The bad news with the New Jersey Devils as we start 2023 is that they went 4-7-2 in December, eliminating much of the cushion and goodwill they built up in November when they peaked during a 13-game winning streak where everything that could go right did.
The good news with the Devils? Everything is still right there in front of them this season.
Despite the injuries. Despite the inconsistent play from the forwards. Despite poor goaltending at times. Despite questionable lineup decisions and Severson’s patented boo-boos and everything in between...the New Jersey Devils sit in second place in the Metropolitan, and they do it with games in hand on (most of) the teams chasing them for a playoff berth in 2022-23.
Anyone who has read me for awhile on these forums knows that I tend to be blunt, direct, and matter of fact, almost to the point of being rude. I don’t think there’s a bigger “you are what your record says you are” guy on these forums than yours truly. I’m not naive enough to think that 4-7-2 over the course of a month is good enough. It’s not. It’s unacceptable to me, especially after I raised the bar for this group off of the great start in November. It should be unacceptable to you as well as a fan....not to mention the players on the team or the coaching and management staff. There is no sense in sugarcoating it and pointing at charts and talking about “expected goals” and “deserve to win O-meters” when the results are what they are.
I’m also not going to point to games here and there and use that to say that the Devils are close. Two games that they lost against Boston where the Devils “outplayed the best team in the league but lost” are still losses. A competitive 2-1 game against Dallas that ended as a 4-1 loss due to two late empty net goals is still a loss. There’s no point in whining, making excuses, claiming the league “figured out” the Devils, or pointing out how the schedule got harder after Thanksgiving. The results are what they are and for the Devils to reach their ultimate ceiling, they’ll need to learn to turn those losses into wins. But that’s a post for another day.
Fortunately, that’s all in the past now. The Devils can only focus on the here and now going forward. And as we sit today, Wednesday, January 4th, 2023, the Devils are currently in a playoff spot, as they have been for most of the 2022-23 season.
There are a lot of flaws with the NHL’s points system that I won’t get into here. A 3-2-1-0 system would be so much better than the current system, but I digress, The one beauty of the points system is that a win in October counts the same in January, which counts the same in March. Two points are two points. Anytime you get those two points for a win, they go in the bank. The Devils don’t have to give them back. Nobody can take them away. And as we get later and later in the season, it gets harder for the teams behind you to make up that ground, particularly with the plethora of divisional games and Bettman points handed out.
For all of these reasons, January will make or break the Devils and tell us definitively what team they are. Are they the team that was 19-4-0 at one point that was hailed as the toast of the league and a legitimate threat to do damage in the postseason? Or are they what we saw in December, which wasn’t great, and a team that would be fortunate to be playing hockey games in late April?
Considering the Devils started the month off with a loss to a white-hot Carolina team, I probably should be more upset. After all......say it with me boys and girls! You are what your record says you are. But they did get a point against a team that is on an 11-game winning streak, so if you do want some silver linings, there’s that. The last time I checked, you also don’t have to give back a point for a shootout loss either, even in a game where you got thoroughly outplayed.
Up next for the Devils is a Detroit team that also struggled throughout the month of December. We’ll see if Detroit has a response after the Devils beat them convincingly in their building the last time these teams met. After that is a St. Louis team that will be without two of their best forwards, but was struggling prior to injuries. Following that is a date with a Rangers team that the Devils have already taken 3 out of 4 points from this season. And sure, the California road trip starts with a pit stop in Carolina against a team that has had their number, but is there any reason why the Devils can’t win in Anaheim or San Jose once they get out on the West Coast? Heck, is there any reason why they can’t win in Los Angeles or Seattle for that matter? Is there a reason why they can’t beat Nashville or Dallas later in the month when they were right there with them when they met earlier in the season?
I don’t write this to disparage other teams, of course. Winning games in the NHL is hard. Talent still trumps everything, but you also need bounces every so often. Any team can beat any other team on any given night.
The Devils points percentage on the season currently sits at .662, despite December struggles being a thing. This is obviously a testament to the big lead they jumped out to and all of the points they banked in November. Their points percentage in December slipped all the way to .384, which isn’t going to cut it.
I don’t think its asking too much of the Devils to go, say, 7-4-2 in January. Doing so would put them at 65 points at the end of the month and a .650 points percentage on the season. That wouldn’t quite be a stone cold lock for the playoffs, but with 32 games remaining at that point, the odds are pretty damn close. Keep in mind, the Devils are still at 95.4% to simply make the playoffs as of yesterday, according to MoneyPuck, and that’s WITH their December being awful. Another 4-7-2 month in January, however, would drop them to .600 on the season and likely would drop them squarely on the playoff bubble, as you can see below.
Obviously there are a couple caveats here. The 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons were both pandemic-shortened. The East division was loaded in 20-21 compared to the other makeshift divisions that season, not to mention it was the COVID year, so if you want to throw that out entirely, I get it. I also get it if you want to toss out the 19-20 season with 24 of the then 31 teams taking part in the Return to Play postseason tournament. 2012-13 was a 48 game lockout-shortened season as well, so throw that one out as well if you’re so inclined. We have the last ten full NHL seasons of data to draw from. If you’re simply looking for the median points percentage that the Devils should be aiming for to just barely make the playoffs in the East, you’re looking at a 94.5 point season and a points percentage of .576. The Devils are already over halfway there. Of course, the bar should be higher than just barely squeaking in to the tournament, but sometimes you have to walk before you run, and making the playoffs would be an accomplishment in and of itself for this group.
There are a lot of factors to consider over the season half of the season. Teams will be falling over themselves to tank for Connor Bedard and the other top prospects in this year’s draft. Many of those teams are on the schedule. Columbus (twice), St. Louis (twice), Philadelphia, Anaheim, Arizona, Chicago, San Jose, Vancouver, Nashville, Ottawa, etc. There are a lot of bad teams due up for the Devils. Playoff teams fatten up their point totals against the also rans. The haves will further separate themselves from the have nots as teams shift to sellers. Injuries happen, heaters wear off, and teams with their spot secure get complacent as the rest of the regular season becomes a glorified tune-up. And while we have seen some separation in the Metropolitan Division, the top of the division still must be accounted for. The Devils have two games each remaining with Carolina, Our Hated Rivals, and Washington, three with Pittsburgh, and one with the Islanders. Their results head-to-head in those “four point games” will likely be the difference when its all said and done.
The Devils aren’t quite in that spot yet where they can afford to take their foot off of the gas, but a strong month of January would seriously tilt the odds in their favor as they hope to play in the postseason for the first time in five seasons. A bad month of January means the Devils will probably have to fight tooth and nail right up to Game 82 to secure their spot.
You’ve heard enough from me though, so now, I turn things over to you. Do you believe the Devils are a playoff team? Do you think they can make it if they have another bad month? Is simply making the postseason good enough for you to consider this season a successful one? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and as always, thank you for reading.