For all of the “sky is falling” ideas I have seen over the course of this season, I refuse to entertain one: that the New Jersey Devils should sell at the trade deadline and look to move veterans. If you want to say that a coach or coaches should be fired, I think that is justifiable. If you want to say that a “hockey trade,” as Fitzgerald would put it, is in order, I think that is extremely justifiable.
But trading veterans for draft picks and futures? What year is it?
Predictions, Odds, and Crystal Gazing
Recently, Dom at The Athletic released his brand-new playoff chances for the NHL. The Devils are not looking pretty these days. After their poor January results in the absence of Jack Hughes, the Devils’ playoff odds, according to The Athletic, are below 50%.
While The Athletic rightly pushes the Flyers out of their playoff spot, they are far too kind to the Pittsburgh Penguins. At 22-17-7 through 46 games, the Penguins have a slight advantage over the Devils with the same number of points in one fewer game played. But let’s be real about Pittsburgh for second: they have barely lost any games to injury in comparison to the New Jersey Devils this season. Their most games missed have come from Bryan Rust, who has 27 points in 33 games (13 missed).
I don’t know about anybody else, but I am not scared of the team whose average age is over 31 when that team is one of the least efficient on offense in the league. And with a team save percentage of .915, they have managed to steal a few games with good goaltending. But at 4-3-3 in their last 10 games, they have only been able to gain ground on the Devils — who were missing Jack Hughes, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Brendan Smith in addition to their earlier injuries during much of January — because of the loser point. And like another team that has been way too reliant on the loser point this year, those games turn into losses at some point when your team cannot score.
Do the Penguins have a good core? Sure. But have they done anything on the ice to say they have a 75% chance of making the playoffs, compared to 38% for the Devils? That is laughable.
A big part of why I do not care about these season projections is that they do not really tell you that much that a glance at the standings can’t tell you. And it’s not like anybody is sticking their neck out here. It’s not as meaningful or creditworthy as a pre-season projection. Consider that the Devils have gotten to 51 points nearly constantly missing a top six forward and top defenseman, plus more. Now consider that Pittsburgh has gotten to 51 points...not really missing much of anyone this year. If the Devils are at “full health minus Hamilton” for the final 30 or so games of the season, which team do you think is going to have the better pace during that time?
Let us consider some spots to be certain. The Rangers and Hurricanes will make the playoffs. The Bruins and Panthers will make the playoffs. That leaves one division spot for both Atlantic and Metro teams, and two wild card spots. But really, the Wild Card does not concern me. I do not see how it is difficult at all for the Devils to regain a division spot, being five points behind Philadelphia and one point behind the Islanders with four and three games in-hand compared to both, respectively. If you say the Capitals — rudderless ship of half-efforts from Ovechkin and great goalie performances from Charlie Lindgren that they are — are a threat, I will laugh. Similarly, the New York Islanders are not going to suddenly put it together. The only thing the Capitals and Islanders are a threat to win this summer is a bingo game in Florida.
The Penguins are at least held together by still-respectable top players, but they have not won enough at any point this year to make me think that last year’s missing the playoffs was a fluke. And last year, they were in it to the end, losing their spot to the would-be Stanley Cup Finalist Florida Panthers in their last two games of the season. Their destiny was in their hands, and they lost it. Now, having an even more difficult season, people think they’re suddenly going to turn it around? Why doesn’t Evgeni Malkin just reverse age to 30 years old? Until that happens, the Penguins are at best a toss-up for the last available playoff spot, just like they were last year, when they couldn’t even top the Blackhawks to get in.
I don’t think it gets that far for the Devils. Take a look at what the Devils’ record is with Jack and Nico in the lineup at the same time, and then get back to me. But if you don’t feel like checking, it’s 17-6-2. In the 25 games they have played together this year, the Devils have played at a 118-point pace. If Jack Hughes were to return tomorrow night, and the Devils played at a 118-point pace for the rest of the season, they would finish with 101 points. And if we’re being quite honest, the team was underperforming in those games. If Jack Hughes comes back and starts actually dominating at even strength like he did last season, it’s over for the other teams vying for that third Metro spot.
The Danger of Letting Stars Grow Disaffected
Missing the playoffs this season would be a disaster for Lindy Ruff and Tom Fitzgerald. It would become very possible that Lindy Ruff gets the axe for missing the playoffs. But it would be much worse for Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, and everyone the Devils have recently brought in to make this team a contender. Making a rash move like trading Tyler Toffoli for the shiny object of a first-round pick, which could very well turn into the next Chase Stillman — just because the Devils are only hanging around in striking distance of a playoff spot with their top offensive player out of the lineup — would be an insane way to let the team’s stars know that management is serious about winning a Stanley Cup.
Tyler Toffoli might be past the age of a max-length extension, but that does not mean the team’s top scorer would presently be better utilized in a trade for futures. Toffoli has struggled at times, but trading him would be punting the season. At that point, you might as well tell Jack and Jonas not to bother returning from their injury. You might as well fire Lindy Ruff and let Travis Green hack around the bench for 35 games and not do a better job.
Do you think Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes would find it acceptable that management gave up on the season? How long would it be until they gave up on management and requested trades? These guys are in the primes of their lives and careers — and the Eastern Conference Stanley Cup Finalist in 2023 had 92 standings points, getting in on the last game of the season. These are not the NBA playoffs, where you can really just pick the higher seed to win and almost always be right. This is hockey, where the numbers on paper can only predict so much. And if you read my articles, you know that I mix stats and analytics in almost wherever I can. But at a certain point, you have to have enough logic to say that Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are probably going to play almost, if not every game together for the rest of the way - and they are going to win games. This is a different hockey team, and you need to see them play together before thinking of breaking up the supporting cast.
What do you think about the idea of selling? Do you think it could backfire with team morale, or do you think the top players would understand? How much stock do you put into playoff odds? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.