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Why the New Jersey Devils Power Play was Terrible in January

The New Jersey Devils were awful on the power play by converting only 4 out of 31 situations in January. Worse, they generated very little offense. After watching all 31 power plays, this post takes a deep dive to find out the issues behind their poor performances.

Power play goals (pictured) were few and far between for the Devils in January 2016.  Why? Let's do a deep dive into what happened on all 31 situations.
Power play goals (pictured) were few and far between for the Devils in January 2016. Why? Let's do a deep dive into what happened on all 31 situations.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Earlier last month, the New Jersey Devils were mired in a goalless power play streak. It was worse than just not scoring. The Devils weren't even creating shots on net or even shot attempts on a consistent basis.  Often, the Devils would spend two minutes with the man advantage not taking any sort of advantage.  Then on January 21, a minor miracle occurred.  The Devils actually got set up in their 1-3-1 formation and scored a power play goal.  Twice.  It was great. Three times if you include the first power play on January 23.  Then it was back to (bad) business as usual.  At least we got to see a functional unit function for a little bit before the All Star Game Break.

While the numbers and the eye test point to the Devils having an awful month of power plays, what are the real issues? I've complained often about the zone entries in the past.  But was it just that?  How often did the Devils gain the other team's zone and how often did they actually set up in something resembling a power play formation? And what did they do then?  To answer those questions and dig deeper into the team's issues, I watched all thirty one power plays from last month through NHL Gamecenter. (Saturday night; I was watching games that counted instead of an exhibition.)  I recorded how the Devils tried to enter the other team's end of the rink, who made the entry, how long did the Devils stay there, did they get set up into a formation, and how many attempts and shots did they get with each entry. Faceoffs all are counted separately as it forces the Devils to reset their formation. Pass backs by the opposition weren't counted.  I counted all attempts and shots myself so it'll differ from the official scorer (e.g. official play by play had ten attempts in the Dallas game; I counted fourteen. Such as it is with the Devils' home scorer).

If this sounds kind of familiar, then it's because I did the reverse last summer in tracking the Devils' penalty kills. While this is a sort of an apples-to-bananas comparison, it provides an idea of what other teams have done. Last season, opposition power plays carried the puck into the Devils' zone much more than they passed it or dumped it into the zone. They also collectively spent just over 60% of their power play time in New Jersey's end.  Recall that the Devils' power play ended up as a somewhat decent unit (abysmal start, brilliant comeback, decent second half of season).  Lastly, and most importantly, most if not all 29 teams had a breakout play or two to gain the zone and they often to chose to run it consistently than mix things up.  Keep this in mind as you read on what I learned from a month of largely unsuccessful power plays.

The Game-by-Game Breakdowns

Date Opp PP's Time In Zone % In Zone # Attempts # Shots # Entries # Set Ups
01/02/16 Dallas 4 06:40 03:55 58.75% 14 4 18 7
01/04/16 Detroit 2 04:00 01:38 40.83% 3 0 9 4
01/06/16 Montreal 3 05:00 02:02 40.67% 4 1 12 7
01/08/16 Boston 2 04:00 02:31 62.92% 5 1 7 5
01/10/16 Minnesota 2 02:13 01:43 77.44% 7 2 5 4
01/12/16 St Louis 3 04:12 01:54 45.24% 3 3 11 3
01/14/16 Colorado 3 06:00 03:37 60.28% 10 4 14 5
01/16/16 Arizona 2 04:00 01:38 40.83% 7 2 7 2
01/19/16 Calgary 2 04:00 01:28 36.67% 2 1 8 1
01/21/16 Ottawa 2 01:10 01:10 100.00% 6 4 2 2
01/23/16 Winnipeg 2 03:08 01:57 62.23% 6 2 8 4
01/26/16 Pittsburgh 4 08:00 04:38 57.92% 5 0 17 4
31 48m23s 28m11s 58.25% 72 24 118 48

The New Jersey Devils entered the zone 118 times.  Devils players themselves combined for 117 of these. It says 118 in the chart because one entry was really a continuation after a 5-on-3 ended, counted to include that abbreviated second power play in Minnesota on 1/10/16. That's attributed to player zero, for what it's worth. Technicality aside, the Devils averaged approximately 3.8 entries per power play situation last month. This does include faceoffs that started the power play.  They averaged roughly 0.61 shot attempts per entry and 0.2 shots on net per entry. Roughly 40% of their zone entries led to the Devils setting up in some kind of set formation.  Surprising to me, the Devils spent about 58% of their power play time in the opposition's end of the rink. They just spent most of it not really utilizing it.

Immediately from this chart, we can see one of the major issues.  While the Devils were able to gain the zone, they often did not lead to the team being able to get set up.  Why? There are three common occurrences. First, the zone entry itself may not be so successful.  Carrying or dumping the puck in only for the other team to pick up a loose puck or successfully defend the carrier means the time in the zone is a few seconds and the Devils have to start again.  Second, the players don't execute appropriately after the entry.  Several times, the Devils would be able to win the puck off a dump in or control the puck after going over the blue line. Within two passes, the opposition gets a clear either due to a bad pass or a bad decision being made by the puck carrier.  Third, the type of zone entry matters. For example, take a faceoff.  A won faceoff usually leads to success.  A lost faceoff is not the end of the play; every team, like New Jersey, has a strategy if the faceoff is lost. If the faceoff is lost and dropped to a spot where no Devil can challenge it, it's an easy clear.  It really does not take very long for a team to set up, but it always requires puck possession. The three occurrences I just listed all involved losing it or not having it.  Set ups didn't happen nearly enough and, as a result, there was little offense generated.

Zone entries were a big reason why I did this review; here's a game-by-game breakdown of what entries they did do.

Date Opp PP's # Entries # Set Ups # Dumps # Carries # Faceoffs # Passes # Etc
01/02/16 Dallas 4 18 7 5 4 7 2 0
01/04/16 Detroit 2 9 4 3 2 2 1 1
01/06/16 Montreal 3 12 7 2 5 4 1 0
01/08/16 Boston 2 7 5 0 3 2 2 0
01/10/16 Minnesota 2 5 4 0 0 3 1 1
01/12/16 St Louis 3 11 3 2 2 3 4 0
01/14/16 Colorado 3 14 5 4 5 4 1 0
01/16/16 Arizona 2 7 2 1 2 2 2 0
01/19/16 Calgary 2 8 1 3 1 3 1 0
01/21/16 Ottawa 2 2 2 0 0 2 0 0
01/23/16 Winnipeg 2 8 4 1 2 4 0 1
01/26/16 Pittsburgh 4 17 4 3 7 5 2 0
31 118 48 24 33 41 17 3

Faceoffs led the way in terms of entries by a plurality.  This isn't that much of a surprise. Every non-abbreviated power play has at least one offensive zone faceoff.  Any freeze by the goalie or a puck sent out of play (or in one case, another power play), there will be another faceoff. It's telling that the Devils forced only ten additional faceoffs, though.

Surprising to me, the Devils did not dump the puck into the zone as much as I thought they did.  24 dumps is still roughly 20% of the team's zone entries so it's not significant.  But they did more carry-ins than dumps, which is what I prefer.  The ecetra included one "entry" that was a continuation after a 5-on-3 (explained earlier) and two turnovers by the opposition. Since only three of those entries happened and they created a grand total of two shooting attempts, I will be mostly ignoring them for the rest of this review.

What did the four main types of zone entries generate?

Entry Type # Attempts # Shots # Entries
Dump 19 5 24
Carry 16 6 33
Faceoff 22 9 41
Pass 13 4 17
Etc. 2 0 3

Entries by offensive zone faceoff yielded the most attempts and shots on net.  Winning the puck off the draw or after losing it can pay off big.  In fact, three of the Devils' four power play goals were scored with the team getting set up after a faceoff entry - meaning, there was no zone exit by the opposition.  Curiously, dump-ins yielded nearly as many shots and a few more attempts than carry-ins.  I think that says more about the carry-in itself than the effectiveness of the Devils dumping it in.  All told, the numbers remain rather low so I wouldn't exactly praise the Devils' success at either type of entry.

Here's another way to look at it.  I counted the number of shot attempts and shots on net by entry. That is, after an entry was made, I counted what happened during it before the other team forced a zone exit.   Here's a breakdown of the frequency of attempts and shots per entry type in January.

Att. Count Dumps Carries Faceoffs Passes
0 14 23 28 8
1 5 6 7 6
2 2 2 3 2
3 2 2 3 1
4 1 0 0 0

Shot Count Dumps Carries Faceoffs Passes
0 19 27 34 13
1 5 6 6 4
2 0 0 0 0
3 0 0 1 0
4 0 0 0 0

Even when the Devils do set up their formation in the other team's end of the rink, it's not a guarantee that there will be any recordable offensive action.  It's important. 66 of the team's 72 power play attempts (by my count) and 21 of the team's 24 power play shots occurred when the Devils set up in the other team's end at some point after the entered the zone.  Yet, as you can see from the above charts, it's a lot of one-and-done situations.  Multiple attempts, much less multiple shots on net, were rare in January.  This speaks to issues with deciding when to shoot.  Of course, other teams can, will, and did make defensive plays on the Devils.  When it's more common for any kind of zone entry to lead to no shooting attempts than any non-zero number of shooting attempts and it happens against twelve different opponents, it leads me to think there's a problem with the Devils' power play.  Their execution after setting up in the other team's end of the rink clearly left a lot to be desired.

It's even more apparent when you consider the time spent in the zone per zone entry type.

Entry Dumps Carries Faceoffs Passes
Count 24 33 41 17
Avg Time 00:17 00:14 00:11 00:16
Total 06:54 08:00 07:58 04:32
W/ Set Up Dumps Carries Faceoffs Passes
Count 9 13 14 9
Avg Time 00:29 00:26 00:23 00:23
Total 04:26 05:38 05:30 03:30

The Devils were able to set up more often off carry-ins than another entry type. Even so, that was only about 39% of the time.  When they do get set up in the zone, the Devils do spend almost double the time on average that they do per all zone entry types on average, pass-ins excluded.  Set-ups took up the majority of time of time spent in the other team's end.  That makes sense. If the Devils had the puck and were able to get players off the puck into set areas, then they're able to move the puck and stay in the opposition's end longer.  If they lost the puck after an entry, then it's an easy clear and very little time was spent by the Devils in the zone. At the same time, this makes their lack of shooting attempts and shots on net sting more.  The Devils have had several instances in January of spending 20-40 seconds in the other team's end of the rink and only a mere shooting attempt - like a missed shot or a blocked shot - to show for it.  It was frustrating to watch live and it was frustrating watching it again upon review. Clearly, the Devils' power play units did not maximize their units.

Player Breakdown

In New Jersey's defense, they had a lot of different players on their units.  Injuries to several players that were regularly featured on the power play in this season forced others to come into play.  This included but is not limited to Michael Cammalleri, Jacob Josefson, John Moore, and David Schlemko.  Given the state of the Devils' depth, this meant we got to see called up players and other non-regulars step in for a bit.  Some eventually worked out like Joseph Blandisi. Some struggled like Reid Boucher. Others proved they don't belong like Marc-Andre Gragnani.

Here's a breakdown of the entries by each Devil; the types of entry by each Devil; how many times the team set up after that entry; and how many shots and attempted shots took place after their entry.

Devil # Devil # Entries # Set Ups # Dumps # Carries # Faceoffs # Passes # Attempts # Shots
2 Moore 3 2 3 0 0 0 4 1
6 Greene 1 1 1 0 0 0 1 0
8 Schlemko 6 2 4 2 0 0 4 1
11 Gionta 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 0
12 Boucher 2 2 1 0 0 0 4 1
13 Cammalleri 6 1 3 2 0 1 4 1
14 Henrique 24 9 4 3 14 3 12 3
16 Josefson 8 5 0 2 6 0 12 5
19 Zajac 25 12 0 8 15 2 12 5
20 Stempniak 8 3 2 3 0 2 1 0
21 Palmieri 7 1 2 4 0 1 2 1
22 Tootoo 5 2 0 2 0 3 4 2
28 Severson 4 3 0 1 0 3 2 1
38 Gragnani 2 1 0 1 0 1 4 2
44 Gelinas 2 0 0 1 0 1 0 0
46 Sislo 3 1 2 1 0 0 3 0
48 Kennedy 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 0
51 Kalinin 6 1 0 1 5 0 1 0
64 Blandisi 3 1 2 1 0 0 1 1

That's nineteen different players with at least one zone entry on power plays in January.  Again, the injuries tested the Devils' depth and the power play did suffer to a degree because of it.  The Devils with the most entries were the ones taking faceoffs; namely, Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique.  I counted a few more faceoff wins for Zajac than Henrique, but they yielded the same number of shooting attempts and only two additional shots on Zajac's draws.  Of course, it's pretty sad that out of twelve attempts created from each starting off a zone entry with a faceoff, only five got on target for Zajac and only three got on target for Henrique.   Their frequency of zone entries goes beyond faceoffs.  Take away faceoffs and they both led the Devils players with ten entries each. Henrique had a somewhat even mix of pass-ins, carry-ins, and dump-ins; Zajac never dumped the puck in.  For better and mostly worse, #14 and #19 were your power play leaders for trying to start something in January.

Jacob Josefson stuck out in a good way. While he didn't win all of his six faceoffs, he was present for as many shooting attempts as Zajac and Henrique with fewer total entries and games played.  Two faceoff entries of his led to the two power play goals in Ottawa. This points to the notion that a healthy Josefson was a big plus for the power play.

The rest of the team is a mish-mash of no one really excelling on entries. Lee Stempniak had the most without taking a draw with eight entries. But only one of them led to only one shooting attempt out of all of them.  Palmieri is occasionally set-up for a one-timer on power plays, but he didn't gain the zone all that much.  Ditto for Cammalleri; it was surprising to see him dump it in knowing how good of a passer he is.  David Schlemko had the most entries by a defenseman with six; alas, four of them were dump-ins (usually from the red line, too) and those six entries led to only four shooting attempts and one shot on net.  Sergey Kalinin looks good by this measure by way of taking five faceoffs. Given that I don't think he won any of them means he didn't look so good.

The larger point is that a lot of different Devils gained the zone in January. Injuries forced some players to play on a special team they ordinarily would not play. The team suffered to a point. But even when some regulars got healthy, the long and short of it is that several players were still involved and with few successes, Josefson excluded. And it's bleaker when faceoffs are ignored.

Concluding Thoughts

As sympathetic as I am to the Devils' injury woes in January, their power play was terrible by most measures. They were collectively filled with issues. Their shooting percentage didn't necessarily get really cold. The Devils only set-up in the other team's end of the rink in 48 out of 118 zone entries, or roughly 40% of the time. While the majority of time spent in the other team's end came when the Devils set up in a power play formation, they only took 72 shooting attempts and 24 of those hit the net.  The majority of those happened when the Devils were able to set up into a formation.  Faceoffs were the most common type of zone entry and yielded the most shots (9) and shooting attempts (22), but they only led to one more set-up than a carry-in. The majority of zone entries led more occurrences of no shooting attempts or shots on net taking place than any shooting attempts or shots on net.  Among players, Zajac and Henrique led in entries - both with and without faceoffs - and those two plus Josefson were the only Devils whose entries led to more than four shooting attempts on power plays in January.

Let me put that all into other words.  The Devils were inconsistent with the type of zone entry they had. They were very inconsistent in terms of who would take the entry outside of faceoffs. They often did not get set up for a power play opportunity. When they did, most of their shooting attempts were not on target.   All this while spending about the amount of time one would expect from a power play, despite some nights where getting beyond the blueline seemed like solving a Rubik's Cube. That means the Devils certainly did not make the most of their minutes to create offense, much less goals.  That's all why the power play essentially sucked last month.

The root causes of those issues are similar to what we know from the 2015-16 Devils: possession, decision-making, and execution are the forefront. Without possession, a team can't get set up and it only makes a power play more of a struggle than it can be.  Without making good decisions, even a successful zone entry can turn into less than five seconds in the zone with a bad read or a bad pass.  Successful power plays tend to require solid execution at moving the puck and shooting it.  It's how they got two power play goals against Ottawa.  With a third of all shooting attempts hitting the net, averaging only 1.5 shooting attempts per set-up, and averaging 0.61 shooting attempts per zone entry, the Devils' execution clearly wasn't where it needed to be last month. (What does good execution look like? Read this.) While missing some key players hurts in this regard, I think these are fundamentals for any power play, or any offensive hockey for the matter. I think if I did something similar to the team's play at 5-on-5, I'd see many of the same things.

I'll add a fourth root cause: coaching.  The Devils clearly have a formation in mind for the power play: the 1-3-1.  Great. Yet, I watched 118 zone entries out of 31 power play situations and the Devils are all over the place with respect to what they want to do and who to do it with.  Yes, the latter was affected by injuries. Yet, recall what I stated earlier in this post with respect to opposing team's power plays.  While it was last season, most teams would run their breakout play and try to get a zone entry - usually a carry-in - when they can. Even when the Devils' penalty kill was wildly successful, opposing teams still did that.  One never knew whether the Devils would go for a carry-in, a dump-in, or a pass-in, much less who would do it.  It would be mixed up during the same power play situation.  In theory, having multiple options for a zone entry can be beneficial.  In practice, like in this last month, the Devils were trying to be a jack of all entries and a master of none.  And opposing penalty killers weren't really bothered by it. I think this helped drive the lack of execution we've seen for the last month.

The corrective action that can be applied within this season is coaching.  Some are just personnel changes. Zajac and Henrique should be on separate units and taking draws initially. Josefson and (I guess) Kalinin (can Cammalleri take draws?) should be with them in case they get thrown out of the dot.  Winning a faceoff makes it easier for a team that struggles to set up after a zone entry.  Likewise, never put Marc-Andre Gragnani on a power play unit.  We've seen some of this already as the team is somewhat healthier than what they were at the start of January.

With a healthier roster, it'll be easier for John Hynes and his staff to determine what the power play should do before getting to set-up their 1-3-1.  What they should do is identify a few players to lead the breakout and determine how they want to gain the zone.  Carry-ins, while didn't lead to much on the shot count, led to more ice time and set-ups than the other two non-faceoff entries. Only a few players should be involved with the others available to provide the support after the puck goes over the blueline.  For example, have David Schlemko carry the puck up to the red line in the middlle, have him pass it to Adam Henrique waiting at the boards along the blueline, and then have Lee Stempniak or Mike Cammalleri get into a position for Henrique to send the puck their way. From there, the others can set up and the Devils can go.  It's not simple, but with enough practice, they'll nail down what they have to do and perform it even if the other team is expecting it.

Additionally, after they set-up in the zone, the team should establish what they should aim for.  We see this sometimes when Kyle Palmieri goes to the right circle and the team moves the puck around to set him up for a one-timer by #21.  Great.  Palmieri should be blasting one-timers. There needs to be other options for other units and other players. There will have to be adjustments, especially when a non-regular has to be involved. But there has to be some kind of direction because last month's power plays were statistically and visibly directionless.  We know the results of that.

Lastly, the shots created really do have to get on target.  A blocked or a missed shot (especially if it's at angle, going far post) can lead to an easy exit and force the Devils to start from scratch.   While retrieving loose pucks helps a power play keep going, that's not always an option. With 24 out of 72 shooting attempts reaching the net, the shots to create have to be better.  That can be addressed through this as well.

Those are what I would suggest the team do in February through April. I can agree the Devils could use more talented, offensive players. Better passers and puck carriers would really be ideal to address the other issues (better players execute, shoot, pass, and make decisions, well, better), and not just to help the power play. But it's hard to get the Jimmy's and the Joe's in the middle of the season. I don't think the Devils can trade for said Jimmy's and Joe's at this moment.  So the team should work on refining their X's and O's.  By establishing a few simple plays that the team can repeat, I would think the execution would get better.  That should lead to more functional power plays where the team is able to spend part of those two-minute intervals attacking instead of not really generating anything in the opposition's end of the rink.  And, hey, maybe there will eve be more goals. What I do know is that based on the last 31 power plays of the last month, how the New Jersey Devils perform on their power play needs to change.  Thank you for reading.