Hockey is a results-oriented business and right now the New Jersey Devils have had struggles in recent weeks in getting them. They did go 2-1-1 in their last week of play, but that followed after three weeks with a combined record of 2-6-2. The Devils are now on the playoff bubble in the Eastern Conference, currently four points behind fifth place Ottawa, one point ahead of eighth-place
Ottawa Carolina, and two points ahead of ninth-place Islanders. The trade deadline is coming up in a little more than two weeks, but with so many teams looking at the standings and thinking "One good run, and we're in the mix," it's questionable how much a team can improve. Therefore, it's important to identify which teams have been good performers and possession is a good indicator for that. The good news is that the Devils have been a very good possession team this season and such teams usually get the results they need to get into the postseason.
Now, those of you who are familiar with this site know that I reference Fenwick percentage in close-score situations. Fenwick is the summation of all shooting attempts except for blocks and by looking at the percentage of those attempts for and against a team at even strength, then we have a good idea as to how effective they've been with the puck. In this February post at Backhand Shelf, Cam Charron points out how much better Fenwick percentage in close-score situations predicts future performance than other metrics like wins, goals, or goal differential. On top of that, Fenwick percentages in close score situations for a team are easily available, both at Behind the Net and Hockey Analysis.
However, there is another way to determine a team's possession that's appropriate for this shortened season. Eric T. of Broad Street Hockey came up with the concept of score-adjusted Fenwick percentages last year and found it to be a better predictor of a team's performance in less than a full season. The logic is pretty straight-forward. The population size of games played means that it's more easily skewed to look at Fenwick in tied-score situations or close-score (within one goal in the first two periods, tied in the third and overtime) situations. So to expand the population, consider all scoring situations and account for them compared to a league average over several years. He recently used it to highlight that not only are the Los Angeles Kings the best possession team this season, but out of the last five seasons. With that in mind and considering the NHL is about 27-30 games into a 48-game season, I figured Eric T's formula would be worth checking out with respect to the Devils.
In order to get the right context, I also calculated the score-adjusted Fenwick percentage for Devils teams as far back as 2007-08 as well as for the rest of the league. I wanted to see for myself how the Devils stacked up in the past, how they compare with others now, and whether most playoff teams are the ones who come out ahead in this percentage. All of the Fenwick percentage numbers by score situation came from Behind the Net, and the formula came from Eric T. Note: All calculations were done prior to Sunday's games.
First, here's how the Devils have done in the past on their own.
The Devils have consistently been a positive possession team. They're not just over 50% in score-adjusted Fenwick, but they've been above 51%. In fact, the current team has been the best both in terms of Fenwick percentage in tied-score, close-score, and up-by-2 situations including the score-adjusted percentage. They are currently better than the team coached by Brent Sutter in 2008-09, which really was a very good possession team and amazing when up a goal. Again, the 2013 team has only played 29 games and who knows whether they could keep it up over 82. But so far, they've been quite good at driving the play at even strength. Back in the summer of 2011, I explained that Peter DeBoer needed to continue the good possession play by the Devils and he has done just that so far.
The only team in that group that failed to make the playoffs was the 2010-11 team, which was beset by horrible shooting and poor coaching. The Devils weren't bad under John MacLean in terms of possession, they were just under 50% in close and tied situations. But they were far better under Jacques Lemaire. The shooting percentage also jumped up under Lemaire, which drove their awesome second half run that saw them finish out of the bottom five.
Relative to the rest of the league, the Devils have been a top-ten team in both Fenwick percentage in close-score situations and when the percentage is score-adjusted. I lined both side by side to show the difference between the two since close-score Fenwick percentage works well for larger populations. The adjustment either had the Devils in the same rank or just a few spots lower relative to the rest of the league, such as this season. they're still in the top ten but closer to the bottom end.
Now, knowing that the Devils are usually out-attempting their opposition at even strength over the season is all well and good. But do most of those teams who do well in score-adjusted Fenwick percentage make the playoffs? Here's the top ten from the past five full seasons. Those colored in orange or red made the playoffs. Those in white did not.
Out of the fifty total teams, only eight did not make the postseason in their respective season. In 2008-09 and 2011-12 season, everyone who finished in the top ten in score adjusted Fenwick percentage made it to the second season. In the other three, two or three teams missed. It serves to the point that while those teams have been driving the play at even strength, they were undercut in other ways. Again, as an example, the Devils were undercut by a terribly low shooting percentage. Being one of the better teams in the NHL in this regard doesn't guarantee the playoffs. But it's a pretty safe bet that being good in possession at even strength is good enough for a team to make the playoffs.
As an aside, only two teams have finished in the top-ten in the last five seasons in score-adjusted Fenwick percentage: Detroit and New Jersey. Given that New Jersey has had many changes in players and coaches over those five seasons, it speaks to me how good Lou is at constructing a team. As well as Ken Holland with Detroit.
Looking beyond the top ten, most of the teams who out-did their opposition, that means a percentage over 50%, in score-adjusted Fenwick made the playoffs. Only a handful missed it since 2007-08. It shouldn't be a surprise that most of the teams who made the playoffs had a higher average score-adjusted Fenwick percentage than the few that made it. As the top-ten chart showed, the even smaller handful drove that percentage up too. Those that missed are closer to 50% like in the 2008-09 and 2011-12 seasons. It's worth noting that a majority of the playoff teams in each of the last five seasons finished above 50%. That means there were always a group of teams that made it while being out-possessed overall.
That group who did made it certainly did better in possession than those who missed the playoffs. It's worth noting that most of the small group who did make it to the playoffs finished within 49%. Two in 2007-08, 2008-09, and 2010-11; one in 2009-10; and three in 2011-12 were all just under 50% in score-adjusted Fenwick. Or ten out of twenty-two teams. Those ten weren't that much below 50%. It's not fair to say those teams were really that bad in possession and just got in by some other means. For example, Nashville had a score-adjusted Fenwick percentage of 46.74%, the second lowest in the league. They got into the playoffs thanks to great percentages, with a PDO at 1015 - a top-ten save percentage in 5-on-5 play and the third best shooting percentage in the league. Still, if they had a run of slightly poor luck or not so great goaltending, they could've been in real trouble. A score-adjusted Fenwick percentage above 50% isn't required to make the playoffs, but it's usually easier to succeed doing well at even strength on the way there.
Again, that only twelve teams in the last five seasons made the postseason with a percentage below 49% and only 22 made it including that forty-ninth percentile says a lot. It's a very good sign to be a team with a score-adjusted Fenwick percentage above 50%.
Now, if we stopped the season on March 16, how many of the top-ten teams in this percentage would be in the playoffs? Shaded teams are in:
Nine. All but one: the New York Rangers. And they're not that far out of a playoff spot right now. If we go beyond the top-ten, thirteen of the fifteen teams currently above 50% would make the playoffs. Among the four below 50% that would also make it, San Jose are just outside of 50% at 49.87%. They could get in that group quite soon.
Again, it's not a guarantee, but a team's more likely to get in the playoffs if they're a good team at even strength. If they out-attempt their opposition regularly whether it's in close-score situations or score-adjusted situations, then they are usually a good team. Provided they aren't undercut by other factors like awful shooting, injuries, awful goaltending, or whatever, then they'll usually move on past the regular season. The Devils may not be among the very best in the league, but they have been a very good possession team this season. They currently stack up better than the last five seasons. When Peter DeBoer says something like this after a loss, "I feel good about our game. I feel good about our team game, how we’re playing," according to Tom Gulitti after Saturday's game, he's not wrong. The team has been quite good at even strength, the most common situation in a game. The performance level is there, performances usually drive results in the long run, and that's the good news. There's no need to fire a coach or blow up the team. You may know and agree with that but it's worth pointing it out and putting numbers in context to show that.
The bad news is that one of those factors that can undercut a team despite doing well in Fenwick percentage is affecting the 2013 Devils: shooting percentage. The team is shooting at 7.3% over this whole season in 5-on-5 play. It may be bad luck but unless it turns around, it's going to hinder the team in getting results even if they are the more prolific team in generating attempts. But once it does and/or the team picks up, say, a scoring winger who isn't snakebit to help out with the production, the team should be in a good spot to get in. With less than twenty games to go, let's hope that the good sign of positive possession turns into the results we want.