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Killing Time Interlude: The Devils' PK in Pictures Between Coaches

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The Killing Time project still lives. In this interlude, based on a reader request from the prior post in the series, I show off pictures of the New Jersey Devils penalty kill between the two head coaching regimes to see if their tactics and formation changed.

Mike Foligno oversaw the Devils' PK throughout all of 2014-15.
Mike Foligno oversaw the Devils' PK throughout all of 2014-15.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

It's been quite a while since I've had an update on the Killing Time project.  Between monumental changes to the franchise, changes to this site, obtaining new people for it, and things outside of this site, I have put the tracking to the site. The good news is that it's no longer on the side.  I've done all of January and February and I'm going to push to have March done in this coming week.  Maybe April, though that short month of five games somehow managed to have over forty minutes of shorthanded ice time.

In the meantime, I'd like to offer this post as an interlude.  In the comments to the third part of the series, the penalty kill under Peter DeBoer and without Bryce SalvadorRyan had this request:

I’d be interested to see if/how the PK changes post-DeBoer. Maybe including some screenshots of how they set up before and after and looking at the numbers – it could give us some insight into how effective one setup is versus another.

While I'm still tracking what I'm calling the multi-coach era of the 2014-15 Devils, I did more than enough to put up a pictorial comparison.  So I took screenshots of NHL Gamecenter from two games where the Devils' penalty kill did rather well to highlight how they looked in formation.  For the time remaining under Peter DeBoer, I used the November 21 game in Edmonton. For the time under the multiple coaches, I used the January 14 game in Los Angeles.  I did skip around in terms of time to highlight different changes.

11/21 in Edmonton

KTIP 11-21

This is how the Devils set-up on faceoffs.  It's fairly standard.  They put an extra body towards the center; Adam Larsson lined up behind Mike Cammalleri in this case.  Were this on the other side of the zone, Andy Greene would be there.  The other defenseman is closer to the wing on the board as opposed to lining up behind the center.  Greene is quick enough to retrieve any pucks the center - Travis Zajac in this shot - would put behind him.

KTIP 11-21

Here's a shot of what the Devils look like upon an entry.  One forward will make a move in the neutral zone or come back from a forecheck.  In this picture, that's Cammalleri, who's stretching out his stick to dissuade the puck carrier from thinking about a pass to the middle.  Both defensemen are behind the blueline, ready to receive the players coming in.  The other forward - Zajac - is deeper to provide support.  The Oiler is going to carry it in, the defenseman closer to him (Greene) is going to track him, and so Zajac and Larsson are going to drop back in case Greene gets beat. This keeps the middle of the ice protected as the rest of the Oilers enter the zone.

That doesn't happen in this case. Greene checks the puck carrier along the boards and the puck goes loose. Because they dropped back, Larsson will get the puck behind the corner and Zajac will hang out by the slot until the puck goes forward.  As he started where he did at the entry, he's got the opportunity to defend if things go wrong as well as go forward should the puck head towards an exit. Which it does in this case.

As far as the formation, there are four shots I took from this game. Again, I'm jumping around in the game to highlight these cases so bear with me on the time.

KTIP 11-21

In this shot, the Oilers actually managed to get in New Jersey's end and start setting up.  Since Zajac was back on the entry, he's in a good spot to defend the slot, while Larsson is in front of the crease and Greene is in the circle in response to the entry.  This is similar to what a lot of teams do on the penalty kill, where the four skaters form some kind of a box around the middle of the zone.  The difference is here is that the Devils are more in motion than this shot implies.  The forward at the top of the circle (I think it's Cammalleri) is going to be more aggressive and this box will really turn into something more like what is seen in this next picture.

KTIP 11-21

This is an extreme version of it, but the Devils are really more in a wedge plus one formation.  The one in this case is Jacob Josefson, who is trying to apply pressure to the puck carrier along the perimeter.  Not a bad idea in this game as the Oilers really struggled to set up on their other power plays.  In response, the other forward - Stephen Gionta - drops into the slot resembling the triangle you'd see in a two-man disadvantage.  The two defensemen are closer and really protecting the middle of the zone by the crease.  Were the Oilers better at passing the puck, they really could exploit the extra space they have.  On that night, they did not.   But the Devils' penalty kill liked to shift into this formation out of the box.  Again, these skaters are moving a bit more than it looks like in these stills.

KTIP 11-21

For example, here's a case where they drop into a large box from the wedge plus one. Dainius Zubrus was closer to the point.  As the play went to the goalie's right side, Zubrus skated over to where he is now and Patrik Elias rotated to the high slot; thus forming the box.  Adam Larsson also took a stride forward, which may have been a mistake as that Oiler by the crease is wide open. He'll get a pass, too.  He doesn't jam it in, the Devils collapse, and a puck is cleared shortly thereafter.  Still, this is an example of how the penalty killers aren't just statues in their formation; they move in response to what the opposition does.

KTIP 11-21

Earlier on this penalty kill, this is another example of the Devils' penalty kill in motion.  Larsson is more active, trying to deny any pass through their box.  The box isn't much of one, to be fair in this still.  Elias and Zubrus are closer together, driven by the Oiler cutting through.  They're closer like they were in a small box.  The defensemen are apart as if it was a large box, with the spot in front of the crease still covered.  The Devils' penalty killing units were not at all opposed to shifting and rotating if it meant denying a pass or getting in the way.  Opposition power plays that were able to get them out of sorts or were excellent at moving the puck tended to make life difficult for them. Though I'd like to think that could be said about most PK units.

1/14 in Los Angeles

With new head coaches, surely there would be changes.  Were there any to how the penalty kill operated?  In my opinion, not really. Check out these pictures.

KTIP 1-14

Camera angle aside, the Devils' penalty kill still took faceoffs in this way.  An extra body by the slot and the other defenseman lined up by the wing to keep that covered.  This makes sense; I'm not sure why anyone would really want to change this given that Greene was fast enough to recover pucks that were won into the corner.

KTIP 1-14

This opposition entry was by a pass rather than a carry-in, but you can see the same style from the Edmonton game on display.  Zajac was up in the neutral zone, trying to force the breakout to make a decision.  He's now tracking back.  The defensemen - Peter Harrold and Mark Fraser in this picture - are deeper in their zone and closer together. That may be more of a function of Fraser and Harrold as opposed to any tactical decision.  In both head coaching eras, there were entries were the defensemen were too deep or close together and there were entries where the defensemen were higher up in the zone and/or spread out a bit more.  The general idea remains the same. Two defensemen are back to respond to the entry and the other forward is back in the zone ready to help support them in another area in the zone.  As with the Edmonton game, it's almost like a line and it allows the forward to have the opportunity to respond whether the defense makes a play or not.

KTIP 1-14

Here's an example of the wedge plus one in effect.  While Greene is a bit higher up, you can still identify a triangle between the two defensemen and the other forward, who is Elias in this shot.  Plus, Greene's spot is still good as he's right in the passing lane between the puck carrier and the King standing in front of Cory Schneider. Zajac is the "plus one" here, and he's applying pressure along the perimeter.  Fun fact: this actually worked as the Devils got an zone exit seconds later.

KTIP 1-14

Here's a shot of the wedge plus one with the difference of the other forward Adam Henrique being further away from the defense.  It looks risky but remember that the Devils' penalty killers tend to stay in motion.  Henrique isn't just going to hang out in the high slot; he'll be able to engage with the King in front of him as well as drop deeper as the play develops.  Were Zajac not applying pressure, the Devils would appear to be in a large box formation.

KTIP 1-14

Here's a situation I didn't get to see in the other game I used: a broken stick.  Tim Sestito had to drop it, now he's playing blocker.  With two Kings down by the net and a third in the slot, the Devils collapse into something like a small box. I have to say something like it because Larsson has moved up and away from where I think he should be, closer to Jeff Carter at the side of the net.  Though, Larsson does this to fill the shooting lane to further dissuade Drw Doughty, on top of Sestito trying to get in Drew Doughty's way.  Again, the team is in motion and Doughty is dissuaded, as he'll pass it across to Justin Williams, who is atop of the left circle. There, there's already a Devil forward (Henrique) with Jon Merrill behind him.

KTIP 1-14

That does happen and Williams takes it to the circle. As the Kings shifted their formation, so did the Devils.  After briefly looking like a thin diamond, they're back into a small box. Merrill comes out to challenge the puck carrier - who's taking a shot. Henrique provides back support to deny a pass to Doughty above the high slot.  The stickless Sestito is still in his corner at least try be in the way of any attempts at a cross ice pass.  Larsson drops back to be by the crease in the slot. While he's outnumbered, the pressure on the puck carrier will force either this shot being on net, being deflected away, or put wide so he's not in as much trouble as it looks.  And they won't be.

Conclusion

There weren't really any significant changes to how the Devils' penalty kill did their business between the two head coaching eras of last season.  While I only took pictures from two games, I have seen enough of both in my tracking to confirm that the approaches have been about the same.  When the Devils do get pinned back, they tend to settle into a small box but if the opportunity presents itself, that box becomes a wedge plus one fairly briskly.  Further, when the play comes in and there's a rebound or a loose puck around the net, the Devils do frequently collapse and if a Devil is able to get to it, they'll make the effort.  They usually won't chase pucks so aggressively to be completely out of formation; that's when things go awry.  Likewise, they get into further trouble when clearing attempts are denied and there's little support where the denial happens.  But, again, that's typical for most if not any kind of penalty killing attempt.  The power plays that they struggled with tended to include those that would breakout effectively - not necessarily quickly - and move the puck quickly and efficiently.  Still, how the Devils approached opposition entries and played in their own end was largely the same between the head coaches.

This shouldn't be much a surprise as Mike Foligno was still in charge of the penalty kill under both head coaching regimes.  When Peter DeBoer was fired, only Dave Barr was let go as well - Foligno still kept his role.  Foligno was in charge of the penalty kill in 2014-15 under DeBoer, which was incredibly successful once Bryce Salvador was no longer in the picture. It was easily one of the few things that was successful under DeBoer's reign last season, that first month or so aside. With the new coaching regime seeing that, they made the understandable decision to not change that.   The Devils' PK wasn't nearly as successful as it was in the third part of this project, but it was still quite good with an 82.6% success rate.  In retrospect, they made a good call by keeping Foligno.  Personnel changed due to injuries and availability, but with the same assistant coach in charge of the unit, the tactics and general philosophy remained about the same.

My current goal is to try to get through March in this coming week and hopefully April.  I'll post up the results of the multi-coach era when I'm done with that tracking. The week after, I'll do a full-season summary which I hope I will have before the start of the full training camp.  Killing Time will progress.  Hopefully, you enjoyed this interlude in the meantime. Thanks to Ryan for the suggestion and thank you for reading.