In the doldrums of January, when the New Jersey Devils were struggling mightily to string wins together, the team was also struggling to out-possess their opposition. For a team that has consistently been over 50% if CF% this year, and currently is sitting at 51.25%, 11th in the league, it was a bad month. They had a few quality games, like the 7-4 win over Carolina on January 22nd, but mostly it was a down month for the team, with the ice regularly tilted against them. Their best game that month for possession was the 5-1 drubbing they took from Dallas on the 25th, but that can mostly be attributed to score effects. Dallas was ahead significantly and so protected their lead, giving up possession more often to play defensively.
Since January, however, there has been definitive improvement. February was fairly decent for possession, with some positive wins and close losses with good possession, including the 7-1 win over Montreal where NJ sported a 51.14 CF% despite having a massive lead, and the following game, which was a 7-4 win over St. Louis in which NJ had a 52.33 CF%. There was growth to be had in February, but there were also problems too as you would expect, like the 2-4 loss to Pittsburgh where NJ could only muster a 38.00 CF%.
This month, things have been continuing to improve, with some quality games and no real bad ones yet. The Devils have played five games so far in March, and they sport a 2-3 record in those games. So results-wise things are still much the same. But check out the possession stats, from Natural Stat Trick:
With the exception of the New York debacle, these are some real quality games here in terms of possession and quality of play. Even in the other two losses, you see positive play. In the Columbus game, the Devils sported a strong 56.67 CF% and were much higher in shots as a result, with a 52.08 SF%. But the even better performance was the Winnipeg game the other night, where the Devils crushed it with a strong 54.37 CF% and a ridiculous 65.00 HDCF%. That all led to a 56.99 xGF%. They should have won that game if they could have finished at all, which they could not.
But perhaps even more encouraging is that in the wins, they are not being out-possessed. Those are not wins that they had to hold on for dear life and defend. No, they played a strong game throughout and the underlying possession numbers are in their favor. The most impressive, of course, is that Colorado win where NJ put up a whopping 85.00 HDCF% and a 66.85 xGF%, all predicated on a dominant 58.59 CF%. But even the St. Louis game is really good, just check out those numbers. Those are two strong wins back to back.
Overall, there is a lot to be disappointed about with this team, and there aren’t an abundance of things that have trended in the positive as this year has gone along. But as we head towards the Ides of March, one thing that is looking up has been the team’s possession game. Remember, the Devils were a dominant possession team in the later Peter DeBoer years, and this roster has the pieces to reach that level again. As the Winnipeg game showed us, possession is not everything, you need to finish as well, and you also need goaltending. Just look at Carolina for most of the last decade for proof of that. But possession is a strong first step to creating a competitive team night-in and night-out, and in the latter half of this season, the Devils are trending positively in that department. This is absolutely a positive to keep an eye on for the rest of the year, and something to hang your hat on despite the hugely disappointing season.