The New Jersey Devils are not an elite team, they're about an average squad. Now that the NHL season has hit a break for All Star Game, the Devils are sitting in eighth in the East and are in a five-way tie in the NHL (13th through 17th) with 55 points. They've got more wins than losses and OT/SO losses; but it's not by much either overall (26-19-3), at home (12-9-2), or on the road (14-10-1). Devils fans want to know whether his team is really going to be pushing hard to stay atop of the playoff bubble from January 31 onward. The fear is that they'll struggle. I couldn't tell you; I don't know what the future will hold. Although, I doubt the Devils will be making a push for elite status any time in the near future.
The main reason I'm confident in my doubts is possession. The Devils have done a very good job preventing shots, but they don't generate a lot of them. According to Behind the Net's situational stats in 5-on-5 situations, their SA/60 rate is the third lowest rate in the league at 26.2; but their SF/60 rate is only a little better at 26.7 - the fourth lowest rate in the league. If the Devils want to get more wins and really help themselves out in their drive to make the playoffs, then the team would be wise to get the puck more and out-attempt teams more often. When a team controls the puck, it means the opposition isn't attacking and it's further opportunity to get on the board. It's no accident that the true elite teams in the league, like Detroit, Boston, and St. Louis, are ahead of a vast majority of the NHL when it comes to possession.
How can the Devils increase their ways? Well, we need to identify how the skaters are used by the coaches and how they're doing. Back in the middle of November, I took a look at how Peter DeBoer was utilizing the forwards and defensemen. With the data at Behind the Net, I charted their adjusted Corsi rates on an axis defined by their defensive zone start percentage and their quality of competition. The graphs showed who was taking on tougher competition, who got favorable zone starts, and how they were doing in those spots. That was after 17 games into the season. Now that the team is heading into the toughest part of the regular season, it's a good time as any to identify who's doing well and who needs help. The updated graphs and analysis are after the jump.
The following graphs are bubble graphs based on data from the even strength data at Behind the Net.. The two axes are for quality of competition as defined by Corsi Rel QoC, and defensive zone start percentage. The size of the bubble is determined by on-ice Corsi adjusted for zone start. The larger the bubble, the higher the Corsi value is away from zero. Red bubbles indicate negative adjusted Corsi values, which are bad; blue bubbles indicate positive adjusted Corsi values, which are good. All stats are for 5-on-5 situations.
The following charts include all Devils who have played at least 10 games this season to filter out players who have only been in limited action. This means Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson aren't here; but Tim Sestito and Nick Palmieri are included. I did include Kurtis Foster, though some his numbers may have been skewed from his time in Anaheim; but I left out Alexei Ponikarovsky since he just played two games as a Devil.
Let's start with the 14 forwards who met the criteria:
That's a lot of red, which means most of the forwards have been negative players on the ice. Actually, only five forwards on the Devils had positive on-ice Corsi values: Petr Sykora (15), Patrik Elias (26), Dainius Zubrus (8), Ilya Kovalchuk (17), and Zach Parise (9). Adam Henrique was exactly at zero. However, after adjustment for zone starts, Kovalchuk fell below zero since he's been getting favorable zone starts; Henrique got an incredibly slight bump to just get to .079 adjusted Corsi/60; and Parise is just at .003. That's not a great group of numbers from the Henrique line, but it is an improvement over where they were 17 games into the season. Back then, they were solidly negative when it came to shooting attempts. They've pulled themselves up a bit; perhaps it's a sign that the line has grown. Incidentally, I think Kovalchuk's lower defensive zone start percentage may be a function of his double-shifting on the fourth line - which does not and should not start in their own end of the rink.
The Elias line remains the team's top possession line and the one forward line that regularly takes on the toughest competition. While their Corsi rates have lessened, they're still positive and that's very good considering who they normally play against. Curiously, their zone starts have remained fairly balanced, as all three are hovering around 50%. I suppose that speaks to how they're utilized and possibly where they end up on the ice. In any case, this data tells me that these three should stay together whenever possible because of their possession success over 48 games. Many teams go "power for power" in their match-ups, and the Elias line has been and will likely continue to be New Jersey's power line.
It stands to reason that the top six forwards are well above zero in terms of competition, in clusters along the competition axis. The Elias line is ahead of the other forwards; the Henrique line follows behind; and then there's the mess that is the bottom six. The third line was a little below zero in terms of competition, which is expected since it is a third line, but they really fell in terms of possession. Earlier in the season, Ryan Carter (20), Mattias Tedenby (21), and David Clarkson (23) earned some measure of success in terms of Corsi. Now, they're well below zero. Clarkson comes out looking the best by way of being the least negative; but after him it gets ugly. Mattias Tedenby has been protected and shuffled throught the lineup, and he's been a net-negative player regardless. At some point, a player's got to show he can be an asset and being on the ice to defend more than attacking doesn't really do that. Those flashes of good play like winning pucks along the boards or making a good pass just aren't enough and this just shows it. Carter hasn't been too much better. While I could point out that Carter at least has taken more defensive zone starts than the rest of the forwards, the fact that he remains solidly in the red after adjusting for those one starts speaks to his lack of effectiveness at driving the play. No wonder the Devils acquired Ponikarovsky.
But those three look like Elias compared to the rest of the group. Nick Palmieri (12) got lesser competition than Tedenby overall, he was moved around the lineup more, and he ended up being far worse than Tedenby in this regard. In fact, he's got the third lowest adjusted Corsi/60 among all forwards in this group; it's no surprise he's down with Albany. Tim Sestito (18) played against some of the weakest competition on the team and suffered slightly more than Tedenby. Believe it or not, his energy didn't benefit the team.
Then there's the beef, which has been simply rotten this season. If you learn nothing else, then understand how pitiful the fourth line regulars have been (feel free to include Sestito if you want). Brad Mills (11) and Cam Janssen (25) are in the quadrant where the competition is weak and the zone starts are very favorable and they both have played limited minutes. Eric Boulton (22) would be there too except he's received balanced zone starts somehow. Yet, all three players are just giant negatives when it comes to pushing the play. I know, big surprise. If you wonder why I and some others applaud when Boulton or Janssen gets a shot on net, it's because that they rarely get the puck in the opponent's end of the rink to get there. It really is an event when they do something productive because they've been clearly on the opposite end. Maybe Lou should have kept Adam Mair and Andrew Peters; it's not like they could be doing worse than Janssen & Boulton.
In short: the top six forwards are really carrying the rest of the bunch from a possession, competition, and production standpoint. I think the team would get a massive boost if DeBoer can construct a third line that can produce and get the play going forward more often while pushing the Elias and Henrique lines to succeed. The acquisition of Ponikarovsky can help out the most in that regard. It would also be great if DeBoer can put a fourth line together that doesn't suck so badly. While most fourth liners may not be positive players, they can certainly be better than the black holes wearing #25 and #22.
What about the defenders? With the inclusion of Foster and the extended call-up of Matt Taormina, eight defensemen are featured on the following chart:
Due to injuries, DeBoer has been forced to be more even handed with the defensemen. Whereas the forwards beyond the fourth liners were clustered together along the competition axis, only one defender has been given weak competition: Foster (2). Even Taormina (22) got above zero in Corsi Rel QoC, though he's incredibly protected with respect to zone starts. This shouldn't be a surprise. Henrik Tallinder (7) has taken on tough competition and tough zone starts and he's been out injured twice this season. This has come while Andy Greene (6), a veteran blueliner, has been out as well. That's two players who play big minutes and not necessarily weak minutes out and that's a void that had to have been filled by others.
Those two injuries also highlight the lack of puck-moving defensemen on the team. Not that Greene was doing great or that Tallinder was exceptional (though he was positive in Corsi prior to the team learning he had blood clots), but the only defenseman on the team getting it done regularly has been Mark Fayne (29). Yes, that Mark Fayne. Like Tallinder, he starts more often in his own end and he's not usually going up against the other team's scrubs. Like Tallinder, he comes out ahead. Unlike Tallinder, Fayne was winning his match-ups earlier in the season and now, whereas Tallinder had to rebound quite a bit. Moreover, Fayne's healthy. I hope he remains healthy because while Fayne won't be an all-star anytime soon, I don't want to think how the defense will do without him.
Anton Volchenkov (28) is the most interesting bubble here. By no means is he an offensive player and he curiously doesn't get a lot of ice time at even strength. Still, he starts in his own end so much that his Corsi rate gets him closer to the breakeven point than the rest of the blueline behind Fayne and Tallinder. I wonder why he's not being given more minutes like Bryce Salvador (24)? Salvador is also not an offensive player, but he's been more negative despite a little weaker competition and more favorable starts than Volchenkov. Salvador has seen a noticeable increase in competition than earlier this season, so he's been called upon to fill in for Greene and Tallinder to a point. While Salvador hasn't been bad, one has to question whether the team could do better from within. I think DeBoer can at least consider giving #28 some more minutes unless there's something else going on with his game.
Adam Larsson (5) might be a very good puck-moving defender, but right now he's a rookie. He's given a lot of ice time but he's not totally thrown into the fire given his zone starts and average competition. This is a big improvement over where he was 17 games into the season; it's a sign that DeBoer has increased his responsibilities. Larsson's negative, but that's adjusted after zone starts. Without the adjustment, he's just above zero. As Larsson goes through the peaks and valleys of a rookie season, he'll fluctuate. That said, it's good that he isn't so deep in the red that he can't possibly get much better after undergoing half of a regular season. With Tallinder out, it'll be interesting to see whether Larsson continues an increase in competition or defensive zone starts. He won't be like Fayne in terms of usage, but I don't think he'll slip to how Foster's used either either.
As for the new-ish defenders, Taormina (32) has been protected per zone starts and somehow has faced the same level of competition as Salvador. Taormina's been just a little better than Salvador in possession, but the zone start percentage being so low suggests that Taormina isn't quite there. Then there is Foster, who hasn't been really good at evens in spite of being protected in both competition and one starts. I don't think this should be too much of a surprise. After all, he was traded for Mark Fraser and Rod Pelley.
The return of Greene should help out the defense if only to get another veteran back in action. It would be a big boost if he can get the play driving forward because only Fayne is doing it right now and it's not good to only have one active defensemen not be negative in possession. I think DeBoer should consider giving Volchenkov some more responsibility and possibly scale Salvador back a bit. Let's hope Fayne stays healthy, Larsson keeps improving, and the rest aren't terrible.
Since the 17-game mark, there's been some improvement (e.g. the Henrique line, Tallinder pre-blood clot-injury), some continued disappointment (e.g. fourth liners, only one active defenseman positive in adjusted Corsi), and some dips in effectiveness (e.g. the third line, the Elias line for a little bit). Overall, it's clear that the a majority of the defense and at least half of the forwards aren't pushing the play forward. This is happening despite with DeBoer splitting up competition as sensible as possible among the forward lines and injuries forcing DeBoer's hand on defense. While not everyone can or should be like Elias or Fayne, the Devils are going to remain average if there's no improvement. The negative players can at least strive to be less negative, those closer to zero can push for positivity, and those positive players should strive to be even better at out-attempting their opponents. Otherwise, it's going to take some good fortune (among other things) for the New Jersey Devils to be more than average. They may not get to be elite and they can remain about average and still get into the postseason. But why should they settle for that when improvement isn't impossible and is in their best interests?
Did this confirm what you thought and saw how DeBoer uses his players, or did they go against what you thought and saw? Based on these results after 48 games, what would you like DeBoer to do differently? Who's improvement impressed you? Who are you disappointed in for not improving or getting worse? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on how DeBoer has been utilizing the Devils' skaters this season in the comments. Thanks again to the wizardry of Derek Zona and Erik T for the original inspiration back in November; and thank you for reading.