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New Jersey Devils 2015-16 Season Preview Part 4: Special Teams

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The New Jersey Devils actually had a high success rate on the PP last season and a PK that did better after the first 15 games. Yet, with a new season, there were changes that can lead to different fortunes on both. This post previews what may come.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of emphasis is placed on even strength situations because it's the most common part of hockey games. However, penalties do happen and therefore special teams can go a long way in determining the course of a game.  A man advantage or disadvantage can help make the difference between a win or a loss.  Complete discipline is something worth striving for, but it is rarely - if ever - achieved.  Therefore, it is important for any team to establish what they will do when they have a power play or a penalty kill. Let's preview what the 2015-16 New Jersey Devils may do on both.

Last Season's Results

In terms of raw success rates, as available at NHL.com, the Devils appeared to have a good power play and not-as-good penalty kill.  Their power play success rate was 19.3%, tied for eighth in the NHL last season.  Their penalty kill success rate was 80.6%, which was just in the bottom third in the league.  A closer look reveals that those success rates don't tell the whole story.

According to War on Ice, the Devils' power play was largely successful because their sticks were hot. They had the third highest shooting percentage on power plays last season at 16.1%.  Yet, they only scored 40 power play goals due in part to having the second-lowest shooting rate in the NHL (43.2 shots per 60 minutes). If the power play didn't yield a goal, often it didn't feature much happening.  The power play's success rate flattered that unit.

Conversely, the penalty kill was better than their rate suggested.  Through reviewing every single shorthanded situation the Devils had last season, it was clear that their success rate was cratered in the first fifteen games and was brought up to respectability by many more successes in the remainder of the season.  Bryce Salvador, who was heavily featured in those first fifteen games, is not returning.  Anyway, the team ended up finishing in the middle of the pack in terms of shots against rate (54.0 shots against per 60 per War on Ice) and Cory Schneider largely carried the team goaltending to a better-than-league-median of 87.7%.

The Penalty Kill Preview

Again, I wrote a ton about last year's penalty kill last summer so I'm not going to rehash a ton from it. I would recommend starting with the last part of my Killing Time project, and going back to earlier parts should you want to know how I got there.  Instead, I'm going to raise three issues before guessing who will be featured on the PK this season.  Two of them are from that conclusion so I'll start with them.

The first issue has to do with Cory Schneider.  Often, your goaltender really needs to be your best penalty killer since the opposition is going to spend more time in New Jersey's end than not being in New Jersey's end. Schneider was excellent in shorthanded situations last season, as he posted a 89.2% save percentage in those situations. Only six goalies who played more than 30 games last season topped 90% on PK situations. The issue is that penalty killing save percentages are volitile from year to year.  As Left Wing Lock showed last year, a good percentage in one season does not mean a good one will be posted in the following season.  The good news is that Schneider's PK SV% went down from a really high 91.9% in 2013-14 so it's not as if Schneider hit this massive high and has nowhere to go but down. The bad news is that it could go down without his performances necessarily being worse in net. So Schneider's save percentage - and to a lesser extent Keith Kinkaid's (he was at 83.1%) - is going to be critical in determining how successful this penalty kill will be in 2015-16.   We can hope it's in the high 80s again, if only so the team isn't getting constantly torched whenever they are down a man.

The second issue has to do with the defense. Andy Greene and Adam Larsson played a ton of shorthanded minutes last season and made a lot of clearances. They were heavily leaned on, and that's an issue for this season as well. We've already seen Greene-Larsson leaned on all game in preseason; so I'm not anticipating anything different in the regular season.  In a way, it makes sense since they're the team's top pairing.  The issue is really what happens when they're not available.  Maybe they need a break. Maybe one of them is in the box for a penalty. Maybe one of them gets hurt.  On paper, it would have to be Jon Merrill and/or Damon Severson to follow them.  Merrill played the most last season on the PK among defensemen not named Greene or Larsson. However, he wasn't particularly great at it.  Severson has shown a lot of potential for a young defenseman in his rookie season, but he wasn't used much on the PK so it's an open question how he can handle it.  Essentially, these two have to get up to speed and do so quickly. If they can be quite good shorthanded, then the Devils may be able to afford leaning a little less on Greene and Larsson.  It can also ensure we don't see John Moore or Eric Gelinas receive significant time in shorthanded situations, as neither are known for their defense.  If they struggle, then it's more of a burden on the shoulders of #5 and #6.  I've written about it at the end of Killing Time, but it still bears repeating ahead of next season.

The third issue is something I touched on during the project but didn't explicitly state. Last season, the Devils' penalty kill had the same general tactics throughout the season.  Mike Foligno was in charge of it under both head coaching regimes, so it made sense that they stuck with the same tactics. Only the personnel changed.  With a brand new coaching staff, this may change as well - and not necessarily for the better.  Last season's PK liked to put all four skaters into a box but they had the freedom to shift into a wedge plus-one to apply pressure on the puck carrier. They also liked to have a forechecker in the neutral zone, with two to three skaters back in the defensive end preparing to receive the breakout.  I think they worked fairly well; once Salvador was out of the picture, the performances were much better. These philosophies may change with someone else in charge.  I can't tell you to exactly what, but if it's something similar, it may be OK.  That may be what they end up doing; there's only so much one can do on the penalty kill.  If it's something drastic like a set diamond all the time, then I'd be a little more concerned.

That all said, the Devils' PK is in a good place to do well in 2015-16.  Schneider is a very good goaltender and can be reasonably expected to stop a lot of shots in all situations.  Greene and Larsson have demonstrated last year that they can play a lot on the penalty kill and still generate zone exits.  Their tactics allowed for the Devils to use a lot of different forward pairings, which all did decently.  Some better than others, of course; but no one was in repeated trouble.  While Patrik Elias is older and Dainius Zubrus was bought out, several of the forwards will return and can definitely fit in on a penalty kill.  Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique have shown they can be quit effective on the penalty kill. Stephen Gionta is prone to focusing too much on the puck, but he's been an asset on the PK. Jacob Josefson wasn't as efficient with clears last season, but he's shown he can handle a shorthanded shift.  Ditto Mike Cammalleri. They could even add Kyle Palmieri, should he show he can be a competent defender.  That would even add a little more speed to it.   Try-out Lee Stempniak has killed penalties in his career, so he could be an addition as well.  Should Elias still be somewhat like last season, he could fill in a shift on the penalty kill decently enough. There are open questions, but this isn't a unit that should be expected to finish in the bottom third short of Schneider and Kinkaid getting lit up on a bad streak or something like that.

Expected Forwards: Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, Stephen Gionta, Jacob Josefson, Mike Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak (if signed), Kyle Palmieri (maybe), Patrik Elias (maybe)

Expected Defensemen: Andy Greene, Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill, Damon Severson

The Power Play Preview

While the Devils enjoyed a high success rate, many man advantages left a lot of people feeling underwhelmed.  Yes, a power play that has a conversion percentage in the top ten isn't going to generate a lot of shots on net, but being next to last speaks to something more.  Specifically: the breakout.  Most teams were able to break out of their end with the puck and get into the Devils' end with possession. The Devils, who knows what they were trying to do.

Initially, they had three players line up at the blueline to cross, have one skater take the puck up, make one pass up front, and then possibly move it to one of those three. It made it easy for the Devils to be denied in the neutral zone or be forced to fling the puck away into space, which often left it up for grabs - and grabbed by the defense.  The Devils didn't have too many players who were good enough at carrying the puck to do it themselves and with iffy puck movement comes even iffier results.  And if someone lined up at the blueline jumped early, it's an easy offside call and the Devils have to try again to break into the zone.  Hence, a lot of power plays last season tended to be feast or famine. From what I saw, their breakout was rather ineffective and it was the root cause as to why so many power plays were unsuccessful last season.   The hope is that this will change under John Hynes and his staff.

It is an open question as to whether the Devils have the personnel for what the coaches would want to do.  Do they want someone to lead the effort and make a short pass to gain the zone and go from there? Can they have the players do something exotic looking like Washington's breakout, where a puck carrier takes it up ice, turns around, passes it back to a trailer, who then charges into the zone where the space is with the puck? Can they realize that dumping the puck into the zone on a power play is almost always an inferior option compared to carrying it in or passing it over the blueline?  These are questions that are still being asked in preseason; we really won't know until the first few weeks of the regular season passes.

Once they get into the zone, what will they do?  So far, the Devils have been set up in something like a 1-3-1.  I've seen one of the defensemen on the wing in the three shift back to make it look more of a traditional position-based set-up, but I don't know if that will last.  They were trying out Kyle Palmieri - who will be a featured player on these units - at the point.  They may get away from that formaiton if that works.  It really won't be apparent until a few weeks pass with the NHL roster to determine whether they have it.  The Devils do have some components for a passable power play. Mike Cammalleri is a good shooter; Kyle Palmieri is a prolific shooter; and Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac are good passers. Their defense is a little more interesting with the addition of John Moore.  Moore is a smooth skater who's pretty good on the puck with an offensive mindset.  He can join Eric Gelinas and his killer shot; Damon Severson, who has a pretty good shot of his own; and Andy Greene, who's smart enough to get into good spaces without the puck.  The Devils can definitely afford to use two defensemen on their power play units, and they may have to if they realize they don't have four forwards to use that are credible threats for two units.  They may go one or the other. It's fluid at the moment.

How much offensive talent the team has is definitely an issue, but the more pressing and immediate one has to do with their tactics.   The Devils may need a significantly talented offensive forward (or two, or three, etc.) to really make the power play a threat, but they need better breakout plays and a formation that suits their players right now.  I would expect the power play to be less successful than last season's if only because their shooting percentage was so high.  I don't think this is a team that can shoot at 16% again when up a man or two.  But if they want to allay the drop off that comes with that, then they need a far more effective breakout and a formation that puts players in better positions to succeed.  Once those basics are set, then it'll be clearer as to what has to improve on the power play.

Who could we see on the power play? Here are my guesses as far as regulars go, which will likely also consist of what the top-six might be to start this season:

Forwards: Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Jiri Tlusty, Mike Cammalleri, Jordin Tootoo (as a screener), Reid Boucher (maybe in spots).

Defensemen: Eric Gelinas, John Moore, Damon Severson, Andy Greene, Adam Larsson (maybe over Greene? We'll see).

The Discipline

There is one aspect associated with special teams that's worth noting here: penalties. They cause these special teams so let's take a step back and look at them.  Last season, the Devils had 212 power play opportunities and 268 penalty killing situations.  That's an average of 2.58 man advantages per game and 3.26 penalty kills per game.  That disparity can be partially explained by the team's discipline.  Taking calls generally leads to a situation of being down a man.  Four players had twenty or more minors last season: Jaromir Jagr, Dainius Zubrus, Eric Gelinas, and Marek Zidlicky. The good news is that three of those are no longer on the Devils, so that could come down from that alone.  Hopefully the newcomers to the team don't fully fill in that particular gap.  That's always a concern with newer players with a new coach, but hockey is hockey and the rules didn't really change.  Provided they don't get beaten badly or careless, then I don't anticipate this going up - preseason results aside.

As for not drawing as many calls, that's a function of possession. Last season's team was not at all a good possession team. That actually got worse after the head coaching change.  If you don't have the puck, then there's little reason for anyone to foul you and so it doesn't really happen.  Fixing this is going to be much, much harder. It's absolutely worth pursuing.  I hope Ray Shero, John Hynes, and the staff will make a focused effort to improve that piece after establishing what they want to do. That may require more new players so it's not necessarily something that will improve within this season.  For now, I would be satisfied if they reduce their average number of penalty kills per game.

Your Take

Hopefully after reading this, you have a better idea where the Devils' penalty kill and power play is coming from and what could be expected heading into 2015-16. All told, I don't think either will be particularly awful.  I think it would take quite a bit for the PK to be really poor; again, there's no albatross this season eating up minutes and not generating exits for fifteen games to really kill the success rate.  I would expect the power play to be less successful, and quite possibly finish in the lower third in the league. I don't think they're going to be so dire like Buffalo (13.4%, 30th place) or Colorado (15%, 29th) last season, but it's going to fall unless drastic changes happen quick and with remarkable effectiveness.

Now I want to read what you have to say about the team's special teams. What do you expect to happen on the PK? Will it really end up being better than last season?  Can Merrill-Severson be effective to do more than just spell Greene-Larsson?  As for the PP, will we see a better, more effective breakout from them?  Will we see more shots and generally more threatening situations?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the team's PK and PP in the comments. Thank you for reading.