The New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs last season for the first time since the 1995-96 season. The Devils were beset by injuries to a few key players at different points of the season, most notably Zach Parise from November onward with the exception of one game. The Devils had a coach in John MacLean, who was in over his head at best and unable to make the right decisions behind the bench night after night at worst. He got dumped before Christmas, replaced by Jacques Lemaire, who after some trials, helped the Devils play respectable hockey in the second half of the season. But the time under MacLean pretty much guaranteed an early season end. There had to have been problems in the locker room, which ultimately led to the Devils trading Jamie Langenbrunner and somewhat coincidentally playing much better hockey.
In 2011-12, the Devils will have a new head coach, a new captain, and a healthy Zach Parise. Beyond that, the team is mostly the same as the 2010-11 team on paper. There will some shuffling among depth; but they re-signed their two biggest unrestricted free agents this summer: Andy Greene and Johan Hedberg. The top 4 on defense will remain the same and the main issues at forward will be about how to utilize the same forwards who were featured last season along with Parise. Overall questions with the team remain: the lack of offense from the defense and the power play are still overall concerns with the Devils.
Since the Devils didn't make the playoffs and they have not and will not make too many changes to their team, the following is a fair question to ask: Can this team really make the playoffs in 2011-12? Isn't it safe to assume the Devils will only repeat what happened in 2010-11 with largely the same team?
I believe they can if only because I believe will shoot much better than they did last season, when they were flirting with records in futility for shooting percentage at times in 2010-11.
This is something I've went on about at times last season. Three times throughout last season, I've focused on the percentages of veteran forwards specifically to highlight who was shooting well below their career average and who was not. They were horrid when I first did it in November, the percentages got better for a few players in January, and they looked respectable in March. Now that 2010-11 has long since been over, we can confirm that six veterans (I've excised Adam Mair along with the two who left NJ during last season) all shot below their career averages.
|Career Low S%
|Career High S%
|Career Total S%
Please note the listed career low and high shooting percentages were prior to 2010-11. I did this to highlight that only Travis Zajac set a career low in shooting last season, so he really was quite unfortunate. In breaking it down month by month, it's clear that their peak was when the team peaked in getting results (this should not be a surprise) while they struggled early on in the season.
Oh, and Elias' shooting percentage for this season got a big boost at the end of the season. At the same time, Zajac, David Clarkson, and Dainius Zubrus all suffered with "cold" ends. When the veteran forwards who are expected to provide the majority of the offense are struggling, then the team is going to struggle to score. The Devils most certainly did struggle at lighting the lamp. They scored a mere 127 goals scored at even strength (118 at 5-on-5, 9 empty nets) and 171 total goals.
Now, I've cited Gabe Desjardens' posts showing that even strength shooting percentage is driven by transient ability (a.k.a. luck) more than shooting ability or shot location several times. From this, it's clear the 10-11 Devils were unfortunate at getting shots past opposition keepers. Especially in November 2010. To provide further evidence of where I'm coming from, let's focus on team shooting percentage at even strength, the most common game situation in hockey. Here's how the Devils have shot over the last 4 seasons at even strength according to Behind the Net:
|Team ES S%
We know the Devils have been quite good at puck possession last season - especially compared to Our Hated Rivals and under Jacques Lemaire. However, it's undercut when the shooting has been as bad as 6.7%. That's not just the lowest percentage in the league last season or even the lowest of the last four Devils' seasons. It is the lowest in that category Gabe's been tracking in all of the last four seasons. That's some awful luck.
Switching gears to shooting in all situations, Matt's posts on shot location at points of last season really showcased how luck really makes the difference. Amid an awesome 20-2-2 run, they were shooting fewer shots than their season average at the time, yet luck turned their way and so their percentages - read: more goals - jumped up. The game-by-game line graph in shooting percentage is particularly insightful. At the same time this emphasizes how bad the Devils really were, since they finished with the lowest overall shooting percentage in the league at 7.3% in spite of a 24-game awesome run. Oh, and that 7.3% overall shooting percentage was the lowest by a team since the lockout.
In summary, the 2010-11 Devils posted league and team lows in shooting percentage both at even strength and over all situations. Not just within that season, but the lowest for the team and in the league in the last four seasons. It's not impossible, but I would think it's highly unlikely that the Devils will be able to be that unfortunate and futile for a second straight season. Especially since the main changes on offense in 2010-11 were the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk and losing Parise for most of the season. They may not suddenly become super shooters and lead the league in shooting percentage; but they don't have to be among the best shooters in the league. They just have to improve, namely getting back to where they were in prior seasons. For example, what if the Devils had an overall shooting percentage of 8.8%, which was their total from 2009-10, instead of 7.3%? With 2,344 shots on net, that's 206.272 goals. Rounding down to 206, that's a net increase of 35 goals for New Jersey. That would have made the difference in several games last season and quite possibly enough to get them fighting for the playoffs (or if they're fortunate by some other means, secure a spot).
Considering that Gabe found luck drives shooting percentages in the most common situation in hockey, the Devils can benefit on offense with just some more good fortune; just as they did in the three seasons before 2010-11. This doesn't mean the Devils don't have to work to find the right line combinations or better power play strategies. It's just that it's not safe to assume that since the Devils didn't make wholesale changes to their roster, they will repeat the results of last season. Since it does vary, I expect improved shooting percentages from the Devils in 2011-12 in bouncing back from the extreme depths reached in 2010-11.
I know it's rather early to discuss the upcoming season, but let's discuss it anyway. Do you agree with this reasoning? Did I miss something else or overlook some other factor? Do you think the Devils will make the playoffs in 2011-12, but not because of this reasoning? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' playoff hopes and shooting percentage in the comments. Thanks for reading.
Update Post Script: In this comment, Triumph44 pointed out these two other shooting percentages from last season's team, which just drives home the points raised in this point even further:
It’s not even really the best forwards who shot poorly, though they did, it’s everyone else:
the defensemen as a whole shot 3.3%. there were only 66 D who shot lower than that who played 40 or more games last year, out of 197 qualifying D.
steckel, pelley, sestito, mair, s. gionta, zharkov’s combined s%: 2.9%. they scored 7 goals on 239 shots. this, i think, is going to improve. it won’t be good, but i imagine these players and their ilk will shoot around 5% next year.
Let's hope these improve as well as at the top from veteran forwards.