Here’s a sentence you probably didn’t think you’d see at any point after the first month of the season: The New Jersey Devils are leading the Metropolitan Division. Hard as it may be to believe, that’s been checked once, twice, backwards and forwards and still holds true.
After three straight wins, a feat which the Devils have now accomplished for the third time this season, New Jersey finds themselves outpacing the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets for the top divisional seed, a few points up on the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers and several points ahead of the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers. It's a lofty spot for a team that was picked by many to be basement dwellers this season, and it leaves one wondering whether or not these Devils are the real deal.
From the perspective of base statistics, all signs would seemingly point to New Jersey in fact being among the best teams in the league through the early part of the season. The Devils are tied for ninth in goals for, have allowed the eighth-fewest goals against, rank fourth in goal differential, boast one of the league’s top power plays and a slightly above-average penalty kill and rank first in the league in points percentage.
The players one would expect to be leading the way for New Jersey are the ones doing so, too. Taylor Hall isn’t exactly filling the net, but he’s definitely stuffing the scoresheet with three goals and 15 points through 11 contests. Adam Henrique is contributing at a career rate through the early season, notching three goals and eight points. Free agent pickup Drew Stafford is one back of the team goal lead with four tallies in eight games, while the Devils’ top goal-scorer is Brian Gibbons, who has matched his previous career-best mark, five goals, in the span of one month. Offensively, it’s the rookies who have dazzled most, however. Three of New Jersey’s top six scorers — Will Butcher, Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischer — are freshmen. Impressive, indeed.
It hasn’t hurt the Devils to be backstopped by Cory Schneider, either. There was talk at points last season that Schneider, who has been one of the league’s best netminders since arriving in New Jersey, may have finally been broken by New Jersey’s poor play. He struggled to the tune of a .908 save percentage and 2.82 goals-against average, registering just two shutouts and winning only 20 of his 60 outings. Those were among the worst numbers of his career. Reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated, though, and Schneider has come out of the gate looking like a wall. He boasts a .921 SP in his eight appearances.
For the most part, however, these are base statistics, the numbers one could glean from a cursory glance at the standings or a stat sheet. And while they may lead some to believe this is a Devils team that, under coach John Hynes, has taken the failures of past seasons and built something special, New Jersey’s underlying numbers aren’t nearly as promising.
Let’s start at the top and look at shots on goal. In nine of their 11 games, the Devils have been outshot by their opponents — not altogether surprising given New Jersey ranks 27th with 29.7 shots per game and 28th with 34.5 against per outing. Somewhat remarkable, though, is that the Devils have managed to win seven of those contests. New Jersey’s shortcomings are clear at 5-on-5, too. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Devils ranks 26th in shots for (29.8) and 30th in shots against (35.6) per 60 minutes, which is good for the league’s worst shots-for percentage (45.7). When it’s broken down further to attempts, it doesn’t look any better, either. Per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, New Jersey has the fifth-worst Corsi for (54.7), third-worst Corsi against (64) and third-worst Corsi for percentage (46.1).
Now, some might suggest that the Devils will be able to keep their heads above water so long as they aren’t giving up scoring chances. Underlying numbers would suggest they’re doing exactly that, though. While New Jersey does have a decent rate of scoring chances for per 60 minutes— 14th in the league with 29.2 per 60 minutes — they rank dead-last with 33.3 attempts against. That’s enough to make the Devils’ 46.7 scoring chances-for percentage fourth-worst in the league. That said, the one feather in New Jersey’s cap thus far is that they’ve done much better in limiting high-danger shot attempts. While they rank 20th in high-danger attempts for per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (10.3), the Devils have only given up 10.6 against per 60 minutes. Their 49.4 high-danger attempts for percentage is firmly in the middle of the pack across the league.
Of course, that’s where Schneider comes back into the picture. According to Corsica, no netminder with 200 minutes at 5-on-5 has bucked their expected save percentage quite like the Devils goaltender. The opportunities New Jersey has given up would suggest a .913 SP at five-a-side. Schneider has managed to put up a .944 mark and has been near unbeatable from low- and mid-danger areas of the ice. He’s been a bit shakier from the high-danger areas, mind you, but the only goaltenders facing more attempts per outing from prime scoring spots at 5-on-5 are Corey Crawford and Henrik Lundqvist.
So, are these Devils the real deal? Well, the underlying numbers suggest otherwise and sticking atop the Metropolitan while getting overrun on a nightly basis seems unlikely. However, if Schneider can stay healthy and continue his brilliance, there’s no reason New Jersey can’t keep themselves in the wild-card race as the season progresses. But as Schneider goes, so will go the Devils.
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