New Jersey Devils are almost locked in playoff position

Playoffs? Playoffs?! As the infamous post-game tirade of former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Mora went. Am I crazy for talking about the New Jersey Devils making the playoffs on American Thanksgiving? Maybe, but there’s a merit to it. Articles have been written about playoff chances and a postseason position at American Thanksgiving. And the results are overwhelmingly in your favor if your favorite team is in the top eight of either conference.

In an article by TSN’s Travis Yost written about a year ago, teams in playoff spots on American Thanksgiving qualify about 75 percent of the time. As of this writing, the Devils are tied for first in the Metropolitan Division with 32 points and a 16-4 record, putting them six points ahead of the second-placed New York Islanders.

Not only are the Devils at the top of the Metropolitan Division, but they are also just two points behind the Boston Bruins for first place in the Eastern Conference. After a 13-game win streak that took them to first place in the Metro, their playoff odds are 96 percent (per Money Puck) and up 99 percent of The Athletic. And their numbers support their chances.

A look inside the NHL

Before we get into the Devils and their numbers, let’s take a look at the rest of the competition. Using the formula Yost used in his piece, let’s look at teams in playoff spots, their goal difference, and their projected goal count.

In the Eastern Conference, every team in the top eight has a positive goal difference, except for the Carolina Hurricanes, who have a goal difference of zero. Even the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are in ninth place, have a goal difference of plus-7. Every team under the Penguins has a negative goal difference except the Florida Panthers, whose goal difference is plus-3, and the Buffalo Sabers, who are at plus-5.

In the Western Conference, things are a bit darker. Of the eight teams in playoff positions, three have negative goal difference: the Los Angeles Kings (third place, minus -6), the Calgary Flames (seventh place, minus -3), and the St. Louis Blues (eighth place, minus – -3). 10). That says how much better the Eastern Conference is and will continue this season.

Devils of New Jersey
New Jersey Devils salute crowd at Prudential Center (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

When it comes to expected goals, six of the eight teams in playoff spots in the East have xG percentages well above 50 percent. The only teams underwater are the Detroit Red Wings (44.37 xG%) and New York Islanders (45.95 xG%). The two ninth- and 10th-place teams — the Penguins and Panthers — have xG percentages of 54.4 and 55.5 percent, respectively. Those are in the top 10 in the league, so it can’t be long before they’re in playoff positions.

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The look is more or less the same in the Western Conference, as six of the eight teams in playoff positions have xG percentages over 50 percent. The only two underwater are the Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets. The Jets may be able to outperform their xG rates as Connor Hellebuyck performs at the Vezina level. Decimated by injuries at the start of the season, the Avalanche are already showing signs of recovery. They are the defending champions of the Stanley Cup, so they should be fine.

How the devils stack up against everyone else

Now for the Devils, how do their numbers compare to the rest of the league? Even after their 2-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last night, they still lead the NHL in xG% with 62.54 percent. That’s almost a full four percent better than the second-place Hurricanes, and their plus-28 goal difference is second in the league to the Bruins.

The Devils skate teams into the ground most nights. They average 68.5 shot attempts per 60 minutes, the third best percentage in the league, and 3.39 xG per 60. The latter number ranks first in the NHL by a pretty comfortable margin; the hurricanes average 3.11 xG/60. But it’s not just their transgression that gets the job done.

Heading into this season, scoring would never be a problem for the Devils. That has proven to be true as Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt run for over 90 points. What has been most impressive about the Devils starting this season is their defensive numbers. A big reason why they have the second best goal difference in the league is that they have only conceded 46 goals, third best for the Avalanche and Bruins.

Nico Hischier New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Their 46 goals conceded also feature in their expected tally. The Devils allow only 2.03 expected goals against per 60, the latter being the best in the NHL. Part of that is because they do such a good job of forcing conversions to give offense. As they say, the best defense is a good offense. But some personnel changes at the back have also helped.

The Devils’ acquisition of John Marino this offseason was a real game-changer. He’s cooled a bit since his torrid start, but he still holds his opponents’ top lines, as he did with Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on Monday night. He is arguably the Devils’ best one-on-one defenseman and has made a big difference on defense. And while Brendan Smith has struggled to stay out of the box, alongside Damon Severson he is a regular defensive veteran on the third pair. They’ve helped the Devils go from a midfield defense team to one of the best in the NHL.

What devils have to do to keep it up

The key for the Devils is that their goalkeeping work holds up. With a season-high .916 serve, Vitek Vanecek was everything the Devils could have asked for after acquiring him from the Washington Capitals this offseason. They need Mackenzie Blackwood to stay healthy once he returns from an MCL sprain, but Akira Schmid seems like a viable third option.

Health in general will also be an important component for the Devils to maintain their current place in the standings. Aside from Blackwood’s MCL sprain and Ondrej Palát’s groin surgery, they have so far avoided significant injuries to their star players. If Hughes, Bratt, Hischier and Dougie Hamilton play more than 70 to 75 games, there won’t be much doubt about making it to the postseason.

No one gets a playoff spot on American Thanksgiving. That said, the odds are definitely in the Devils’ favor. Heading into the holidays, they have a nine-point lead over ninth. The 2022-23 Devils are legit, and with their playoff odds over 95 percent and the fact that 75 percent of teams clinching a playoff spot on this date on the calendar, the team’s chances of winning a . ​ends the five-year post-season drought. look pretty good.

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Advanced statistics from Natural Stat Trick

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