Alex wrote this post on Saturday that pretty much all New Jersey Devils fans should read. It’s a reminder that this is still a re-building New Jersey Devils organization and that some good things are being built despite recent performances. And that if there’s a playoff run, then so be it - they aren’t sacrificing the future for the now. I can agree with the general goal of a re-build. It isn’t to just be awful until a saving grace like, say, Taylor Hall joins the team through a first overall draft pick and then - BAM! - Stanley Cup. It isn’t to just try to go for it at the expense of any future. It’s to build up the organization, identify a core for the short and long term goals, and improve towards those goals. Essentially, take the steps from where the Devils are now to heads towards where they want to be.
One of those areas that head coach John Hynes and his staff should work on sooner rather than later is how the Devils play when they’re losing. Because they have been terrible when trailing in games.
Is This a Recent Issue or a Season-Long Issue?
This was apparent in their two most recent games. Against Montreal, down 1-3 heading into the third period, New Jersey was out-shot 7-24 and out-scored 1-2 on their way to 2-5 loss. Against St. Louis, down 1-3 at the start of the third period, the Devils take their first shot on net 2:47 into the period and take their second shot on net 16:54 into the period whilst conceding a goal and multiple shots in between. They lost 1-4 to the Blues and were out-shot 4-10 in that final frame. In both games, the Devils knew they were down and instead of taking the game to their opponents, they were soundly beaten. That gave me the inspiration to look into this.
Fortunately, many of the “advanced stats” sites do allow for filtering stats by score states. Even NHL.com has this with their possession numbers. I’ll use Corsica for this post to take a closer look at this issue. Since the concern is in the run of play, this will be focused on 5-on-5 play.
Prior to the Rangers game, the Devils are 25th in the NHL in Corsi (shooting attempts) For% (CF%) at 47.61%. Shots For% (SF%) fell to 47.27%. Both are not good and they are downgrades to where they were by the end of November in those categories. That’s in all scoring states in 5-on-5. Here’s how it breaks down between even (game tied), leading, and trailing situations according to Corsica before games were played on December 10:
When the score is tied, which is relatively often for the Devils, they are actually positive in possession. That’s pretty encouraging. How the Devils handle a lead isn’t so hot. Most teams are deep in the red in terms of possession, but that low shots for percentage is a concern. But the larger are the team’s stats when they are trailing in a game. The Devils are dead last in both CF% and SF% when they are losing and they aren’t even close to the 29th worst team in either category. Detroit is 29th in both categories with a 49.29% CF% and a 47.15% SF% when trailing in 5-on-5 play. They are multiple percentage points ahead of the Devils.
It’s not even a recent issue. Using the Custom Query for Corsica’s team stats, the Devils had a CF% of 45.43% and a SF% of 41.25% when trailing in games prior to December’s games. While the Devils weren’t dead last in CF% in that situation - they were 26th, they were definitely at the bottom in SF%. The Devils were definitely not playing well from behind prior to the last five games. It is has been an issue all season long.
OK - So is This a Big Deal Or...?
I think it is. If only because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. In sports, a team that is losing has every reason to be more aggressive and attack more often to get back into the game. A team that is winning does not and therefore they do not, whether because they don’t feel the pressure of the scoreboard or perhaps that trailing team is forcing them back. Score effects have been observed at a statistical level. While some of the groundwork has been lost (I miss you, mc79hockey; ditto original Behind the Net blog), Cam Charron has a good starting place to understand what happens in the NHL in this 2013 post at NHL Numbers. The effects of the score are large enough such that any stats resource will have a filter for score situations.
For more recent evidence of this, let’s look overall at the other NHL teams. While a 44.03% CF% is not good on its own, it actually ranks around the league median for other teams that are leading. Prior to the games played on December 10, only one team is above CF% while leading - Los Angeles is barely holding on at 50.6%. The tenth best team, Edmonton, is at 46.59% and everyone else in the league is below 46%. What does this mean? Teams that are winning in hockey games aren’t generating more shooting attempts than their opposition. They’re forced back, they’re not making as many advances forward, and they’re not generating as much offense as their trailing opponents. Could the Devils do better? Sure. Relative to the league, though, that’s not the issue.
In contrast, since the majority of leading teams are below 50%, then the trailing teams should be well above it. And they are. Prior to December 10th’s games, only New Jersey and Detroit are below 50% - and Detroit is within a percentage of break even. The median team is at 55.9% while trailing, Montreal; and four teams are above 60%. So the vast majority of the league’s teams this year have attempted more shots than their opposition while trailing. This is seen also with SF%, although the numbers themselves are a little different. That the Devils are so far behind everyone else in this category is a big deal. It means that the Devils aren’t responding to deficits by attacking more often. If anything, it shows that their opponents have made those deficits seem larger by keeping the Devils back from generating offense. Without that offense, it is hard to make comebacks.
What About the Overtimes Then?
Here’s the weird thing. The Devils have went beyond regulation in twelve of their 27 games this season and they came back in nine of those games to tie up the game to force overtime. In seven of those games, they entered a period - usually the third period - down at least one goal to tie it up. So if the Devils aren’t out-shooting and out-attempting their competition, then how is this happening?
Puck luck appears to be a big component. While trailing, the Devils’ shooting percentage as a team is a stunning 10.22%. In all 5-on-5 score situations, the Devils’ shooting percentage is only 7.19%. It’s not a bad percentage, but it’s below the league median. 10.22% is the fourth highest. That sticks out as something going rather right. If only the Devils are able to get more shots on net when trailing.
However, it is worth noting that in those nine games where the Devils tied up the score from trailing that they only scored one goal to tie it up in seven of them. Conceding another goal to increase the deficit makes it harder for any comeback and it has been no different for the Devils. In fact, the Devils have only forced post-regulation play in one game this season where the opposition increased their lead before the Devils tied it up. And, unfortunately for the Devils, their team save percentage when trailing is 91.96%. That’s around league median - but it also means oppositions have been able to get those extra goals. On some nights, they have and so, in 5-on-5 play, the Devils have 19 goals for and 18 goals allowed when trailing.
How Are They with Different Deficits?
Given that most of the Devils’ comeback efforts have been to make up one goal, perhaps their awful run-of-play stats while trailing comes from games where they’ve been losing by a lot. Corsica has further filters for team stats when they’re down one, two, and three goals. While over a quarter of the NHL season has been played, some teams have not had a lot of icetime when down two or three goals, so you may want to take those rankings with a grain of salt. But this is about the Devils, here’s how they have done with different deficits:
We can at least say that the Devils have at least been good about keeping games close. They’ve spent most of their time trailing by one goal and they have the league’s best shooting percentage when down one shot. That the team’s save percentage is fairly high means the Devils have at least been good at keeping the deficit from becoming two goals. Of course, the opposition has been better at taking the game to the Devils and keeping them on defense. That makes making comebacks all the more difficult.
The Devils have been more aggressive when they do go down by two goals and they’ve been more successful at taking attempts and shots. The opposition does a little more than them, but it’s not as bad as when they’re down a goal. Unfortunately, that low team save percentage suggests that a two-goal deficit can become a three-goal deficit. At that point, well, the opposition has pinned back the Devils even more - making any comeback hopes moot. At least those three goal deficits have not happened often.
This all tells me that if there’s something the coaches should focus on, it is in how the team plays when they’re down just one goal. The high shooting percentage will not likely last throughout the season; so it is imperative that the Devils don’t struggle to get shots in what is then a one-shot game. More opportunities will yield to what they want: making a comeback.
Was this a Problem in Past Seasons?
According to Corsica, the 2015-16 Devils - the first under John Hynes as head coach and Ray Shero as general manager - posted a 50.91% CF% and a 50.09% SF% when trailing. While that’s above the break even point, the Devils ranked 28th in both categories compared to the other teams. They were well below the league median. I’m loathe to go back to seasons with Peter DeBoer and Lou Lamoriello, but the last season where the Devils weren’t so far behind the rest of the league while trailing in 5-on-5 play was 2013-14. The 2014-15 team was, well, the nadir in a lot of ways. The 2015-16 team showed signs of progress, but still struggled in trailing situations. Yet, this season’s squad has clearly taken a number of steps back in this aspect of the game. So it was an issue in the past two seasons, but not to the degree that it is in 2016-17.
The Devils aren’t always going to be able to gain leads in games. There has been and will continue to be nights where the opposition scores first or takes a lead from New Jersey within a game. That said, how the Devils have performed when trailing in games is definitely a concern - and it’s not a new one or one from just the past few games. Especially when trailing by only one goal, the Devils have been pinned back more often than not by their opponents. Despite a high shooting percentage and being able to force overtime several times this season, the Devils have not played to the score like the other NHL teams clearly do. This has and will continue to hold them back from getting the results they want. If the Devils want to improve as a team and take the next step in that re-building process, then they’ll need to improve their play when they’re down on the scoreboard - particularly when losing by only one goal.
My last concluding thought is an admission. I do not know how the Devils can go about this. I think it is coaching-related because while this roster has made some strides in their performances compared to previous seasons in other situations, that they’re so bad in trailing situations is weird. It’s not a case where the goaltenders have just been bad or the shooting percentage has been poor (it hasn’t!). Such a low SF% and CF% in 5-on-5 play compared to how they rank in other situations speaks to the team’s tactics, tendencies, and how they adjust in games. I will defer to those who may know more about that and I hope that they read and comment on this site.
All the same, the Devils have been quite bad when losing in games, and they have not played to the score when trailing. What do you make of it? Are you surprised to learn how bad they have been while trailing? What do you think the Devils can do about it? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils playing from behind in games in the comments. Thank you for reading.