Penalty killing has been an issue for the New Jersey Devils in the first month of the 2014-15 season. I would say it is the most pressing issue; 11 of their 24 goals allowed have come from being down a man. However, special teams have not been a total failure. On the contrary, penalty killing has been an issue for the Devils' opposition as well. The Devils currently own one of the best conversion rates in the league at 28.6%. It's helped them get results in their first eight games. Prior to Sunday's games, it's the second highest rate in the league; only behind Pittsburgh - New Jersey's next opponent - at an astonishing 40%. With such success, it commands a closer look.
The Results So Far
The Devils are 8-for-28 in this season. That's a pretty good conversion rate. However, the goals have come in bunches. They've only scored power play goals in four of their seven games this season where they have received at least one power play. Yes, the Devils had an entire game without receiving one man advantage. In any case, three of those four have had two or more goals scored. Of their eight goals, three have stood up as game winning goals by the end of the evening. The power play has certainly helped the team get results in the standings.
Based on the team stats at Puckalytics for 5-on-4 situations - all but one of their 28 opportunities have been at 5-on-4 - the Devils have taken 38 shots on net. This makes for a shots per 60 minute rate of 49.44, which is around league median. In recent prior seasons, the Devils were usually near or at the bottom in terms of shooting rate. Therefore, that they're around the middle is a good early sign of their power play functioning. They are firing them in at a rate of 18.42%, which is one of the highest shooting percentages in the league. If we add in the three shots and power play goal from the 4-on-3 situation in the 3-2 overtime win in Ottawa, the percentage jumps to 19.51%. That's a good rate, though I'm skeptical the Devils can hold such a rate. With more shots, they can mitigate the affect of a power play shooting percentage falling.
Early on in a season, it's common for teams to figure out what to do with their special teams, such as who's on them and how they approach it. The Devils are no different, as 13 different skaters have averaged at least a minute on the power play. Marty Havlat's injury has had a hand in that, as Damien Brunner stepped in his spot. The biggest difference between this season and recent prior seasons have been the defensemen. It has been more common to see two defensemen on the Devils power play. The emergence of Damon Severson gives the Devils three defenders with legitimate offensive tools. The other two being Marek Zildicky and Eric Gelinas. Jon Merrill has been given some time as well, and he hasn't been a bad fit. Andy Greene has become the odd man out, but he could figure into a power play in the future as he's been pretty smart about when to jump up and not. The quartet of Zidlicky, Severson, Gelinas, and Merrill have been important. The four have combined for two power play goals and being involved in four others.
As for the forwards, the Devils are still sorting that out in terms of combinations. The players involved shouldn't be a surprise. Of course Jaromir Jagr, Mike Cammalleri, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, and Havlat would get power play time. They're skilled offensive players. But it's been a mix of the three forwards from game-to-game. I question whether it's from wanting to get a different match-up. With eight goals out of 28 opportunities, it hasn't hurt. The real surprises are Ryane Clowe and Damien Brunner. Clowe has averaged 2:51 of power play time and isn't in front of the net. He's been a retriever of pucks and so forth. With more time, the power play points will come. Brunner has been a revelation. Used both at the point and at his more traditional wing position, he's created two goals, he's been trusted to carry the puck in on a breakout, and has provided an additional option for Peter DeBoer. With an average of over three minutes on the man advantage, DeBoer has been using that option quite a bit.
In terms of tactics, we've seen a 1-3-1 set up in addition to an umbrella at various times. That may change depending on who they have out there and who they are facing. That may be a positive in terms of making sure teams don't just key in on one type of formation. Yet, it may hold them back in trying to better execute within the formation. Someone's usually right in front of the goalie or around the crease. It's curiously been one of the smaller players like Havlat or Cammalleri, not someone larger like Clowe. One doesn't need to be large to be an effective screen or to clean up rebounds. But I wonder if those players would be better suited at an angle firing the puck itself instead of fighting for second chances. I also have noticed players rotating within the formation to fill in spaces on the ice. It depends on where the puck is; but it's good to see one or two players move off of the puck. At best, it catches the penalty killers off guard for a shot attempt. At worse, it forces the penalty killers to pay attention away from the puck itself. It's something I hope they continue, regardless of the formation they want to use. When they're able to get set up, the team has been good.
As for the breakout, they tend to one of two things. Either the puck carrier keeps the puck through the neutral zone and goes for a lateral pass just as they gain the zone or the initial puck carrier will drop pass it to another Devil behind him to do that. The latter is something new as far as I know. The idea is to see how the opposition is preparing for the entry and by dropping it back, the new puck carrier can make a better decision as they go forward. In theory, it's not a bad idea.
I would say results have been mixed for gaining entry. If there's a clean pass as they gain the zone and that player makes a good decision with the puck, then the set-up happens with no issue. But the Devils have had some struggles making that first or second pass in the opposition's end. If the receiver isn't ready for it or the pass gets away from them, then it's an easy clear for the opposition penalty kill. The Devils start all over and have to try again, which burns precious time off of the power play. Occasionally, if nothing's working, they'll try a dump-in - which usually ends as well as one may expect. The recent game against Ottawa was a good example of the Devils struggling to even get set-up into a formation, in spite of scoring two power play goals. If there's an area for improvement for the power play,
Thanks to freely available videos of goals at NHL.com, I re-watched all eight power play goals the Devils have scored this season. Here are the main takeaways from them:
- Half of the goals have been created from distance. Havlat's power play goal was off a deflection from a long shot by Gelinas. Zidlicky's first and second power play goals came from above the circle. Jagr's first power play goal was a rebound from the endboards; a missed shot by Brunner. Merrill's power play goal was shot from inside the circle, but it began with a point-to-point pass (and a very good one) by Brunner.
- Three power play goals have involved one-timers. Both of Zidlicky's goals were one-timers. Henrique's goal was a one-timer from the circle. If you want to be technical, Cammalleri and Jagr's first were immediate put-backs of a rebounded puck.
- Two goals have come off rebounds. Cammalleri's power play goal in the Tampa Bay was a rebound off Elias' one-timer in front. Jagr's first power play goal, again, was a result of a rebound off the back endboards.
- Only one power play goal has come off the rush: Jagr's second power play goal that won the Ottawa game in overtime. That was a one-on-one situation formed in the neutral zone.
- Only one power play goal came shortly after an offensive faceoff win: Havlat's in Florida. Elias won it back to Gelinas. Gelinas moved closer to the center and fired a shot that Havlat re-directed.