Playoffs? Playoffs?! As the infamous post-game rant from former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Mora went. Am I crazy for talking about the New Jersey Devils and making the playoffs at American Thanksgiving? Perhaps, but there’s some merit to it. There have been articles written on playoff odds and being in a postseason position at American Thanksgiving. And the results are overwhelmingly in your favor if your favorite team is in the top eight of either conference.
In an article by TSN’s Travis Yost written about a year ago, teams in playoff spots at American Thanksgiving tend to qualify about 75 percent of the time. At the moment, the Devils are in first place in the Metropolitan Division with 32 points and a 16-4 record, placing them six points ahead of the second-place New York Islanders.
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Not only are the Devils atop the Metropolitan Division, but they’re just two points behind the Boston Bruins for first place in the Eastern Conference. After a 13-game win streak propelled them to first place in the Metro, their playoff odds sit at 96 percent (per Money Puck) and over 99 percent from The Athletic. And their numbers back up their odds.
A Look Around the NHL
Before getting into the Devils and their numbers, let’s survey the rest of the league. Following the formula Yost used in his piece, let’s look at teams in playoff spots, their goal differentials, and their expected goals numbers.
In the Eastern Conference, every team in the top eight has a positive goal differential other than the Carolina Hurricanes, who have a goal differential of zero. Even the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are in ninth place, have a goal differential of plus-7. Every team below the Penguins has a negative goal differential other than the Florida Panthers, whose goal differential is plus-3, and the Buffalo Sabres, who are at plus-5.
Things are a bit murkier in the Western Conference. Of the eight teams in playoff positions, three have negative goal differentials — the Los Angeles Kings (third place, minus-6), the Calgary Flames (seventh place, minus-3) and the St. Louis Blues (eighth place, minus-10). That speaks to how much better the Eastern Conference is and will continue to be this season.
When it comes to expected goals, six of the eight teams in playoff spots in the East have xG percentages comfortably above 50 percent. The only teams underwater are the Detroit Red Wings (44.37 xG%) and New York Islanders (45.95 xG%). The two teams in ninth and 10th place — the Penguins and Panthers — have xG percentages of 54.4 and 55.5 percent, respectively. Those rank in the top 10 of the league, so it might not be long before they find themselves in playoff positions.
The look is more or less the same in the Western Conference, as six of the eight teams in playoff positions have xG percentages above 50 percent. The only two underwater are the Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets. The Jets may be able to outperform their xG rates because Connor Hellebuyck is performing at a Vezina level. The Avalanche have been decimated by injuries to start the season, but they’re already showing signs of bouncing back. They are the defending Stanley Cup champions, so they should be fine.
How the Devils Stack Up Compared to Everyone Else
Now for the Devils, how do their numbers stack up against the rest of the league? Even after their 2-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last night, they still lead the NHL in xG% at 62.54 percent. That’s nearly a full four percent better than the Hurricanes, who sit in second place, and their goal differential of plus-28 is second in the league to the Bruins.
The Devils are skating teams into the ground on most nights. They’re averaging 68.5 shot attempts per 60 minutes, the third-best rate in the league, and 3.39 xG per 60. That latter number is first in the NHL by a fairly comfortable margin; the Hurricanes are averaging 3.11 xG/60. But it’s not just their offense that’s getting the job done.
Heading into this season, scoring was never going to be an issue for the Devils. That’s proven true, as Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt are pacing for 90-plus points. What’s been most impressive about the Devils to start this season is their defensive numbers. A significant reason why they have the second-best goal differential in the league is that they’ve only given up 46 goals, third-best to the Avalanche and Bruins.
Their 46 goals against show up in their expected numbers too. The Devils are only giving up 2.03 expected goals against per 60, the latter of which is the best in the NHL. Part of that is because they do such a good job forcing turnovers to generate offense. As they say, the best defense is a good offense. But some personnel changes on the back end have helped too.
The Devils’ acquisition of John Marino this offseason has been a real game-changer. He has cooled off a bit since his torrid start, but he’s still locking down opponents’ top lines, as he did to Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on Monday night. He’s perhaps the Devils’ best one-on-one defender and has made a big-time difference on defense. And even though Brendan Smith has had trouble staying out of the box, he’s been a steady veteran defensive presence on the third pair alongside Damon Severson. They’ve helped the Devils become a middle-of-the-pack defensive team to one of the best in the NHL.
What Devils Need To Do To Keep It Up
The key for the Devils is having their goaltending hold up. With a .916 save percentage on the season, Vitek Vanecek has been everything the Devils could’ve asked for after they acquired him from the Washington Capitals this offseason. They’ll need Mackenzie Blackwood to stay healthy once he returns from an MCL sprain, but Akira Schmid looks like a viable third option.
Health, in general, will also be a key component to the Devils remaining in their current place in the standings. Aside from Blackwood’s MCL sprain and Ondrej Palát’s groin surgery, they’ve so far avoided significant injuries to their star players. If Hughes, Bratt, Hischier and Dougie Hamilton play 70 to 75-plus games, there won’t be much doubt about making it to the postseason.
Nobody clinches a playoff spot at American Thanksgiving. With that said, the odds are definitely in the Devils’ favor. Heading into the holiday, they have a nine-point cushion on ninth place. The 2022-23 Devils are legit, and with their playoff odds above 95 percent and the fact that 75 percent of teams in a playoff spot at this date on the calendar end up clinching, the chances of the team ending its five-year postseason drought are looking pretty good.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017