made more than made up for it. So much so that they were a top-ten team in total goals scored Even with a cooled off power play by season’s end, the power play was more efficient than in the last one.

Knowing that the team did not completely bottom out after Bobrovsky showed that his one peak season was for the one season or when other issues arise, really speaks to the qualities of John Tortorella as a coach. For his abrasiveness to the media and the reputation that coaches like him burn out fast, he at least played a role in the biggest turnaround in franchise history and was the boss behind the bench of the team’s best run to date. They went from two playoff appearances total to four straight. Yes, they finished no higher than third in the division - again, the Metropolitan is strong; that did not deter Columbus - but they were consistently playing meaningful games through Game #82. I dare suggest that coaching also played a role in this turnaround as well as how it was sustained.

To sum up: It was more than “just a goalie” or just better luck for Columbus. Plenty went right for the 2016-17 Blue Jackets but they made improvements that meant they were more than a flash in the pan. It was goaltending and better defense and more goals and more players contributing and better coaching.

The 2022-23 Devils may get some of that with players being healthy and younger players continuing to improve. Should the additions of Palat and Haula work out along with some more consistency from Sharangovich, Tatar, and Johnsson would go a long way there. The addition of John Marino to make a top four of Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Ryan Graves could yield a better defense. Brunette improves the coaching in general and any PP gains would be huge. Of course, the other questions many have asked apply here: Lindy Ruff and his impact is going to be a factor for better or worse. (The last two seasons say for worse) Vitek Vanecek may be good but may not be able to play 60+ games; is Mackenzie Blackwood able to bounce back? If so, will it be this season?

Final Thoughts & Your Take

I am certain these are not the only examples of a NHL team going from near the bottom of the division to snagging a playoff spot in just a season. I mean, Colorado going from 48 points in 2016-17 to 95 points in 2017-18 is an even bigger gain than both of these. 37 47 points, to be exact. However, their turnaround had a lot of the same elements as the 2017-18 Devils and 2016-17 Blue Jackets (and a slightly weaker division/conference since 95 points took the last wild card spot). I think the two examples in this post are more applicable to the current team.

Between the two, each team had goaltending that either excelled or was good enough to not be significantly worse than the prior, worse season. Each team saw big gains in scoring, either driven by a MVP season along with a bunch of contributors or just a big group of players contributing more than a little bit. Each team saw improvement on special teams. Each team needed big jumps in the amount of goals that they scored compared to the prior season; however that is done may vary a bit, but the results were there. But, again, goaltending or scoring improvements will not do it. It has to be some combination of both being excellent or one being excellent and the other being good enough to not be an issue. It was never “just the goalie” or “just have a MVP season from a former first overall pick.”

The thing with the 2022-23 Devils is that, on paper, this is possible - but still with a lot of “ifs” and hopes. Even if they ultimately fall short, a big improvement is absolutely in the cards. Then again, one could have made this argument after 2021 for the 2021-22 Devils. A whole heap of bad goaltending, bad goaltending, bad power play, bad goaltending, bad coaching, bad injury luck, and bad goaltending ensured the 63-point season we got. That said, the optimists among the People Who Matter have some reason to be optimistic. A turnaround of at least 30 points is indeed possible. It may be difficult or unlikely to some degree; but it has been done. Hopefully for Fitzgerald’s, Ruff’s, and other’s sake in the organization that it is not a requirement.

What do you think of all of this? What were the main lessons that you learned in the turnarounds that the Blue Jackets had for the 2016-17 season or the Devils in 2017-18? What other parts of those seasons would you like to learn more of, perhaps other factors that need to be considered? Do you think the 2022-23 Devils can turn things around from last season and, if so, about how many points better do you think they will be? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this in the comments. Thank you for reading.