We’re now officially in the real live run-up to the trade deadline, and one of the most fascinating teams in the league to watch going forward is the New Jersey Devils.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the club, one season removed from picking first overall (and okay, getting a little lucky to win the draft lottery). Instead, they got out to a white-hot start, going 22-9-5 in the first 36 games of the season.
That caught a lot of people off guard, because while the Devils certainly weren’t as bad on paper as their record suggested last season, there was never any reason to suspect that this team should be 13 games above .500 at any point in the season. Even if Cory Schneider returned to form after a dismal 2016-17, things weren’t supposed to be that good; but sure enough, through those first 36 games, of which Schneider played 28, he had a .923 save percentage. Right in line with his career average.
At that point, you had to figure the Devils would probably slow down a little bit. But instead, they’ve slowed down a lot. Prior to last night’s game hosting Philly, the Devils had lost all but three of their previous 13 games, with just three of those losses coming in OT or the shootout.
To start out with 50 points in your first 36 games? That’s great! It’s a pace for 114 points. To have just nine in the next 13? Quite bad!
Which makes the Devils’ February so fascinating. Even with this lengthy slump, which has now stretched for more than a month, they sat third in a competitive division (though technically tied with Columbus, they had a game in hand before last night’s games). Any continuation of the slide would surely dump them out of playoff contention in short order, and any return to something resembling their pre-Christmas form would help them keep pace with the surging Penguins and Capitals.
The Devils are, at this point, a little below the middle of the pack in the league when it comes to the share of goals scored in all situations (50.2 percent, 18th in the league), but it’s fair to say they’ve been maybe a little unlucky, because their expected-goals share is 50.8, and 15th in the league. The thing with expected-goals, though, is that it considers league-average talent, and the Devils are probably, on-paper, a little less talented than the league average. They have a few great offensive players, but their blue line is as wanting as their goaltending has, by and large, been roughly league-average. So maybe you say they’re right where they should be there.
Of course, a holistic look at their season accounts for that great 36-game start and the bad 13-game skid simultaneously. Looking at the trends that helped contribute to either one will likely help us understand where the Devils may be headed as a group.
As you can see, it looks like the Devils were maybe a little lucky early on, but haven’t gotten a bounce in a while (which you might expect), but on the balance, they’ve been an above-average team for most of the season. That probably portends good things for their immediate future, but again, it’s reasonable to assume that their expected performance is probably “a little above .500” for the rest of the season.
Honestly, because of the wild swings between “seemingly great” and “seemingly terrible” we can probably guess that the Devils will perform at or around their current points-per-game pace for the remainder of the season, and probably land somewhere around 97 points. That will almost certainly be enough to get them into the playoffs, although probably with a lower seed than the one they currently enjoy.
I guess that would put them a bit ahead of schedule in terms of where most people would have expected them to be. But that’s what makes them so interesting ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline: Is this team going to buy or sell?
There are certainly arguments to be made for either case. Let’s first assume they’re looking to buy. They have plenty of needs; on the blue line and up front (probably on the wing in particular). They have plenty to give up in terms of picks and a decent but not great cupboard of prospects, but it doesn’t seem like a good idea for a team that’s only a year or three into a rebuild to start selling off pieces. Especially because, even if you think this team is better than it actually is, you can’t be deluded enough to think it’s a serious threat to do anything of consequence in the postseason.
To be fair, the acquisition of guys like Sami Vatanen and Marcus Johansson might put them in a better position going forward than they would have expected at the time of the draft, and certainly getting Nico Hischier looks like it’ll work out well long-term.
On the other hand, the Devils may choose to become sellers (which, frankly, seems like the smartest move). They have a few movable players on moveable contracts who might be able to help a legitimate contender. However prudent these trades might be in theory, in actual practice there might not be much point to them because they’re not likely to provide the Devils much in the way of lottery tickets (maybe a third- or fourth-round pick here or there?).
To that end, it is perhaps fair to both expect and advise the Devils simply do nothing at the deadline. Let the season play out, collect wins and losses as the hockey gods see fit. If you get hot again and make the playoffs, well hey, great. Playoff revenues are always nice. If the slide continues, well, you had that hot start and it’s something to build on with what is still a rebuilding group. And if they just sit on the playoff bubble for the rest of the year, heck, that’s probably a win as well in the grand scheme of things.
Over the summer I said this was neither a good nor bad team. That looks like it’s just about right; their numbers suggest they are merely fine on the balance, and that’s a reasonable diagnosis.
When you’re just a year or two into a rebuild on the fly, with a team that frankly didn’t have a ton of talent to begin with, you mostly have to take what you can get. This year was never going to be make-or-break for anything to do with this club, so the people running it shouldn’t alter their course now.
The Devils have been able to get more than most people would have expected to this point, and good for them. Might be a little counterproductive to the rebuild from a “big picture” perspective, but no one’s going to complain about it.