The New Jersey Devils have not been ahead of the New York Rangers in the standings all season. Since mid-November, the Rangers have solidly been in third place in the Atlantic Division while the Devils have flopped between fourth and fifth place. Hockey is a results-oriented business, like most sports. Therefore, it is evidence that the Rangers are a superior team than the Devils.
What if I were to tell you that there is reason to believe that the Devils are not only better than their record indicates, but also better than Our Hated Rivals? I'm not talking about their hot streak, though it has greatly helped in this regard. I'm talking about even strength play. I'm talking about Corsi, Fenwick, and shot percentages. I'm talking about puck possession.
Possession in hockey isn't (yet) exactly measured by available stats, but by counting the number of shot attempts, we can assume said attempts are made in the offensive zone. Meaning, the team was successful in getting the puck forward to attempt a shot. If you do this more than the other team at even strength, when there is no man advantage for either side, then it tells who controls the game. Over a long period of games, the good teams will be in control more often than not, the bad teams will not, and there will be teams who get wins (or losses) in spite of how they controlled the flow of the game. Like the Dallas Stars, as Derek Zona highlighted here at the Copper & Blue.
JLikens at his blog Objective NHL has done a lot of work into this concept this season. He compiled even strength data for all 30 teams through the first 820 games of the NHL season on February 11, 2011. While the data is a little over a week old, it's recent enough to establish who has been better at getting the puck forward, who has been better utilizing puck possession in a game at even strength.
After the jump, you'll see the proof that the Devils are better than their record indicates, that the Rangers are worse than their record indicates, and how much better the Devils are than the Rangers. (Note: Please set your viewing to wide before continuing.)
A Quick Overview of the Terms Used, Or Why the Focus is on Even Strength Play
There are three measurements in looking at puck possession. If you've read the recaps here or follow Gamethreads, I tend to use Corsi. Corsi is a count of all shooting attempts in a game: goals, shots on net, missed shots, and blocked shots. For a player or a team, the difference of Corsi events for (shot attempts by your team when you were on the ice) and Corsi events against (shot attempts by the opposition when you were on the ice). The ratio of Corsi for to total Corsi is a Corsi percentage.
Others prefer to use Fenwick, which is Corsi without the blocked shots. The understanding is that blocked shots aren't beneficial for either side. Then there's shot percentage (Shot%). This is not the same as shooting percentage, this is just a simple percentage of shots on net by a team over the total number of shots in a game.
JLikens recently put up a great breakdown of how Corsi%, Fenwick%, and Shot% correlate with winning games at Objective NHL. For this post, I will look at all three.
I will also be focusing on even strength play. Looking at puck possession for special teams doesn't tell us much. Teams with a power play will primarily be attacking because they have a man advantage, and teams on the penalty kill will primarily be defending. That doesn't help in determining who is performing better in the game. Besides, the majority of hockey games are played at even strength. Whoever is getting the puck ahead forward to attempt shots when there is no man advantage on either side is in control. This is why when Corsi, Fenwick, or shot percentages are used, it's assumed to be at even strength.
That all said, I took JLikens' tables here and ranked how well each of the Atlantic Division teams among the league and the Eastern Conference at each stat.
The Atlantic Division at Even Strength
Legend: EV = Even Strength; EC Rank = Eastern Conference Rank; Shot% = shot percentage; SH% = shooting percentage; SV% = save percentage; FF = Fenwick For; FA = Fenwick Against; F% = Fenwick percentage; CF = Corsi For; CA = Corsi Against; C% = Corsi percentage
The Devils look really good at even strength across the board. Top 10 in the NHL, among the top 5 in the East, and the tops in the division for Fenwick% and Corsi%. At even strength, the Devils have out-shot their opponents and have attempted more shots across the board. The Rangers are mired in the lower third in the league and well below eighth in shot% and Corsi%, hovering just below 50% in each.
So why the difference in records? Well, for starters, the Devils' shooting percentage is quite low as is their save percentage. While they've improved in both thanks to this hot streak, they were in such a deep hole after the first half of the season so they're still going to be bad. Besides, if the shooting percentage is bad, then you definitely want to make an effort to shoot more pucks to make up the difference. And if save percentage is poor for whatever reason (bad goaltending, defensive breakdowns), then you want to control the puck - something the Islanders haven't done.
There's a big caveat here: score effect. Teams that are losing will tend to attack more unless they are completely blown away. It's an intuitive concept. If a team is down by 1 or 2, then they're going to take more risks and attempt more shots in the hopes of catching up. As a result, the leading team either sits back expecting this to happen or is forced back. Gabe Desjardins showed how Fenwick% would be effected in this post from April 2010 at Behind the Net.
Score effect, for example, would explain why the Philadelphia Flyers are in the middle in all three categories. On February 11, the Flyers have scored 129 goals and allowed 97 at even strength. This means they had leads a lot of the time and so they had to defend more unless they were dominating their opposition. It explains their average Corsi% and Fenwick% among the league and conference.
Fortunately, JLikens has provided even strength numbers for situations that minimize scoring effects. Let's start with when the game is tied. Who in the Atlantic Division has shined at even strength then?
The Atlantic Division at Even Strength - When the Game is Tied
When the game's tied, Philadelphia has been bossing teams around. Befitting for one of the best teams in the league. The Pittsburgh Penguins also come up in terms of Shot% and Fenwick%, showing that their team's success this season is more than just having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The Devils aren't too shabby in those stats either, and actually are the best in the conference at Corsi% when the score is tied at even strength. That speaks to how good Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are as much as it says about the Devils.
Once again, the Rangers are behind the Devils and the difference between the two is stark. While the Devils look great, the Rangers are hanging around the lower third of the league and aren't even at 50% in either Shot%, Fenwick%, or Corsi%. Basically, when the game's tied, their opposition has been more in control at even strength. The Rangers can say they're better than the Islanders, but the Islanders are in the basement. From this standpoint, it's not even a question which team has been better.
However, there's an issue with just using even strength events when the score is tied. There's just not a lot of events. The population size is much smaller than just using even strength regardless of score. So to minimize scoring effects and have a larger population of events, there's even strength when the score is close.
JLikens defined this back in October, when he was first compiling Corsi events for each team in the 2010-11 season.
...using Corsi with the "score close" – defined as whenever the score is within one goal in the first or second period, or tied in the third period or overtime – is to be preferred.
Incidentally, JLikens has updated the counts and rankings from time to time for this situation until the holidays: 11/4; 11/19; 11/30. (Note that the Devils started doing better in Corsi% from 11/4 onward, so it's not a recent phenomenon that the Devils are better than the Rangers at puck possession.) Let's take a look at that even strength situation to see whether the Devils are still superior than the Rangers.
The Atlantic Division at Even Strength - When the Score is Close
The Devils take a bit of a hit, dropping from about 53% in all three stats to around 51.5%. Therefore they aren't ranked as high up in the league, but still ranked very well within the East. The Rangers also look a little better at Shot% and Corsi% (about 0.5%) and nearly a full percent improvement in Fenwick% . Though, they're still behind the Devils by a decent enough margin.
Still, this is very instructive in further justifying what the other two charts have shown. The Flyers and Penguins are very strong at even strength, justifying their positions at the top of the division. The Islanders are terrible in all three possession stats, meaning their spot in last-place shouldn't be so surprising.
The Rangers are in the lower third in all stats among the league save for Fenwick% at even strength and even strength when the score is tied. The Devils are in the upper half of the league or better in all three even strength situations and in all three stats. Basically, the Devils really are a (much) better team than their record indicates and the Rangers are worse than their record shows.
So What Does it All Mean
Based on what JLikens has compiled, it's clear that the Devils are a better team than the Rangers when it comes to puck possession. So why are the Rangers sitting in seventh and the Devils lying in thirteenth amid their hot streak? Here are a few informed guesses.
Take another look at the Shot% charts for each situation: the Devils have an incredibly low shooting percentage and save percentage in those situations. While the Rangers don't have a super high shooting percentage, it's much better than New Jersey's. On top of that, they've got a great save percentage. Their goaltenders, Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron, have been great; and the Rangers have a defense that didn't spend the first half of the season looking like pylons like New Jersey's. I feel that has really helped the Rangers succeed in games despite a sub-average shot%, Fenwick%, and Corsi% throughout their season. They keep it close, get a fortunate break, and enjoy a win.
Throw in the Rangers' 6-2 shootout record among their 9-4 post-regulation record, and it's clearer that the Rangers have reaped the benefits from keeping it close and going the distance. Even when they faltered beyond regulation, that's 4 more points to their record. I can sit here and argue that they've been lucky to snag 9 of their 31 wins beyond regulation, but it explains why they are where they are. The Devils, on the other hand, hasn't kept it close as much this season - especially in the first half of the season with the toxic combination of defensive breakdowns and a slumping offense.
Most of all, the Rangers are just in a more advantageous position. Sure, they could have a big slump and find themselves golfing in April. I would love to see it, if only to justify my chirping after Friday's 1-0 win over the Rangers. However, that would require the Rangers to falter and two teams to catch up to them. (Aside: And that would add another team that could be in the Devils' way for a playoff spot.) Not being a good puck possession team isn't good and could make it possible, but the Rangers aren't nearly as bad as Dallas in this regard and the teams right behind them aren't puck possession dynamos. The Rangers are where they are with quality goaltending and defense and enough scoring to get through. If they can continue to get that, then they may be able to keep getting results and stay where they are in spite of their even strength play this season.
Though, should the Rangers remain lucky, they may run into Tampa Bay or Philadelphia - two of the league's top possession teams when the score is close - in the first round and get pasted. And if that does happen, well, remember that you read it here first, Rangers fans.
Ultimately, the entire point of this is really just to highlight that the Devils have been much better at controlling possession than the Rangers have been. While the difference is varied by type of even strength situation, it's true regardless of what stat you prefer to look at. Therefore, we can truthfully say the Devils are better than their record shows, the Rangers are worse than their record, and the Devils are better than the Rangers in this spot.
Please feel free to correct me if there's something I'm missing in the comments. After all, I'm focusing on puck possession and even strength play. I could be missing an important component as to why the standings are what they are. Please also feel free to add your thoughts on puck possession play. Thanks for reading.