When I write about the New Jersey Devils in comparison to a specific team, I usually do so when they are playing later on the same day I post this. However, I wanted to write about the Devils and Carolina, although they played last night, so bear with me even though the game between these two has already happened.
Going into the 2011-2012 season, the Devils were still in a position where yearly playoff berths were expected and the norm by both fans and Lou Lamoriello. Even with the down season the year prior, the team was right back to where it should be, and things felt good. Carolina, however, had fallen on hard times after their Stanley Cup in 2006. While the Devils went on to get to game 6 of the Finals that season, Carolina finished in the basement of the Southeast Division with a lot of work needed to get back to relevance.
Fast forward throughout the rest of the decade, and the trajectories of these two organizations have been vastly different. I remember feeling around 2013-2015 that the two organizations were in a very similar positon, and since then, things have gone quite differently.
To show why I felt there was a similarity, and to show the different trajectories as well, I made up this chart here that just shows each team’s CF% and their record in a given year. If the team made the playoffs, I put an asterisk next to their point total. Information from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.
Around 2013-2014, both the Devils and the Canes were overperforming possession teams, and despite that, were underperforming on the ice. Neither team made the playoffs in the lockout-shortened season, and the season after, despite having strong possession. This was especially true for our Devils, with possession numbers near the top of the league. Carolina was more towards the middle of the pack, but still was above 50%, driving possession more often than not.
From there, the trajectories of the teams vastly changed. New Jersey became a team that forgot completely how to drive possession, and despite the outlying 2017-18 and quick first round exit, the Devils have not really even sniffed playoff contention. Carolina, on the other hand, kept getting better on the possession front. They still struggled in the standings as bad as NJ for a few seasons there, but they were driving play forward and generating more Corsi attempts than their opponents on a nightly basis.
The last two seasons, Carolina has finally put it all together. They were able to turn their excellent play style revolving around possession into a playoff berth last season, and started off this year incredibly strong before now having to fight to get back into a wild card position. However, given their possession numbers, they have a shot at it. Before their playoff berth, they had the possession and the playstyle, but lacked either quality goaltending, finish on the offensive front, or both.
For the Devils, looking at the growth of the organization in Carolina over the last half decade is something to try and emulate. Carolina is a small market team, and is not a place free agents are flocking towards. While you can claim the Devils are a large market team, they really play and act like a small market one. Carolina, while coming back from the pits of the Southeast, managed to play a strong possession game, and then put the final pieces together with better goaltending and finding some top young talent to score goals like Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.
The Devils, hopefully, have that offensive talent already with the likes of Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Yes, Hischier is a distributor, but so is Teravainen. Hughes has struggled, but he is a rookie, and will surely get better. If NJ has that talent already, then one job is done. Managing to grow a stronger game built around possession, to go with goaltending, is the hard part. However, they had it in the earlier part of the decade, and it is something that can be had again. It is far from a foolproof strategy, and you can definitely claim that Carolina has underperformed to a degree over the last three years or so, and I would agree. But it is a model to look at to figure out how to get out of the bottom of the division, and one perhaps worth trying to emulate.