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Good Teams Can Win When Not On Their Game

Cup contenders almost always go through bad stretches. The best ones manage to win during those times, and the Devils are currently doing that.

NHL: FEB 16 Devils at Blues Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Since the calendar turned to 2023, the New Jersey Devils have one of the best records in the NHL. After the loss on Thursday, they have a record of 12-3-3 since January 1, good for 27 out of a possible 36 points, a 0.750 point percentage, a fantastic number. That is how you maintain a strong position in a division that is top heavy with good teams and ensure that you will be playing hockey beyond the end of the regular season.

As many people have noted, however, they have mostly done this despite not playing nearly as well as they did in the 2022 portion of the schedule. Mike had an article earlier in the week about their poor play, and the team, and especially the bottom 6, looks way worse recently. And it’s true. Whereas they were one of the top analytical teams for the first few months of the season, they have since been, at best, mediocre on the same lists, if not subpar. Check out the differences between 2022 and 2023 so far thanks to Natural Stat Trick:

Those changes are pretty astounding to be honest. For the first months, they were truly dominant. They had a CF% and xGF% that ranked second in the NHL over that timespan, behind only Carolina, and sported a GF% that matched their expected goals, so it wasn’t all just theoretical. They were expected to score a bunch more than their opposition, and they did so. Their PDO was essentially luck neutral, they did not gain any real luck thanks to just having a dominant goaltender or some crazy shooting percentage. It was the sign of a team with a strong chance to make some noise come the postseason.

Then the calendar turned, and what you see now is drastically different. Again, they’re still winning, and they have a higher point percentage in 2023 than they did in 2022. But it is against the analytics. Both their CF% and xGF% in 2023 rank 25th in the NHL. Generally, over the course of a full season, those analytics will lead to a poor team. And as you can see from the other numbers, they are rating high in other numbers which should imply the winning ways are not sustainable. The team’s GF% has only dropped by a little over 1% from 2022-2023, despite the massive drop in possession and expected goals. And their shooting percentage has jumped a percent, and their save percentage has jumped over 2%. They are getting bailed out by strong goaltending, and are getting luckier with more goals on fewer or similar shots, giving them a cushion to overcome bad play on the ice.

However, the point of this article isn’t to be negative. I am pointing out the negatives, stating the facts, to make the point that good teams will go through bad stretches. Very few good teams play 82 games without having bad stretches. Often, those teams will have multiple stretches. And in fact, considering that the last President’s Cup winner that also won the Stanley Cup was the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, most recent Stanley Cup winners have these stretches. They’re not the best regular season team.

Now, that isn’t to say that I am predicting a Cup win for this team. I want it to happen, but Mike was right in his piece. If they play like this in the postseason, they’re doomed. However, the positive side of it is that good teams will have bad stretches. However, the best teams find ways to win during those stretches, as they figure things out and right the ship. They don’t have massive losing streaks or go like 1-7-2 in a 10 game stretch. They stay afloat and find ways to win despite issues. And, of course, they figure out those issues and get back to better hockey.

The Devils have shown us the first two parts already. They have hit a rough patch. Ok, not great, but no worries, all good teams do that. And they’ve shown that they can still win and accumulate points and maintain a strong place in the standings. Part 2 is done. Now, however, they need to do the third part, which is to figure out how to right back the ship and get to better hockey like they were playing. That will be the catalyst. They could perhaps make a blockbuster deal for Timo Meier. Getting Jack Hughes back will undoubtedly help, as he seems to cure all ills. But mostly, they need better production and play from the guys currently on the roster. Nico’s line needs to be better, even when Hughes comes back. They need better play from the bottom 6. And they need to maintain strong goaltending.

In the end, the good news is that they are maintaining a strong point percentage despite not playing well. The numbers show some luck and some great goaltending overall, but wins are wins. Good teams find ways to win in these stretches. They will need to figure this funk out soon and get out of it, as it is extremely improbable that they will be able to keep winning while playing like this. But if they can figure it out soon, they will have managed to weather a bad stretch and come out better for it on the other side. The best teams can manage to do that, and the Devils have a shot at it.