Stretch Goals for the Final Stretch of a Successful New Jersey Devils Season

Mar 24, 2023 - 3:00 PM
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Dougie Hamilton is chasing some franchise scoring records as a defenseman. | Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Tonight, the New Jersey Devils will play their 72nd game of their 2022-23 NHL regular season. The team has 11 games left to play starting with this evening’s contest in Buffalo. The regular season just over three weeks away from being over. Unlike the last four seasons, the season will not end after the 82nd game. The New Jersey Devils are all but set to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18. Depending on their own results and the results of Pittsburgh’s and Florida’s games, the Devils could get the ‘X’ to clinch a playoff spot before the end of March. It is a wonderful thought and, even better, it is reality for the Devils.

This raises the question: What should the Devils do over their next 11 games. The Devils have plenty to focus on with how they play and how the lineup should be set up ahead of the postseason. Important points that Jared wrote about earlier this week. I suggest reading that post for that perspective. This post focuses on stretch goals. Marks of achievement the Devils may be able to accomplish by the time they are done in D.C. on April 13. The Devils have come this far in 2022-23. Why not aim for more than just getting an ‘X’ in the standings and settling for whoever the playoff match up is? Why not have some rooting interests over the next eleven games? This post will highlight a few remarkable things the team and individual players can still reach by the end of this season.

Accomplishments So Far; Why Not Go Further Than This?

As a reminder, the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils season should go down in franchise history for several accomplishments. Right off the top of my head:

  • A playoff spot. No, it is not official yet, but let us be serious. It’s happening. Before the game in Buffalo, the Devils have 98 points in 71 games. They have a 20 point lead over Pittsburgh, the team with the most points not in the playoffs at the moment. Their “magic number” to clinch a playoff spot is in the single digits. The Devils can somehow lose all 11 games in regulation and still get in with just enough help from others. As of this morning, I believe that number is two. (Thanks, Toronto.) A win in Buffalo gets the ‘X’ in the standings. The point remains: the 2022-23 Devils are making the playoffs. That is a huge accomplishment.
  • An improvement of at least 35 points over last season. As per the Devils Communication Department, outside of lockout-related seasons, this is the biggest season-to-season improvement in Devils history since 1995-96. And the improvement will likely get larger over the next three weeks. While I said it was possible back in July, I was very cool on the idea to put it politely. I was happy to be proven wrong.
  • A franchise record 13 straight wins. A heater. A juggernaut. A force from a 6-2 win on October 25 in Detroit to a controversial 1-2 loss to Toronto on November 23. It set up the Devils for this kind of season. Despite issues, some struggles, and even a December slump, the Devils’ epic winning run put them in the position where they are now.
  • Three trip sweeps in a season. The Devils had a three-game road swing through Western Canada (Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary) and a three-game road swing through Eastern Canada (Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto) during that 13-game winning streak. When the Devils went to California for a three game trip in January, the Devils won all three games too. No NHL team has swept all three of those trips in a season - until the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils.
  • Pacific Division Dominance. The Devils went 14-0-2 against Pacific Division teams this season. I am fairly confident this is the best the Devils have ever done against that division.
  • Western Conference Dominance. The Devils are currently 21-4-5 against the Central and Pacific combined. Only St. Louis, Nashville, and Minnesota denied the Devils a win against them - and the Devils still earned three points out of six against them. Winnipeg and Chicago are the only teams left that can do any damage to this record. The Devils have beaten both of them already. Even if the Devils drop both games and finish 21-6-5 against the West, that is still a dominant record and a major source of this season’s points earned.
  • At least a tie for the best finish in the Metropolitan. Since the Metropolitan Division was formed in the 2013-14 season, the Devils’ best finish was in 2017-18 when they finished fourth out of eight. They will only end up in fourth with a massive collapse over the next 11 games. The Devils still have a shot at first place but will likely finish second or third. Which would be the best finish ever in this divisional format.
  • One of the league’s best road records. At 26-5-4, the Devils have an incredible 80% points percentage on the road. There are still six road games left for the Devils this season but even if they drop all of them in regulation, a 26-11-4 road record is still 56 points on the road and would be among the best records in the NHL. Right now, only Boston (54 road points) and Carolina (50 road points) have shots at surpassing the Devils’ road dominance.

The Devils have accomplished quite a lot this season with some feats, such as a 13-game winning streak, unlikely to be repeated or surpassed anytime in the near future. To that end: Why not aim higher over the next 11 games and turn the 2022-23 campaign into perhaps one of the best Devils seasons ever in franchise history? Here is what they can still do.

Stretch Goals for the Team

There are a number of things that the team can accomplish just to improve this season’s standing as one of the best ones ever in franchise history. Regardless of how the playoff goals, these are some real milestones to uphold beyond what they accomplished.

1. Fifty wins. After a 2-3 shootout loss to Tampa Bay, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper stated (as tweeted by Mike Morreale of that the Devils are “going to be a 50-win team in this League.” Why wait? Why try to prove Jon Cooper, a very smart and successful head coach in the NHL, wrong? The Devils have 45 wins already this season. They need five more to reach 50. With 11 games left and only one opponent the Devils have yet to beat this season - Boston - it is quite possible that the Devils can win five games between tonight and April 13.

That achievement is bigger than you think. The Devils have only had one season in franchise history where they had 50 or more wins. The 2008-09 team had 51 of them. That’s the record and the Devils can set a new mark this season. Something to further cement how great this season has been. By the way, the 2008-09 team won six shootouts out of eight, so the 2022-23 team matching them would make it a slightly more impressive achivement provided they do not win four or more shootouts along the way.

Is this doable? Yes. The next 11 games include two non-playoff teams, four teams likely to miss out (Buffalo twice, Ottawa, Washington), and Boston may want to rest guys in one of their last home games this season. Five to six wins is doable before you consider the Devils get to enjoy hosting Pittsburgh again along with Our Hated Rivals. The 2022-23 Devils would need to play quite well down the stretch to break 51 wins, but again, that is quite possible.

2. Set a franchise record for road points. The record was set by the 1998-99 team when they went 28-10-3 for 59 points away from New Jersey. The 2022-23 Devils have 56 points and sit third all time for most road points earned in a season in Devils history.

Is this doable? Absolutely. The Devils have six road games left this season: at Buffalo tonight, at the Islanders, at Chicago, at Winnipeg, at Boston, and at Washington. While not totally easy, I like the Devils’ chances against a struggling Buffalo team and a really awful Chicago team to get the four points minimum to set a franchise record. The Devils have a win in Long Island and Washington too, so even more is quite possible.

Aside: The all time NHL record for road points in a season is 65 points, set by the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings. The Devils would need 10 out of a potential 12 points remaining to break that record. Technically possible but very, very hard to accomplish. Even getting to 60 is remarkable as only four teams ever did it.

3. Set a franchise record for total points. The Devils have reached the 100-point mark in a season 13 times in franchise history. They have reached the 110-point mark just once. That would be the record set by the 2000-01 team that went 48-19-12-3 for 111 points. The 2022-23 Devils are currently 13 points away.

By the way, if the Devils even tie this franchise record, they’ll set a NHL record for biggest improvement from season-to-season. That’s a shared record by the 2017-18 Colorado Avalanche and 2006-07 Pittsburgh Penguins, who each improved by 47 points over the prior season.

Is this doable? It will be tough but far from impossible. To set a new franchise record, they would need 14 points out of a possible 22 over their next 11 games. That would mean earning results for a points percentage of just under 64%. The Devils have been playing above that level all season with a very nice 69% as of today. Basically, if they maintain their season form, then they have a shot at it. If they stumble a bit, then not so much. That I can even write that it is possible should inform you how great this season has been.

4. No Shutouts in the Season. The Devils have yet to be shutout this season. Unless I am mistaken, the New Jersey Devils have went exactly one season in franchise history where they were never shutout: 1987-88. They played 80 games. They were held to one goal many times. But they were never shutout. They also missed the playoffs too, so if the 2022-23 Devils team can do it, then there is no question which shutout-less team is better.

Is this doable? Yes, but it will not be simple The Islanders, Winnipeg, and Boston can absolutely goalie a team while making the game difficult. It is also possible that in any one of the next 11 games, the Devils just do not have the puck luck, the breaks, and whatever else to score a goal. They just escaped that fate thanks to Timo Meier putting a wraparound off Filip Gustavsson’s skates in the third period to Minnesota.

5. Staying Above 50% in Points Percentage After Trailing First in Games. One of the hallmarks of the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils is how they have come back in so many games. It is common for a team to give up the first goal. Even the 2000-01 Devils gave up the first goal 38 times in their season. However, the Devils have trailed first in 36 games so far this season and they are the only team in Devils history to remain above 50% points percentage when that happens. The Devils are 20-9-7 when they concede first in games this season. No other Devils team has come close to 50% and this season’s team is at 55.6%. By the way, only 36 teams ever finished a season above 50% in points after trailing first in games.

Is this doable? Yes, but I want to see the Devils score first more often to help preserve that record. The comebacks are not always going to be available or completed. The other team can always make a comeback after the Devils do one.

Stretch Goals for the Players

The Devils have already witnessed Jack Hughes break into the top ten in scoring for a bit, Dawson Mercer putting up an eight-game goal streak to demonstrate all that DAWG in him, and with Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Nico Hischier, the team has three 30+ goal scorers in a season for the first time since the 2011-12 season when Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and David Clarkson did it. Not to mention five 50+ point players on the roster - Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, Dougie Hamilton, and Mercer - for the first time since the 2008-09 season when Parise, Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Travis Zajac did it. While The Big Deal is highly unlikely to reach 50 goals or 100 points, there are plenty of marks the players could still achieve.

1. All Time Franchise Defenseman Production. Dougie Hamilton currently has 18 goals and 66 points. He has a chance to set franchise records for goals and points by a defenseman in a season. It will not be simple.

While Hamilton is tied with Scott Stevens for the all-time Devils record for goals, the franchise record is owned by Barry Beck’s 22 goals in the 1977-78 season with the Colorado Rockies. Even reaching 20 would not put Hamilton by himself as Rob Ramage hit that mark in 1980-81.

The points record is owned by Stevens. He put up 78 points in the 1993-94 season. It is worth noting that the 1993-94 season was 84 games long and Stevens played in 83 of them. If you want to use points-per-game, Stevens is still ahead of Hamilton: 0.94 to 0.93.

Is it doable? Hamilton would need four goals to tie Beck and five to break it. While Hamilton shoots the puck a lot - 3.4 shots per game - he has not scored a goal since March 1. That is an 11-game goalless streak, which is not exactly unheard of for a defenseman. Hamilton would have to get fortunate very quickly to get close to Beck or Ramage.

The points record seems unlikely but the points-per-game rate shows it is not impossible. While Hamilton has not scored in 11 games, he has been more consistent in putting up assists. Hamilton regularly plays with scoring lines, he opens up attacking opportunities, and he plays in offensive situations such as power plays and overtime shifts. Hamilton would need 12 points in 11 games to tie Stevens, which is still a lot to ask for. But if the Devils’ top six gets more productive, the power play hits more often, and Hamilton fires a few in, then this may not be so ridiculous.

I think Hamilton will fall short of both, but his season is already incredible and a 70-point season is nothing to discount.

2. All Time Franchise Faceoff Winning Percentage. Faceoffs, in the bigger picture, do not matter much. For every couple of times where it does play a role in a game, it ends up being one or two important faceoffs out of 20 or 30 in a game. Still, it is something that centers focus on. And Michael McLeod has been really, really, really good at them this season. Out of Devils with at least 500 faceoffs taken in a season, McLeod has the highest winning percentage in franchise history with 60.7%. Out of 858 draws, he has won 521 of them. The previous record was set by Bobby Holik at 59.3% with 506 draws in the 2008-09 season (yes, his return to the Devils), followed by Joe Nieuwendyk winning 58.5% of 1,383 draws in the 2002-03 season. I do realize that only has this data since 1997-98, but that is still over 20 seasons where McLeod can claim to be the best.

Is this doable? The trick here for McLeod is to keep up his pace and not falter. He was above 60% last season and finished at 57.3%. So far, he has been able to do that while taking several faceoffs per game. He even started in overtime on Tuesday night in the hopes of winning that one, which is crucial in a 3-on-3 setting. While the issue for McLeod (and other players) is that faceoffs happen and then there is the rest of the shift. Yet, an all-time franchise mark is an all-time franchise mark. Let us see if McLeod can maintain it. I think he can.

3. Round Numbers for Various Players of Note

a. Jack Hughes - 40 Goals and/or 90 Points

The Big Deal was on pace for being the first ever Devil to score 50 goals and 100 points in a season. Then he got hurt after a three point night against Vancouver on February 6 with two goals and an assist. Then he came back on February 18, 2023. Since then, Hughes has just two goals and twelve assists prior to tonight’s game. While that is tied with Hamilton for the third most points on the team since February 18, it is a cold streak of sorts. Hughes himself has shot at just 2.82% over the last 17 games. His teammates are not helping him a lot as Hughes’ on-ice shooting percentage is just 7.51%, which is worse than everyone except for Jesper Boqvist, Fabian Zetterlund (now a Shark), and Curtis Lazar (2 games, now hurt). In other words, Hughes “doesn’t look right” because he’s been “ice cold” for a month.

That said, I am confident he can rack up three more goals and nine points in the next eleven games. Hughes continues to fire away a lot of shots, he continues to steal and swipe pucks, and he continues to play with other offensively talented players. His point per game rate trails only Taylor Hall, the last Devil to register a 90+ point season. And 90 is a big deal for the Devils. Only four Devils have ever recorded a 90+ point season and the last one was Hall in 2017-18. If Hughes does get to 40 goals, it will be the 11th time in franchise history someone has done it and the first since Zach Parise’s 45 goals in 2008-09.

b. 70 Points for Nico Hischier

The captain has already set a career high in goals (30) and points (67) for a season. He will need two assists to tie last season’s mark of 39. While that alone would put him at a nice 69 points, a 70 point campaign will serve further notice that Hischier has Arrived. He’s 24, he’s an all-situations player, and he will get more notice with seasons like this one. Related to that:

c. 70 points for Jesper Bratt

Bratt is a bit further away with 30 goals and 34 assists. The young winger that several of the People Who Matter claimed needed to “prove it” after last season’s breakout season has more than proven he is a high-end producer. He will need nine points to tie last season’s total of 73 points in the next eleven games. Which is tough, but not impossible if he and his teammates catch a bit of heat. Even if he falls a bit short of that, a 70-point season will be a good one to bring to the negotiation table in the offseason.

d. 20 Goals for Tomas Tatar

Here is one that is a bit more offbeat. Tomas Tatar has demonstrated a more productive 2022-23 season compared with his first season. His contributions in 5-on-5 were apparent, but with some more goals and points on the board for it, I think more appreciate it. Tatar is sitting at 16 goals and 40 points right now. Should he get to 20, it would be his first 20-goal season since 2019-20 and the sixth in his career. It would dramatically improve his chances to either being re-signed in New Jersey or signed elsewhere. At age 32, anything that he can impress with will help the cause of getting another deal.

e. 10 Goals for Timo Meier

The Devils made their biggest trade acquisition since Ilya Kovalchuk when Tom Fitzgerald acquired Timo Meier earlier this season. Since the trade, Timo Meier has four goals, six points, and a heap of avoidable penalties in ten games. While that may not seem like much, keep in mind that Meier is, at most, going to get 21 games with the Devils in the regular season. A rate of 0.6 points per game is not bad. It is not the same impact as Kovalchuk, who dropped 27 points in 27 games way back in 2009-10. However, Kovalchuk did score just ten goals since the trade to New Jersey that season. Meier has an outside chance of matching that. It would further cement how big the trade was - and it sure would help at the negotiation table this offseason.

4. Goaltender Stretch Goals

a. Vitek Vanecek - 91.5% Overall Save Percentage

While Vitek Vanecek has had some consistency issues, his current overall save percentage of 90.9% is on the higher end of the many goaltender seasons since 2014-15. While reaching Cory Schneider’s apex is incredibly difficult, Vanecek would need to finish this season with an overall save percentage to match MacKenzie Blackwood’s best full season in 2019-20 when he finished with a 91.5% in 47 games. (Blackwood did post a 91.8% in 2018-19 but that was in only 23 games.) The question is not whether Vanecek is capable. He shutout Carolina, he nearly goalied Minnesota on Tuesday, the team in front of him has plenty of chances to win with him in the crease, and he has been rather resilient in net. The question is whether he can consistently put up enough good games down the stretch to raise his overall save percentage. I would like to see it. If only to further show that Vanecek today is on par with Blackwood’s best full season.

b. Akira Schmid - 92% Overall Save Percentage

Akira Schmid has been quite good for the Devils in his call-ups this season. He has appeared in 16 games this season and boasts a 92.4% save percentage. His performances have warranted even some starts outside of some back-to-backs, such as a start against Tampa Bay last Thursday. Schmid’s low number of games mean that it would be foolish to say he was truly on Schneider’s level. But finishing this season with a 92% save percentage or better would be notably higher than Blackwood’s highest oversall save percentage when he was a #3/#2 goalie in 2018-19 and Keith Kinkaid’s best season as a backup with a 91.6% in 2016-17. Similar to Vanecek, the key will be whether Schmid can keep up his good form. With eleven games coming up, he will get some chances. Unlike Vanecek, a potentially returning MacKenzie Blackwood and Lindy Ruff already confirming that Blackwood will get starts when healthy would keep Schmid from getting into games. That may preserve his save percentage, but also prevent him from improving it.

5. A Goal for Brendan Smith

Out of all of the Devils this season, only four Devils have not scored a goal for New Jersey. Barring any future callups, those four are Tyce Thompson, Andreas Johnsson, Curtis Lazar, and Brendan Smith. Thompson received just two games before going to Utica. Same for Johnsson, who was traded to San Jose in the Meier deal. He is playing and could score a goal. Lazar has had just three games with the Devils, however he has scored three for Vancouver prior to being traded to the Devils - including a goal against the Devils. Smith stands out for having played in 56 games for the Devils and having no goals on such a high-scoring team. Even Nikita Okhotiuk and Kevin Bahl has a goal. Nolan Foote scored one recently. It is odd to see Smith to be goalless.

To be fair, I do not think anyone expects or demands that Smith produces much. His role is to be a third-pairing defenseman. He has 53 shots on net; he does not even average a shot per game. It is a question as to how many more games Smith will play as Kevin Bahl has been rotating into the lineup in his spot in recent weeks. Still, it would be nice for the last mostly-regular Devil to get on the scoresheet with a goal.

Your Take

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of every stretch goal imaginable. And it is not necessary that the 2022-23 Devils win 50 games or reach 112 points or have Hischier and Bratt reach 70 points or witness Dougie Hamilton become the franchise leader in defenseman scoring in a season or be able to observe Brendan Smith lighting the lamp. However, these are things we can hope for and celebrate if they do happen. These are marks that would just add more cherries to this marvelous sundae of a regular season.

I understand that the Devils’ return to the playoffs will do a lot to frame how this season went. I get that. I do not disagree with it. However, I do think that this regular season campaign needs to get a lot of respect and admiration even if the 2023 Playoffs are a total flop. They have accomplished so much and I, for one, have witnessed many great feats. There are more to be had over the next eleven games. There is more than just getting the all-important ‘X’ in the standings - and that even includes a long shot at a ‘Y.’ But I have a weekly Metropolitan Division snapshot for that.

In any case, which of these goals do you think the Devils can reach in the next 11 games? Which seem too far out of reach for the team? What are some other accomplishments and milestones you want this season’s team to reach by their final game? Please leave your thoughts and other ideas for stretch goals in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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