New Jersey Devils Going Through Ebbs and Flows of NHL Season

Oct 22, 2022; Newark, New Jersey, USA; New Jersey Devils center Yegor Sharangovich (17) celebrates a goal against the San Jose Sharks during the second period at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Salus-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 22, 2022; Newark, New Jersey, USA; New Jersey Devils center Yegor Sharangovich (17) celebrates a goal against the San Jose Sharks during the second period at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Salus-USA TODAY Sports /

The NHL season is a bit of a whirlwind at times. At one moment, the future may look bright or a team may look like a contender. The next? A team looks like a lottery team. The New Jersey Devils‘ season is no different.

The beginning of the year was a mixed bag. With two horrific defeats at the Wells Fargo Center and at home against Detriot, the fanbase’s anger and distraught turned into audible outrage.

From that lowest of lows, the Devils picked up a huge win against Anaheim after being down 2-0 early. That set off a chain reaction, and the Devils would win 15 games out of the next 16, including a memorable 13-game win streak. Sky was the limit for these pesky Devils; they had the wins and the process to prove it. They had an xG differential of 1.25 through the first couple of months of the season, and it was not flukey play where they were getting lucky. Rather, the Devils truly dominated opponents on a nightly basis and only really ever lost due to goaltending.

A drop-off was expected from the success of the early season, but no one could really predict how low the Devils could go, particularly from an analytical point of view. While key injuries to Hughes and particularly Marino give some context to the results, the overall picture is an ugly one. In December, the Devils went on a horrid run of 4-7-2, and the xG differential sunk to 0.1. January was kinder, though only in the number of wins. They went 9-2-2, which sounds great until one realizes the xG fell to -.99 at its lowest.

Now, xG is not the end all be all and certainly does not give context to everything that happens on the ice. But it gives the general idea of which team is producing more in a given game, week, month, or year. The downward trend in xG was alongside some sloppy and gross hockey. Goaltending, ironically, saved the Devils. Vanecek went nuclear, posting a save percentage of .932 through January. Blackwood was key in games against Los Angelos and stole a point on New Year’s against Carolina.

Wins are great; at the end of the day, it’s all that matters. Who actually cares about the process? Does it matter that a team played badly yet still won?

Well, the simple answer is that yes, it does matter to some extent. While game-to-game analytics doesn’t give a good picture of how a team is playing, season averages do. And these averages obviously tell one how a team is playing but also foreshadow future success or decline.

When looking at a team like the Carolina Hurricanes, it is clear that they dominate games. But their analytical profile tells the story of how they do it. With effective and almost blitz-like forecheck and cranking-up shot attempts, the Canes play a suffocating brand of hockey that looks to force the opposition into mistakes and keep the puck in the NZ and OZ as much as possible.

They were not always like this, and when looking at the data, it is clear that from the 2017-2018 season, right as Rod Brind’Amour was being hired, there was a sharp uptick in the 5v5 progressions from the Canes. However, they would not be the dominant team they are now until three years later when they finished 1st in the Metro during the bubble season and the following season in 2021-22.

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When looking at the Devils’ rise, it is a similar process, albeit much quicker than the Canes took. The Devils finished 14th in xG% share last season, which was a good indicator that they were pushing pace 5v5 last year. With a young team and decent goaltending, an improvement was expected. Was this much of an improvement expected? Maybe not, but it does validate the idea that underlying numbers can help assess a team’s progress within a season and a team’s rebuild throughout many years.

Now, that’s great and all when the numbers look good. It is a different story if the “process” they played with earlier in the year was a fluke. And while it seemed like it for a moment, the Devils picked it up again mid-Feburay and started to dominate teams again, climbing back up to 2nd in xGF and 7th in CF. While there have been moments to forget, such as that abomination in Sunrise, the Devils seem to be “back.”

Next. 5 Devils Who Can Steal A Playoff Roster Spot. dark

It has been an interesting case study into how a team’s form can change year by year and even within a season. With some newfound fervor in the Devils again, could a playoff push could be in the cards?

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