Saturday, January 29, 2011

In Defense of the Devils

(I wish I'd finished this post before the Devils caught fire)

The NHL's most disappointing team thus far this season has to be the New Jersey Devils.

After winning their division in 2010 and then adding Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder, and Jason Arnott, while losing a good defenseman in Paul Martin (who hardly played anyways, due to injury), they were probably penciled in by most as a solid playoff team, behind Pittsburgh (thanks to Shero's aggressive July 1 which landed Pittsburgh Zbynek Michalek and Martin) and Philadelphia (the defending Eastern Conference Champions, who solidified their third pair and added Nikolai Zherdev, losing Simon Gagne who'd missed 20+ games with injury).

With the Devils now sitting in lottery position, most people would say they are a terrible team. Hopefully after reading on, you won't be one of those people anymore.
First off, just think about it. Is there any reason at all for the Devils to have regressed as hard as it looks? Take a look at their rosters.

Depth chart (only players with 20+ GP last season or on track to record that many this season):

Do note I have Langenbrunner in both charts even though he was traded. He's still played the better part of the season with New Jersey.

Speaking of Langenbrunner, some people entertained the idea that he might have been a locker room cancer of sorts, an unsupportive teammate, one who helped create that losing atmosphere in the Devils' dressing room. To that I quote this and add that he captained Team USA to an improbable one-shot-from-gold in Vancouver. Langenbrunner I'm certain was far from the only contributor, positive or negative, in both cases. These are professionals we're talking about, and one player will not have such a huge impact on the team's morale, especially when he hasn't, historically.

What about the coaches? While moving from Jacques Lemaire to John Maclean was probably a step backward, Maclean served as an assistant coach in New Jersey for seven years, then as head coach in the American Hockey League for a year before coming back to New Jersey. So this guy is kind of experienced. If he hadn't shown any coaching acumen before, he wouldn't have lasted as long as he did. Lou Lamoriello and the rest of the hockey world aren't full of idiots who wouldn't have seen this coming. No one did, so I think it's safe to assume that choosing Maclean was an okay choice.

What about goalies? Well, do you believe Martin Brodeur, one of the greatest goalies of all time who'd averaged a .917 save percentage since the lockout, would suddenly fall to .895, below replacement level? That his save percentage would be exceeded by replacement-level goalie Johan Hedberg's save percentage...on the PK? I don't. That difference is the gap between an elite goalie and an average goalie--Roberto Luongo to Michael Leighton, perhaps. Do you think Brodeur in three months suddenly forgot how to play hockey, and then the Devils' coaching staff and management were stupid enough to keep playing him over Johan Hedberg?

Then, what about injuries? Zach Parise has been out this season, and he's one of the best players in the world. To that I say that no single player is worth that much, save perhaps a guy like Bobby Orr or Dominek Hasek. Even those two at their best were worth about 10 wins a season. The Devils are further back by more than 20 points (rated over 82 games), I'd think.

By my rough calculations if we put Brodeur at a .915 then the Devils will have allowed about 18 fewer goals than they have to date. If we adjust the Devils' shooting at ES to the median 8.5%, then their (by my calculations) 71 5-on-5 goals become 98 goals, a 27 goal difference. Then via total goaltending/defense and 5-on-5 offense, regressing New Jersey to the mean results in a goal differential that would jump from a -45 (as bad as Edmonton or the New York Islanders) to an even. Throw in a surely-better-than-25th-power-play regression and we have a team that should be hanging around Atlanta in the standings, at the very least. By 6 goals ~ 1 win (2 points) we see New Jersey move from 35 points to 50. With games in hand.

Now, at the all-star break, the Devils have won five of seven and are moving along smoothly. Everyone thinks they're suddenly playing much better under Lemaire. In reality, it's mainly the results that are better: their percentages were normal this past month. Coaches have a way of doing that (though not always).

See? And I haven't yet even referred to their Corsi (take special note of the PDO that's 1.5% less than Ottawa and about 3% less than the bottom of the pack). Though if you want to read about Corsi, then, well, read the comments.

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