A quote from Taylor Hall at yesterday’s media day was very blunt and to the point, “Playoffs or bust,” he said to reporters. Not only does this quote catch the attention of fans and individuals surrounding the New Jersey Devils because of its bluntness. But it is also an attention-grabber because it is coming from the team’s star who is entering the final year of his contract.
Take this quote however you like. But to me, it seems like the likelihood of Hall re-upping and the success the Devils experience are positively correlated. Meaning, making the playoffs is a great first step and may even be imperative to retaining Hall.
With the above in mind, taking a look at the Devils’ playoff odds is slightly unsettling. Most sources have them right on the bubble of being a playoff team. One source supporting this projection is FanDuel SportsBook, who has the team’s playoff odds at -110 (7th best in the east). These odds put the Devils as much of a toss-up for the playoffs as you can get. Another source is Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, whose model ($$) gives the Devils a 47% chance at making the playoffs.
So, if the Devils do not want their upcoming season being labeled as a “bust,” they must perform slightly better than expected. To ensure they do so, the three keys below are a good start in ensuring Hall gets his wish.
There are three position groups in hockey: forward, defense, and goaltending. Any hockey team needs all three levels of these position groups to operate efficiently to be competitive. And this will be no different for the 2019-20 Devils.
One of the three aforementioned position groups that is a huge question mark to start the season is goaltending. General manager Ray Shero didn’t make any moves to address this group — at the NHL-level anyways — so it’ll be the tandem of Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood to start the season.
Last season, the Devils ranked near the bottom in almost every major goaltending related statistic. Opponents scored an average of 3.30 goals per game which was the sixth-worst mark in the whole league. They also owned a .895 team save percentage which ranked 29th in the league, only the Panthers and Sharks owned worse marks. To say the least, goaltending was a disaster last year.
The first goalie in the equation is Cory Schneider. Devils’ fans are well aware of the struggles the 33-year-old netminder has experienced the past few seasons. Whether it be due to injury or steep regression, Schneider just has not gotten it done. However, the end of last season may have provided some hope as Schneider posted a .927 save percentage across 17 appearances.
This stretch is by far the best Schneider has put together in years. The first step in improving the Devils’ goaltending issues is for Schneider to stay healthy and continue putting up these solid numbers. Now, I am not asking for him to put together a full season at .927, even though that would be fantastic. But if he can post anything around league average, which was .910 last season, the Devils will be in solid shape.
In what was the only goalie related bright spot last year, rookie Mackenzie Blackwood posted a solid .918 save percentage. This mark ranked second among rookies (min. 20 games played) and 13th overall among 60 that qualified. For the Devils to have playoff aspirations, it would be ideal for Blackwood to stay above the .910 mark. Hopefully, the small sample size was not a fluke.
You get the point. Goaltending is uber important to the game of hockey, and last year the Devils were one of the league’s worst at it. They need to drastically improve in this area to make the playoffs. And this starts with Schneider building on the success he showed in the closing months of last season and Blackwood building on his successful rookie season.
The Power Play
Last year, former farmhand head coach Rick Kowalsky took over the power play coaching duties after he received a promotion. Unfortunately, it did not go as planned. After owning the league’s 10th best power play (21.4%) in the 2017-18 season – the year they appeared in the playoffs last – the unit severely regressed in 2019 as it finished ranked 21st in the league (17.7%).
Even though some of the regression had to do with the subtraction of Geoff Ward and the addition of Rick Kowalsky, you need to acknowledge the other factors that led to it. Taylor Hall – who was, of course, a vital piece of that power play – was sorely missed after his significant knee injury. The Devils also never replaced the big body net presence that is vital in the 1-3-1 system they run, as Patrick Maroon walked in free agency. Another possible reason for the lack of man-up success was the talent just simply was not good enough.
But do not fret, Devils’ fans. Shero revamped the entire power play unit this offseason. He brought in defenseman P.K. Subban, who throughout his career, has been one of the league’s best on the power play (see chart above). Forward Nikita Gusev and Jack Hughes’ playmaking abilities will instantly make the unit better too.
What may be the most underrated signing in terms of bolstering the power play is the addition of Wayne Simmonds. Throughout his career, he has been a power play monster in front of the net (see chart above). This is evident by the fact that he has recorded double-digit power play goals in six of his last eight seasons. It is safe to say the ex-Flyer will help this unit tremendously.
Thankfully, as is evident from the remarks above, the Devils have a plethora of great options on the power play this year. And this is something they did not have last year. If these pieces gel, they should have a much better unit, and this will go a long way in helping a return to the playoffs happen.
The Health of Taylor Hall
There is no denying Hall is one of the best forwards in the league. You can simply look toward his 2018 Hart Trophy to confirm this theory. That is why it is by no means surprising that the Devils finished last season 19-25-3 after Hall went down with what turned out to be a serious injury. That is bound to happen when a team loses its superstar.
Hall was on pace to replicate, if not outperform, how he did a season before when he won the league MVP award. Through the 33 games he was able to play before succumbing to injury, Hall tallied 37 points (11 G, 26 A). Keep in mind folks, he was battling an injury for most of those 33 games which is pretty remarkable given the output. Hall does everything for the Devils. He drives possession, excels at zone exits and entries, and simply makes everyone around him better (see chart above). If he were to get injured once again this season and miss any significant time at all, the Devils playoff chances would take a serious hit and odds are they wouldn’t be playing come April.
It is apparent the Devils are winding down what looks like a very successful rebuild phrase. Thanks to Shero, the Devils are set up for sustained success. However, the biggest question that remains is Hall’s future with the team. Per Hall’s quote at media day, the Devils need to make it their number one priority and make the playoffs the next step in their rebuild.
With the odds the experts are giving the team, it seems as if the Devils will need to be slightly better than those are predicting. And this starts with the three things above. They must get, at least, league-average goaltending, the power play must improve, and their superstar must stay healthy.