NHL weekend rankings: Are the Devils a powerhouse?

NHL weekend rankings: Are the Devils a powerhouse?

Two weeks ago, in the first edition of these rankings, I had the Devils in the bottom five. It didn’t feel like an off-the-board pick, given they were coming off a 63-point season, they hadn’t made any truly significant moves in the offseason, and had started the year 0-2-0 while losing by identical 5-2 scores to a pair of non-playoff teams in the Flyers and Red Wings.

Hey, remember when I prefaced that column with a half-dozen caveats about it being too early? That Devils ranking may have been too early.

That’s because right now, we have to consider the possibility that the Devils are good. Not “better than the trainwreck we expected” good, but legitimately good. Playoff good? Yes. Something more than that? Well… maybe?

I’m not sure, and I’m not completely sold. But I keep seeing very smart people point to the Devils as a team to look out for. And that was even before the weekend, which kicked off with a 1-0 win over the Avalanche and finished with a 7-1 blowout over the Blue Jackets where the score may have somehow flattered Columbus.

This is typically the part where we’d point to PDO and start using words like “unsustainable.” But the Devils’ PDO is down in the .950s, which suggests that they could actually be even better than their results say they are. The expected goals numbers agree. Every warning signal on the “watch out for these guys” dashboard is blinking hard right now.

So did I miss the boat here? Or is this a case of an early-season hot stretch raising expectations for a team that doesn’t deserve it? I’m still not sure, but let’s use this week’s random top five to see if we can get any closer to figuring it out.

Top five things worth noting with the Devils

5. They’ve had an easy schedule to start the season – Other than the Avalanche, the only 2022 playoff team the Devils have played so far has been the Capitals, and they lost that game 6-3. We’ll get a better look at them against high-level competition over the next week or so; once they’re done with Vancouver tomorrow, they’re on to Edmonton and then a weird home-and-home with the Flames.

4. We’ve always known they’d be good if the goaltending was good – Hopefully this isn’t too technical for the average fan, but here’s the analytics view:

Yeah, that makes sense. And it was true last year too, when the Devils had playoff-worthy underlying numbers at 5-on-5 but just couldn’t get a save. Their answer to that problem was to bring back Mackenzie Blackwood and pair him with a guy who couldn’t win the starter’s job in Washington, which didn’t seem ideal. That led to people like me assuming the goaltending still wouldn’t be all that good.

3. The goaltending still hasn’t been all that good – Yeah, that’s the part that has to be both discouraging for Devils fans and terrifying for everyone else. Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek are combining for a save percentage under .900 on the year, even after a one-goal weekend. It turns out that when you’re generating almost 70% of the expected goals, decent goaltending is pretty much optional. And if either guy heats up… lookout.

2. They’re doing this without the big Jack Hughes breakout (yet) – If you’d told us that we’d be raving about the Devils at any point during the season, you’d probably have assumed that Hughes was a big part of it. He’s been good this year, but he’s not the story in New Jersey. Instead, it’s been Jesper Bratt who’s carrying the offense, to the tune of 15 points in nine games. Which makes you wonder what happens if that fourth-year Hughes breakout actually happens.

1. Maybe Lindy Ruff is better at this than we thought – Ruff was near the top of just about everyone’s “first coach to be fired” lists. I even gave you a specific date. But it turns out the veteran coach missed the memo about being a lame duck who was just keeping the seat warm for Andrew Brunette, and maybe it’s time to start giving some credit to the guy behind the bench here.

So yeah, I’m still not sure exactly where I’m at with this team in terms of a long-term view. For what it’s worth, the other rankings only had New Jersey at 15, and that’s the list that’s more responsive to streaks and swings. Devils fans, help me out here. Did I whiff on this team in the offseason and miss a sleeping giant, or is this just a rebuilding team going through a phase?

Either way, it won’t shock you to learn that the Devils didn’t crack the top five. Let’s find out who did…

Road to the Cup

The five teams with the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.

As of this writing, there’s still no official word on Jake Oettinger. The Stars goalie left Saturday’s game with a lower-body injury, and at this point we haven’t heard whether this is minor or something more. It goes without saying that that will be huge for a Dallas team that was off to a strong start. Oettinger has picked up where he left off in last year’s playoffs, and any sort of extended absence would be an early game-changer.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (8-2-0, +15 true goals differential*) – Vegas becomes our first 2022 non-playoff team to ascend to the top five, taking the Penguins’ spot after a rough week that ended with an embarrassing loss to the Canucks. They absolutely speed-bagged the Jets last night, and despite a ridiculous night from Connor Hellebuyck, got the overtime win.

4. Calgary Flames (5-2-0, +4) – The win over the Penguins was impressive. Saturday’s loss to the Oilers, not so much, especially with not even getting a point in a game they led in the third. Still, they’ve got a chance to get back on track over the rest of the homestand.

And yes, it should go without saying, I desperately wanted to come up with a way to rank them number two.

3. Carolina Hurricanes (5-2-1, +3) – With just one regulation win in their last five, the Hurricanes are starting to wobble just a bit. This week brings Washington and Tampa, which is a good opportunity to re-establish themselves as the division’s best team. Until then, they’re fighting it out with the Devils and Flyers, just as we all predicted.

2. Boston Bruins (8-1-0, +18) – They took the top spot in the Other Rankings, and while I’m not quite there yet, it’s impossible not to be thoroughly impressed by how easily the Bruins have rolled through October. With Brad Marchand back ahead of schedule and Charlie McAvoy still on the way, the outlook might still be pointing up.

1. Colorado Avalanche (4-4-1, +1) – I made it clear early on that it would take a lot to knock the defending champs out of my top spot – everyone say it with me, long-term view, predict the eventual Cup winner, blah blah blah – but they’re testing me. Losing to the Devils, a week after losing to the Kraken, and doing it while knowing the captain will be out for months, and then blowing a 3-0 lead to lose to the Islanders in regulation… I mean, it’s not good. They’ve got a soft week with just a pair against the flat-lining Blue Jackets, and we’d expect them to flex a bit there. If not, it will be time to open this spot up to the rest of the league.

*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.

Not ranked: Florida Panthers For a guy who drones on endlessly about taking the big-picture view, I sure didn’t wait long to bail on the Panthers as a top-five team. They cracked the list in week one, and that’s been it. Panthers fans might be thinking that a 120-point season apparently doesn’t get you as much respect as you might think.

There have been times when the Panthers absolutely look like last year’s juggernaut. We saw it on Saturday against Ottawa, in a 5-3 win where the score undersold Florida’s dominance. It was a shooting gallery, with the Panthers racking up 58 shots. That’s tied for the second-most shots in a regulation game since 2018, and it came against an Ottawa team that had been gaining some confidence in their defensive play.

So yeah, the scary side of the Panthers is still there. But we’ve also seen them lose to the Hawks and Flyers, as well as Boston and Tampa in their only two games so far against last year’s Atlantic playoff cohort. They’ve yet to beat a playoff team, and with Aaron Ekblad out again and the goaltending still looking iffy, they just don’t feel like one of the five best Cup bets right now. That’s despite Matthew Tkachuk looking like he was worth the ransom they paid to get him. The Paul Maurice era has been fine. It just hasn’t been overwhelming.

If this was a top ten, the Panthers are in there. I’m not quite sure what the number would be, but this is still a good team that has another gear to show us.

The bottom five

The five teams that are headed towards dead last, and the best lottery odds for Connor Bedard.

In other injury news this week, the Flyers announced that Sean Couturier has had surgery and could be out for four months. That’s rough if not completely unexpected news for a team that continues to be a nice surprise. (Although maybe we should have seen this specific start coming.)

5. Montreal Canadiens (5-4-0, even) – I can’t drop the only 32nd-place team in NHL history all the way out of the bottom five after just two weeks, but they’re hanging by a thread. Saturday’s win in St. Louis was flat-out impressive, pretty much exactly the sort of high-energy win you want to see from a young team. Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield both look great, and the goaltending has been a nice surprise. One more week, Habs fans, and if they keep looking competent then I just can’t hold a spot for you anymore.

4. Chicago Blackhawks (4-3-2, +1) – The Hawks are in a similar position to the Habs, looking ready to scrap some preseason expectations with a solid start. They had a rough weekend that saw them blow a two-goal third-period lead in Buffalo to cough up a point, lose Seth Jones for three to four weeks with a thumb injury, and drop a shootout decision to the Wild, and all that adds up to giving us some cover to keep them in the bottom five for another week. But like the Habs, they can consider themselves on probation.

3. San Jose Sharks (3-8-0, -10) – They seem to have turned the corner from their disastrous start, with a respectable three wins in their last six. That doesn’t mean that they’re good, though, and at some point, the season will shift to being about flipping assets for futures. Corey has a look at what that might involve.

2. Anaheim Ducks (2-6-1, -19) – I thought they were one of the very worst teams in the league. Then they beat the Maple Leafs, so I guess that confirms it.

1. Arizona Coyotes (2-5-1, -12) – The Mullett era has arrived, and Mark was there and had a fair take on the whole mess. At the risk of further splitting things down the middle: It’s not ideal, it’s not even close, but it’s also not completely unheard of and everyone is going to just try to make the best of it. It’s possible for something to both be embarrassing and a lot of fun. Honestly, most of us spend at least a decade of our social lives somewhere in that zone. The Coyotes will too for the next few years, and for now let’s just enjoy the novelty of all this in an era where so many other arenas seem like carbon copies of each other.

Not ranked: Seattle Kraken – The Kraken spent most of last year in the bottom five. They haven’t appeared there yet this year. Progress?

I’d say so. The Kraken are pretty clearly an improved team this year, sitting at 4-4-2 to secure a spot in the early-season wildcard zone. They’ve beaten the Avalanche and the Penguins, which is impressive, and lost to the Canucks and Ducks, which is not. The goaltending is awful again, but the offense has been good enough to cover some of that. Add it all up, and they look like a classic mushy middle team, a fake .500 quasi-contender.

Is that better? Sure. Is it good enough? That’s where it gets tricky. Our perception of what realistic expectations look like for an expansion team are still all messed up by the Golden Knights, so it’s hard to say whether the Kraken are underachieving. Ron Francis certainly didn’t seem like he was trying to take any shortcuts when building his roster, so maybe this is about right, and the focus should be on the future.

That future would seem to rest largely on rookies Matty Beniers and Shane Wright, and the results so far this year have been decidedly mixed. Beniers looks fantastic, at least in the offensive zone, with four goals and eight points through 10 games in a top-six role. Wright has just a single assist on the year, but the more confusing story is his usage – he’s been a healthy scratch on multiple occasions, and is barely playing when he does dress. You’d assume that means that he’ll head back to junior, but some reports out of Seattle have suggested that Francis doesn’t want that. If so, he might want to mention that to coach Dave Hakstol, because something’s out of synch here.

They’re on the road this week for a tough trip through Calgary, Minnesota and Pittsburgh, so we’ll continue to get a sense of what exactly this team is in the short term, and maybe, who’ll get to continue being a part of it.

(Top photo of Jesper Bratt: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

#NHL #weekend #rankings #Devils #powerhouse

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