In what was supposed to be another rebuilding year, it seems that, instead, the New Jersey Devils are positioning themselves for a lot of success.
They lost just once in their first six contests — and that to a very good Washington Capitals team — and have wins over the otherwise untouchable Maple Leafs and Lightning. They outscored their opponents by nine goals in those six games. And generally speaking, where everything seemed to go exactly wrong last season, things seem to be going exactly right now.
The offense is clicking, as nine players have at least four points through the first six games. No skater whose played at least two games is without a point. And at the back, both Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid seem to have the goaltending back to where it used to be: Reliably excellent.
But as you can probably guess whenever a team widely considered to be bad before the season rampages out of the gates, this isn’t success that’s built to last.
First and foremost, let’s just point out the obvious: They’re shooting 14 percent as a team in all situations, with a .920 save percentage. With Schneider, we can reasonably assume (for now) last year’s horrific save percentage was a fluke, and that .920 is about where he should be; his career average is in that range, so let’s just give him the benefit of the doubt and say we’re headed for another season of that. (We’ll get to goaltending a little more in-depth in a minute, though.)
But the 14 percent number isn’t going to last, and we all know that. Like the Blue Jackets last year, all the goals they’re scoring is leading to a lot of people wondering “What are the Devils doing differently this time around?” If they keep it up for at least a little while longer, a lot of people will really dig into their systems and everything else looking for an explanation, when the explanation is probably going to end up being “Sometimes you just shoot 14 percent for 15 games.”
Because here’s the thing: The Devils are in the bottom-10 in the league in a number of offensive and defensive “per 60” categories simultaneously. These include attempts for and against, unblocked attempts against, shots on goal for and against, and expected goals against.
That leaves them sitting on a roughly middling number of unblocked attempts for per 60, and an extremely high expected goals per 60. That latter stat doesn’t totally sync up with the number of actual of goals they’ve scored — right now they’re scoring more than half a goal above and beyond what they “should” have at 5-on-5 — but one expects we’re about to hear the same kind of “shot quality” argument we’ve gotten half a dozen times before for this team if they can keep it up even remotely.
The reason they’re scoring a lot, at first glance, is pretty clear: They generate a lot of scoring chances (though they allow more) and a good chunk of them are of the high-danger variety. As you might imagine, they convert on a lot of them.
On low- and medium-danger shots, they’re only okay, but they’re banging in high-danger opportunities at an incredible rate of more than 20 percent. That is, 1 in 5 shots around the net area are making their way past the goalie.
Now, okay, you maybe say, “Well, when you’re generating a lot of high-danger looks, that’s going to lead to high shooting percentages, since that’s likely to create a lot of rebounds.” Except the Devils only have eight 5-on-5 rebounds created through their first six games. Compare that with, to pick a couple teams at random, Chicago (11) or Toronto (16). Part of the problem, then, is that it’s hard to generate rebounds when you’re putting the puck in the net on your first shot. But also, the league-average shooting percentage at 5-on-5 is 18.3 percent, so certainly the Devils are getting lucky in this regard, at least a little bit.
Where they’re making more hay than you might expect is on low-danger shots, which account for about 1 in every 5 goals they’ve scored at full strength. They’re shooting at three times the league average in that category. So that’s only two extra goals more than they “should” have, but two goals at this time of year is enough to move the needle. That they were tied for fourth in league-wide shooting percentage before last night tells the story pretty clearly.
They’re also running at more than 30 percent on the power play, scoring eight goals already and shooting more than 21 percent. Last year, they were roughly middle-of-the-pack at nearly 13 percent. Nico Hischier doesn’t make that much of a difference, so that, too, cannot last.
The real issue, then, is how well Schneider and Kinkaid have played at 5-on-5. It’s almost too good. Implausibly good, especially on medium-danger shots. To have conceded as many from decent scoring areas as the perimeter of the rink on roughly the same number of shots is unsustainable, obviously, but that’s where they’re at through six games. That’s the reason the team entered Thursday night with the fourth-best save percentage in the league, despite the fact that they give up a lot of chances from those areas. That, folks, is luck.
It’s likely, then, that both these numbers will come back to earth sooner than later. Somewhat counter-productive for the Devils to get all this good luck now, when they’re supposed to be tanking, but one imagines there won’t be too much complaining.
The good news for the Devils, in a way, is that even if they keep this up for a little while longer, no one is going to be fooled into thinking they’ve magically turned into a juggernaut. It’s fun for now, sure, but this is a team just beginning its rebuild, not coming to the end of one, as many of the PDO-heavy teams of the past few years have been. Unlike a lot of those teams, the Devils haven’t exactly been swimming in high picks of late. Everyone sees and understands that this is not a particularly skilled team, even as the goals go in for now. And Schneider is great, but he’s not this far above the league average.
As long as people keep the conditions by which all these wins have come in mind, there’s no need for Devils fans to get themselves all excited about what comes for the team in March or April. Get out in front of the hysteria; we all know this isn’t for real. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun, for now.
All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.