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February 2, 2011
Driving To The Net
Do You Believe in .. Never Mind

by Timo Seppa

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It's been a bad season for the New Jersey Devils. Now how's that for an understatement?

Think about this: Even with a perfect 33-0-0 record for the remainder of the season, the NHL's current last-place team (16-30-3, 35 points, .357 points percentage) would still fall two points short of last season's 103 points. That is what you would call digging a hole.

More to the point, New Jersey would have to play absolutely dominating .803 hockey over its remaining 33 games (25-5-3, or an equivalent record) merely to reach 88 points, the lowest point total of any playoff qualifier in the post-lockout NHL (last season's Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers). Only one team has matched such a commanding stretch this season -- and only exactly so -- and that was the scorching-hot Vancouver Canucks of Oct. 22 through Jan. 7. Not even the Pittsburgh Penguins, with their 13-game winning streak chronicled in HBO's "24/7," can compare. Their best 33-game stretch was 23-7-3 (.742). And even if the Devils do get to 88 points, they still have only about a 20 percent chance of advancing to the postseason because everything else has to break right.

So there's no need for beating around the bush: The Devils' 2010-11 season is effectively over.

Where did it all go wrong? Where can it get better in 2011-12? Well, lots of places:

The power play: A league-low 153 power-play opportunities coupled with a sputtering 15 percent conversion rate (25th in NHL) has resulted in only 23 power-play goals, tied for second-worst in the NHL. Then again, the Devils were near the bottom of the league in opportunities in 2009-10, with only their more effective 18.7 percent conversion rate boosting them to a mediocre 51 power-play goals (21st in NHL).

The goalie: While New Jersey remains ranked second in the NHL at cutting down their opponents' shots on goal, 38-year-old Martin Brodeur has struggled mightily (.895 save percentage) for the majority of the season, causing the Devils to plummet from the league's best goal prevention unit at 2.27 goals against to a disappointing 2.96, which ranks in the bottom third of the NHL.

The scoring: Most shocking, though, has been New Jersey's historically bad offense, which at an improved 2.02 goals for per game feels like it just crossed hockey's answer to the Mendoza Line. Both with and without Zach Parise in the lineup, John MacLean's Devils were averaging in the neighborhood of 1.67 GF, something that's basically impossible to do with an NHL roster even fractionally better than the 1974-75 Washington Capitals. In fact, the worst-scoring team since the lockout, the 2007-08 New York Islanders, scored a comparatively healthy 2.30 goals per game. Yes, the New Jersey Devils of Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott and even Parise, elite scorers all, were producing at an AHL level.

How could this happen to Lou Lamoriello's Devils, a model of consistent excellence?

Two possible reasons: It seems first-year head coach MacLean may have been over his head in his rookie season, unable to coax his talented roster to meet its potential. And chemistry issues in the locker room may have contributed as well, including a big one between the team's former captain and current coach. Multiple reports indicated that head coach Jacques Lemaire and Langenbrunner were at odds around Christmas of last season, which coincided with the Devils' fade from a team with a .757 winning percentage on Dec. 21 to the .520 Devils of the rest of the 2009-10 campaign and brief postseason.

But now with Lemaire's savvy and perhaps a slightly more cohesive locker room, the Devils are a previously unthinkable 6-2-1 (.722) since Langenbrunner's exit, including four wins against the top three teams in the Eastern Conference: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The future Hall of Famer Brodeur, enjoying his best stretch of the season by far (.919 save percentage in January), has observed a vast difference in the coaching: "Team defense, it's been definitely better. We're just more organized … Jacques is really tough on the guys, you know, as far as the way he wants them to play: Do the right things out there, regardless of the score, if we get beat, if we're winning. We've got more meetings, more video. It's really like a hockey school type of an atmosphere. But with all the young guys that we have and how mentally we were affected by the start of the season, I think that's the right thing to do."

So is there any point in Devils' fans doing some dreaming? Here are a few reasons to cling to miracles.

• New Jersey has eight games remaining against the lower-tier Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators.

• To some extent the Devils are controllers of their own destiny, facing teams they're trying to catch, with two games against Montreal, two games against the Florida Panthers, two games against the Atlanta Thrashers, three games against the Carolina Hurricanes and three games against the New York Rangers.

• And what if, instead of becoming sellers before the trading deadline, they became buyers? Entering this season, the Devils were built to win now, before Brodeur hangs it up for good. If they stay hot, perhaps they'll go all-in and try to snag that elite puck-moving defenseman who has long been their main roster deficiency.

Unfortunately -- sorry, cold water here again -- New Jersey is one of five NHL teams with virtually a zero chance of getting to the postseason by conventional calculations, the others being Toronto, Ottawa, the Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers. In fact, most projections give New Jersey less than 1 chance in 10,000 of making the second season, and peg them to finish around 64 points.

This sort of analysis does, however, miss the mark by assuming that these Devils are the Devils of the first 49 games, and ignores the improvements that are already evident on the team. This team will be better than the MacLean-led .303 Devils, should be better than the .520 Devils of last year's second half, and might even be better than the .628 Devils of last season overall (which would yield New Jersey 76 points).

In other words, you can expect them to outperform those 64-point prognostications, but as we mentioned before, the coffin is all but nailed shut. Had Lamoriello been a little quicker to pull the trigger this season, maybe they still would have had a shot, but it certainly appears for now as though it's too little, too late for New Jersey.

Timo Seppa covers hockey for ESPN Insider, specializing in analysis and sabermetrics. He is the managing editor of Hockey Prospectus and runs the icehockeymetrics.com website. He also writes for Hockey Prospectus and was the co-editor of the book "Hockey Prospectus 2010-11." You can find his ESPN archives here and follow him on Twitter here and here.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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