The 1995 New Jersey Devils: Good but Not Great (Until the Playoffs)

In the comments to Friday's post about Neal Broten, I made the following statement:

I would disagree that the 1995 Devils were spectacularly deep or all that talented, at least comparison to other teams in that season. They were good, but not great.

The problem here is that I didn't provide any evidence to back that up.  It was just my remembrance of that lockout-shortened 1994-95 season.  Since I've been looking back at the team's history over the past week or so, let's look at how the New Jersey Devils did in the regular season and the playoffs back then.   Of course, it was a successful season: the New Jersey Devils won their first Stanley Cup. They won all of their series in less than 7 games, sweeping the Western Conference champions, the Detroit Red Wings.  You can't ask for much more than that.   However, the team wasn't as excellent during the season; and relied on several players to get hot in the playoffs to get to the top of the mountain.

As per Hockey-Reference, the New Jersey Devils finished the 1994-95 with a record of 22-18-8. Their 52 points tied them with Washington in the Atlantic Division. In the conference, the Devils were fifth in the East ahead of the Capitals due to New Jersey's head-to-head record. In the league, the Devils were ninth overall.

I could end it here and say, there you are: good, but not great in the season.  The season got them a fifth seed in the East, which started them on the road for every round.   Then they got hot and went on an epic quest for the Cup.  However, there's a lot more to dig through to get a sense of how the team did in the shortened season.

First, there are the goals for and against totals. The Devils didn't score a lot of goals relative to the league, a seemingly common occurrence for this franchise.  They scored 136 goals, which was 7 below the league average of 143 and tied them with Washington for 15th in the league.  The defense made up for the lackluster offense. The team allowed only 121 goals, the fifth fewest in the league and well below the league average of 143.   In terms of total goals in a game, Hockey-Reference calculated them at 5.33 - the fourth lowest total in the league.  The trap plus offensive struggles meant that games against New Jersey were relatively stingy.

Second, let's look at special teams.  The Devils have struggled mightily on the power play back in 1994-95.  They were dead last in power play goals scored with 22 (NHL average: 37); dead last in power play opportunities with 164 (NHL Average: 209); and somehow not-dead-last-but-not-far-off-at-23rd in conversion rate with 13.41%.   Even way back then, the Devils just didn't get enough man advantages.  The penalty kill fared far better than the power play.  The Devils were excellent when it came to goals allowed on the PK with 28, tied with Detroit and Toronto for second fewest in the league.  They were the most disciplined team in the league by far with only 149 power play opportunities against. However, the success rate didn't rank highly despite these low numbers. The Devils' finished at 81.21%, for 16th in the league and just below the league average of 82.27%.   The Devils clearly got most of their scoring (and most of their allowed goals) at even strength; and liked to keep the game in general at evens, too. 

Third, let's check out more detailed standings.  Due to the lockout, the NHL played a 48-game season where teams would only play other teams in their own conference.  While the league had 26 teams, the Eastern Conference had two more teams than the Western Conference.  Therefore, so the schedule was spread thinner for New Jersey and along with the rest of the East.  So in addition to getting the chance to go up against teams like Ottawa, the Islanders, and Tampa Bay; the Devils had 3-4 games with their opponents as opposed to 4-5 for those Western Conference teams.

Hockey-Reference has a good breakdown of split records. The Devils were a great home team, their 14-4-6 record was the fifth best in the league.  I guess the Brendan Byrne Arena was a fort in addition to being cavernous?  They weren't so great on the road, though: they went 8-14-2.  Relative to the rest of the league, it was 18th; but it's not good to drop 14 out of 20 games on the road in general regardless of league ranking.  It's also rather surprising since the Devils were extremely good on the road in the postseason.

With respect to divisional breakdowns, the Devils did better in the Atlantic at 12-8-4 (fifth in the East) than they did against the Northeast at 10-10-4 (eighth in the East).  This shouldn't be so surprising since the Northeast was a stronger division than the Atlantic.  Quebec and Pittsburgh ruled the Northeast and were buoyed by Boston (led by their power trio of Adam Oates, Cam Neely, and Ray Bourque), Buffalo (led by Dominik Hasek being Dominik Hasek). Whereas the Atlantic was led by Philly and the Devils and Caps were the only other teams to top 50% in terms of points percentage.

The monthly records at Hockey-Reference give an overview of how they did throughout the season. The Devils struggled in January, were above average in February, and were mediocre in March.  Their performance in April was what propelled them to a second place finish in the Atlantic and a #5 seed in the East. They went 8-4-2, the third best record in the league in April.   Ignoring their one loss in May - they played one game - the Devils did go into the playoffs on an upward trend.  As we know now, the best was yet to come.

Lastly for team record and stats, let's briefly look at how the Devils did against various opponents.  The good news was that they smashed the Rangers (3-0-1), beat up on Ottawa (3-0-0) and Florida (3-1-0), they went undefeated against Hartford (1-0-2), and their 3-1-0 record over Washington got them Boston instead of Buffalo in the first round.    The bad (and in retrospect, surprising) news is that the Devils were winless against Pittsburgh at 0-1-2; struggled with division dwellers Tampa Bay (1-2-1) and the Islanders (1-1-2); and were decisively beaten in the season series' with Boston and Philadelphia (1-3-0 each).   I'm sure back in early May, many Devils fans weren't happy that the team had to take on the B's in the first round of the playoffs. 

Moving on to player stats, the Devils weren't that impressive.   Martin Brodeur was the definitive starter in 1995, playing 40 out of the team's 48 games. He posted a save percentage of 90.2%, good for 16th in the league out of goalies who played at least 20 games (28 total) per Hockey-Reference.  Considering the save percentages of most of the other non-Hasek goalies, Brodeur didn't do too bad.  He just wasn't exceptional and carried the team on his back through the season.  Current goalie coach Chris Terreri was the backup, appeared in 15 games, and put up a save percentage of 90%.  Again, not bad, but not great.

The skaters weren't much more impressive.  Jacques Lemaire emphasized the neutral zone trap, everyone bought into the system, and it was sensible since many of the players were defensive-minded players.  Stephane Richer did quite well, as his 23 goals were the 14th most in the league (tied with two others) and his 39 points ranked him tied for 46th.   However, no Devil really came close to Richer's production.  John MacLean hit 30 and hit only 17 goals and 29 points.  Third on the team in scoring was Neal Broten, who caught fire in New Jersey but definitely was beyond the prime of his career.  That he finished third on the team in regular season scoring speaks volumes about the team's struggles on offense.  

Looking down the roster at Hockey-Reference, names stand out with stat lines that didn't look great even in a shortened season.  Claude Lemieux, who was a prime producer for the Devils in prior seasons, struggled with only 6 goals and 13 assists in 45 games. Scott Stevens was still leading the blueline and wrecking fools; but he was unable to put up points like he did in 1993-94. Bill Guerin, Bobby Holik, Brian Rolston and Scott Niedermayer would go on to have very productive careers; but they were still quite young at the time.  Therefore, they chipped in more so than carry the team offensively.  Bobby Carpenter, Bruce Driver, and Tommy Albelin started showing signs of age in general, so they dropped off into more defensive roles.  The combination of all of this resulted in a team that really had to rely on it's defense to win games because their offensive production was limited.  I would have loved to know their Corsi figures to see who was driving play and being unproductive and who was just unproductive.  Still, while this roster was good enough to win a Cup, it's easy to see why they struggled on offense and relied on defending to make it through the season and through the playoffs.

So what happened in the playoffs?  Well, quite simply, the Devils got hot. 

First and foremost, the goalie got hot.  Martin Brodeur showed the entire hockey world that he was quite good, as he posted a 92.7% save percentage. According to Hockey-Refence, that save percentage would be the best out of all regular goalies in the 1995 playoffs.  His 3 shutouts - all against Boston in the first round - also led all playoff goalies. Based on his game log at Hockey-Reference, the only time he may have had any struggles came against Philadelphia, with two consecutive games of 3+ goals allowed.  He would follow those up with superior performances.

Second, Claude Lemieux became a beast.  He was used in a shadowing role.  Lemaire would match up his line against the opponent's top line whenever possible, and Lemeiux's job was to cover the other team's best winger. Against Boston, that was Cam Neely. Against Pittsburgh, that was Jaromir Jagr. Against Philadelphia, that was John LeClair.  Against Detroit, I think it was Keith Primeau.  Lemaire figured that with Lemieux struggling to score during the season, he can still be valuable by shutting them down.  Yet, Lemieux exploded for 13 goals and 3 assists in the playoffs.  He didn't just cover the opposing winger, he torched them en route to goals.  He was lethal on the counter-attack, especially against Pittsburgh against whom he tallied 6 of his 13 goals.  Lemieux won the Conn Smythe for his efforts, fully deserved given that he burst into flames after a plodding season.

Third, other skaters got hot and found the net more often.  John MacLean made an impact away on a line outside of Lemieux and Richer.  He went from 29 points in 46 season games to 18 points in 20, finishing just behind Broten and not too far from Richer.  Randy McKay was middling during the season with 5 goals and 7 assists in 33 games.  He sparkled on the Crash Line with 8 goals and 4 assists, shooting at a wondrous 26.7%.  Defenseman Shawn Chambers was acquired during the season and put up only 2 goals and 5 assists in 21 games. In the playoffs, Chambers doubled his goal total and contributed 5 helpers in 20 games. Scott Niedermayer didn't get hot until the final 6 games of the playoffs, when he put up 1 (very sweet) goal and contributed 6 assists.  Neal Broten remained hot.  When players like this "step up" in these situations, at this time of the season, it's enough to help propel a team against competition who did better overall in the regular season.

Fourth, let's give some respect to Jacques Lemaire. I don't know if coaches can get hot, but he certainly did a great job against his opponents from bench-to-bench.  His decision to use Lemieux as a shadow turned out better than anyone could have expected.  Rolling four lines helped the team stay relatively fresh and catch opponents in bad match-ups, which helped the Crash Line excel.   The entire team committed to the trap and reliant on the counter-attack; there was little need for adjustment or a change in general tactics in the postseason.  Their strong defending and transition game made them a pain to play against during the season.

Throw in the fact that Brodeur got hot, Lemieux got hot, Broten stayed hot, and other skaters got hot, and the Devils became incredibly dangerous to play against.  That's how a team that went 8-14-2 on the road in the regular season, went a remarkable 10-1 on the road in the playoffs - starting each series  That's how a team that went a combined 2-7-2 against Boston, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia - all would be described as bad match-ups - went 12-4 against them in May and June.  That's how a team that averaged 2.83 goals per game in the season, averaged 3.35 goals per game in the postseason - with only one game (Game 4, OT win over Boston) where the Devils failed to score 2 or more goals in the playoffs. The Devils were a good enough team to get into the postseason, with strengths and flaws like any team.  Unlike any team, several Devils got hot which helped minimize those flaws and strengthen their current identity.  Largely as a result from that, the Devils managed to dispose of four teams who did better than them in the regular season and did so in under 7 games for each opponent.  That's usually the equation for playoff success: do well enough and then get hot in some way or form to obtain success.

I wouldn't describe the 1995 New Jersey Devils as a weak team that won the Cup.  They had to overachieve and punch above their weight.  They wouldn't have gotten where they went without Brodeur, Lemieux, Broten, Richer, MacLean, McKay, Niedermayer, etc. getting or staying hot.  They relied on a tactic that other teams just struggled with even though they've seen it since 1993-94; and the aforementioned hotness made them lethal. Their power play was horrid and their offense overall was below league average until the playoffs. Yet, they didn't just barely make the playoffs or get pounded by every other team in the East in the regular season.  They were good at home and their defense kept them in many of their games (though close games often didn't go their way).  They didn't need to drag any of their playoff series to 7 games and hope on some breaks to get ahead.   The 1995 New Jersey Devils were relatively good, but they weren't one of the East's top teams, much less in the league.  They just played like they were elite in the post season; which is how they should be remembered.

What did you remember from the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils season and playoffs?  Would you agree with my point that they were good, but not great relative to the rest of the league, despite winning the championship? If not, why?  What about the 1995 Devils surprised you the most between the season and the playoffs (e.g. difference in road record, record against opponents, actual goal scoring etc.)?  Do you see some parallels from that team and recent Devils teams? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the 1995 Devils in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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