Underachieving? To a Point.

So I was reading Dominik at Lighthouse Hockey the other day and he found something cool at the Forechecker.  Dirk Hoag (a.k.a. The Forechecker) put together a PythagenPuck Analysis, which is essentially a means of looking at team's goals for and goals against rate to see how good they really are.  Over a whole season, this makes sense, good teams will generally have positive goal differentials and the bad teams will generally not.  Of course, all things are relative, see the figures for the Devils in recent seasons, as an example.

Anyway, so he compiled them all and compared the expected win percentage to an adjusted current one the team's have back on December 16, before last night's Devils-Sabres game and the Devils-Leafs game.  From what he found, I think you'll find interesting. The Devils adjusted win percentage is actually lower than what is expected.   That's right, the team is underachieving based on this analysis. Yes, a team that struggled through most of late October through late November with injuries, is underachieving.  A team that has lost it's cornerstone, franchise-player, and sure-fire Hall of Famer goaltender, Martin Brodeur, is underachieving.  To be fair, as pointed out by a commenter at OTF, it's more of a points percentage; but the point is the same. And I was perplexed by this when I first read it two days ago.  With an overall record of 16-9-2 and winning percentage of 63% at the time of analysis, one of the best in the league, how can one say this team should be doing better  with all things considered?

However, the two recent games against the Sabres have made me realize that perhaps there is something to this.   Incidentally, the Sabres ended up right in the middle in Hoag's analysis and we saw two different Devils teams in both games.  On Saturday, we saw a team coming off a massive win and riding a 4 game winning streak having it all come to an end. The Devils, to use a cliche, didn't play all 60 minutes of the game.  They weren't as aggressive getting to the puck, getting shots on net, and at times looked out of sync if not for fatigue then for something else.  The Sabres looked good, played well, and came out winners.  Don't mistake me, the Devils had their moments in the game; but that they lost, in retrospect, was deserving due to the team's performance. 

Contrast that with last night. Even though they played the night before in Toronto, they went into Buffalo and played with more vigor and more with an offensive mindset.  On the telecast, Doc Emrick pointed out how Sutter said simply, with respect to the last two losses, that the Devils weren't focusing at just shooting the puck.  It was true, when things got late in both games, the Devils tried to go for the perfect play instead of the good enough play too many times and ultimately lost possession for most of those efforts.  Yet, in last night's win, we saw a Devils team unafraid to put rubber on net.  More importantly, they stepped up their forecheck which was key in applying continued pressure on the Sabres.  While the Devils' didn't shoot a combined 17 shots after the first period, it wasn't for a lack of possession or aggression.  Moreover, some of those shots just happen to have gone in the net just because Bryce Salvador took a decent chance at shooting instead of passing it along the point.  Just because David Clarkson never gave up on taking a puck away from Nathan Paetsch.  Just because Brian Rolston chased down a puck and set himself in the right spot when Clarkson took it to the net.  Those three goals don't happen without an offensive, "we're going to make things happen instead of letting them happen" mindset.  Were the Devils perfect? No.  While the defense was good overall, that Buffalo scored with two killer passes into the slot for goals Scott Clemmensen had no chance on isn't something to highlight.  That Buffalo scored two of their goals right after Devils goals showed a brief lack of focus.  But overall, it was a strong game by New Jersey and the win was deserved.

Two games against the same team, different days and different arenas; but in both we saw an example of a not-so-good performance by the Devils and a good one.  The results reflected that and now I can see by what analysis means as the Devils are underachieving.  Even without Brodeur, nothing is stopping the Devils from having good performances other than the Devils themselves.  Buffalo didn't suck in either game, they didn't let the Devils go on and win last night.  The Devils were just the better team.  They went onto the ice, played their game, took advantage where necessary, and made the most of their opportunities. Again, it may be more cliches, but it's what winning hockey teams tend to accomplish en route to victory.   They didn't do that on Saturday, but they did it last night.  While it's not like a switch you can turn on; it can be controlled.

Just after the Brodeur injury, the Devils were in disarray  (injuries, new goalies, etc.) and were definitely not the better team on most nights.  Competitive, but not getting results - going 1-4 in their first 5 games since Brodeur tore his bicep.  But the Devils figured out their own issues on the ice and started to play much better hockey.  And so even before some players became healthy again, they were playing better hockey and getting wins.  Not some magical turnaround, not some Cinderella magic. The team played well in both ends, got solid performances from Clemmensen, and didn't panic or slump when things didn't go their way on the ice.  There were some call-ups, yes, but no one new was signed or acquired from the team.   All the key players not named Brodeur still suited up for New Jersey.  The Devils were still the Devils. And in consideration of this, it isn't crazy to expect them to continue playing well and getting more results. Do I think they should be expected to be division leaders from January on or something big like that?  No, that's a bit much, after all the analysis has an expected percentage of 58.8%, not 75.0% like Boston.  But keeping up with their current form is definitely do-able.

In short, the roster is strong enough as-is and we shouldn't settle for less given recent trends.

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