With Jack Hughes injured and out for an extended time once again this season, the thought perhaps among many was that the New Jersey Devils simply need to stay afloat until he returns. The initial news we received was that the injury should take weeks and not months, so if the team could just hang in and stay near a playoff position until he returns, it should be enough to have a strong chance to make the postseason.
Well, since Jack has been out, the Devils have really not stayed afloat. In the first five games that the team played in his absence this time around, their record was 1-3-1, with a lone win against Florida and an overtime loss against Tampa Bay. Otherwise, it was 3 losses, with one of them a really bad one against Montreal the other night. Earning 3 out of a possible 10 points is not staying afloat by any means, and it has led to a drop in the standings. Heading into last night’s game, the team was still only 4 points removed from a wild card position, but there were three teams ahead of them in the standings that were also out of a playoff spot. Tampa was at 51 points in the final wild card, and then Pittsburgh and Washington were just above NJ’s 47 points, with the Caps at 50 and the other two at 48. That is how big those points were that were left on the board Wednesday night, and any of the other losses since Jack has been out. One more win and they leap frog two teams. But it did not happen.
Team numbers from those five games also back up the 1-3-1 record over that span, and really drive home that this team is not, indeed, staying afloat for the time being. Here are some key stats from each game thanks to Natural Stat Trick:
So they played one very good game in this five-game stretch, and it was in the overtime loss to Tampa. They dominated in possession, expected goals, and high danger chances. That should have been a win and that missed 2nd point stung for sure. That, however, was it. They managed decent possession numbers against Boston and Montreal, but that alone does not make a good game. Despite those numbers, in those games, they were underwater in both expected goals and high danger chances, and this was especially true in the Boston game where they got crushed in both despite having better possession.
Clearly, you cannot have five-game stretches like you see there with the stats and expect to stay afloat at all. Those types of stretches kill momentum, generate losing streaks, and make it much tougher to make the playoffs. If they were at the top of the division, they could afford to go on a stretch like this and still be competitive in the playoff race. New York just went through this and is still atop the division. But considering how this season has gone so far, New Jersey cannot afford what has just happened. Yes, they’re far from out of it and are still very much in the race, but the margin for error is shrinking rather quickly, and it is only going to get worse as the season goes on.
Moving forward, things are going to really need to land on the best-case scenario. If Jack is out another few weeks say, instead of a few games, and the Devils continue at a 30% point percentage clip, they will basically be out of it come March. Best case, he is back sooner and the Devils play better before he returns. Just that isn’t enough to put them back into a wild card spot either, just enough to keep them in the race. Nothing would be worse than for Jack to return and it really be irrelevant since they’ve sunk themselves over this upcoming stretch. Plus, once he does return, this team really cannot afford too many more man games lost due to injury, especially among the star players. So far this year, the Devils are the 9th unluckiest team in terms of injuries if you look at the cap hit of all injured players per game. It isn’t as bad as say Washington or Vegas has had it, but it isn’t good either and has been a real problem for this team.
In the end, we need to see good hockey while Jack is out, and this team needs to remain in the race until he returns. Let’s hope it happens.