Looking at the NHL's most surprising teams this season
What has gone right and which ones are going to keep it going?
When the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs roll around there should not be too many changes from the 16 teams we saw a year ago. But every year there is always at least one or two teams that make it after missing the previous year, and the teams that are positioned to do that this season are a little bit of a surprise based on where they were a year ago.
We already looked at the league’s most disappointing teams, so let’s dig into the surprises.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils are fascinating because I still am not entirely sure what to make of them.
They have been mostly irrelevant since making the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, reaching the playoffs just one time since then (and quickly exiting) despite landing a couple of No. 1 overall picks and having a knack for making some huge offseason splashes.
There is a lot to like about this team.
Jack Hughes is turning into a bonafide superstar.
Jesper Bratt is a top-line talent.
Nico Hischier may not be the type of superstar you expect from a top overall pick, but he is still a whale of a two-way player and is having a magnificent year. They have also assembled a pretty unheralded, but overall solid, group of defensemen led by a free agent splash (Dougie Hamilton) and some shrewd trades (Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino).
They have also proven to have some decent depth beyond their top two lines, and that is with key free agent acquisition Ondrej Palat missing most of the season to this point due to injury.
But I was not really sold on the roster as a whole when the season began. Some definite building blocks in place, but also what seemed to be a lot of holes and question marks. They opened the year by getting embarrassed by Philadelphia and Detroit, prompting their fans to start chanting for head coach Lindy Ruff to be fired.
Then they went on a 21-2-1 tear over the next 24 games that rocketed them to top of the league standings.
But that has been followed by a pretty significant 1-7-1 slide over the next nine games going into Friday’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Which team is the REAL Devils team?
I am still completely torn on this team.
Everything about the way they have actually played should indicate that they are for real, and they have the top of top-end talent that a team needs to compete, including a superstar forward (Hughes) and an outstanding No. 1 defenseman (Hamilton). In terms of their 5-on-5 play, they are one of the league’s top teams in shot attempts, expected goals, and pretty much every other possession-based metric. They push the pace of play and have high-end players that can turn it into offense.
There has, however, been somewhat of a downward dip in those numbers over the past month. Not drastic. Not significant. They are still among the top teams in the league. But they have dropped a little.
Part of it is that their defense has been decimated by injury. Another part of it could be that their first half schedule was extremely soft early in the year, and they were able to feast on that. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Good teams are supposed to dominate lesser teams, and the Devils were simply doing that. But as the level of competition has increased in recent weeks, combined with the injuries on defense, the winning has become far less frequent.
I also have some pretty significant concerns with their goaltending situation and whether or not they can depend on Vitek Vanecek and MacKenzie Blackwood to give them adequate play at the position.
Reasonable expectations for the rest of the season: The Devils are probably not as good as they looked in the first month of the season, even if they do have a great core of players to build around and a pretty solid future. They have some real hope for the first time in probably a decade. But they have at least put themselves in a position where they have a nice cushion to withstand an injury-driven slump and maybe some inevitable regression. It would take a spectacular second half failure to waste that start and miss the playoffs. Assume it takes 98 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The Devils would only to play a little more than .500 hockey the rest of the way to reach that mark. Even with the goaltending questions they should — SHOULD — be able to maintain that. Playoff team with a good future, but not yet a Stanley Cup contender.
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