Are the Devils an exciting young team that is headed for better days or are they a meticulously crafted instrument of pain hellbent on causing suffering for its fans. Short answer? It depends on whether they won or lost last night.
The early season stretch for the Devils has been a bit of a rollercoaster thus far. They have looked inspired at times and they’ve looked listless at others. Last Thursday, the Devils seemed to be riding high after a third consecutive win, with two of those being four-goal margins over the Panthers and Islanders, two teams among the favorites to finish high in the East. At the end of Thursday evening one week later, the team was now sitting on three straight losses, with two of those being three-goal defeats. Fans on Twitter quickly reverted to dejection and doom (I saw someone last night actually call this group a “Mickey Mouse team” which seems harsh for a 7-5-3 outfit that lost to a team that is now 9-0-0 at home).
That is perhaps standard operating procedure for any fanbase and the type of borderline-psychotic overreaction I’m certainly not immune to, but back when the Devils were a well-respected and consistently successful franchise, these types of wild swings in the general mood of the fanbase were certainly not so pronounced. Typically, if the team went on a bad run back in those halcyon days, you were inclined to say “well, they’ll probably figure it out,” and then they usually did! When you watch as much terrible regular season hockey and as many meaningless late winter and early spring games as this fanbase has since 2013, the reaction to a downturn in play is much different.
Each Devils loss these days carries a sense of foreboding. Losses that are strung together grow that feeling exponentially. We’ve all seen this team spiral into the dumpster so many times in its recent history that it’s hard to outrun that “oh no, here it comes” aura that surrounds losses. Even winning streaks (when they do actually materialize) feel like just a temporary respite from the inevitable in some ways. The other shoe is always hovering, ready to drop.
Generally speaking, the Devils have been fine, if inconsistent. If anything, we should all be pleased with the fact that the team has duct-taped together a half-decent start through substantial injury troubles and a lot of new and/or young faces dotting their roster. Even in the wake of the current three-game slide, the Devils are sitting on a 93-point pace, enough to put you in the playoff conversation most seasons (though the threshold is likely to be higher in the East this year). Add in the fact that they’ve done this while getting only a little under four periods of regulation hockey from their best forward and having a bunch of other significant contributors miss time and the Devils have actually done a pretty solid job as we near the 20% mark for the season.
As a team, their even-strength play is right in the middle of the pack for the league — a shade under 50% in GF% and xGF% at 5v5 and a shade over 50% for both in all even strength situations — and while their special teams remain a weakness, they have been trending up in terms of results of late. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the past year of performance from these units, but a penalty kill that is 25th in GA/60 and a power play that is 24th in GF/60 both represent improvements over last season’s disastrous special teams results (all on-ice numbers via Natural Stat Trick). The underlying xGA numbers for the penalty kill are even actually quite good (though the power play conversely looks awful by most underlying metrics, something the eye test will heartily agree with).
What this all boils down to is that the Devils are, in both results and underlying metrics, a largely average team thus far, which is almost exactly in line with preseason expectations, if not an exceedance of expectations with the absence of Jack Hughes. And yet, they are still somehow extraordinarily frustrating. Part of that is likely connected to the Devils last nine games going Loss – Loss – Loss – Win – Win – Win – Loss – Loss – Loss, the most whiplash-inducing way to slog through a 3-3-3 stretch in a tough part of the schedule. I think, mostly, we’re all conditioned by the last nine years to expect the house of cards to collapse at some point, though.
My hope is that the outcome we all fear will not be the fate for this particular Devils team. They have some really good players — including a dominant cornerstone on defense they’ve long been missing in Dougie Hamilton, solid enough underlying numbers, an NHL-quality goaltending tandem, and the return of Jack Hughes not too far over the horizon. That doesn’t mean I don’t dread that familiar spiral all the same. Sometimes it feels like this fanbase will require an exorcism to remove the latent dread that springs to the surface after every loss, but the reality is we probably just need a couple seasons of watchable hockey. Here’s hoping that’s the direction we’re headed.