As the Devils continue to win games and jockey for position at the top of the Metropolitan Division, it’s hard not to feel good about where this team is right now and how they are playing. Lingering among those good feelings, though, is the question of whether they can continue to sustain this success. There are certainly some reasons to think so: they have one of the most dynamic and talented groups of forwards in a long time in New Jersey, they have a goaltender in Cory Schneider who seems to have his groove back after a down year, and after dealing with a lot of injuries, they look to be getting healthy again. Some of the underlying numbers do paint a little bit of a troubling picture, though.
So let’s cut right to the chase: what are the indicators that the Devils could be in for a step back in the coming months? Simply put, the Devils have not been very good at possessing the puck to this point in the season. Running through the numbers (all via Natural Stat Trick), the Devils currently rank 27th in CF%, 27th in FF%, and 29th in SF% with all of those shot shares running a little below 47%. Even in SCF%, they are near the bottom at 47.03%, good for 29th in the league. The Devils wouldn’t be the first team to defy the percentages for a season, but those numbers would typically point to a team that is a bit of a house of cards. It is tough to keep winning hockey games long-term when you are being hemmed in on a lot of nights.
There is one substantial divergence from those trends, though and it’s an important one. The Devils are 5th in the league in high-danger scoring chance percentage (HDCF%). So while the Devils are clearly giving up a lot of the puck, they are effectively creating high-danger chances and doing so at a considerably higher rate than they are yielding them. The Devils are making the most of their opportunities on the ice, and they actually have some numbers that back up that fact. Perhaps the Devils are allowing other teams to possess the puck more than is ideal, but they are creating opportunities and limiting them for other teams well enough to be one of the best teams in the league in the high-danger areas.
This offsetting of their poor shot differentials is bared out in the Devils’ expected goal differential numbers for the season. First we can look at their rolling 5-game average attempt differential, via Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey):
As you can see, the Devils have been pretty consistently bad by this metric for the vast majority of the season. They’ve trended up slowly since bottoming out in early November, but overall, their numbers aren’t great. Now contrast this with the Devils expected goal differential numbers (also via Sean Tierney):
So the Devils are substantially outperforming what you might expect based on their shot differentials, particularly of late, when they’ve been downright good by this measure. This is due to the way they are generating (and preventing) the highest-danger chances. Can they maintain that split between shots and expected goals? Only time will tell, but the Devils aren’t purely just riding the percentages to their record, they are earning it to some extent.
In the long run, it has proven difficult to consistently outperform bad possession numbers, but if there is a formula to do that, perhaps the Devils are finding that roadmap. They may yet be due for some regression based on their PDO, which is 4th-highest in the league at 1.018, but there is certainly an argument that this team is for real. Their possession numbers may not be good, but they are also not overly awful like some sub-45% teams we’ve seen go on runs in the past. And given that they have a quality goaltender and are putting up strong high-danger numbers, the percentages are likely to trend somewhat in their favor, even if they step back from the current level a bit. So while the Devils could stand to hold the puck more and play a better possession game, there’s enough other evidence available that says the team may be here to stay.