The New Jersey Devils Correct Avenue in Fixing Their Goal Differential Issue
NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 06: Patric Hornqvist #72 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores on the powerplay at 7:45 of the second period against Cory Schneider #35 of the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on April 6, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The New Jersey Devils earned the conference’s lowest goal differential last season and won’t contend unless they refine that this year.

One can’t logically blame strokes of bad luck or coming up short on the ice for the New Jersey Devils’ failures. Their 23-win 2017 season pinning them at the bottom of the Eastern Conference makes sense.

Perhaps it even impresses considering their goal differential of -61. Unmistakably, no team can succeed when their conference and division foes scored so lopsidedly.

The Devils earned last season’s lowest goal differential in both the conference and division by far. The closest team to them to them in the conference was the Detroit Red Wings at -37 points. The Carolina Hurricanes earned the Metropolitan Division’s second lowest goal differential at -12.

New Jersey finds itself in an unlucky spot with this stat as its division dominates outscoring opponents. Each of the top four seeds in the Metro recorded higher goal differentials than any other team in the east and all but one Western Conference team, the Minnesota Wild at 58.

However, the Devils can’t use this as an excuse. If they want to compete with their division foes, they need to learn how to outscore other teams. And with promising young guns like Nico Hieshier, Taylor Hall and Marcus Johansson, they have the tools to do it. It’s now up to head coach John Hynes and company to start using them correctly.

Three major gameplay areas stick out here. First, the Devils didn’t shoot enough last year. They recorded 2,279 shots on goal, compared to the league average of 2,478. They shouldn’t shoot whimsically, but often in the opposing zone last year, they have deserved a resounding “shoot” from their minuscule audience.

Keeping the puck moving draws unpredictability as to when a team will shoot. But too many times the Devils played hot potato in the zone, waiting for an open net to shoot on. They proved that this method doesn’t put enough pressure on opposing goalies and defenders.

Successful teams shouldn’t fear to miss and should expect their shots on goal to severely outmatch the goals themselves. For example, defending Stanley Cup Champions the Pittsburgh Penguins recorded 2,745 shots on goal last year. They also ranked first in goals for at 282 and recorded the league’s fourth highest goal differential at 48.

The Devils’ inability to avoid the penalty box also likely contributed to their goal differential. They recorded 817 total penalty minutes, less than only seven other teams. In total, they spent 16 percent of their game time with a player in the box.

They also earned the league’s eighth lowest penalty kill percentage at 79.6. Drawing 18 more penalty minutes than their opponents, they wasted plenty of time in the box for a team that doesn’t know how to kill penalties. Next year, they should spend less time that guarantees defending and instead start pushing on offense.

When they did draw penalties, they still struggled to find the net. Last season, the Devils scored the 10th lowest amount of power play goals at 44 and recorded the ninth lowest power play percentage at 17.5.

Comparatively, the Capitals and Penguins respectively earned the third and fourth highest power play percentages each at 23.1. In a bizarre exception, the Buffalo Sabres, the second lowest seeding team in the east, recorded the league’s highest power play percentage at 24.5.

But in most cases, teams who take advantage of power plays use their time with man advantages to elevate themselves over competitors. And those who don’t succeed in this department need to use much more even strength time to score. The Devils should learn to dominate their shorthanded opposition.

Goal differentials don’t guarantee success or failure. For example, the Ottawa Senators earned a goal differential of -2 but seeded second in the Atlantic Division. The Boston Bruins finished third in that division with a goal differential of 22.

But excluding a few exceptions, this stat usually reflects a given team’s position in the league.

Take for instance Devils’ division rivals and defending President’s Cup winners the Washington Capitals. They rest comfortably opposite the goal differential spectrum from New Jersey. The Capitals earned a goal differential of 81; the Wild trailed them most closely at 58.

With such a low goal differential, the Devils destined themselves for failure. If they want to fix that next year, they’ll need to alter their minute by minute gameplay.