After a five-year absence, the New Jersey Devils are returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2018. With the regular 4-3 loss of the Florida Panthers to the New York Rangers moreDevils win 5-3over the Ottawa Senators, secured their spot on Saturday night.
With a 46-19-8 record and 100 points with nine regular-season games remaining, the Devils' 2022-23 season was better than anyone could have predicted. Considering they finished last season with a 27-46-9 record and 63 points, that was a huge leap. How did they change it so quickly? Let's see how they got here.
The devils finally got the goalie they were looking for
The number one reason the Devils have seen such a huge jump in the NHL rankings is goaltending. General manager Tom Fitzgerald tried to get close to him for some time, signing Corey Crawford in 2020 and Jonathan Bernier in 2021. But neither free-agent option worked; Crawford retired before even playing for the Devils and Bernier has not played since his hip surgery in December 2021.
With none of those signings working, the Devils goalie hit rock bottom, especially in the 2021-22 season. Not only did Bernier miss most of the year due to hip surgery, but Mackenzie Blackwood also missed a lot of time due to her own injury woes. As a result, the Devils used seven different goaltenders and finished with a Team Save Percentage (SV%) of .881 while conceding less than -65.65 goals more than expected. You could give the Tampa Bay Lightning that kind of net, and they would hit rock bottom, too.
This meant Fitzgerald had to refocus on target this offseason, which he did when he wonVitek Vanecek to the Washington Capitalsin draft in July. Back then, Vanecek had .908 SV% in 79 career games, above the league average of .903, a position the Devils didn't even come close to matching a season ago.
Despite dipping a bit in recent weeks, Vanecek has been announced for the Devils. They've won 29 of their 42 games, have a SV% of .909 and have 8.89 goal stops above expectations (GSAx). Without him, the Devils wouldn't be in the position they are in right now, especially before March rolls around. However, Vanecek isn't the only Devils keeper to have put in an admirable performance:
- Blackwood: 18 games played, 0.900 SV%, 4.81 GSAx
- Akira Schmid: 17 games played, 0.918 SV%, 6.14 GSAx
With Blackwood struggling again with injuries, Schmid rose and was a more than competent 1B for Vanecek. The 22-year-old has made significant progress compared to a year ago and has a bright future ahead of him. and even ifBlackwood is struggling with his health.He was an average goalkeeper when he was healthy. It's a far cry from the Devils' scoring record a year ago and has been the biggest factor in their rise to the top of the Metropolitan Division.
Devils Defense is among the best in the league
One of the reasons the Devils' goalkeeping has improved is because the team's defense has improved. It's not that they were a bad defensive club in 2021/22; His defensive numbers were mid-range, but there was definitely room for improvement. Part of that meant keeping players healthy, but Fitzgerald also made some additions to the blue line.
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The main reason the Devils defense has rebounded isDougie HamiltonHe is healthy after dealing with injuries in 2021-22. Not only is he healthy, but he's having the best season of his career with 19 goals and 68 points in 73 games. He may not be known for his defensive play, but he was solid. Combine that with the offensive production of his career and he's a true No. 1 blueliner.
Hamilton, however, had help. Since the Pittsburgh Penguins had to make room last season, theThe devils acquired John Marinoin exchange for Ty Smith and a third-round selection. Although Marino's offensive play has been lacking this season, he has been the best defensive tackle on the team. He's playing tough minutes and coach Lindy Ruff has agreed to use Marino against teams' top lines night after night. This gave Hamilton an opportunity to loosen up offensively.
Another benefit of adding Marino to the lineup is that Damon Severson can enjoy the team's deep players in a third pair role. There may be no offense under Marino, but it was the opposite with Severson, who leads the team in terms of expected goals per 60 minutes on the ice. His ability to move the puck shines against lesser opponents, and he has Brendan Smith and Kevin Bahl as his defensive partners.
In general, the Devils' defensive numbers rose from midfield to the top 5 or 10 in the league:
- 7th in field goal attempts per 60
- 4. on own goal opportunities at 60
- First at high risk rates around 60
- 5th in xG against 60
- 7th in goals against 60
Combine that with an above average goalkeeper and that's a recipe for success. But don't think these are your dad's devils known for playing defensive hockey. Under Ruff, these Devils play with pace, and their offensive firepower has also played a big part in getting them where they are.
Devils Offense wins with League Best
The Devils weren't a bad offensive team in 2021-22. They couldn't score a power play goal if their lives depended on it, but they finished the league in 11th place with five goals against five. This is because the core ofJack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier had outstanding years. It turns out that those years of upheaval were a portent for the future.
Hughes has excelled this season with a total of 40 goals and 86 points in 69 games. He was one of the top five-a-side scorers in the league, finishing fourth in five-a-side goals behind Connor McDavid, Mikko Rantanen and David Pastrnak. If McDavid wasn't having one of his best seasons in decades, Hughes would likely get more serious consideration for winning the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.
While Hughes has been the Devils' best player this season, Hischier and Bratt are not far behind. Bratt has 31 goals, the first time in his career he's surpassed the 30 mark and is on track to finish with 35 goals and 74 points. Being a restricted free agent again this summer means he has a payday ahead of him.
Like Bratt, Hischier surpassed 30 goals for the first time in his career. The team captain is on course to finish with a career-best 34 goals and 80 points. He and Bratt were the most efficient 5-on-5 shooters on the team behind Hughes and proved their 2021-22 breakout years were no fluke.
It wasn't just Bratt, Hischier and Hughes who led the Devils' offense. We've mentioned Hamilton's career year before, but they got a low score from Dawson Mercer, who is on fire in the second half of 2022-23. He has 23 goals and 51 points in 73 games and has an outside chance of reaching the 60-point mark before the end of the regular season. He was the team's fourth most efficient five-a-side scorer and this is only his second year in the NHL. He's had a solid rookie season and the best is yet to come.
After a poor season in his freshman year with the Devils, Tomáš Tatar had a good comeback season. With 17 goals and 41 points in 73 games, he has a good chance of becoming the sixth or seventh Devils skater to score 20 goals; Hamilton should also reach this mark. And that despite the fact that Timo Meier has only played 12 games for the team since thenpurchased within the trading period, also has 35 goals and will increase his total as he gets used to the team system.
Overall, the Devils' offensive numbers have been among the best in the league all season:
- 4th in field goal attempts per 60
- 1. in scoring chances every 60
- 3. when the chances of danger are high at 60
- Third in xG for 60
- Fourth in goals at 60
Although the Devils appear to be more goaltenders than other teams, their goals per 60 is nearly equal to their xG per 60. Their offense is as good as any in the league and should please anyone who sees their knockout opponents in the first Round is cause problems. .
For the demons, this is just the beginning.
The Devils couldn't have asked for much more at this point in the season. They've improved in every facet of the game, including their power play, which has gone from just 15.56 percent a year ago to 21.29 percent this season. The only question is whether the keeper can hold out long enough to make a playoff run. If not, the pieces are in place, and their first place in the playoffs in five years should only be the start of their postseason opener.
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