The captain of the New Jersey Devils is a really good hockey player. I know you all know this, but it’s worth highlighting a little piece of that once again. Thursday night in that debacle against Washington, despite being down multiple goals for most of the game, the Devils still ended negative in the possession game. Washington posted a 50.55% CF percentage at 5 on 5 play, with the Devils only ending at 49.45%. This was mostly thanks to the first period, where the Caps absolutely dominated to the tune of a 59.38 CF%. The Devils turned that around by the 3rd period, with a 58.33 CF%, but it was not enough to counteract the atrocious first period they had in terms of the run of play. It also clearly didn’t help on the scoreboard either.
However, what isn’t reported in those overall team numbers is the effect that Nico had on possession. Without him, those numbers are significantly worse. When you look at the Devils’ forward lines, many of the lines out there, for most of the minutes, were net negative. Nico, however, played on positive possession lines, one with Pavel Zacha and Janne Kuokkanen, and another with Zacha and Jesper Bratt. Those two lines, in contrast to most of the others, were much better. Here is the chart from Natural Stat Trick, link above:
So before going into Nico’s lines, you can basically ignore the one line of Michael McLeod, Jimmy Vesey and Andreas Johnsson. They were only out there for one minute at 5 on 5, and at such a small sample size, did not make much of a difference on the overall team numbers. The only other line that was really good had Johnsson on it, with Tomas Tatar and centered by Dawson Mercer. The kid has been very good so far, and the fact that his line was positive in possession, with a relative CF% at 10.23, speaks volumes. He belongs.
Everyone else not on a Nico line was poor. The worst line was McLeod, Vesey, and Bratt, who got crushed, with a 35.71 CF% and a -16.23 relative CF%. That line got hammered. And the line of Yegor Sharangovitch, McLeod and Kuokkanen did not do well either, but was slightly better than that line. But those two, combining over 10 minutes at 5 on 5, sunk the Devils in possession.
But when discussing Nico, it’s nothing but positive. He was out there for over 12 minutes at 5 on 5, the majority of that with Zacha and Kuokkanen, but also over 4 minutes with Bratt instead of Janne. And he ended above water, especially with that 8 minutes of Janne and Zacha. They had a CF% of 57.14, and a relative CF of 9.09%. The other 4 minutes he ended at even possession, but compared to many of the other lines who were out there for extended minutes, it was a huge plus.
And when you look at individual numbers, it adds up. Against tough competition as a top liner, Nico ended with a 52.17 CF% and a positive 3.64 relative Corsi. It’s not the highest among the forward group, again Mercer had excellent numbers, and Kuokkanen also was up there, and somehow Frederik Gauthier topped the list, but again you’re talking about Nico driving the top line forward against tough competition. WIthout him, the top line is losing the run of play, and things are worse than they were. It was a bad night overall of course, and a terrible 4-1 loss, but Nico played a strong game pushing play forward against good competition.
Moving forward, especially with the injuries, it will be imperative that Nico continue to drive the run of play against the other team’s top competition. If his lines are netting positive possession, it means the other team’s top lines are not having as many chances in the offensive zone, which will give New Jersey a chance on most nights. You might also get nights like Thursday where a third string goaltender and extra injuries sink the team, but there’s nothing one skater can do about that barring him putting up a hat trick. If keeps playing well, the Devils should be in most games, and that’s a good thing.