The Devils Are Pretty Good, As Far As Horribly Embarrassing Teams Go
Truly, it’s been another miserable season for Devils hockey, continuing a run that now essentially spans a full decade of futility. The Devils are the 28th team in the NHL, within shouting distance of the bottom of the league. They’re heading for their seventh top-10 pick in the last 10 seasons and potentially their fourth top-five pick in that frame. Their record is on track to be the worst since 1985-86, an ignominious era in Devils hockey. Their stated goal of wanting to play meaningful games at the end of the season has been a spectacular failure, as the games have made almost no sense in terms of the standings since December.
It was exhausting to watch another Devils team go around the drain mid-season and end up with 45 games to play the rope. The number of terrifically comedic results for the Devils this season can run into the dozens. They already have more regulation losses than any Devils team since the 80s. Even the 2016-17 and 2018-19 teams that ended up with the No. 1 overall pick went past 40 and 41 regulation losses, respectively. With eight games left this season, the Devils have 42. If the Devils were to lose (given multiple extended losing streaks this season, it’s not impossible), they would end up with more regulation losses than they have. any Devils team besides the infamously terrible team of 1983-84 (yes, the one that traded the Gretzki”Mickey Mouse Organization” Estimate).
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be a transition year for the Devils. They were supposed to come out of the NHL slump and back into the playoff conversation. Between the acquisitions the Devils made in the offseason and the players who were positioned for breakout seasons, they thought they were at least a scrappy playoff challenger in the East, even if they didn’t reach the bubble threshold. Instead, they were dead and buried by the time Christmas arrived. The fan base is as unhappy as I can remember, and it’s hard to blame anyone willing to abandon ship on the whole company. These are bad times for the New Jersey Devils.
And yet… the situation seems surprisingly fixable this time around. Certainly, compared to the teams of the mid-2010s who had few assets for them and few projects. In 2015, the Devils were a bad team with a sterile prospect pool and little hope of a return to competition in any reasonable time frame. The Taylor Hall unicorn trade helped give the Devils a brief dalliance with skill, but the foundation wasn’t strong enough to sustain a consistently competitive team, as evidenced [gestures broadly at past four seasons]. This version of the team really seems to have the parts to compete. They have several forwards playing at an elite level, a defense with a strong enough core group to compete with, reasonable depth and stronger prospects in their path.
The 2021-22 Devils should be better than them. The natural answer to this is a version of the old Bill Parcells phrase “You are what your record says you are.” As for 2021-22, that’s true. You can dress him however you like, but there’s no denying that this season for the Devils has been a disaster of monumental proportions. In a team building context, however, sometimes it is crucial to separate what a team may be from what it is right now.
The devils are 13th in the NHL overall 5v5 xGF%, sitting at nearly 52% of expected targets at even strength. Even adjusting the score, they only drop to 14th place and around 51%. They displayed a dynamism on par with some of the best teams in the league. Namely, the Devils exploded for six or more goals 10 times, good for 6th most in the league. Their six games over seven goals is tied for third, behind only offensive juggernauts Colorado and Florida. They also have a half-decent penalty that ranks 8th in xGA/60 and 15th in GA/60.
The Devils have several players producing at a point or more per game in Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes. They have a captain who is becoming a dominant two-way force in Nico Hischier. They have a breakout rookie (Dawson Mercer), a winger who can turn off the lights (Yegor Sharangovich) and a bunch of crumbling deep plays to fill out the back six. They have a player who has become arguably one of the best stop defensemen in the league (Jonas Siegenthaler), an elite offensive defenseman and blue line creator in Dougie Hamilton, and workhorses capable of pairing averages to Damon Severson and Ryan Graves. Prospects like Alexander Holtz, Luke Hughes, Shakir Mukhamadullin, Arseni Gritsyuk and a handful of other potential underage contributors mean more help is also on the way.
The results are what they are. The Devils are 28th. How do you reconcile ‘this really is a group of up-and-coming players’ with ‘the squad largely made up of the aforementioned players getting pounded in the standings’. It is certainly difficult to do, but the problems with this team are clear. They’ve gotten some really awful goalkeepers this season, which is a huge part of this team’s lack of performance. They also have an abysmal power play that constantly sucks the wind out of the team’s sails. On top of that, they’re used to maddening inconsistencies and frequent quick meltdowns on the scoreboard and on the ice. Whether it’s a lack of focus, a lack of preparation, or a lack of proper adjustments, the team can turn a strong performance into a miserable result in the blink of an eye.
What is clear is that the Devils need to recognize the strengths of this team while being prepared to address its weaknesses, namely the league’s worst goaltending situation and a coaching staff that, at better, is right there and at worst has generated an often ill-prepared team that gets knocked off the ice far more than should be happening. At a minimum, the Devils need to present the man responsible for creating such an inept power play with a bevy of top playmakers to build unity with.
So many things the Devils needed to expect good things this year really happened. The seasons they’ve gotten from Hughes, Bratt and Hischier are near ideal apart from some injury issues from Hughes. They’ve looked like a run-and-gun offensive force as often as most of the league’s best teams. They have enough talent on the blue line to hold their end of the bargain while the offense cooks and a surprise escape as a fantastic stopping force at Siegenthaler. Go back to the standings, however, and you see the chasm between the Devils and 8th place and it’s enough to scratch your head at how badly it always went. Hopefully the Devils can seize the positives from this season and be proactive enough to fix the shortcomings at fullback and behind the bench. “It should be good” and the occasional offensive burst isn’t enough. Expected goals are a good indicator of potential, but if they’re never achieved, it doesn’t matter much.