Three Reasons: Why the Devils Missed the Playoffs

Now that the dust has settled, yet another long offseason has begun in Newark. Like I’ve mentioned in some of my previous articles, there’s plenty of blame to go around for missing the playoffs. Circumstances like all the one-goal losses, injuries to key players, and glaring lack of forward depth all played their parts, but are largely viewed as inevitable growing pains that come from orchestrating a proper rebuild. While Devils fans can reflect on a number of encouraging positives that came out of this season, it’ll be difficult to refrain from dwelling on how close this team was from making that unprecedented postseason appearance. Having said that, New Jersey had three major but largely overlooked shortcomings, which were the primary detriments to the team’s eventual demise.

New Jersey's abundance of undersized forwards proved to be costly for them.

New Jersey’s abundance of undersized forwards proved costly for them.

Lacking size up front…Although some of the Devil’s top scorers like Mike Cammalleri, Kyle Palmieri, and Lee Stempniak were smaller than the average NHL height (73 inches), the trend persisted throughout the team’s forward lines. Players like Jordin Tootoo, Tyler Kennedy, Stephen Gionta, and Bobby Farnham all played significant numbers of games throughout the season, and were overly susceptible to frequently getting sized off along the boards, the corners, and front of the opponent’s net. The Devils are certainly a faster group up front, which came at the expense of parting with some of their bigger (though mostly older) forwards. While speed has certainly become a fundamental part of today’s game, it hasn’t made size any less of a necessity in the NHL.

The chart below displays the height range of forwards (with at least 30 games played) for all eight Eastern Conference playoff teams, in comparison to New Jersey’s.

*Forwards who played 30 or more games

*Chart heights are measured in inches

*Six feet – 72 inches

Team Height Range <72 72 >72
NJ Devils 75-67 8 5 2
Washington 76-71 2 2 9
Pittsburgh 76-68 6 3 7
NY Rangers 77-67 1 3 8
Florida 78-70 3 2 7
Tampa Bay 79-68 7 2 4
Detroit 75-70 5 3 5
NY Islanders 75-71 3 1 8
Philadelphia 75-70 4 3 7

No Eastern Conference team has more forwards smaller than six feet, or fewer taller than six feet than the Devils. Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Detroit have the second to fourth-largest groups of smaller forwards, but offset this with an equivalent number of taller players, or feature premiere talents on their roster like Zetterberg, Johnson, Stamkos, Kucherov, and Crosby (just to mention a few). The Devils don’t have one forward that’s remotely comparable.

Low shooting numbers…The Devils had the fewest shots of any team in the NHL, which on its own could have facilitated their eventual downfall. Out of the ten lowest-shooting teams in the NHL, seven would miss the playoffs. Conversely, seven of the NHL’s ten highest-shooting teams are competing in the postseason. Having said that, there are playoff teams in the Eastern Conference that were among the lower shooting teams in the league this year. The next chart I’ve prepared shows a particular common statistic on the amount of shots the top-ten shooters of all eight playoff teams average in a game throughout the season, compared to New Jersey’s.

Team Shots/Gm Rank T-10 Avg.
NJ Devils 30 1.8
Washington 6 2.3
Pittsburgh 1 2.5
NY Rangers 26 2.0
Florida 24 2.1
Tampa Bay 19 2.0
Detroit 15 2.2
NY Islanders 17 2.1
Philadelphia 5 2.2

Apparently in the Eastern Conference, there’s something to be said about your team’s playoff chances if your top-ten shooters were averaging at least two shots a game. The only Eastern Conference playoff teams that were among the ten highest-shooting in the league were Pittsburgh (No. 1), Philadelphia (No. 5), and Washington (No. 6). Teams like Florida (No. 24) and the Rangers (No. 26) were among the lowest-shooting teams, while the rest finished in the 15-19 range.

You can't win games if you're not scoring goals.

You can’t win games if you’re not scoring goals.

Goal droughts…The Devils had no shortage of players who had one of these, which provides a lot of insight behind why they were the lowest shooting and scoring team in the league. Although the league’s top scorers are even prone to suffering the occasional stretch of games without a goal the Devil’s forwards took that trend to another level. It wasn’t just how many Devils forwards suffered one (or multiple) goal droughts but the significant roles they had (or were given), as indicated by the number of games they played.

Player GP Goal Droughts 10-19 Games 20-29 Games 30+ Games
Blandisi 41 1   1  
Elias 16 1 1    
Farnham 50 1   1  
Gionta 82 2   1 1
Henrique 80 1 1    
Josefson 58 3 2 1  
Kalinin 78 4 3 1  
Kennedy 50 1     1
Matteau 20 1 1    
O’neill 22 1   1  
Ruutu 33 1     1
Tlusty 30 2 2    
Tootoo 66 4 3 1  
Zajac 74 1   1  

No other Eastern Conference playoff team even comes close to having the number of goal droughts that plagued the Devils. Granted many of these players spent most of their time playing the role of a 7th-12th forward, notable players like O’neill, Tlusty, Kennedy, Josefson, and Kalinin, were given considerable playing on the Devil’s first and second lines with hopes of fully rounding out the team’s top-six depth. Consequently, this never came to fruition, and was further exploited in the wake of Mike Cammalleri’s season-ending injury and when Lee Stempniak was traded.

The one positive is how identifiable and addressable these detriments are without disrupting the direction of the rebuild, or the core foundation that’s in place. A portion of the Devil’s undersized, low-shooting, and scoring players are either unrestricted free agents this summer or will hopefully have a smaller role.


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