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New Jersey Devils Should Try to Get to Slot More, Protect More Distant Shots at Even Strength

Thanks to team hextally charts from War on Ice, I show where the New Jersey Devils and their opponents are shooting and how that rates relative to league average for shooting rate and shooting percentages to identify opportunities for improvement.

William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

One the main features that War on Ice has that other sites do not are hextallys. Based on the shot location recorded in each game, there are automatically updated graphical representations on where teams (or players) are taking shots and where they are not.  From having data on all thirty teams, they can show the rate of shots and shooting percentage both for an against in different locations of the offensive zone relative to the league average. This provides a quick and easy way of highlighting areas on the ice where the team is succeeding or failing with respect to offense.

In my recent preview of the Florida game, I highlighted the desire for the Devils to take the slot while protecting their own as the goal of that game.  After writing that the day before and prior to that game, I started thinking about whether that's been an issue all season with the Devils.  We know the Devils remain a low-shooting team and they allow a relatively low rate of shots in response.  But where are those shots coming from? And are those shots getting into the net at a higher than average rate?  Using the hextallys at War on Ice, let's take a closer look.  Please note that these are all at even strength play and these were taken before Sunday's game against Florida.

12-6-15 Devils Hextallys

The darker the blue, the further below the league average it is.  The left side are the rates of shots the Devils have taken so far this season.  They are below average in all areas of the zone except for two. The first behind the net, which doesn't matter much. The second is to the left of the slot, or the right from the Devils' perspective. That's actually above average.  Despite the Devils' relative weakness at right wing, it appears they are getting opportunities at that spot of the ice. That's not bad.  What is bad is that they are quite below average in the same area on the right side, in the high slot, next to the high slot, and especially the slot itself. The darkness of the color makes it hard to read, but the Devils' rate is 0.686.  That's a big area of improvement.

Interestingly, the Devils also have below average shooting rates at the points.  I can't tell you how many times I see the Devils get the puck in deep and then intentionally move it back to the point to try to continue the attack in a game.  Yet, the defensemen (or forwards who are in that area) just aren't getting a lot of shots through.  I know Eric Gelinas isn't a regular but it's not like Adam Larsson, Andy Greene, John Moore, or Damon Severson have terrible shots.  I would prefer the forwards to do a lot of the shooting, but the Devils could diversify their offense with some more attempts from distance.  Rebounds or partial blocks could yield more opportunities in close, especially in that slot area where the Devils aren't taking so many shots.

Let's look at the right side, which represents how opponents have been shooting against the Devils. The good news is that the Devils have been defending the slot very well.  Opponents' rates of shooting is a collective 0.65. Defenses should want to protect that area and relative to the rest of the league, the Devils have that on relatively locked down. What's more is that opponents have been even less frequent below the left and the right of the slot.  The rate of shots right at the crease is higher but still below league average.  As much as I want to see the Devils shut those areas of the ice down, they are doing so with respect to what other teams are doing.

The issue is above the slot and beyond.  The shooting rate in the high slot and high inside the left circle is close to league average.  All three points are actually above average.  Keeping an opponent to the outside is usually a win for the defense.  It's better to give up the 45 to 60 foot shot than something far closer and more central. There are multiple possibilities.  Opposing defensemen can turn a denial of a zone exit into offense.  The opposition may be more successful with moving the puck around the perimeter, opening up shots for the defenders. The Devils' forwards may not be in position or aggressive enough at the points, so opposing defenders get pucks through.  It could be a tactical decision to let opposing players shoot from the outside.  It could be a mixture of all of those things on a given night.  Has it burned the Devils? Let's find out by looking at the relative shooting percentages:

12-6-15 Devils Hextallys

Looking at the right side of this picture first, not entirely. The left and middle points have found more success as they are close or above league average, respectively.  Yet, the one number that concerns me is actually in the high slot. Recall that the shooting rate in the high slot against the Devils was below league average.  It wasn't by much, but when the shots come from there, they're going in at a much higher rate than average.  I'm more concerned about the Devils defending that area as teams do look for shots in that location.  It's a bit further away from the slot itself, but it's still central and it isn't so far away that there will be a lot of bodies necessarily in the way when one gets there. A shot from the point isn't always by design at even strength; one in that area is.  I'd rather have shots come in from the point than in that spot in the zone; I think the Devils would agree.

Other spots have been particularly potent for the opposition, such as the area to the right of the high slot inside the circle and the lower part of the right circle.  The shooting rates have been much lower, so I don't think the Devils have been weak at defending those spots.  It's just that when the opposition does get there for a shot, their chances of it being a goal have been higher than average.  All the same, my conclusion from this and the shooting rate graph is that the Devils have to do better at distance.  When it comes to the slot itself, they've been more than fine this season.  The high slot and the points should be seen as areas of improvement.

Going back to what the Devils have been doing on offense, I'm just shaking my head at the lower-than-league average percentages in the slot.  The Devils have struggled to get opportunities in there and they haven't made the most of it.  It's definitely an area on offense they need to get to more often as I don't think the Devils will remain so below league average.  They could also force rebounds or loose pucks that could lead to continued results in areas where they have had higher-than-average percentages.  That low left circle has been an enjoyable part of the ice for the offense from the perspectives of shooting rates and percentages.  The Devils have been better than average at putting in pucks right at the crease, too.  The low inside part of the right circle hasn't been successful but the high inside part of the right circle has been very successful.  Again, if the Devils can get more shots from that area, then there could be more success.

What's really weird is that the Devils have received nothing at distance at even strength.   Not only are there are relatively few shots from the Devils, they just haven't gone in. That won't last for the whole season, but that's just strange.  Again, I'm more concerned with the Devils not being able to take more shots from the slot and in most areas around it.  The shooting percentages in general are better in those areas so being below league average isn't as bad as being completely below average from the points. The general shooting percentage from distance is not so high.  So if the Devils' offense can get to the slot, the high slot, and the adjacent areas more often - not just the lower inside left circle - then they'll be able to get more success.

However!  The hextallys I just showed you are from both home and away games.  Since the Devils' scorer has tended to undercount shots, let's look at road games only.  I'd take these with an even finer grain of salt since the Devils have only played twelve road games. At the same time, some the issues with respect to shot location and shooting percentages by location relative to the league average remain the same.

12-6-15 Road Devils Hextallys

The good news is that the Devils' shooting rates around the slot are actually above average except for that glorious slot in the middle.  The bad news is that the opposition's shooting rates have also been better on the road from the high slot and beyond. They're also above league average at the net, which could be a function of those longer shots resulting in closer opportunities.

12-6-15 Road Devils Hextallys

The shooting percentage is better for the Devils and their opponents.  The Devils are at least close to average aside from the slot with better percentages surrounding most of it.  The opponents still have great success from the high slot and to the right of it.  And below that area too, strangely nothing allowed on the left circle.  The left point has found about average success, though the other points are like the Devils' shooting from the points: nothing earned yet.

Overall, the Devils can improve both ends of their game by focusing on these positional opportunities.  At least, they do presuming that the hextallys are accurate based on the scorer's shot location.  But it's better than the lack of information we've had prior. What do you think the Devils need to do to take care of those opportunities? Does it come down to a change in tactics? New personnel? Just practice?  Perhaps it'll get better in time?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.