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The New Jersey Devils have been one of the biggest surprises of this season. They’ve compiled an 11-4–2 record through their first seventeen games, and are currently sitting atop the Metropolitan Division. They’ve gotten to where they are in entertaining fashion. With a potent offense, they are the fifth-highest scoring team in the league, averaging 3.50 goals a game going into Thursday’s matchup.
While their offense has been a pleasant surprise, the same can’t be said of their defense, which has some rough underlying numbers to start the season.
Through the first seventeen games, New Jersey is giving up 62.4 shot attempts per 60 minutes, which is second-worst in the league. Their expected goals against per 60 minutes is 2.84, which is the worst in the NHL. For those who aren’t familiar with expected goals, it’s an advanced stat that takes into account the volume of shots and chance of each shot resulting in a goal (shot quality). Defensively that means the Devils are giving up a fair amount of shots, many of which have a good chance of finding the back of the net.
While the defense has struggled, their offense has shown great improvement to start the season. However, there’s good reason to believe it’s due for some regression, and a large reason for that is percentage-driven. Through seventeen games, they have a team shooting percentage of 10.4 percent at 5-on-5, which is second-highest in the league. Most teams tend to finish anywhere from 6-9 percent on average, so it’s more likely than not that New Jersey’s shooting percentage will begin to fall as the season continues to progress. Especially considering that only two teams (the 2012-13 Maple Leafs and 2009-10 Capitals) have finished with a 5-on-5 shooting percentage above 10 percent over the last ten seasons.
Second, the Devils power play has gotten off to an incredibly hot start. After this weekend’s games, they’re converting on 25 percent of their opportunities with the man advantage. It’s likely that their power play will see some regression as the season progresses. New Jersey finished last season by converting on 17.5 percent of their power play opportunities. They have more skill and fire power up front, where they should be able to maintain a successful power play throughout this season. However, it’d be unfair to expect them consistently converting on 25 percent of their chances by season’s end.
This is where the play of New Jersey’s defense becomes important. As mentioned a couple of paragraphs above, they haven’t gotten off to the greatest start. There’ll be stretches where New Jersey’s power play goes cold and goals won’t come in the bunches we’re slowly beginning to expect on a nightly basis. Simply put, their defense must tighten up to deal with the inevitable regression their offense will face.
Two factors play in the Devils defense as the season continues. First is the imminent return of Travis Zajac, which should be significant. Despite the team’s vastly improved depth down the middle, Zajac is still clearly the team’s best two-way center. Over the last three seasons, he’s been one of the Devils best shot-suppressing forwards, allowing 51.1 shot attempts against per 60 minutes. He also has an expected goals against of 2.17 per 60 minutes (one of the top marks on team). When on the ice, he’ll undoubtedly be a big boost to the defensive side of things.
Second, the Devils have a relatively inexperienced group of defensemen, which will result in apparent growing pains. As Defensemen like Will Butcher will gain more NHL experience, John Hynes should be able to give expanded roles to certain defensemen (as he’s already done with Steven Santini). Luckily, Cory Schneider has looked like his old self. He has a .922 save percentage and .936 save percentage at even strength in 12 starts. He’s been able to mask the Devils defensive woes so far, but is facing 35.3 shots against a night. If the Devils can’t bring that total down, they’ll run into problems sooner than later.
It’s almost a sure bet the Devils offense will regress to some capacity as the season ages. They currently sit atop the Metropolitan Division, and must find a way to tighten up defensively to maintain that status. If that’s achieved, New Jersey has the makings of being a real threat in the Metropolitan division. If everything comes together at the right time, it may give the Devils a legitimate shot at playing beyond April.
Advanced Stats are via Corsica Hockey