Last season, the New Jersey Devils were one of the worst possession teams in the league, posting a 47.2% Corsi at 5 on 5 play. The only teams that were worse were Toronto, Calgary, Colorado and Buffalo. The Devils were over 8 percentage points behind Los Angeles, who led the league in this category with a 55.4% Corsi For. The poor possession shown by New Jersey was an anomaly for this team in recent seasons, and especially this team while under Peter DeBoer. Over the last few seasons, NJ was one of the best possession teams in the league, posting a very solid 54.4% Corsi For at 5 on 5 play in the 2013-14 season. The drop in possession correlated very well with the extreme drop in wins for this team. While that possession giant team of 13-14 didn't make the playoffs either, they were at least close and in the running in March. Last season's possession-less Devils were nowhere near a playoff position by that time.
The reasons for the poor possession were widespread for sure. An ageing roster with limited talent can only do so much on the ice, even in a system that is designed to improve possession. Players like Bryce Salvador, Michael Ryder and others were possession black holes, and they dragged down players like Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique, who are generally positive possession players. Also, the changes in coaching surely did not help. DeBoer always had a system of hockey in place that was designed to maximize possession. When that system stopped working well, he was canned for the Cerberus trio. While I am sure that Lou Lamoriello still wanted to employ a similar possession-intensive system, it was near impossible to do so at that time and with that roster.
This season, however, with a new coach, new general manager, a new system in place, and new players, there is definitely reason to believe that this team will be better in the possession game. They might not make it instantly back to the 54.4% CF that they had a few years ago, but a step towards at least being possession neutral would be a huge positive for this hockey club. Let's look at the roster and see why and where improvement might happen.
Last season, the Devils employed a considerably older group than they have this season. While it is not as apparent with the forward corps as it is with the defense, nonetheless there are areas where the team got younger. With this infusion of young talent has also come an improvement in possession games.
One of the biggest possession black holes on the team last season was Michael Ryder. In 47 games with the big club, he produced a 44.5% Fenwick For at 5 on 5. The year prior he had a 52.7% Fenwick, but that was the year the Devils were dominant in possession, and he was a large beneficiary of that with a negative relative Fenwick. His play was certainly dictated by what others were doing on the ice, as he was relatively unable to drive possession himself.
Another possession black hole who is no longer with the team was Martin Havlat. In 40 games with the big club, he had a 45.3% Fenwick For at 5 on 5. He was similar to Ryder in the fact that he needed the team to push forward, and without him in the lineup, someone else can be inserted who can be better at driving possession for the team.
When discussing someone who played the entire season with the big club, Dainius Zubrus had a terrible year in terms of possession. He was generally a driver of possession for the Devils in the past, with strong numbers almost every single season with the team. From 2007-2014, his worst Fenwick at 5 on 5 play was in 2011-2012, when he was at 51.5%. Other than that year, he was never below 53%. Last year, however, in 74 games played, he had a Fenwick of 45%, and a relative Fenwick of -2.6. Perhaps more than anything else, this is a clear indicator that his play had dropped off significantly, and that the buyout was probably a good idea.
In their stead, the Devils will now be throwing out players like Kyle Palmieri and Jiri Tlusty. Palmieri has not necessarily been a possession giant in his time with Anaheim, but he has improved to the point where he has been a positive possession player two of the last three seasons (50.6% FF last year and 50.2% in 2012-13). Having someone like this on the team has its advantages, as in a new system in New Jersey where the play should be more possession-driven, he could see a nice spike in his Fenwick and Corsi numbers. He is also young enough that he can still be improving, and could turn into a driver of possession.
Jiri Tlusty is also an improvement in the possession department. Last season, splitting time between Carolina and Winnipeg, he had a Fenwick of 53.3% at 5 on 5 play. Meanwhile, the Canes had a team Fenwick of 52.3%, and Winnipeg was at 52.0%. Therefore, he was positive in relative Corsi for both teams he played for. While I would be very skeptical of producing a similar Fenwick this season on the Devils, he could turn out to be a positive in possession, which would push this team in the right direction.
On defense, there have also been changes which will help to improve the Devils' possession stats. Perhaps the biggest name to leave the defense was Marek Zidlicky, a great offensive defenseman who was not the best defender. His Fenwick last season was 49.6%, which was very positive for the Devils, but he also spent the final portion of the season with Detriot, who had a team Fenwick of 52%. Playing the end of the season with them undoubtedly helped to raise his final numbers somewhat.
Then, there were the real possession anchors. Mark Fraser had a 41.4% Fenwick last season, which is extremely low. He's only ever had one season above 50% in that category. Peter Harrold was at 42.4% last season, again extremely low. His relative Fenwick for the team was -5%. Bryce Salvador was not as bad as these two, but in the short amount of time he played, he put up a Fenwick of 44.1%, below team average by a decent margin. Simply put, possession could improve on this team because they have moved on.
In their stead, the complete newcomer is John Moore. His Fenwick last season was at 49.6%, but that was on a bad Arizona team for half the year. His relative Fenwick was +1.2%, meaning he was helping to drive possession for them, even though he ended up a net negative. He will undoubtedly be an improvement over the three listed above. Then, with potential improvement from the young guns of Adam Larsson, Damon Severson, Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas, possession could become more of a strong point on this blue line if the system works right.
So I know that I threw out way too many Fenwick numbers here, and there is certainly room for elaboration that I did not get to. But I wanted to be simple and direct in saying that the Devils have departed with some players that were possession anchors, and in their stead are players who have the capability to be better at possession hockey. With a new coach the philosophy is not known yet, but I would assume that John Hynes values possession. If he does, you can bet that the guys playing will have a better chance at producing better Corsi and Fenwick numbers than were produced last season. While I am not predicting that the Devils will finish in the top 10 in possession (like I did with goals against), I will predict that they will be improved over last season. I really want to go out on a limb and say that they will finish above 50% in possession, but I am not completely confident in that just yet. I can hope though!
What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you think that the Devils have the chance to be an improved hockey team this season in terms of possession? If so, what gives you that feeling? On the reverse, do you feel that this team will not be better in the possession department, and if so, why not? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.