On Saturday, the New Jersey Devils and 29 other teams in the National Hockey League will begin the 2013 regular season. Thanks to the Incredibly Stupid Lockout of 2012, it will be a shortened season of 48 games. If that wasn't enough, the schedule pits teams against those within their own conferences. Giving up points will directly benefit competitors looking to make the postseason. A weaker team on paper that gets hot or a strong team that suffers from bad luck and/or injuries can change the playoff picture completely. There is smaller margin of error for every team in the league. This makes many of the season's games more meaningful; and making the playoffs should not be overlooked as an accomplishment.
Admittedly, we may see it as more of one than, say, Penguins fans. We at ILWT aren't exactly optimistic in this year's team on paper. We all think the Devils can make the playoffs, but it's not going to be easy. However, you've likely read why we think that in our season preview posts. Today, I want to discuss what it may take for the Devils to make the postseason. I don't mean in the sense of giving 110% or whether they have the talent on paper. I'm talking strictly in terms of standings. I want to know how many points the team should need to earn to play in May.
In order to get a handle on that, I looked at the seven seasons played under the last CBA. The shootout was in effect then and the points awarded per team have remained consistent. The 2013 season will see no change to that. I charted out who finished in eighth place in the Eastern Conference and how many points they earned based on the standings at NHL.com. In order to prove another point, I also included who finished in ninth - just outside of the playoffs.
Over the last seven seasons, all but one team needed at least 92 points to finish eighth in the Eastern Conference for the last playoff berth in the conference. That lone exception are the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens,
who got ahead of the Rangers because New York couldn't beat Philly in a shootout on the last game of the season. Correction: I was originally wrong. Montreal was already in on the last day of the season. Thanks, acasser. (Aside: The shootout loss by NY meant the Devils got to play the Flyers, the one team they really struggled with that season. The lesson is never rely on the Rangers for anything.) Going back to the eighth place finishers, three teams needed more than 92 but no more than 94 points. After calculating their point per game rate and then applying that to a 48-game season, it becomes clear that 54 points should be enough to make it based on recent history. It would exceed the average number of points earned by eighth place teams.
There were a three seasons where that was not enough: 2007-08, 2008-09, and 2010-11. Those teams earned at least another point in a 48-game season. In order to account for that and rounding up, any team who earns 56 or more points should safely make the postseason in the East. 54 might be acceptable, but anything less would likely not be enough to play in May this year. Therefore, I think the Devils need to earn at least 56 points in 2013 to qualify for the postseason. It's certainly not going to be enough to win the Atlantic, but we're talking making the playoffs, not somehow being better than Pittsburgh or the Rangers.
I did include the ninth place teams for those seven seasons to highlight how close it was in the standings for the eighth place team to get in. Those who didn't get in didn't miss by much. Several of these seasons saw that decided in the final games of the regular season. The difference between getting in and going golfing early was as much as only three points, and all but one season had a gap of less than three points. The average ninth place team finished less than two points behind the average eighth place team. Being on the bubble in an 82 game season was quite stressful; I wouldn't expect that to get any easier in a more compact schedule. Ideally, we don't want the Devils to go down to the wire to get in or not. Therefore, it's imperative that they get started early. Being behind half of the conference is not where we want them to be if we want to see them in the playoffs.
Assuming past points per game rates hold, how can the Devils get to 56 points? There are multiple possibilities. The simplest take is to earn at least 28 wins to exactly hit 56 points That's 58.3% of the season. In an 82 game season, that's a rate of about 48 wins in an 82 game season. Nine teams, including the Devils, hit that mark last season. However, please note that those nine teams also had several overtime/shootout losses which added a few points. Moreover, several of those wins came beyond regulation, which meant that their opposition got a point. That's a big deal this season as Eastern Conference teams are only playing against other Eastern Conference teams in this season. A shootout or overtime win for the Devils would mean a point for someone they are directly fighting with for a playoff spot. I doubt we're going to see such a spread that it will take more points, but this just increases the desire for regulation wins.
(As an aside, Regulation/Overtime Wins, became a standings tiebreaker since the 2010-11 season. Basically, teams who have earned more non-shootout wins will go ahead of those teams who have not in case of a tie in points. It hasn't decided a team getting in the playoffs in the East, but it's also only been in place for two seasons. I wouldn't be concerned about ROW unless the Devils are struggling to get to 56 points. Even then, I'd be more concerned about getting the points than how they do so.)
Regardless, I think the Devils just need to keep a simple mindset of "A.B.E." Always Be Earning. Provided past season rates hold, 56 points is the goal, not necessarily 28 wins. If the Devils can drag games that they would otherwise lose beyond regulation, then that's a benefit - doubled if they sneak out a win. If they get regulation wins, that's obviously a win. As much as I don't want to see the Devils hand their opposition points (especially if they had a lead in regulation and lost it), it's better to give them one instead of two. After all, those eighth place teams didn't earn all of their 92+ points with wins. I don't think that changes in a 48-game season. The goal should be 56 points, ideally built with regulation wins but 56 points by any means. ROW only matters for ties in the standings anyway; it's something that hasn't historically happened since 2008-09 and for a smaller amount of points.
Of course, this all begs the important question: Can the Devils get at least 56 points? Can they benefit from enough good strokes of luck, good health, and good play to earn that much? Can other developments help them out? We will all see starting on Saturday against the Islanders. Let me know what you think of the Devils' chances of earning that many points in the comments. Thank you for reading.