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Special Teams Have Helped this Team Win

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While last night was a disaster by any means, the New Jersey Devils have a plus 500 record for many reasons. One of them, interestingly enough, has been the special teams. Both the power play and penalty kill units have been quite good. Come look.

He's been a beast on the power play
He's been a beast on the power play
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Many times here at All About the Jersey, when we discuss statistics—mainly advanced statistics—we look at them strictly at 5 on 5 play.  For many stats, especially possession related stats, this is important to get a true reading of what we are looking for.  However, that does not mean that special teams are unimportant.  On the contrary, special teams can be a huge contribution to a team's success or failure on the ice.  Team's that can't score need strong penalty kills to keep them in games, as they will have no chance to win if their penalty kill cannot stop anyone.  Conversely, team's that can score but also have a strong penalty kill are seriously tough to beat.

The New Jersey Devils have shown that one of the reasons they have started out this season well is because they have great special teams.  Heading into last night's game in Edmonton, the Devils were in the top 10 in both power play percentage and penalty kill percentage.  The only other teams who could boast such success are the Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals, and Los Angeles Kings.  And not shockingly, all of those teams are also performing at a high level to start the season.  Coincidence? I think not.

So far, the better of the two halves for the Devils has been the power play.  Before last night's games, New Jersey was ranked 5th in the league, with a 22.6% success rate with the man advantage.  The two outliers above them are Boston at 35.2% and Dallas at 29.3%, but other than them the Devils are very close to the top.  In 62 opportunities, NJ has been able to score 14 goals.  What helps in that equation is that the team is getting a good amount of chances with the man advantage.  Those 62 opportunities are tied for 11th most in the league.  It is not nearly as much as Arizona's 72 opportunities, but it is way more than the Rangers' 43 chances on the power play.  Those extra minutes at 5 on 4 can really pay off.

Now, who exactly is doing damage on the power play?  In terms of straight up power play points, Kyle Palmieri leads the team with 9, 4 goals and 5 assists .  He is followed by Mike Cammalleri with 6, Travis Zajac with 6, and Jordin Tootoo and Lee Stempniak with 4 each.  Zajac and Palmieri both have 4 power play goals, which leads the team, while Tootoo has 2 and anyone else who has scored has only one.  However, simply looking at points does not tell the whole tale.  How about shots on the power play?  Who is generating opportunities on net?  Here we see much more of a separation.  Before the Edmonton game, Palmieri had a whopping 21 shots on the power play, while Damon Severson came in second with 10 shots on net.  That is a huge separation.  Clearly, when Palmieri is out there with the man advantage, the goal is to get him the puck so he can rip it on net.  And last night, it worked well with the lone goal of the game for New Jersey, so keep it up.

In terms of who gets the most playing time, Cammalleri leads all Devils skaters with 52:56 of power play ice time, and Adam Henrique is right behind him with 52:18 (but only 2 points).  Severson has the most ice time of any defenseman with 49:54.  Palmieri, the points and shots leader on the team for the power play, is 5th on the team with 45:36 of ice time.  The drop off really comes between 8 and 9.  Zajac has the 8th most time on the PP with 39:24, but the person in 9th, Jiri Tlusty, has only 22:38 (all times before last night's game).  So at this point, it is pretty clear who the power play specialists are: Cammalleri, Henrique, Severson, Stempniak, Palmieri, Jacob Josefson, Tooto, and Zajac.  If you notice, that is only one defenseman, and none of those people specifically are Eric Gelinas, who you would think should be manning the power play.  However, with only 10 games played so far this season, he only has 19:06 of power play ice time.  Clearly, he has become the 7th D man and will not play often barring injury.

The other half of special teams is also working well for New Jersey, as the penalty kill ranks 9th in the league at a 83.3% success rate (again, these stats are coming before the Edmonton game last night).  The top team in the league, Anaheim, is at 89.8%, but the Devils are still in a quality position at over 83%.  In 60 penalty kill situations, the Devils have only conceded 10 goals.  So compare that to the power play: 14 goals for in 62 opportunities versus 10 goals against in 60 opportunities.  Those are good splits.  What is even better is that the Devils have had more power play opportunities than penalty kill situations.  60 kills so far is tied for 13th in the league.  It is not as low as Carolina's 35 penalty kill situations, but is way less than Winnipeg's 82.

Who are the workhorses for New Jersey when down a man?  If you guessed Andy Greene and Adam Larsson, you would be absolutely correct.  Those two have far and away the most penalty kill time on the team.  Before last night, Greene lead the Devils with 66:47 of penalty kill ice time, and Larsson was just behind him at 64:41.  Also, both are doing quality work.  Larsson is second on the team with a GA60 of 3.89, and Greene is 4th at 4.83.  What that means is that over the course of 60 minutes, that is how many goals the opposition would score on average.  To showcase the quality of those numbers, for all players in the NHL so far with at least 50 minutes of penalty kill time, Larsson ranks 4th in GA60 and Greene ranks 11th.  Also, only 31 players have at least 50 minutes of PK time so far this year.  Across the entire league, Greene and Larsson rank 9th and 11th in terms of most PK time on ice, respectively.  They play a lot, and do great work.

Now, who else in NJ is doing well on the PK?  Well, in terms of simple time on ice, Zajac ranks 3rd on the team with 51:55, Henrique is 4th with 46:13, and Josefson is 5th with 37:51.  The next defenseman on the list is John Moore with 37:02.  The only other player on the team with at least 25 minutes of ice time on the PK is Stempniak with 36:33.  Those are your PK specialists.  The next person on the list, Stephen Gionta, has only 22:18 of ice time, and it goes down from there.  So clearly, only three defenseman are really trusted to kill off penalties, with David Schlemko and Jon Merrill receiving a little bit of time, and Severson and Gelinas essentially receiving zero.

In terms of shorthanded goals and points, NJ has three goals while down a man. Henrique leads the team with two goals, while Zajac has a goal and an assist.  The other point producers are Josefson and Larsson, each with one assist.  The Devils currently are tied for 3rd in the league in terms of shorthanded points with 3 goals.  The only teams better are Montreal and Ottawa, each with 4 goals.

Conclusion

In the end, there can be no doubt that to start the season, the Devils have performed very well in both power play and penalty kill situations.  Being ranked in the top 10 in both is no small feat.  While that is sure to change as we get deeper into the season (and the numbers have probably already updated on the sites from last night's game if you want to see the most up to date numbers), if the team can still remain competent in both facets, it will really go a long way.   At this point, given the minutes logged, it is clear who the coaches trust in each situation, with 8 skaters given the majority of power play time, and 7 skaters given the duty of killing off penalties.  And considering how they have done, I see no reason to change it.  There seems to be a formula that works here, so stick with it.

Again, while special teams does not solely decide games, it is a huge compliment to 5 on 5 action.  This can be especially true for a team that does not generate a lot of events at even strength.  The Devils do not get loads of opportunities because of the suppressive style of hockey that they play.  Therefore, generating and converting on extra opportunities during power play situations, while simultaneously preventing the opposition from doing so during penalty kill situations, can be the difference between wins and losses.  And so far, the Devils have done what is necessary on special teams to be successful.  Let's hope it can continue.

Your Thoughts

What are your thoughts about the special teams play in New Jersey this season?  From the eye test, do you see a style of play that will sustain success over the course of the season, or do you think that these numbers are fluky and will fall?  What about their play makes you think what you do?  Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.