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The 2015-16 New Jersey Devils & The Royal Road: The First Two Months

In another deep dive into the stats released in the 2015-16 Passing Project by Ryan Stimson, I evaluate how often the royal road is involved in passes by and against the New Jersey Devils in the first two months of the 2015-16 season.

Two guesses as to who's been leading the way on the Devils in terms of making passes across the center of the offensive zone for shots.  No, it's not Schlemko.
Two guesses as to who's been leading the way on the Devils in terms of making passes across the center of the offensive zone for shots. No, it's not Schlemko.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Ten days ago, Ryan Stimson made the initial release of the passing data collected his group at Hockey-Graphs available.  Twenty five New Jersey Devils games were tracked by Brian Franken and Kevin Winstanley as part of the data package.  They ranged from the beginning of the season to the beginning of December with the exception of three dates (11/28, 12/3, 12/6).  That's twenty five out of the Devils' first twenty eight games.  Between the kind of data and the number of games - twenty five out of eighty two games is 30% of the season - there's plenty to look into.  Last week, I used the data to figure out who's setting up the most prolific shooter on the team: Mike Cammalleri. Today, I want to look at how often the Devils and their opponents have used the royal road.

The royal road is a concept developed by former goaltender and current MSG analyst Steve Valiquette.  I first heard it on Hockey Night Live; it came about early in 2015; and it's a simple definition. Here's how Ken Campbell explained it in this February 1, 2015 post at The Hockey News:

To that end, Valiquette is in the process of analyzing every shot taken in every game this season. He differentiates the quality by considering them "red shots" or "green shots." Much of his analysis is based on what he calls the "Royal Road," which is an imaginary line that goes length-wise up the middle of the ice and intersects with another imaginary line that crosses the top of the faceoff circles. Drawing two diagonal lines out from the net to the edge of faceoff circles forms the triangular area in which green shots are taken.

Basically, it's a pass across the slot. It's a pass across commonly used scoring chance area (the "home plate"). It's a pass across the middle.  No matter the specificity, the goaltender has to move. That opens up his stance, it prevents him from covering certain areas, and it can leave parts of the net open. A pass across the "royal road" should lead to a dangerous shot on net and they do.   These passes were tracked by Stimson's group of trackers.  So let's dive into it.

Just as a reminder, the trackers counted up to three passes that created a shooting opportunity.  While passes across the royal road did occur for and against the Devils' benefit as a second or third pass, the vast majority were primary passes.  In fact, you can count on your hand the number of third assists that went over the royal road in all 25 games.  There were four; two by the Devils and two against the Devils.  None of them were in 5-on-5 play, one of the Devils' had a second royal road pass that led to the shot, and both Devils' royal road passes yielded goals. As nice as it is to going 2-for-2, their rareness for a big chunk of the season means it's not worth delving in too deep.

The same follows for the secondary assists going across the royal road. There were a total of nine of these; five were by the Devils; and only one of those five was not followed up by a second pass across the royal road.   Both the Devils and their opponents generated three shots out of their respective instances; the Devils scored on all of them whereas the opposition only scored on one of them.   Again, since the Devils' (and their opponents') success when a royal road pass was the second one leading to a shot and they were followed by another, there's not a lot of to jump into.  Therefore, for this post, I will be focusing primarily on, well, the primary pass that yielded the shot.

In total, out of 1,933 shooting attempts recorded in all situations in the Devils games tracked by Franken and Winstanley, 138 of them were created by a pass that went across the middle of the offensive zone.  That's a very small fraction of attempts to look into from a passing perspective.  It's even smaller when one focuses in 5-on-5 play.  There were a total of 1,315 of those in Devils games and only 71 of them went over the royal road.  With such a small proportion, it's easy to be skeptical. I assure you that they do matter and you'll see why shortly.

Here's a quick chart I put together for the Devils and their opponents with respect to the royal road (RR).

RR's RR's to SOG RR's to G
N.J 71 55 14
Opp. 67 40 12

And here is the same chart but for 5-on-5 attempts only:

RR's 5v5 RR's to SOG 5v5 RR's to G
N.J 41 32 9
Opp. 30 21 6

Both of these highlight why these passes are important. They tend to create shots and an incredible percentage of them go in.  In that first chart, the Devils have scored fourteen goals on fifty five shots, a shooting percentage of over twenty five percent.  Opponents have been limited to fewer passes across the royal road and fewer shots; but their shooting percentage is at thirty percent.  In 5-on-5 play only, the shooting percentages both for and against the Devils is around twenty eight percentage.  Considering that a team shooting above nine percent in all shots is above the league average, a pass that yields a goal per every four shots is a big deal.  I can imagine if there were more shots created by passes across the middle of the slot, these potent shooting percentages may go down.  At the same time,   Why don't teams do it more often?  We know the Devils have not been a prolific goal scoring team.  Shouldn't they work to do more?

Part of the reason why they don't happen all that often is because that pass is rarely available.  Team defenses usually make covering the slot or the middle of the ice a priority.  Especially on penalty kills.  With bodies in the way, puck carriers are going to be less inclined to attempt a pass through traffic.  The passing lanes have very narrow windows, if they exist.  As a result, this concept is more easily seen in odd-man rushes. When such a pass is made in 5-on-5 play, it usually means someone is in the wrong position or some other error was made.  Since most tactics dissuade teams from going across the middle, it doesn't happen all that often.

With that reasoning in mind, that calls for a bit of praise for our favorite team. The Devils' defense has done well to ensure it has not happened to the Devils all that much. While they've been on the wrong side of shooting attempt differential this season, the differential in shots directly created off royal road passes has been in New Jersey's favor. Since those passes tend to create dangerous shots, they've also been ahead in goal differential on shots created by royal road passes both in all and 5-on-5 situations.  This is something that I hope continues with the next group of games tracked.  If it doesn't, then it may speak to some real issues with the defense.

Another part of the reason why they may not happen frequently is due to how the team plays. For example, a team that likes to get the puck in deep, work it out of the corners, and go along the perimeter may be not be looking across the zone anyway.  Knowing this is twenty five games' worth of data, the Devils average 2.84 attempts created from royal road passes per game.  I did not calculate what the other teams average. I did, however, count how many of these kinds of attempts were created by the Devils' individual opponents.  The teams marked with an asterisk are teams the Devils played twice in this dataset:

NJ Opp. RR's
VAN* 11
PHI* 5
CBJ* 3
CHI* 2
NYI* 2
S.J 2

While the Devils only played one to two games against these teams, there's something to that notion.  Most opponents were held to fewer than three attempts created by passes across the royal road.  However, in single games against Toronto, Buffalo, Vancouver (they lead the list, though they played the Devils twice) and especially Montreal, the Devils' respective opponents were able to get across more often.  Montreal having eight against the Devils makes me wonder whether they kept catching the Devils on the rush. Or perhaps that they were able to break the Devils down such that those passing lanes that are usually not there opened up.   It's something to think about. The good news is that opposing teams have not really hurt the Devils in this regard.  Even the teams at the upper end, only Philadelphia has scored twice off attempts created directly across the royal road.  Further, not allowing many shots from royal road passes doesn't mean the Devils were a successful team in the game. You'll see plenty of the teams at the lower end of that table beat the Devils, after all.  It's just an aspect of how they defend.

Let's go back to the Devils themselves.  We know the Devils have made more of these passes than their opponents in both all situation and 5-on-5 play.  Who's made the most of them?  Would it surprise you to learn that it's their leading scorer?

Player RR's RR's to G 5v5 RR's 5v5 RR's to G 5v5/Total RR's%
Cammalleri 13 4 6 3 46%
Zajac 9 2 3 0 33%
Stempniak 8 2 7 2 88%
Henrique 6 1 1 0 17%
Palmieri 4 2 3 1 75%
Josefson 4 0 1 0 25%
Gionta 3 0 3 0 100%
Kalinin 3 1 3 1 100%
Tootoo 3 0 3 0 100%
Greene 3 0 1 0 33%
Severson 3 1 1 1 33%
Elias 3 0 0 0 0%
O'Neill 2 0 2 0 100%
Ruutu 2 0 2 0 100%
Tlusty 2 0 2 0 100%
Farnham 1 0 1 0 100%
Moore 1 1 1 1 100%
Schlemko 1 0 1 0 100%

Yes, Cammalleri leads the team with thirteen passes across the royal road that led to shooting attempts.  He also leads the team in directly creating four goals across the royal road.  In 5-on-5 play, he is second only to Lee Stempniak for going across the royal road. However, Cammalleri's royal road passes led to one more goal than Stempniak's.  If there was any further doubt that Cammalleri was crucial to the team's offense for the first two months of this season, then this should help erase it.

What's more interesting are some of the other names on this list  Both Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique have had over five passes across the royal road, which is quite good. Most of them were not in 5-on-5 situations, which may speak to their role in power play and overtime situations.  There, they may be more in situations where they elected to pass to some kind of success.  Whereas Henrique's linemates have made more of these passes in 5-on-5 play, Zajac cannot claim the same.  He hasn't had a consistent left winger and Kyle Palmieri has only made four of them.  They've yielded success and three of them were in 5-on-5 play.  Yet, it partially speaks to how much of a drop off the Zajac line is from the Henrique line. Not as much as the points.  Still a drop off.

As for the remainder of the team, it really speaks to how rare these kinds of passes can be.  The bottom six only has a handful. Their offensive contributions have been limited and this is just another small way of showing that.  Jacob Josefson has the most among them with four, and only one was in 5-on-5 play.  His role on the power play is to distribute and he has done that.  The defense has a low number as expected given the definition of the royal road.   D-to-D passes don't really fit in and the Devils' defensemen don't go in that deep all that often to make those passes.  Six Devils didn't even create one attempt off a royal road pass: Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, Tyler Kennedy (still new in this dataset), Reid Boucher (only a few games played), and Stefan Matteau (ditto).  In total, there's the Cammalleri-Henrique-Stempniak line, there's Zajac and Palmieri, and that's that for the offense.  Even with that, Palmieri may be targeted for the royal road pass as opposed to making it himself.

Let's sum this up, going backwards.  The Devils that have been creating the offense has created most of the team's passes across the royal road that led to shots.  The Devils have made more shooting attempts from these kinds of passes than their opposition in both all-situation play and 5-on-5 play.  Both the Devils and their opposition have had fantastic shooting percentages in the twenty-five to thirty percent range from shots on net created by these passes. Shooting attempts created directly by a pass across the royal road are quite rare relative to shooting attempts that happen in game. I think that is due to how teams typically defend their own end of the rink and possibly how teams attack as well.  Shooting attempts where the second or third pass goes across the middle of the slot are even rarer than that.  Despite their rarity, the fact that they intuitively and in practice yield dangerous shots and goals mean they are worth monitoring for the future.

So where do we go from here? The dataset released by Stimson only has twenty five out of their first twenty eight games tracked by Franken and Winstanley.  I hope there will be a second release with more games to show whether the Devils improved or not in these regards.  For games that have yet to happen, as much as I want to write that the Devils should seek out more of these attempts, the sheer low number by them and their opponents dissuades me.  I'll settle for a continuation of the Devils being on the right side of this differential. Again, it's very costly to allow these passes as much as it's beneficial when the Devils are able to make them happen.  Thank you for reading.