What Peter DeBoer Has to Continue: New Jersey Devils Strong in Possession Since 2007

Today was the first day of practice for veteran players for the New Jersey Devils.  It was the first time for the players to be instructed and drilled under new head coach Peter DeBoer.  That in of itself is newsworthy. It's the first glimpse as to how DeBoer might manage this squad heading into the 2011-12 season.  Two of Tom Gulitti's several posts from training camp today focuses on that.  In working with the first group, Gulitti highlighted the "high-tempo" of practice - and includes this quote from Zach Parise where a comparison to Brent Sutter's coaching style was made:

"To an extent, it’s pretty similar as far as hard forechecking," Parise said of the systems under Sutter and DeBoer. "At least that’s how we started with Brent. Towards the end, we kind of backed off a little bit. But I think it’s pretty similar as far as the forechecking. I think it’s a little different as far as getting the defensemen involved with the puck."

However, it's not as cut and dry that DeBoer is instituting some of what Sutter did as head coach as the Devils.  In this post by Gulitti at Fire & Ice, it is revealed that DeBoer is learning as much as he can from special assignment coach Jacques Lemaire:

"You know what? I’m secure enough in what I do that I think I’d be crazy not to utilize the resource of Jacques," DeBoer said. "The guy has won Stanley Cups as a player and as a coach and coached in the league. I guess I just don’t understand the rationale of having a guy like that here and not using him. That wouldn’t make sense to me."

...

"He gave me insight on everybody," DeBoer said. "He knows this group. I don’t think anyone knows a group as well as the guy that stands behind the bench and is on the ice with them on a daily basis – other than Lou (Lamoriello) I’m sure. Jacques has a great insight into this group (from) having been there. He was kind enough to pass along all of that stuff to me."

Given that DeBoer is taking tips from Lemaire directly and other Devils have identified similarities to what DeBoer did today with Sutter, I got to thinking about how the performed under those coaches.  I'm not talking about their record or their general style, but how the team did in terms of possession.  Possession is a key component to success in winning hockey games, regardless of how aggressive or passive a team's tactics are designed.  It highlighted how superior the team performed under Lemaire compared to MacLean last season, for example.  After the jump, I show how the Devils did in terms of possession under those coaches since 2007.  If nothing else, they can give an indication of what DeBoer's team should be expected to do in terms of possession in 2011-12.

Before continuing, I just want to touch on the basics of possession.  For starters, it's essentially an approximation for possession.  There really isn't a time of possession stat recorded for each game. Therefore, I'm relying on shooting attempts, since they'll be taken in the opposition's end of the rink - in order for that to happen, the attacking team must have had the puck and moved it in the right direction.  Therefore, I am counting shots on net, missed shots on net, and blocked shots - which is referred to as Corsi events.   Fenwick events count all of that except blocked shots.  Neither counts time spent with the puck without any attempt, assuming that such possession isn't that useful.  I recognize that fault; but until there's a better method, then these two approximations will be used.

Now, I'm focusing on a very specific situation: even strength, score-tied situations.  When a team is on a power play or penalty kill, the action is going to be tilted to one end of the rink just by design. Counting attempts in those situations to determine who's got the better of possession doesn't make sense. Therefore, those stats should be used for even strength situations.  Lastly, a team that's losing is usually going to attack more in general to catch up in the game. That will skew Corsi and Fenwick events in the course of a game. In order to remove that, I'm only looking at events when the games are tied.  

Onto the stats themselves.  The source data all comes from Vic Ferrari's incredible scripts at Time on Ice. If you want to check them out for yourself, here they are.  Just be forewarned: it takes time to run each of them and 2008-09 only has 81 games - one game didn't get recorded for some reason.

2007-08 New Jersey Devils Even Strength Score Tied Stats

2008-09 New Jersey Devils Even Strength Score Tied Stats

2009-10 New Jersey Devils Even Strength Score Tied Stats

2010-11 New Jersey Devils Even Strength Score Tied Stats

Here's the summation of the Corsi and Fenwick events for those four seasons:

Es_tied_devils_possession_2007-2010_medium

The Devils have actually been a pretty good possession team. They've been consistently positive in terms of Corsi and Fenwick events, putting up more in their favor then they have allowed.  They've consistently out-shot and out-scored their opponents in scored tied situations, which is exactly what we want to see from the Devils.   Even with coaching and various roster-related issues (e.g. new players, injuries, etc.), the Devils have been a good even strength team. Clearly, whatever DeBoer decides to do, it's going to be on him to get the team to continue having the better possession in games.

Yet, there are some curious details here. First, the Corsi percentage dipped in 2009-10 under Lemaire.  The Devils actually got beaten in terms of missed shots and blocked shots; enough to make up some of the difference between shots and goals.  The big driver of that are the blocked shots as indicated by the stronger Fenwick percentage, since Fenwick doesn't count blocks for either team.  Therefore, the Devils didn't suffer too much in terms of driving the play in that season within the last four.

Second, the 2008-09 team is lacking in terms of total events. Even with only 81 games recorded on the script, the Devils had at least 406 fewer Corsi events and 366 fewer Fenwick events than in the other three seasons. Why? Well, it's possible that despite how aggressive the Devils were on the forecheck under Sutter, it didn't yield a lot of events in the Devils' favor that season.  It was likely more effective at stopping the other team from attempting any shots. It could be possible the Devils just weren't in as many scored-tied situations over 81 games as they were in other seasons. It could be possible that the Devils were more aggressive in 2007-08, but adjusted their strategies to cut down on offense at the expense of their own the following season.  There are so many more, feel free to come up with your own.  Regardless, the Devils enjoyed strong proportions in Corsi and Fenwick even with fewer total events.

Third, last season was the only one where the Devils made a coaching change during the season.  I explained the difference in possession in more detail between MacLean and Lemaire in this post. Simply put, the team was simply incredible under Lemaire.

Let's go back to the present with DeBoer.  It's great that he wants to create more offense.  I think it's necessary to look at that given the team was dead last in scoring goals last season; possession figures aside.  Looking back at the last four seasons, it's clear that possession has favored the Devils well in score-tied situations at even strength. That means they have the players and their coaches then put some emphasis on it at the time. I would go as far as to say the Devils still have plenty of those players to lead the way, namely Patrik Elias and Zach Parise. In my opinion, it'll be up to DeBoer to utilize the players to continue the recent trend of positive team possession.   We'll know for sure once the season begins, if not preseason, whether that will be the case.  I certainly hope so, as it's hard to improve an offense without having the puck.  Hopefully, Sutter's past influence on his tactics and style plus what he learns from Lemaire will help DeBoer continue the Devils' strong possession numbers since 2007.

What do you make of the possession numbers by the Devils in the past four seasons? Did any of them surprise you? Did the continuing trend of positive possession alone surprise you? Does it influence what you expect from this team in 2011-12?  What tactics do you want DeBoer to have?  Please leave your answers and other relevant thoughts about coaches and possession in the comments.  Thank you for reading.

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