Over the past week or so, I've looked at the basic defensive stats of the 2009-10 New Jersey Devils as well as the team's power play and penalty kill performances. Through those posts, I've been trying to highlight what the real needs the Devils have going into this summer. While the power play played a part, I think it's fair to say the Devils' offense demands further improvement. That we've witnessed a postseason where the Devils put a whopping 9 goals on Brian Boucher really highlights the issue of offense.
It also doesn't help that the Devils haven't been one of the league's highest scoring teams since the halcyon years of 1999-2001. Then, the Devils averaged 3 goals or more per game. Since 2001, the Devils have never finished higher than 14th in the league in terms of goals per game; never higher than 2.9 per game in 2008-09. Incidentally, the Devils finished this season at 2.63 goals per game, 19th highest in the NHL.
This isn't to say the Devils didn't try to do anything different this season. Right off the top of my head, I can tell you a number of efforts to spark the goal production. Most notably, Lou Lamoriello swung a big deal for Ilya Kovalchuk with the intent to bolster the offense, one of the top scorers in the league (and per Derek Zona's analysis at the Copper & Blue, faces tough minutes doing it). Also, Jacques Lemaire utilize his top forwards moreso than the last head coach, Brent Sutter. In addition to Lemaire giving Kovalchuk an average of 21:40 per game. Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Jamie Langenbrunner all saw an increase of at least a minute to their average ice time between 2009-10 and 2008-09. There's more than that, but it's beside the point. It's all about results, so let's break them down and see what we can learn.
Month by Month Breakdown
I recorded the goals scored, shots on net for, and shot percentage in all 87 games - regular season and playoffs - and broke it down by month into this chart. I also split up the numbers between 2009 and 2010 as well as before and after Kovalchuk's arrival.
At first glance, the trend for the overall scoring seems to fall in line to the success of the power play in 2009-10. A summary: Calender year 2009 really drove the number; the best months were November and December; January saw a huge slump; February wasn't much better; and a short April really provided a last boost to overall numbers before the playoffs came and it all went up in smoke.
One positive is that the scoring did improve - the shots on net didn't - after Kovalchuk. Given how horrid January was, making the deal in February made sense. After going through (escaping?) 2009 without getting shut out, the Devils' offense proceeded to lay goose eggs three times in January. While they managed to put shots on net, they didn't lead to goals for a variety of reasons from game to game. Given that it lasted for most of the month and carried over into February, help was clearly needed. Going out and adding a scorer is a reasonable response to the problem. Did it pay off right away? No, but eventually the team stopped slumping and Kovalchuk's production - 27 points in 27 games - looks like it did bring in some help.
Of course, when Kovalchuk arrived, the Devils started to get more players back from injury and back into form as well. Perhaps that had something to do with it. Surely, if Patrik Elias was healthy all season, then he'd have contributed more goals and assists. Were Dainius Zubrus or David Clarkson (among others) not to suffer injuries, they could have chipped in more secondary scoring. You wouldn't have these periods of time where not only is the player out but he needs some time after returning to get back into his role and performing like he normally does. Given the number and magnitude of some of the injuries, I don't think it's an unreasonable contributor.
However, can we fully fault injuries since most of them occurred in the end of October and during November, where the Devils really peaked in this past season on offense? Yes, April had better numbers, but that was a 6-game month where a 7-1 win over the Islanders really drove the goals for per game number (the shot count was consistently high, though). The Devils really stuck out in November - especially with that 10.31% shooting percentage.
In fact, the shooting percentage values in general really intrigues me.
Shooting Percentage & the Devils
What is considered to be a good shooting percentage? Let's see how the 2009-10 Devils stack up with the Devils of previous teams:
The Devils teams of 1997-2001 were excellent in this regard - not only were they among league leaders in goals, but their shooting percentages were great. However, after that ridiculous 2000-01 season where the Devils were aces at both ends of the rink, we can see that the mean seems to bear out at about 8.74%. Assuming that is the true mean, this year's team dipped a bit closer to that compared to 2008-09. Given how the shooting percentage improved after Kovalchuk's arrival, perhaps it's fairer to say he played a role in getting the Devils back to shooting where they were?
As an aside: Kovalchuk overall had a good 2009-10 with 41 goals in 290 shots - a shooting percentage of 14.1%. His shooting percentage over his career really highlights how good he is, as his worst number in a season is 12.0% - which was excellent, as he still managed 41 goals that season. However, did you know that in his time in New Jersey, Kovalchuk's shooting percentage dipped below 10%, all the way down to 9%? Ouch. Maybe he didn't help as much as I thought he would. If you felt that Kovalchuk should have scored more, then you're not totally wrong in feeling that. One more thing: Given that his career shooting percentage at 14.8%, don't be surprised if he "regresses to his mean" and he puts up many more goals in 2010-11. Where he does it is a concern. OK, aside over.
From a macro view such as this, you may conclude that if the Devils are going to be at about 8.7% as a team, one answer for more goals is to get more shots. That's possible, though the 2002-03 team may argue against that notion. Perhaps the Devils should look for players who haven't had such great 2009-10 seasons but could rebound based on their shooting percentage instead?
That may be a cheaper option, as the Devils have a few players who fit that description. I've already covered Kovalchuk in my aside, but this would include the team's leading scorer Zach Parise. He went down from 12.4% to 11% in this past season, as his goals dropped from 46 to 38 with only 17 fewer shots. Jamie Langenbrunner shot at 12.7% to put up a career high of 29 in 08-09, but then fell down to earth hard with a shooting percentage of 8.3% (19 goals on 228 shots, one fewer than 08-09). And why not Brian Rolston? After Brian Rolston went three years in Minnesota with shooting percentages above 10%, he put up 8.6% in each of his two years in New Jersey - I doubt he'll get back up to that level but a rebound year wouldn't be totally surprising if it happened.
Likewise, remember those injured players I mentioned in the last section? Well, I specifically named Elias, Zubrus, and Clarkson on purpose not just because they are offensive players. Elias finished the season with a higher shooting percentage, as he went up from 12.6% to 13.1%. Zubrus was more or less consistent, as his shooting percentage went up a bit from 11.5% to 11.6%. Clarkson only dipped by less than a half of a percent, from 10.8% to 10.4%. If all three were around for a full season, they not only would have had more shots on net but more goals to go with it provided they stayed around their respective shooting percentages. It's an area where the loss of a player is hurt, the potential scoring is lost.
Granted, this isn't to say that these players should do nothing at all and they'll suddenly get more goals. By shooting percentage, it would suggest that if they worked as hard as they did 2009-10 then they may get a few more bounces and breaks that could see them get some more goals. Of course, it could work out in the opposite direction, too - but I'd caution on the side where the mean is anyway.
Now About Those Playoffs
So let's consider the playoffs: 9 goals on 135 shots. Yes, the Devils' shooting average dropped in the postseason; yes, they got blocked like woah partially due to some strong defending by the Flyers and partially due to some questionable shooting decisions; and yes, the Devils seemingly lost their finish.
Interestingly, I'm not convinced that the Flyers kept the Devils to the outside all that much. Not that it didn't happen, but it wasn't as constant as I thought originally. Gabe Desjardins of Behind the Net calculated the expected shooting percentage based on shot location in even strength and power play situations in both the 09-10 season and the first round of the playoffs. Here's how it breaks down for the Devils.
Feel free to contact Gabe about his methodology, but he's collected a ton of data to determine expected shooting percentage by location on the ice. I'm going to take it at it's face value. And at face value, it's really fascinating. The Devils shot as well as expected on the power play in the regular season (shoot more then!), but not at all in other areas. If the Flyers really did such a great job making the Devils shoot from bad positions, then wouldn't their expected shooting percentage have dropped much more than just .06 at even strength? Wouldn't their penalty kill have provided some drop at all?
This isn't to say that the Flyers defense wasn't good - they were. Yet, the sheer amount of shooting attempts by the Devils dwarfed the Flyers, leading one to believe that the Devils weren't in such awful spots to shoot all the time. Confirmation bias is at the root of that thought. This is to say that the Devils offense really underperformed.
I would also like to suggest - key word: suggest - that the Devils' inefficiency on shooting attempts just added fuel to the fire.
Again, not much you can do about some of those blocks and misses; but in general, the Devils really suffered. I wasn't surprised at how the one game they win is the one where they definitively get most of their shooting attempts on net. Even if the lower shooting percentages held true as Gabe calculated, more of those shots going on net would seemingly result in more goals, no?
Of course, we can argue endlessly over the root cause as to how the Devils compiled such poor shots on goal relative to attempts and a low shooting percentage. The reality is that there's not much that can be done. These are pro hockey players, it's not as if they don't know about playing in high-pressure situations or shooting pucks. Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Ilya Kovalchuk, Brian Rolston, Jamie Langenbrunner et. al. collectively had a bad series at shooting and so the goal production went south. Since they were repelled so much, the defense and goaltending needed to be perfect. It wasn't and that just led to more desperation on offense, a not-uncommon concept as Gabe proved here, and that desperation played into Philly's hands and not into goals. What they needed were more shots on net but they didn't get that - a higher Corsi than the the Flyers, sure, but not shots on net regardless of whether they'd "challenge" Boucher or not.
One More Thing: This Offense was Top Heavy
I'll be brief (really!). Here was the final top 6 of the Devils' season: Parise-Elias-Zubrus, Kovalchuk-Zajac-Langenbrunner. As Devils, these 6 combined for 121 goals, or 56% of the team's offense 2009-10.
Earlier, I've shown that the defense was definitely not contributing all that much. The blueline collectively contributed 24 goals, or 11.1%. That number reduces to 22 if you exclude the traded Johnny Oduya. The bottom six helped out with the remaining 76. However, 13 of those goals came from Niclas Bergfors, who was traded. And among the other 53, Brian Rolston (20) and David Clarkson (11) were the majority of that - helped out by the fact that those two did spend time up on the top two lines at points during 2009-10. The other forwards chipped in 21 goals and 18 of those came from Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond, two free agents for this summer.
My point? Maybe it's standard throughout the league, but there definitely is room for improvement in that department. Until there is, the Devils' offense will still largely come from the top two lines and whatever Rolston and Clarkson can chip in.
Well, it was a lot to take in. Let me summarize the main points.
The Devils' scoring is tied to shooting percentage of their players. Some players who scored quite a bit in 2008-09 that drove the Devils to put up 238 saw their shooting percentages regress and so they couldn't match production. Some players got injured and so couldn't contribute even though their shooting percentages were quite good, that had an effect on production.
Based on shooting percentage, the Devils could just improve in scoring if Parise, Zajac, Langenbrunner, Elias, Zubrus, and Clarkson put in similar efforts on the ice to create and take shots as they did in 09-10 and stay healthy. Not to mention Kovalchuk, who could really put up a lot of goals if he gets back to his usual shooting percentage. It sounds far-fetched, but there's not a lot of reason to blow up the top forwards and replace them wholesale. Parise and Langenbrunner "regressing" to their means would yield more goals alone.
Likewise, based on the expected shooting percentage by shot location figures Gabe put together, the Devils weren't in bad spots in the playoffs - they were more unfortunate (among other variables) than anything else to not have scored more. That said, their shooting attempts served to hurt them further along with the low shooting percentage.
Given how the scoring behind the top 6 broke down in 2009-10, some additional scoring depth would be desirable. Replacing Kovalchuk if he is not retained will, of course, be necessary. In that case or otherwise, the Devils shouldn't look for a forward who just hit a high in shooting percentage as it's likely he'll regress down like Parise and Langenbrunner did. They should look for someone who is consistent or did a little worse than he normally does and reap the rewards of extra goals.
Ultimately, the answer to the Devils' offense isn't necessarily just to shoot more, drive up the Corsi values, sign a player who broke out in terms of production (e.g. Tomas Plekanec), or get a different coach (well, this is inevitable anyway), all have their merits and contribute in their own way. The real key will be to figure out how to get the shooting percentage of the team up truly above it's mean. Not just for a month or so, since that's usually followed up by a slump - but consistently enough.
Anyway, feel free to criticize this as you see fit. Maybe I missed something obvious. Maybe something doesn't make sense. I just feel that by looking at the scoring and shooting percentage, we can surmise whether the Devils truly need to make sweeping changes. In my opinion, the only real big concern I have is the potential replacement for Kovalchuk and scoring depth. This isn't to say I think that meeting those concerns, getting an offensive/two-way defenseman, a replacement for Rob Niedermayer, and a coach who excells special teams will satisfy all of the Devils' needs. There's a few more than that.
But let's discuss that tomorrow. Thanks for reading this post and please comment on your opinion about the team's scoring and shooting percentage issues.