The Devil In The Crease

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Last year, the New Jersey Devils won their division, finished second in the Eastern Conference with 103 points and a plus-31 goal differential.  After an off-season that featured mostly tweaking to their post-deadline line-up, the team was expected to once again be a contender.  Instead, under rookie head coach John MacLean, the Devils have opened the season 5-13-2, and 20 games in already have a minus-29 goal differential.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to surmise that MacLean’s job is in some jeopardy.

A big part of the problem are goals against.  This year, the Devils have already allowed 43 goals against 5-on-5, just three fewer than 30th ranked Tampa Bay.  It’s a number that stands in sharp contrast to the 134 they allowed last year – just three more than Phoenix, the team that led the league in that category.  On a per game basis, it’s a 32% jump.  While down a man, the numbers are strikingly similar: the Devils allowed 0.488 goals per game in 4-on-5 situations last year, a total which jumps to 0.650 this year.  That’s a 33% jump.

Goaltending has been the biggest contributor to the decline.  The Devils made minor changes in the offseason, retaining Martin Brodeur and replacing backup Yann Danis with veteran stopper Johan Hedberg, and so there was little reason to expect a significant drop-off from 2009-10.  But that’s precisely what has happened.  The chart below compares the Brodeur/Hedberg tandem to the Brodeur/Danis tandem of a year ago:

Player EV SV% PK SV% Overall SV%
Brodeur, 2010-11 0.904 0.883 0.901
Brodeur, 2009-10 0.924 0.865 0.916
Hedberg, 2010-11 0.875 0.840 0.855
Danis, 2009-10 0.942 0.821 0.923

As it stands, if Brodeur/Hedberg this season were putting in the numbers of Brodeur/Danis last season, the Devils would be better to the tune of 11 goals.  That may not sound like much, but it represents better than half a goal per game.  It’s also about 60% of the total defensive drop off from last season to this season.

The good news is that if history is any indication, Brodeur is going to get better (once he returns from injury).  The last time he started this slow was 2007-08, when he ran an 0.885 SV% through October.  His save percentage the rest of the way? 0.924.  He also started slowly in 2005-06, with an 0.892 SV% through October and November.  He put up an 0.917 SV% over the remainder of that season.

Hedberg’s likely to improve too.  Lou Lamoriello overpaid for the goaltender, thanks to a career-best performance in 2009-10, but while Hedberg probably won’t live up to his contract he’s likely to improve upon a miserably subpar start.

The only question is whether the Devils are going to be too far gone by the time their goaltending rounds into form.