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Looking Closer at the New Jersey Devils' Power Play Issues

Last night, the New Jersey Devils were down 3-1 going into the third period against the New York Islanders. A laser of a slapshot by Ilya Kovalchuk pulled the Devils within one early in the third period and the attack was on. Dwayne Roloson was bombarded with rubber as the Devils did whatever they could to get the equalizer. Dylan Reese of the Islanders high-sticked Zach Parise in the face and drew blood, giving the Devils a four minute power play.  Normally, this is a gift for the team down by one.

But the Devils not only squandered the opportunity, but surrendered a goal against that undercut the comeback effort. Sure, Blake Comeau tacked on a minor with 50 seconds left to leave a short 5-on-3 and an abbreviated 5-on-4, but again, the Devils didn't do much with.  Of the 21 shots the Devils had in the third period, about 4 of them came on the power play that lasted over 5 minutes in that same period.

That's a problem.  And it's not a new one.  On Wednesday, the Devils' offense showed up, made Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins work all night long, and scored 3 goals. Yet, when Craig Adams took a 5 minute major penalty for a hit from behind on Martin Skoula; the Devils' offense shrunk out there and only put a few shots on net.  A later power play in the second period looked a little better but yielded later.

The power play for the New Jersey Devils has been frustrating to watch, considering the personnel involved.  With another week of four games, surely, power play opportunities will come up for New Jersey. Let's discuss what the problems are in more detail in the hopes of finding some root cause to their power play struggles.

The Current Power Play Situation

Let's focus on the last 6 games, the ones after the Olympic break.  Here's how the Devils have done on the power play in each of those games:

3/2 at San Jose: 1-for-3 (4:06); 5 shots on net; PPG scored by Ilya Kovalchuk, assisted by Zach Parise, Travis Zajac; Other Devils on Ice: Andy Greene, Jamie Langenbrunner

3/5 at Calgary: 1-for-4 (5:27); 5 shots on net, PPG scored by Zach Parise; assisted by Jamie Langenbrunner, Travis Zajac; Other Devils on Ice: Brian Rolston, Ilya Kovalchuk

3/8 at Edmonton: 0-for-1 (2:00), 0 shots on net

3/10 vs NY Rangers: 1-for-2 (2:15), 3 shots on net; PPG scored by Zach Parise, assisted by Dainius Zubrus, Travis Zajac; Other Devils on Ice: Brian Rolston, Ilya Kovalchuk

3/12 vs Pittsburgh: 0-for-4 (9:20), 8 shots on net

3/13 at NY Islanders: 0-for-4 (7:11), 5 shots on net

That's a total of 18 power play opportunities, 3 were converted for goals, and 23 shots were put on net.  All three goals involved the Devils putting at least 4 forwards on the ice, with Parise, Zajac, and Kovalchuk all present.  In fact, Parise has scored two of them off rebounds with the only other one being Kovalchuk's wrist shot from the point.

Generally, most teams will use the power play to set up an excellent shot as opposed to what they would normally do on even strength situations. With the opposition short a defender, this is desirable and understandable.  So bombing pucks away just isn't a smart option.  This can include, but is not limited to, cross-ice passes for one-timers, clogging the slot to open up the shot at the point, and just jamming the puck in deep.  Nevertheless, the team has averaged 1.278 shots per power play.  It's clear that not only are they not scoring power play goals, but they aren't setting up enough good shots regardless of how well they have performed offensively in 5-on-5 hockey.

In general, Lemaire tends to throw Kovalchuk usually at the point, either ZZ Pops (Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner) or ZZZ (Parise-Zajac-Zubrus), and either Brian Rolston or Andy Greene at the point on the first unit.  Especially on special situations like a 5-on-3 or a power play longer than two minutes, Lemaire will put out five forwards.  Kovalchuk tends to stay on throughout the power play when other forwards come in to spell the initial unit.

Per Tom Gulitti's comment in this post at Fire & Ice (discussing the power play, incidentally), the Devils practice the power play regularly. They even worked on it today.  The issue isn't that they have neglected it in practice - that can be eliminated.  As reported here by Gulitti, Jacques Lemaire is concerned about the unit, just as much as we are as observers:

"We have to work at it to see the options that we have," Lemaire said. "See when it’s time to shoot, when to pass, what’s available, what’s not."

Lemaire conceded the power play is the team’s biggest problem right now.

"We’re losing games because of this," he said. "At least if you don’t score, you cannot give up a goal."

Lemaire said he would "probably" continue using five forwards at times on 5-on-4 power plays. He had Ilya Kovalchuk and Brian Rolston on the points again during today’s practice.

Now, I don't agree that the power play has led to a loss, but it certainly hasn't helped New Jersey a lot as of late.

Tactical Issues & Suggestions

What troubles me is that Lemaire says that he'll continue to use 5 forwards on the power play.  With what was seen in the last two games, I really don't think this is a good idea.  For one thing, it basically puts all of the Devils' offensive talent into one basket.   On paper, a unit featuring Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Travis Zajac alone should be frightening to play against. Moreso when you add in Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Rolston, Dainius Zubrus, David Clarkson, or Patrik Elias.  Basically, the top forwards on the team.

The good news is that despite the Devils not having a defenseman to run the point, the Devils do have enough forwards who can handle themselves well on the power play.  There's Kovalchuk, Parise, Zajac, Elias, Langenbrunner, Zubrus, Clarkson, and Rolston.  That's eight forwards, each with differing skill-sets. Surely, two units could be created out of this group?  Greene and Anssi Salmela are capable enough on defense to handle a man advantage. When Paul Martin returns, that's another defenseman available.  The point is that the Devils aren't short on personnel.

However, it's not clear what the plan is to utilize all of them.  Kovalchuk and Rolston have excellent slapshots, so do the Devils employ an umbrella strategy?  Zubrus, Clarkson, Langenbrunner, Zajac, and Parise are excellent down low, so do they try to overload the slot and just crash the crease?  Elias, Kovalchuk, Langenbrunner, and Zajac have good vision and can set up good passes (Elias being the best at it), so do they just set along the side boards to look for passing lanes?

To me, this leads to two major issues: it is not clear who should be on what unit and the Devils don't have a specific approach to their power play.

I feel that the two issues go hand-in-hand.  For one chance, we can see Parise-Zajac-Zubrus-Kovalchuk-Rolston and on the next power play it could be Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner-Kovalchuk-Greene.  Granted, I understand fatigue and individual performance (e.g. if Zubrus is having a great game, give him more minutes) plays a role, but I think it's undercutting what the Devils are doing. 

We can immediately ask questions about the power play right from the get-go.  For example: If Rolston and Kovalchuk are on the point, then who's the primary target at the point?  Who's leading the breakout to get into the zone?  Are they dumping and chasing or is one man going to carry it over the line, draw attention, and dish it off to someone else? Will there be Devils trying to set up screens or play off the slot for rebounds?   I don't know, you don't know, and the answers (and the questions) by the team change from power play to power play, game to game.   Because the units change by one or two people, it changes the approach and so an aggressive penalty kill can just stand at the blueline and be prepared for the rush up ice - figuring out what the Devils are doing and reacting faster than the Devils can employ their tactic.  

On the Devils' side, this all leads to just struggling to get into any kind of rhythm among their power play units.  This puts Lemaire in a tough spot - if something doesn't work, generally you make a change.  At the same time, too many changes lead to the situation where the Devils are. Despite all the talent at forward, there isn't much in sync because it isn't clear what they're trying to do each time.  Therefore, there's a team with the talent to put together a great power play on paper, but when opportunities arrive, our expectations are dashed by the team struggling to set up shots, much less score goals.  Those are man advantages wasted, fans and a team frustrated, and momentum handed right back to the other team.

I don't believe the Devils are going to be able to be consistently threatening on a power play, much less score more goals, until roles are defined and a plan is set.  If this means an umbrella plan where Kovalchuk bombs away and the forwards try to pick up the loose puck, then fine.  If this means an overload strategy where ZZ Pops can cycle down low to open up passing and shooting lanes, then fine.  But right now, I couldn't tell you what the Devils try to do on the power play given what they've done all season.  The answer to that is simple: define units, set a plan, try it out, and then make adjustments accordingly.

The lack of a power play identity becomes a larger problem during a longer power play, where giving the first unit a long shift undercuts the second's ability to set something up. This tires out the first group so they have to rest longer and the second unit is some mish-mash of other players available trying to pick up where the first unit went wrong.  An additional problem is that Kovalchuk has been seen on the ice throughout entire power plays.  He's a fantastic offensive talent, he has many skills, but I don't feel he's being used to his fullest by giving him the long shifts on man advantages.  It's one thing to tell him to run the point, but the Devils have multiple players who can do a decent enough job for the second unit - if only just to keep the puck in the zone and distribute the puck.  He shouldn't have to play on both units with the number of players available.  Yet, he does.

So what can be done?  Again, Lemaire needs to clearly define who is on both power play units, what their roles are, and how they will conduct themselves going into the offensive zone and how they will set themselves up.   I personally don't have any preference as to how they are set up except that I don't think there should be any more 5 forward units.  I feel it's an issue of too many cooks in the kitchen, players' styles clashing with each other in a situation where they should be meshing together.  This can be addressed by Lemaire and the coaching staff.

What the players themselves can do, I think, is simpler: relax.  It's very weird that the Devils can have 7 minutes of power play time against Pittsburgh, put up maybe 4 or 5 shots on the power play, and then put 14-15 shots in even strength.  That tells me that the New Jersey players on the power play tend to get tentative and start feeling the pressure. I don't know what else it could be given a period like that; it was the same way in the third period against the Islanders (4-5 shots on the power play out of 21 total in the period). 

The pressure to make the most of the power play, to take full advantage, and it just gets to them, which I think leads to poor passes, poor puck movement into the zone, and indecision to shoot.  Again, I don't want the Devils to fire away indiscriminately - that will just lead to lots of shots with no goals either (or a ton of blocked shots). I just want them to stop playing so nervously on the man advantage. Perhaps that alone will lead to at least more consistently threatening power plays. 

Once the Devils can do that, the goals will come and what has been an issue for the Devils in 2010 could become a strength.  When and how they will do it, I don't know.  I would imagine, like most things, it won't happen overnight or just by sheer luck.  From my perspective, all we as fans can do is hope they figure that out.  I've offered my take, I'm sure you have your own thoughts that you'll kindly place in the comments.