The big question coming into the 2016-17 season for the Devils was whether they could take a step forward and start to improve on a team level, particularly at even strength. In 2015-16, the Devils exceeded expectations and had what most would consider a successful start to their rebuild, but the reality was that the team still had quite a way to go to be a legitimate playoff threat, let alone a contender in the East. Despite the Devils being in playoff contention well into February last season, the team’s possession numbers and overall play pointed to a organization that still had a long way to go. The hope for 2016-17 was that the team could, if not make the playoffs, at least show some level of improvement and progress over a team that had its moments but largely overachieved just to finish 20th in 2015-16.
Hemmed in Last Season
Last season, the possession numbers for New Jersey were rough, pointing to a team that was succeeding at times in spite of some considerable flaws. Via Corsica, the Devils were second to last in the NHL in 2015-16 in CF%, at 46.17%. Their share of unblocked attempts (FF%) and shots on goal (SF%) were also near the bottom of the league between 46 and 47%. The Devils, to their credit, were a very good team at suppressing 5-on-5 shots (second in the league), but their complete lack of offense on a team level was a huge issue, with them finishing last in shot generation by a country mile. Their attempts/60 was 43.06, over six shots behind second-to-last Florida. For context, the distance between the Devils and the 29th ranked team in attempts generated was the same as the gap between the 29th team and the 18th team. Simply put, the underlying numbers painted the picture of a team that was a cellar-dweller, and that would have to improve going forward.
So for 2016-17, goal number one for the Devils would have to be becoming a more competitive team at even strength. With the arrival of Taylor Hall and a few other newly promoted faces to replace some of the space-fillers (sorry, Stephen Gionta) formerly populating the roster, expectations were that some improvement was certainly possible. Particularly on offense, the challenge for the Devils was trying to pull an absolutely putrid offense up from the depths of the past few years up to respectability.
The fear though was that the departure of Adam Larsson (and to a lesser extent, David Schlemko) would present major issues for the team in the defensive end. On paper, the Devils were in line to have some major troubles on D, with a host unknowns and 3rd pairing players. Even if the offense took strides, there was at least some underlying fear that those improvements would be submarined by a struggling defensive corps. If the team just shifted their issues from one area of the ice to another, progress could be hard to come by.
The Devils Might be Good(ish)?
To an extent, the Devils have seen both of the things listed above come true. The team is definitely generating more shots than before but it is also giving up more. The net gain in ratio is ultimately what we’re interested in though, and the Devils improvement on offense has definitely outpaced any decline in defense so far. On defense, the team is giving up an additional 4 attempts per 60, dragging them down to the middle of the league in that department, but on offense they are now putting up an additional 9 attempts per 6, meaning any decline on defense has been cancelled out twofold by offensive improvement.
So the Devils possession numbers (again via Corsica) are looking very respectable through a month-plus of 2016-17 with a CF% of 49.06, FF% of 49.74, and SF% of 51.46. Those three numbers are good for 19th, 14th, and 9th as of Thursday, respectively. If the Devils can maintain numbers like that at even strength, with some decent special teams play and Cory Schneider being Cory Schneider, the team is on track for a good shot at returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. That’s not to say these improvements are permanent or that the Devils couldn’t be derailed for any number of reasons (Exhibit A: Injuries), but the numbers are certainly encouraging.
Part of that encouragement is that the numbers seem to backup what we’ve been seeing on the ice to this point. The Devils look to be doing a better job of controlling play for longer stretches of time this season. That’s not to say the team hasn’t had frustrating periods or games where they look off, but generally speaking, this team has looked more dangerous and more competitive. Performances from players like Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, and Damon Severson have been a big driver of that, but the fact that the Devils have looked solid in spite of some slow starts from key players like Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri, and Kyle Palmieri should be encouraging in itself. With Taylor Hall sidelined for a bit with a meniscus tear, the team will be tested over the next few weeks, but if the underlying numbers (and a strong performance in Dallas on Tuesday) are any indication, they may be up to the challenge.