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Identifying Progress through New Jersey Devils Shot Differentials

As the New Jersey Devils started 2016-17, this post looks at shot and shooting attempt differentials of the last two seasons to identify what should be seen as progress for this season.

New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils
Please help in this regard, Taylor Hall. Please help him succeed, Devils coaches.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

While we’re only two games into the 2016-17 New Jersey Devils season, the two games featured two big differences other than the results. Against Florida, the Devils were bodied for large stretches of the game; especially in the first six or so minutes of the third period. The Devils were out-attempted by 28 attempts and out-shot by 10 shots in all situations. It was evidence of Florida’s dominance and why the Devils were fortunate to get a point. Against Tampa Bay, the Devils managed to keep up more with the potent Lightning offense. While they lost in regulation, they were only out-attempted by six and the Devils tied Tampa Bay with 34 shots. If nothing else about the game, we can’t say the Devils were rolled in a similar fashion.

It also got me thinking about differentials in shooting attempts (also known as Corsi) and shots on goal (or shots). While they aren’t the only thing as far what makes a team good or bad, how the Devils do in this particular stat will show whether the team really is making progress over this season. We can’t really make any good judgments after two games. Especially two road games against potential contenders for the Atlantic Division. However, we can look at the last two seasons to get an idea of what this season’s team will need to surpass to show progress. And if they don’t, we have to identify what needs to change to make said progress.

Why do those two seasons matter now? It’s 2016-17. Well, let’s take a step back. The 2014-15 team is considered a season where it was apparent the team needed to re-build. The 2015-16 team was the first season of said re-build with new management, new coaches, and plenty of new players. It also gave us the phrase “Fast, Attacking, Supportive.” For 2016-17 to be seen as the next step forward in this re-build, then they should be better than what they were. You can’t go forward without knowing where you’ve been.

To that end, I went to Natural Stat Trick and pulled the game-by-game data for Corsi and shot differentials for the last two seasons. I counted how many games they fit various differential ranges (e.g. Better than +10, better than +5 but less than or equal to +10, etc.) to get an idea of how often the Devils were better than their opponents in both categories. Here’s what I found:

Corsi & Shot Differentials at All Strengths

All strengths means all situations - 5 on 5, power play, penalty kill, and so forth. The values I gave from the first two games of this season were over all situations. The shot differentials, for example, would fit in the -5 to -10 bucket (-10 is included) for the Florida game and the 0 to -5 bucket for the Tampa Bay game. Here’s how the Devils stacked up from two seasons ago, back when they had multiple coaches and were set for a bottom-ten finish.

2014-16 Devils Shot and Corsi Differentials Data from Natural Stat Trick

There weren’t many positives. Over half of their games were negative in the Corsi differential department. In fact, just over half of their season was deeply negative in terms of Corsi differential. Shot differential looked stronger, although well more often than not, they were being out-shot.

But of course, that was a season of multiple coaches and plenty of older and ineffective players. Was 2015-16 an improvement?

2014-16 Devils Shot and Corsi Differentials Data from Natural Stat Trick

Sort of! The Devils did have 23 positive Corsi differential games compared to 22 from 2014-15. Positive shot differential games improved from 17 to 20. However, that improvement was driven by more games in the 0 to +5 bucket, meaning the Devils didn’t out-shoot the opponents by much. Still, it’s progress. On the negative side, they had fewer games in the lowest bucket (Below -10) of differential for Corsi and Shots. Last season’s team managed to have a few more games where they limited the negative differential from getting too out of hand. All the same, the 2015-16 were out-shot and out-attempted more of than not in all situations.

However, this raises an issue. All situations really isn’t the best thing to look at for these differentials. After all, Corsi and shots are likely to be skewed with special teams situations. And overtime and 4-on-4 situations don’t happen enough to really have an effect. Plus, the Devils’ home scorer tends to undercount attempts and shots so it’s questionable whether . Most of all, this doesn’t take score effects into account. Losing teams tend to be more aggressive and that leads to more shooting attempts and shots on net. All strength counts ignore all of this.

Fortunately, Natural Stat Trick can account for it. They have a strength called “5v5 Venue & Score Adjusted.” While the adjustments lead to fractions of counts, they do provide a sense of how the action went while factoring whether it was a home game or not as well as the score of the game. 5-on-5 is the most common situation in hockey and that takes out the less common even strength situations plus special teams. So I pulled the same data with that strength from Natural Stat Trick and re-did my histograms.

Corsi & Shot Differentials at 5-on-5 Venue & Score Adjusted Strength

2014-16 Devils Shot Differentials Data by Natural Stat Trick

The adjustments do push the 2014-15 Devils towards the left more. That means that when accounting for where the games were and what the score was, the Devils weren’t dominated as much. That being said, they’re still negative for over half of the season for both Corsi (45 games) and shot differentials (54 games).

2014-16 Devils Shot Differentials Data by Natural Stat Trick

The adjustments give lie to the first season of “Fast, Attacking, Supportive” Devils hockey. The adjustments resulted in many more games for shot differential ended up in the 0 to -5 bucket and the -5 to -10 bucket for Corsi. While the Devils were a more successful team in 2015-16, it wasn’t because they were managing to out-play their opponents more often than not. They had good special teams, they won plenty in OT, and they really, really relied on Cory Schnedier.

So What Now?

Whether you focus on the counts in all situations or adjusted Corsi and shot counts for differentials, the last two seasons of the Devils featured them playing a lot more defense than their opposition. That so many games ended up in the bottom bucket of worse than -10 really points to how tilted the ice really was on some nights. That so many games ended up in the red, so to speak, with and without adjustments suggests that this team is far from where we’d want to be. Yes, a CF% of 47.1% and 46.1% (per Corsica) in 2014-15 and 2015-16 means this shouldn’t be surprising. But breaking the differentials down by game really highlights it for me.

So for this current season, I hope the Devils are at least able to cut down on the number of games where they just rolled over and over by the opposition. At the same time, I’d want them to be more offensive to push some of those 0 to -5 differential games into the +5 to 0 bucket. Basically, fewer games like Florida and more games like Tampa Bay from an on-ice perspective.

While I understand that being positive (or even) in these differentials aren’t guarantees of success or everything in hockey, they do represent in the larger picture how the team is performing in the run of play. This points to whether they have the right personnel, the right tactics (read: breakouts, plays in transition, etc.), and the right coaches for how they want to play. Given that last season was John Hynes’ first with the team and the Devils put up a better record than expected, I think plenty was accepted as-is. Not that the 2016-17 Devils should have a lot of expectations, again, it should not be unreasonable to think the team should at least perform better than the last two seasons. Both of which weren’t very good in the run of play. So let’s see whether Hynes and this new squad of Devils can be better. And that should lead to more goals, more positive results, and a more exciting Devils team. We’ll see if they can do it. And if not, well, we’ll look at why.

Do you think the 2016-17 Devils can have more games where they are not getting beaten in terms of attempt and shot differential? If not, what do you think they would need to do to improve? What else (other than the team’s record) would you want to see improve as a sign of the Devils taking the proverbial next step in their rebuild? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments.