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The Low Shot Assist Rates of the 2015-16 New Jersey Devils

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Sean Tierney’s work on shot assists - passes that set up shots - reveals that most of the New Jersey Devils were very low in this category. I look more closely at the numbers and get surprised that Tyler Kennedy is on the good side of this metric.

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils
Tyler Kennedy (on the ice after being checked) led the Devils in something last season. Seriously.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The efforts to drive hockey analytics by hockey fans who want to learn and understand the game like never before continue to impress me. And I’m proud to say that this site provided a platform that led to one of the larger efforts within analytics. Ryan Stimson’s passing project has been a voluntary effort to track every single pass in every single game in 5-on-5 play. While the data is not fully complete, there have been hundreds of games and thousands of events tracked; both more than enough to start digging into what could be identified. One of them are shot assists.

They are what they’re called. A pass (or a touch or something) that leads to a goal is recorded as an assist on the scoresheet. A pass that leads to a shooting attempt is a shot assist. Rather than relying solely on assist to totals or on-ice Corsi to sort-of extrapolate who is and is not good at making plays, shot assists get to the heart of the matter. They tell us who is creating shots and how often they do so. Sean Tierney at Today’s Slapshot has delved deep into the concept of shot assists and has a very good overview of what they are, mathematically justifying why the matter, and - most of all - a summary of how the league stacks up with an interactive tableau to view the individual values. While a pass may not necessarily result in a shot, there’s reason to think there is some repeatable skill involved in generating offense from passes. So this is a stat that many should become familiar with if you’re interested in who is truly creating offense on the ice.

Ahead of that article, he was taking on requests on Twitter for team-specific charts. After writing “Welp” for Detroit - a team with a 54.03 CF/60 and 29.44 SF/60 per Corsica - I had to ask about the New Jersey Devils. We know they finished dead last by rate and gross Corsi and shots in 5-on-5 play last season. Relative to the league, the Devils were decidedly the least prolific offense in the league and has been for the better part of the last nine seasons. I didn’t expect it to be pretty. Tierney’s graph wasn’t:

Double welp is an understatement. I sighed heavily when I saw this in real life. I sighed again when Ryan informed me that this is from 73 games tracked from the Devils’ 2015-16 season. While I prefer 82 games, I don’t think nine games is enough to significantly move the proverbial needle. This is quite bad. Where to start with this?

Some Context

Context is important. While incomplete, there’s been hundreds of games tracked for Ryan Stimson’s Passing Project last season. Tierney has performed his analysis among players who have played at least one hundred minutes in 5-on-5 play. From that, Tierney has found that, in 2015-16, the NHL average forward averaged about 9.6 shot assists per sixty minutes; the average defenseman averages about 5.5 shot assists per sixty minutes.

How did the Devils stack up to that? The New Jersey Devils had only one defenseman right at the average for their position: Damon Severson at 5.43 shot assists per sixty minutes. They only had two forwards above average and neither were regulars for the whole season: Tyler Kennedy at 12.50 shot assists per sixty minutes and Joseph Blandisi at 9.8 shot assists per sixty minutes. Everyone else was below their respective positional average. As a “bonus,” Devante Smith-Pelly is currently dead last in 2015-16 shot assist rate within the entire dataset of the league with 0.80 shot assists per sixty minutes.

Yes, Tyler Kennedy led in something offensive on the 2015-16 New Jersey Devils. I give you the gift of surprise. Drink it in, man - if you dare.

If that’s not enough, consider the Arizona Coyotes. According to Corsica, they finished 29th in 5-on-5 shots for per sixty minutes last season. Even they had more players with a higher shot assist rate above league average at their position than the Devils in 2015-16. Tierney’s graph for New Jersey simply provides further evidence as to how bad they were from an offensive perspective.

Thoughts on This Welp-Worthy Graph by Position

Let’s go through this graph by position. Assume all values are shot assists per sixty minutes from here on out. On defense, Severson appears to be right at league average. David Schlemko (5.18) and Andy Greene (5.15) were just below it. Then there’s a drop off to a four declining rates: Jon Merrill (4.38), John Moore (4.09), Eric Gelinas (3.89), and Adam Larsson (3.54). Seth Helgeson (2.27) made the cut off for minutes and this further shows what an anchor he was.

All the same, none of the Devils defensemen can really be called offensive defensemen. Gelinas had a shot; he wasn’t making passes that yielded shots. Larsson’s main value was in his own end; this provides reason why he wasn’t used in more offensive situations. Both Greene and Larsson played a lot together in 5-on-5, so seeing the stark difference in shot assist rates really suggests that between the two, Greene was more offensive. I get the idea behind resting Greene for power plays, but I wonder how much more effective it would have been if Greene or Severson was on those units to make passes instead of, say, Moore. These values suggested that Moore wasn’t well suited for such a role. Alas, there weren’t many options at points last season. The sad thing is that it may get worse before it gets better. Schlemko is gone along with Larsson. As much as it’ll have an impact on the back end, there doesn’t appear to be anyone to step up to really fill in that gap. Particularly by Schlemko despite being below league average in shot assist rate. What about Ben Lovejoy? While Pittsburgh was certainly a more productive offense, the incoming Ben Lovejoy finished dead last on his team - all skaters - with a 2.8 shot assist per sixty minute rate. My thinking after looking at just the defensemen is that Ray Shero would be wise to make getting an offensively skilled defenseman or two a priority for the following season. Even if Severson develops and solidifies a regular spot on either the first or second pairing.

Of course, as long as the defensemen get the puck up to the forwards and they can create it, then perhaps that’s OK. Unfortunately, the forwards aren’t creating as much. Again, Kennedy and Blandisi were the only ones above the league average shot assist rate for forwards. Blandisi is young and has a future in this league. Especially if he cuts down on the dives, the penalties, and the other negatives. The other is Tyler Kennedy. Both didn’t play a lot of minutes with the Devils; it’s possible that a full season or more minutes would have yielded an even lower rate.

In fairness, there were three forwards who were in New Jersey’s top six for their entire time with the team last season that finished not too far from league average. They were Travis Zajac (9.3), Adam Henrique (9.0), and Lee Stempniak (8.9). Henrique, Stempniak, and - when healthy - Mike Cammalleri (7.9) were a productive line for the first half of last season. I wonder if a fully healthy Cammalleri would have meant more games for the unit to stay together and produce offense. Unfortunately, wishing for a healthy Cammalleri is exactly that: a wish. Regardless, this just means that they were the best of the bunch among the players who were regulars on the top two lines.

My general takeaway among the forwards brings to mind a comment that I think Triumph44 made a while back. That the Devils have plenty of players who can shoot the puck, they don’t have players to get them the puck. And that’s really apparent here. There’s just a lot of forwards between 5.5 and 8 shots assists per game, which is well below the league average for forwards. Sure, Kyle Palmieri (6.6) may be someone who should be encouraged to shoot more often than pass it (I would guess Zajac was giving him the puck regularly), but should this rate not improve with better talent around him, then this points to Palmieri being a bit more one-dimensional than originally thought. To a lesser degree, Reid Boucher (7.7) may be in a similar vein. Depending on what the coaches want for a left wing role, the shot assist rate may suggest Blandisi a kind of edge over Reid Boucher. Smith-Pelly, as noted earlier, is dead last in the league in this stat. I’m sure with more time, he would have made some passes but he’s definitely a shoot-first player. But again, who’s going to get him (or others) the puck to succeed? Most of the “depth” players and some of the forwards higher up the depth chart weren’t making a lot of passes for shots. A good number of these players are not returning, but it is up to Shero to obtain replacements that are at least more effective at moving the puck.

There is at least some immediate hope for this position. He’s New Jersey’s newest #9: Taylor Hall. Hall finished third on the entire Edmonton roster with a shot assist rate of 13.8. Only Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl finished better than him. And most the players ahead of Hall in shot assist rates. New Jersey likely has a different system, but Hall should be able to provide some relief. I am about a million percent sure he will easily replace Tyler Kennedy in this regard (and in about every other on-ice regard).

Overview Again

While Hall will likely be great and help out quite a bit, Tierney’s graph points to why I’m not totally sold on the 2016-17 Devils being that much more prolific on the attack. If some players improve and/or provide a higher rate, then we’ll see in action and it should be a lot of fun. Yet, I still think the team’s passing was at a fault from last season and until that changes either by way of tactics, personnel (an offensive-minded and skilled defenseman appears to be a big need in this light) or (likely) both, we may see something similar to last season.

I will admit that there is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg argument to be made. If the pass doesn’t lead to a shot, there’s no shot assist. The Devils didn’t take a lot of shots last season in 5-on-5 play; they had the lowest rate in the league. So of course the shot assist rates would be low. I get that.

At the same time, I would argue its because the shot assist rates are relatively low pretty much across the roster speaks to a larger issue with the team’s offense. From sheer observation of attending 30-plus games and watching 70-plus games last season, I’ve lamented the team’s passing in so many game recaps and in other posts. Whether it was repeatedly watching cleared pucks instead of actual breakouts, fumbled pucks in the neutral zone, or offensive moves leading to nothing, there were just a lot of long stretches without any shots. I think the puck movement really is at heart of it. Of course, without the data, I can’t really justify that anymore than saying it is what I believe.

Fortunately, there’s the so much more to be dug into the data collected through Ryan’s passing project. As shot assist rates are one takeaway from the data - an excellent one highlighted by Sean Tierney - I’m hopeful that there could be data to identify how successful a team is at moving the puck out of their own end and in the neutral zone. I think it will be there that we will see the Devils’ issues. Will I get to it? We’ll see soon enough.

In the meantime, I want to know what you think. Were you surprised to see the Devils players rate so low? Were you surprised to see Tyler Kennedy have the highest shot assist rate? What do the low rates among the defensemen mean to you? Does this graph identify any new team needs in your opinion? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about shot assists and passing in the comments. Thanks again to Sean Tierney for the graph and his work into shot assists as well as Ryan and his passing project people for collecting all of this data. Most of all, thank you for reading.