Are The New Jersey Devils Now Headless Horsemen (and is that a bad thing)?

It’s summertime during the longest off-season in sports. As such, we at hockeyfreeforall.com (@hockeyfree4all) wanted to share our recent writings involving the New Jersey Devils with those of you for whom hockey is never a sleepy hollow.   We have done so in the context of the earth shattering announcement that Lou (in whom Devil’s fans have trusted, as evidenced by the soon to be former name of their sbnation website) Lamoriello assumed the GM role for the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 23rd. What follows is our examination of the future status of New Jersey vis a vis our proprietary metric, the Advanced Bracton score (AB) and what type of opportunity Lamoriello’s successor will have to improve the hockey club (and re-capitate it).

The AB is the manner by which we rate individual teams and players in our attempt to gauge the probability of regular season success and playoff advancement. It is partially a function of net penalty margins as well as 3 other mistake avoidance metrics (sorry we don’t give away the secret sauce, but have the final results of the work here).

Regardless of the nuts and bolts of we arrived at our conclusions, the scope of this article is to generally introduce why the Devils have problems that successful teams do not have and what may be done to fix them. In a retrospective study of the 2014-2015 season, we found that teams who scored a positive number on the AB made the playoffs in 2014-15 in 15 of 16 cases (VAN and WPG were negative, LA was positive). Amazingly, the team with the higher AB score won their first round matchup in 8 of 8 cases and 3 of 4 times in the second round. We recognize that this is an extremely small sample size, correlation is not causation, and we are NOT touting the AB as a magic bullet. However, our data related to the Devils, who scored a negative -46.82 and 25th overall, correlated highly with their place in the standings. Is that meaningful?

Since we currently find the Devils among the lower tier of teams ranked by our metric, we are surprised that “the Devils we do know” have been constructed in a surprisingly un-Lamoriello historical fashion. We vividly recall all the 2-1 games that were hallmarked by gritty (albeit sometimes boring) play, aggressive fore-checking, the neutral zone trap (before it was cool) and mistake minimization. In this manner, Mr. Lamoriello was one of the early adopters of puck possession based advanced statistics, as well as the net differential between forced and unforced errors (of the variety that our metric seeks to capture).

However, the Devils we know in no way resemble the Devils we once knew. The Devils we once knew, like in 1999-2000 for example, generally had balanced scoring, more power plays than their opponents, had two lines of great defenseman, possessed the puck as a result of taking it away from the other team, and a great goaltender.

In contrast, the Devils now, according to our metric, have six (!) players that averaged more than one penalty taken per game and only 3 that drew more than one. On defense, other than Greene and Harrold, the rest of the defensive corps that played in more than 20 games last year were all net cost players. What we mean by that is that we calculate the bottom 7 NJ defenseman actually cost the Devils 48 more goals than they produced. Not very Lamoriello like.

The other thing that strikes us in comparing the current Devils team to ones in the past is that they have very few players that are statistically unusual relative to players on other teams. There is no Scott Stevens at +30 or Gionta and Gomez with over a point per game and in excess of 240 shots. This season Henrique and Cammallieri only produced half the points and about half the shots. The Devils best goal producers (not scoeres) were actually Gionta and Bernier (who we projected created 11 goals combined according to our work). Said another way, these two probably contributed to this total when they weren’t even on the ice (and the Devils were on the power play).

How did this current uninspiring situation occur? Without opining on team ownership, its philosophy on cap space, its relocation to Newark (which is a decent building), or the impact of the Lamoriello move on Toronto, we do think the aging of the team in general (which until recently had 43 year old Jaromir Jagr as one of its most productive players), has resulted in the Devils somehow amassing too many players that are likely past their prime and/or who stylistically do not adhere to the regime that made the organization successful in the past. Oh, and one of these is NOT named Kovalchuk. His departure hurt too.

So what can be done? The rebuild should consist of the following:

  • Complete defensive overhaul except Greene.
  • Signing of a forward who is a complete player……like….. (and don’t shoot the messenger), Zach Parise. We realize this involves cap usage.
  • Stabilizing some of the weaker links on the team akin to what Toronto is doing
  • Developing and/or reshuffling minor league or prospect talent.
  • Stockpiling of draft picks and redoubling scouting efforts.
  • GM Shero instilling a philosophy similar to that of Lamoriello, in the heydays of “In Lou we Trust.”

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