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Devils and Their Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Power Play

The New Jersey Devils don't have the worst power play conversion rate but they're dead last at shots on net and shooting attempts in 5-on-4 play. This post discusses the issues that have led to their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad power play to start this season.

While this picture wasn't during a Devils power play, the facial expressions of Marc Staal and Jaromir Jagr here represent what it's like watching the power play.
While this picture wasn't during a Devils power play, the facial expressions of Marc Staal and Jaromir Jagr here represent what it's like watching the power play.
Drew Hallowell

On Saturday night, the Rock got to witness something almost as rare as a win from the New Jersey Devils within the first month of the 2013-14 season. A power play goal. Michael Ryder fired a shot from above the high slot. The shot got through a screen set by Rostislav Olesz and past Henrik Lundqvist to make it 3-0 New Jersey. Here's the video in case you'd like to relive that moment.

As nice as the set-up was, it's been unfamiliar so far this season. Ryder's lamplighter was only the third power play goal scored by the Devils this season. Only their second in 5-on-4 play, the most common of power play situations. Disregarding Sunday's games, the goal moved the Devils' overall conversion rate to 11.5%, putting them in a tie with Boston for the fifth-lowest conversion rate in the league. Yes, there are four teams that have been more woeful: Philadelphia, Buffalo, Vancouver, and Anaheim.

Nevertheless, 3-for-26 is still crummy. What makes it worse is that the underlying numbers paint an even more disturbing picture. Those four teams with worse conversion rates can at least feel good that they're getting pucks on net. The Devils have struggled at doing just that. According to the team's 5-on-4 stats at Extra Skater, the Devils have put only 16 shots on net out of 39 attempts with a man advantage. Just sixteen shots out of just 39 attempts! The second-worst team in the league in shots on net, Calgary, has twelve more shots than the Devils. The second-worst team in the league in attempts, Our Hated Rivals, has eleven more shooting attempts than New Jersey. The Devils aren't just in dead last at creating offense on the power play but they're significantly behind twenty-ninth place. Also: the Devils have allowed ten shots on net, the most out of any team in 5-on-4 situations prior to Sunday's games. It's bad when the power play's silver lining is that they haven't allowed any shorthanded goals. Needless to say, this is an issue with the team.

While the Devils may not be able to put together an awesome power play that will make opposition coaches and fans shake in their shoes every time there's a call against their team, they can be better than this. But it's going to take several changes and improvements in multiple areas. Let's start with how they're setting up. Look back at that Ryder goal video I embedded. As Ryder gets the puck, you can see the formation the team's first unit is in: a 1-3-1. The Devils have tried to get into that formation on past occasions, though it's hard to find video of it due to the team's lack of success. For the unaware, the 1-3-1 has one man at the center of the area in front of the blueline, three across the zone about where the dots are, and one man down low. J.P. has a more detailed explanation on how it works over at Japers' Rink. I suspect they're doing this because it worked for Washington last season. The problem is that the Devils are struggling with what make it works and that has to do with personnel and usage.

What really made the 1-3-1 so threatening by Washington was the play of Alex Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro. Ribeiro hung out from behind the net, directing the play as he saw fit. He's a good enough passer and play maker and since he's behind the net, few penalty killers would go after him. If any did, then he hit that opening. Ovechkin has such an explosive shot and he's so mobile that he could adjust where he is on the right side, bombing pucks all day long. The other Caps personnel were good enough to keep pucks in play instead of getting torched. The Devils don't have a man behind the net; they don't have an Ovechkin-like player on either wing to set up for if nothing's working; and the Devils' personnel on the first unit has Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky among the wings (Zidlicky sometimes at the point), hardly great keepers of the puck. I get why Dave Barr has tried it but Ryder's goal aside, it clearly hasn't been producing. The shot totals, or lack there of, say it all. As for the second unit, who even knows what their plan is sometimes. More on them in a bit.

Of course, some of the major issues for the lack of offense by the Devils' power play comes before either unit can set up in their formation. Zone entries have just been a challenge. It would be one thing if it's the first game of the season or there's some brand new players who are still figuring out what's going on. But even in a game where the Devils have been able to gain the opposition's zone with ease at even strength - think the 5-2 loss to Ottawa - the power play has found a way to make it look difficult. Sometimes they'll try to play some one in on the side boards, but the pass would be off or the player doesn't have the support for a second pass when a PK'er comes over to defend. Sometimes a puck carrier will try to carry the puck into the zone themselves, only to get defended immediately among the crowd and have to dump it away. Occasionally, the Devils will go for a dump-and-chase, which is a dumb idea. Not every zone entry is going to be a success and I understand that a penalty kill usually has a team's most defensive-minded players to make it hard. I respect that the other team is doing their job. But the Devils continue to have this problem once the other team gets a clearance with both units. When they can't get that right, watching the Devils trying to do so not only mean that they're not able to set their players up, much less take a shooting attempt. It's like pulling teeth.

It's not just the X's and the O's, but also the Jimmy's and the Joe's. The Devils have tried to go with four forwards - Jagr, Travis Zajac, Ryder, Patrik Elias - and Zidlicky for the first unit. The second unit differs based on who's in the line up. Based on ice-time, it's Adam Henrique, Andy Greene, Damien Brunner, Peter Harrold, and Steve Bernier. So far, there's been some switches and some small cameos here and there, such as Olesz on Ryder's goal. While it's still early in the season, it's not entirely clear who's on the units and what roles they serve. One would think Zidlicky, Greene, and Harrold to keep pucks in play and attack from distance but that hasn't always been as reliable. As far as the rest, who are the shooters? Who's being set up? Is anyone staying in front? It's not clear now and while the Devils' season is only eight games old, it contributes to the team's current ineffectiveness on power plays. Say what you want about a certain unnamed Russian forward who quit on the team, but he at least was a reliable option.

So what should the Devils do going forward? Again, there needs to be some changes. First and foremost, the coaches need to re-evaluate the players they want to use on the power play and determine their strengths and weaknesses. A guy like Zajac can help out offensively, but not from the point. If Harrold isn't so good at keeping the puck in play, then perhaps he shouldn't be used so much. That sort of thing. But they need to identify who can be their main options at gaining the zone. I can appreciate having multiple approaches but the Devils have been so inconsistent that they really should focus on a few ways with a few players. They shouldn't have to dump pucks in, just have a someone who's swift enough on the sides to collect lead passes or someone strong enough on the puck to carry it in and then move it around without easily losing it. Once they do it get it in, I think the Devils should get away from the 1-3-1 formation for their first unit and go to more traditional set up with two at the point. This will give the Devils some extra protection should a bad pass or blocked/missed shot heads in the other direction; cutting down on shots against when there shouldn't be any. This will also change the focus of the attack to the wingers, something the Devils have plenty available. Someone like Elias or Jagr distributing from the half-boards would at least provide a different look from what they do at even strength, where team goes back to the points after getting it in down low. Among the issues, I think getting more successful zone entries would be paramount as without those, then the Devils won't even able to get set-up often after a clearance, much less get a chance at what the players can actually do out there.

These are just ideas I'm thinking and I can understand if these ideas aren't the best. But again, something's got to change because putting up only 26.3 shots per 60 minutes when the median in the league is in the mid-50s only holds the team back. Improvement in this end can only help the Devils as they try to climb their way back to respectability after a bad start. What do you think the coaches should do to address the power play woes? Please leave your answer and other thoughts about the power play in the comments. Thank you for reading.