As we all know, over the last few seasons, the New Jersey Devils have been a poor possession team. They have regularly ranked at the bottom of the league in Corsi For. 2016-17? 47.80%, good for 27th in the league. 2015-16? 46.17%, good for 29th in the league. 2014-15? 47.18%, good for 26th in the league.
Before that, of course, they were actually a dominant possession team. Despite not making the playoffs in 2012-13 and 2013-14, they posted possession numbers near the top of the league. In 2013-14, they were at a 54.0% Corsi, good for 3rd in the NHL, and in the lockout-shortened season, it was at 55.92%, 2nd in the league. It was a sharp and rapid decline from the 2013-14 season to the 2014-15 season, from 3rd in the league to 26th. The Devils were clearly not interested in a middle ground.
While those two seasons of excellent possession did not lead to positive results, it is still generally believed that a boost in possession would help to signal a potential turning around in the rebuild. It is not a perfect correlation, and good possession does not directly lead to wins, but it is a great underlying sign that things are looking up.
This season, through the first 7 games (not including last night), the Devils were at 48.90% Corsi. That is a decent (although not a major) jump over last year’s 47.8%. A one percent jump is not trivial by any means. However, when you look at how the league was doing in possession before last night’s games, it put the Devils in an interesting position. For the first time in a very long time, the Devils were ranked in the top half of the league! They were 14th in the NHL, which is an amazing thing to see. The team is clearly trending in a positive direction, and has a great record to show for that, but to see the underlying numbers potentially improving as well, that means it could be more than just a flash in the pan kind of thing.
When you look at the league as a whole, the interesting part about it is that there developed a sort of bubble when it came to possession. The top 13 teams in the league in Corsi, from Edmonton to the Islanders, were all over 50.8% (this is all before last night’s games). The Isles, the 13th team in the league in CF%, were at 50.84. The Devils, being the 14th ranked team, were at 48.9%. That is close to a full two percentage points separating the two teams. Over the first portion of this season, there developed two tiers in the possession game: the good possession teams, who could be quite good, and the poor possession teams, who could really be not that good. To have no teams between 49% and 50.8% is crazy talk. Last year, there were 12 teams who ended the season within that percentage range in Corsi.
Now, will that bubble still exist come the end of the regular season? Of course not. Just looking today, after last night’s games, one team did crack that bubble (Vancouver). But what it does tell us about New Jersey is that while they are not yet a good possession team, and are not on top of that bubble, they could be right on the edge. And considering where the Devils have been in possession over the last several years, that is a huge jump.
For many Devils fans, myself included, it has been an absolute joy to watch this season unfold so far. I projected an offense that would only minimally improve over last year’s numbers; I have rarely ever been happier to have been wrong. They are a dynamic team that is clearly must-watch television. Even last night in a poor loss, they still generated some positive chances that made it interesting and made you think they were in it for a long stretch of that game. The question that many fans have, of course, is the viability of this start continuing over the long haul. If it can continue, they are a playoff contender already and the rebuild is over. But does the other shoe drop at some point? That question probably more lies in two areas: the sustainability of the offense to produce at over 4 goals per game (unlikely), and/or the ability of the defense to improve so that the offense doesn’t need to produce over 4 goals per game to win (mandatory).
However, those questions at this point are really impossible to answer accurately. What we can do, however, is to try and look to stats to gamble on probabilities. And one stat that is a good indicator of sustainability of success is possession. And while 48.9% is not necessarily the best number, as it is still in the red by over 1%, it is a clear cut improvement over what we have seen from this team over the last few seasons. Being 14th in the league tells us that that number is not as awful as it might seem either. They are right on the bubble of moving up into the upper echelon of possession.
Furthermore, while 48.9% is not the best number, it is fairly close to average. Maybe we could call it ‘below average’ instead of bad, which is definitely an improvement since they were certainly a ‘bad’ possession team before. Perhaps even ‘very bad’ or ‘atrocious’. And ‘below average’ possession teams can be competitive and find themselves in the postseason. Over the last three seasons, these teams have made the playoffs despite having a Corsi For of under 49%:
- Ottawa Senators: 48.57% CF
- New York Rangers: 47.95% CF
- Florida Panthers: 48.68% CF
- Minnesota Wild: 47.86% CF
- New York Rangers: 47.36% CF
- Montreal Canadiens: 48.52% CF
- Calgary Flames: 44.43% CF
Some of these teams were actually really bad at possession despite making the dance. Calgary in 2014-15 had an awful 44.43% Corsi and still clinched a divisional berth. Both times the Rangers made it over the last two seasons as well, they were under 48% Corsi. This year they are actually over 48%, but are still under 49%, and it seems Alain Vigneault’s possession-less style of hockey could finally be catching up with them.
Either way, what this chart shows is that even where the Devils are now with their possession, if they are able to even just maintain that and remain one of the better ‘bad’ possession teams, they could actually remain competitive. It would be marvelous to see them get to possession-neutral 50%, but that could take some more seasoning. At this point, given how porous the defense has been, and the fact that they let up so many chances, it could be difficult reaching possession-neutral. But if the offense continues to roll on most nights, producing lots of chances, this team could potentially remain competitive a lot longer before the other shoe drops so to speak.
Anyway, what do you think about this? Can the Devils remain under 49% Corsi and still remain competitive, or is that a recipe for disaster? How should we be looking at possession with this team? How much does this defense need to improve in preventing chances against for the Devils to remain competitive come April? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.
Note: After last night’s shellacking by San Jose, the Devils fell under 48% in possession again. That just goes to show you what poor possession can do. They had a bad game controlling the puck and got dominated on the scoreboard. If they can get back over 48% and maybe even over 49%, you should see the team be more competitive again and get more wins.