The New Jersey Devils take the ninth-best point percentage on the 2015-16 NHL season across the border to battle the struggling Calgary Flames Tuesday, November 17. The matchup is a fine representation of the league on the whole.
The Flames were the surprise team of the 2014-15 NHL season, endured the loss of its best player and captain to reach the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and added off-season talent. Through 19 games, they have failed to earn even a point 12 times.
By contrast, the Devils were terrible last year and had little reasonable expectation of reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs after the 2015-16 NHL season. However, their position has less to do with their play than the mediocrity reigning throughout the league.
New Jersey is a modest four points over .500, has outscored its opponents by just three goals (excludes shootouts), averages the second-fewest shots on goal in the league and is in the bottom-10 in scoring. With the sixth-best goals-against average, that is good enough in a league that only has 13 teams more than a point over .500.
Right now, the second-worst team last season projects to “earn” a Stanley Cup-playoff berth with 86 or 87 points. Since the league starting giving a point for overtime losses after the lockout that cost the entire 2004-05 NHL season was resolved, no team has gotten into the playoffs without being at least six points over .500—including lockout-shortened 2013.
The Philadelphia Flyers are the only team to get in without earning more than 90 points since 2003 when they did it in 2010. They eventually got within two wins of a Stanley Cup.
Moreover, several teams expected to do even more than the Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets are struggling. The best regular-season team in the Western Conference in the Anaheim Ducks and the Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning are also under .500 while the Pittsburgh Penguins are just a point over.
That is not how things will look at the end of the 2015-16 NHL season. Teams will kick it into gear and teams will get passed. Most teams will regress a little more to what they appear to be on paper.
Does that mean the Devils lose to the Flames? Not necessarily—some teams are revealing who they really are.
The Flames were a surprise team last season and it is quite possible their regression just did not happen until the 2015-16 NHL season. Getting Jonas Hiller back in the crease and new players settling in will help, but it is likely the hole they will have a quarter into the season will keep a team that may not be as good as many of us thought from reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Devils have young talent that is improving and play the kind of defensive game to have the expectation of holding onto some of the lead they have. They should be able to get at least a point to start their road trip Tuesday.