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A Blast From the Past: Positive Possession

Once upon a time, the Devils were a possession powerhouse under Peter DeBoer. So far this year, they are a major net positive in possession.

New Jersey Devils v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

For those who follow hockey analytics even just minimally, one of the possession powerhouses of at least the last half decade has been Carolina. Every year they dominate play, controlling the puck a lot more than their opposition. That is true again this season, as through Thursday, they ranked first in 5v5 Corsi, just ahead of Colorado. Rewind to the 2013-14 season and prior, however, and that team was actually the New Jersey Devils. That quality possession game led them to the Cup Finals in 2012 of course, and it was always a point of positivity for the couple of seasons after that. Even though they weren’t playoff bound, they were on a positive trajectory thanks to strong possession play.

Then the wheels fell off, and ever since, the Devils have been a net negative possession team when compared to the rest of the league. The best year they’ve had since then was the playoff 2017-18 season, when the team ended 21st in the NHL with a 48.59% 5v5 Corsi. That was a marked improvement over other seasons around then, when they were regularly one of the worst teams in the league at possessing the puck and driving play forward. Last season, for example, the Devils ranked 30th in the league, only ahead of Detroit, with a 46.08 CF%.

So far this season, however, that has been one of the major points of success and improvement for this team. Through 9 games, a small sample size for sure, but to this point, they have a 51.95 CF%, which before last night’s games was good for 10th in the league. Ranking 10th is nothing exceptional when you look at it on its own, but in comparison to what they have been, it is a monster improvement. FIrst, the team is actually a net positive in possession, clearly over the 50% mark, something that has not been true for 7 seasons. And while they are not in single digits, they are technically in the top 10, and if they can maintain that near 52% possession rate, they could improve on that ranking as more teams come back to the mean. Last season, a 52% CF would have been good for 7th in the league.

Now, who on the team is responsible for the team’s possession success to this point? Here is a chart of the 10 skaters on this team who currently have a positive relative Corsi at 5 on 5 play, along with a few other 5v5 stats, thanks to Natural Stat Trick:

Now, I included everyone who has played, as with only nine games played, I felt it was not right to have a minutes minimum. However, you obviously know that Jesper Bratt has only been in a few games, so his time on ice is a lot less than everyone else, which means that his numbers are more skewed by random chance than everyone else.

Nonetheless, it is an impressive list. It does tell us that Bratt has had a strong return to the lineup despite missing the start of the season. It also confirms the excellent year that Zajac has had so far. Just to the eye test he has been great, but the numbers bear that out even more. You could argue that he has the best numbers in that chart, with an incredible +23.78% relative high danger Corsi, and yet only owning a 33% offensive faceoff percentage. What a year from the veteran. In terms of defenders, I know Severson is at the top and he is as solid as they come, but I think it is worth noting Kulikov here, as he has definitely played way better than expectations with a very strong xGF% and high danger despite under 50% offensive faceoffs. And finally, I think we can give a quick shout out to Palms here, who has been getting some flak for the lack of point production early on, but the numbers say that those should come, with a positive relative xGF%, a very strong relative HDCF%, and loads of offensive zone faceoffs.

To showcase the team’s strong possession numbers so far, let’s check out one of Sean Tierney’s awesome charts showing player possession stats as compared to the league:

Here, you see how strong of a start Bratt has had in his three games, but also once again how shockingly productive Kulikov has been. Severson is the man, we all knew this, and I think it is interesting to see the fourth line duo of Nathan Bastian and Michael McLeod over there on their own in the dull category, with strong CA/60 numbers but weak CF/60 numbers. The only real clunker so far has been Matt Tennyson, who really should create an opening for Will Butcher to draw back in you would think. You also have Ty Smith hovering over there in the fun category which makes sense given his offensive mindset, something that the Devils have needed for a long time from their blue line.

Overall, it is really great to see the Devils finally turning it around in terms of driving play on the ice. For too many years they were a reactive team, playing to the speed of their opponents, relying on counterattacks and breakaways to win games. And obviously, from the team’s record over the last 7 seasons, it was not good. This season, under Lindy Ruff’s new system, they are back to controlling the play on the ice, and dictating how games are being played. That is a major improvement, and I really hope that this is not just a fluke thanks to a small sample size, but that it actually bears out over 56 games. If you want to know if the team’s early success is legitimate and not just a fluke, check if the team can maintain both this strong possession play and strong goaltending play. If both of those hold up, the Devils will be a contender all the way through.