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How Much Improved Is This Team Over Last Year?

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If you talk with most any fan of the New Jersey Devils, they will be disappointed that this season did not end with a playoff berth, but most will comment that at least the team is improving. Let's look into that improvement as compared to last season.

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Sadly, much of our preseason predictions here at this website have come true, especially the one with the New Jersey Devils finishing near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division.  Yes there are still four games left, but at this point little can change, and if anything, many fans are most likely rooting for a few losses so that perhaps the Devils can get a top 10 draft pick.

However, it is undeniable that New Jersey has improved this season.  With four games left, the Devils have already surpassed last season's point total by four, and have reached the point per game plateau of 82.  They were in the playoff hunt for much longer than last season, when they were all but dead by Christmas.  And this team is much younger, arguably with more talent.  These are at least some of the positives that fans should be taking away from this season as we hopefully begin to see a team moving upwards towards playoff contention sooner rather than later.

Of course, the eye test proves many of the improvements that the Devils have shown, but what about the numbers?  Do the general statistics show a largely improved team, or a team that improved only a little? I feel like despite seemingly starting from scratch in many ways, Ray Shero and John Hynes made some major improvements over the past couple seasons, but perhaps the numbers do not show that major of an improvement.  Or, maybe they do.  Let's look at some and see.

Some Numbers

The first set of numbers is the basic statistics found at NHL.com, and give a general overview.

Year

W

L

OT

P

P%

2014-15

32

36

14

78

0.476

2015-16

37

33

8

82

0.5256

Year

GF

GA

GF/GP

GA/GP

PP%

PK%

S/GP

SA/GP

2014-15

176

209

2.15

2.55

18.9

80.6

24.5

30.7

2015-16

173

191

2.22

2.45

20.7

82.7

24.4

28.9

So off the bat, even with four games less played, it is clear that this year's iteration of the Devils is certainly improved.  The regulation losses may equal out in the end if the Devils finish out 1-3 or 0-3-1, but this year the team already has five more wins, and their overtimes are much improved as they have 6 less overtime losses.  Again, being over the 0.50 point percentage is a good start in a positive direction.

For the other stats, it is clear that this team saw minor improvements on offense.  This year, the team may end up with more goals scored, but it will be few, as currently they are 3 behind last year's total with four to play.  The Devils should score more than that to finish out, but we've seen worse futility from them before.  Shots per game are identical to last year, meaning that despite a new system and thought process, the Devils are not firing away more.  They are still playing defensively, which is hurting their overall offensive capabilities.

However, more improvement is certainly seen on the defensive side of things.  This team has given up 18 less goals to date, and unless the defense stops playing the rest of the year, I do not see the Devils giving up over 4 goals a game to end the season.  They are also allowing almost 2 shots less per game, which may not seem like a lot in the short term, but over 82 games that equates to over 160 shots allowed, which is a big deal.  They prevented that many more chances for the puck to go into the net, and put that much less stress on the goaltending.  That is a good sign.

So while these basic numbers still show a team that plays a similar style of hockey despite a new front office and head coach, the defense did improve in a noteworthy fashion, while the offense took a small step forward if anything.  That is improvement, but not exceptional improvement.  But hey, it is something, and again, for a team in a major transitional phase, progress like that is no small matter.

Some More Numbers

Next, let's look at some numbers from Hockey Analysis to dig a little deeper.  These numbers specifically look at 5 on 5 action.

Year

FF/60

FA/60

FF%

CF/60

CA/60

CF%

2014-15

33.7

38.6

46.6

45.2

50.5

47.2

2015-16

32.4

37.0

46.7

42.3

49.5

46.1

Year

Shooting %

Save %

PDO

OZFO%

NZFO%

DZFO%

2014-15

7.20

93.45

100.7

28.8

37.6

33.6

2015-16

7.09

92.56

99.6

29.0

36.5

34.4

These numbers are somewhat less generous to this year's team.  Possession numbers are very similar to where they were last season.  It is clear again that defense has taken a priority, as all Fenwick and Corsi numbers per 60 minutes of gameplay have dropped, both for and against.  The end result, however, is very similar.  The Devils' Fenwick percentage is almost identical this year as it was last year, and the team's Corsi For percentage dropped a percentage point.  So while events are being suppressed even further, it is not leading to better possession just yet.

The second set of numbers looks at two different things.  First are luck based stats.  PDO is a luck based stat that combines shooting and save percentages.  This season, the Devils were slightly less lucky than they were last year, but they are still close to the median 100.0 that is luck neutral, so I would not be blaming luck on not making the postseason.  The team's shooting percentage is down, but not drastically so.  7.09% ranks the Devils 21st in the league in that category, which leaves open some room for growth towards the NHL mean next season , but not significant growth without some luck.  Save percentage also dipped slightly this year, but I would not be blaming Cory Schneider for that.  He is still an all-star, and the MVP of this team.  If the Devils cannot win with him in net, they cannot win.

The other set of stats for that bottom half note the zone start percentages for the three major areas of the ice.  Here, not much has changed.  The Devils this year have had slightly more offensive zone starts which is a very good thing, but have also had more defensive zone starts to make up for it, which is a bad thing. So in the end I guess you can call that a wash.  Possession tends to dictate zone starts in many respects, and the lack of major differences in the possession stats also mirrors themselves here.

Conclusion

In the end, despite the differences in numbers, the result for the New Jersey Devils will be essentially the same: no playoff berth.  However, the team did generate more wins and more points, and there is something to be said for that.  It is progress forward, and progress should eventually lead to playoff contention if everything continues on a positive trajectory.  Some progress can indeed be seen in the numbers as well, if not the more advanced possession numbers anyway.  The Devils played a stronger defensive game this season, with less shots allowed per game, less goals allowed per game, and less Fenwick and Corsi events per game.  While other teams and their fans might not be happy with that, the Devils are rooted in a defensive tradition, and it is a path that I am happy to see this team move in.  Defense wins, and can win it all if complemented with a competent offense (counting goaltending with defense here).  The Devils are showing that they have that defensive and goaltending future that looks very bright, and it is still improving.  Now, if only they can work more on that offense...

Your Thoughts

What are your thoughts about this year's team versus last season's? Do you think this team is vastly improved, or only minimally improved? Given what you were expecting entering the season, are you happy with this level of improvement? How much improvement does this team need to make next season in your mind? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.