The New Jersey Devils have had a relatively quiet summer. Their biggest change was letting their previous franchise goaltender walk in favor of a guy who might become their next one. At least, that's what they're banking on.
They've added minimally to the lineup from last season. Mike Cammalleri is a second-line difference maker. Maybe Martin Havlat works out on his cheapo deal. Everyone else, though, is pretty much exactly the same from a team that missed the playoffs by five points last season, and yet it's unlikely that anyone is going to take as big a step forward next season as the Devils.
The first reason for this is that they probably can't continue to miss the playoffs despite being a world-beating possession team. They've finished outside the top eight in the East the last two seasons despite the fact that their possession numbers are tied for second in the league over those 130 games, behind only Los Angeles, and tied with Chicago. Teams simply do not miss the playoffs putting up numbers like that, and yet New Jersey has done it twice.
The reason for this is that they've been more than a little victimized by a combination of factors: The team's inability to score on the voluminous chances it gets (its 6.83 even-strength shooting percentage is 28th in the league during that time, ahead of Florida and Buffalo).
Beyond that is the team's well-publicized difficulties with the shootout over the last two seasons as well. The Devils were involved with 13 shootouts last year and won none of them, in large part because they scored just four times on 45 shots. That follows a year in which they won two of nine, scoring six times out of 29. Their total shootout winning percentage (.091) is dead last in the league by 12 percentage points.
The Devils' combined total of 10 goals on 74 shootout attempts the last two years has cost them significantly; the league average for shooting percentage is 33.01 percent, or one goal every three tries or so. That's right in line with all-time league average as well. New Jersey was slightly more than one-third of that (13.5 percent). Despite being 12th in the league in attempts, they were 29th in goals, ahead of only Carolina, which took 54 fewer attempts.
Adding Cammalleri, a career 27 percent shootout man (not great but certainly better than what they've got) helps. Maybe even Havlat (16.7 percent career) gives the team an additional edge here. Scoring even three or four shootout goals between them might be enough to get this team pretty far.
It is, however, not really all that reasonable to think the team won't bounce back overall. You can't last that long, in the shootout or the course of regular play, expect things to continue going that poorly forever. It would be interesting to see if the Devils were doing anything in their systems to drag down their even-strength shooting percentage. In much the same way the Kings — who were only one spot ahead of the Devils in terms of even-strength shooting efficiency — can succeed despite not scoring on a high percentage of their shots, the Devils should be able to as well, just because of the volume they produce.
But over the last two seasons, it's pretty clear that offense alone means New Jersey would be leaving a lot of points left on the table, even if their goaltending was good.
The problem is that it was not. Pete DeBoer — or, probably more accurately, Lou Lamoriello — continued to let Martin Brodeur be the goaltender for years after he was no longer effective. Only the Islanders, Panthers, and Flames have gotten worse goaltending the last two seasons than the Devils' .913 even-strength save percentage. That came mostly from Brodeur, but also Schneider (.924 in just 45 games) and the disastrous end to Johan Hedberg's career (.883 in 19 games).
As with the offensive problems, the Devils' shootout woes at the other end of the ice were well-known, too. Their .686 save percentage the last two seasons was, like their shooting percentage, dead last in the league.
There's a lot less to examine here, of course. It's pretty obvious from last year's stats — and “the eye test” — alone that this is a “Marty Brodeur Is 41 Years Old” problem, and not a team problem. Behind the exact same team, Schneider's save percentage was 20 points better.
That's not to say one should believe Schneider is necessarily a savior right off the bat. That .924 ES save percentage was only 19th among NHLers who got into 41-plus games, behind guys like Jonas Hiller and Craig Anderson, among other non-luminaries.
But what you have to consider is that Brodeur's save percentage ended up being 13 points below the league standard, meaning that if an average goaltender was in there for the same number of shots against (971), the Devils would have allowed 12 fewer goals, and probably won an additional four or five standings points (the math works out that every 5.5 to 6 goals of goal differential equals one point in the standings). And that's just over 39 games.
Schneider, of course, was better than league average. Brodeur was facing an average of just 24.9 shots per game, which indicates how good the Devils were at keeping the puck away from their goal. If Schneider — with his 20-points-better save percentage — had taken even half Brodeur's workload (call it an additional 19 games) and could keep up relatively the same .921, he'd stop about 436 out of 473, 10 fewer than Brodeur.
There are a couple of other things to keep in mind here, though. Critics of his new, hefty contract have pointed out the mere 45 games he played this past season was his heaviest workload in his four full NHL seasons. His advocates will also point out that the .921 save percentage he posted was also the lowest of even his full-time backup seasons.
So let's address that: The Devils' backup is likely to be far better than Brodeur, even if he's not very good; Brodeur was below replacement-level (what you could expect if you called up a guy from the AHL). Whether it's Scott Clemmensen, Scott Wedgewood or Keith Kinkaid, this will not be a major concern. The backup is probably only going to get something like 15 to 20 games.
Meanwhile, if Schneider can maintain anything even remotely in the neighborhood of his career .925 mark — which given that he's over 3800 career shots against is probably a pretty good bet —then the Devils can expect to take a huge step forward. He's sixth among goaltenders with at least 5,000 minutes at 5-on-5 the last four seasons, behind Vezina winners Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Tim Thomas, and also guy-he-deposed Roberto Luongo. Not bad company at all, though granted he played fewer minutes than all those guys.
(As for shootouts? Well, don't get your hopes up. Among the 74 active goaltenders who have participated in one, Schneider's career save percentage is 64th, at just .594. That could pose a problem.)
Nonetheless, though, just by giving Schneider the starting job, it's like the Devils basically went from basically the worst goalie in the league to a potential year-in, year-out contender for “best goalie in the league.”
And on the basis of that alone one has to believe that, barring disaster, this team goes from out of the playoffs to one of the top three four teams in the Eastern Conference. If you add in the fact that their offense can't be nearly as futile, the team might even push for the division title, no matter how much Pittsburgh has improved.
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