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Tricks & Treats of the New Jersey Devils’ Start to the 2017-18 Season

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With the New Jersey Devils on a break before their next game, this post looks closely at and explains the tricks and treats from the Devils’ 6-2 start to the 2017-18 season.

What’s a trick? What’s a treat? Let’s find out.
Personal photo

Halloween is coming up and the New Jersey Devils could actually enter it among the top three positions in the Metropolitan Division. The Devils have started off their season hot with a 6-2 record. They’ve scored 31 goals, which is astounding for a team typified by low scoring for the last several seasons. They have not just played lesser teams. No, the Devils won in Toronto, Ottawa, and New York (who are not so big this season, admittedly) while also vanquishing Tampa Bay at home. As the Devils are off, it is a good time as any to reflect on this run.

One common feeling I’ve seen here and elsewhere online where Devils fans congregate is one of caution. Yes, this run is great. But last season’s awful squad started that season with a 9-3-3 record. And look where they ended up. Others have dug a little deeper. Alex noted that the team’s possession in terms of Corsi For percentage remains on the wrong side of 50%. Elsewhere, Ryan Lambert of Puck Daddy focused on the Devils’ start recently. He noted that the team’s sticks are hot, the goalies are hot, and that’s really it. He’s not wrong on a lot of it. At the same time, I do think this team is different than the team that started off well for fifteen games and then fell off a cliff. With the holiday coming up, let’s decide what’s been a trick (things that are not good or not sustainable) and what’s been a treat (what is good and could actually stay that way for the most part).

Treat: The Shooting

The Devils are indeed hot shooters right now. As of Saturday before any games were played, they are shooting at 10.34% in 5-on-5 situations per Natural Stat Trick. In all situations, the Devils are shooting at 11.95%. Those are high percentages. They will not last short of a rare exception. Only two teams have shot above 10% for a whole season in 5-on-5 play: Toronto in a 48-game 2013 season and Washington in 2009-10. I do not see the Devils becoming the third team.

What I do see are more shots, more chances, more attempts in dangerous locations, and more reason to think they will score more. That’s the treat. Here are some important 5-on-5 rate stats from the last two seasons plus this Devils season.

Devils offensive rate stats as of 10-21-2017
Devils offensive rate stats as of 10-21-2017
Stats from Natural Stat Trick

The Devils were near or at the bottom in every one of these stats in 2015-16 and 2016-17. While it is only eight games old, the Devils’ rates are no longer near dead last. They’re much higher across the board, which speaks to how much they have generated. The most encouraging increases are in scoring chances, both for all scoring chances and high danger chances (slot and crease). The Devils have been able to generate more attempts in the slot, at the crease, and from the insides of the circles. Those are the areas most goals are scored from. It is not an accident that the darkest color in most of Natural Stat Trick’s heatmaps of the Devils shooting is right in front of the net in this season. The Devils have been able to get in those areas against a variety of opponents in their first eight games. Will they continue to shoot at 17% on high-danger chances? Probably not. Will they be around 8% on all scoring chances? Perhaps. Will the Devils be able to get more goals if they can keep getting these chances? Likely - and early indications show that they will. I don’t think all of the Devils’ opponents will be defensively sound and possession stalwarts like San Jose.

What is really encouraging is the expected goals value for the Devils. Per the occasionally-functioning Corsica, the Devils currently have a 2.9 xGF/60. That is one of the highest rates in the league. Even better: the model does not take shooting percentage into account. The breakdown of the model by Manny Elk in this 2016 post points out that the model is based on shot type, location, and situation. While it is not meant to be a solely predictive metric, it is a descriptive one. It backs up the notion that the Devils have been able to get plenty of dangerous shots. If they’ve done it well so far and they’re able to maintain it, then it bodes well for the offense even when the shooting percentage drops off.

Trick: The Shooting Percentage

As explained in the previous section, the Devils are enjoying some really high shooting percentages. These will not last short of the 2017-18 Devils being a grand exception not seen in the NHL for at least a decade. I’m having fun with all of the goals like everyone else, but expecting this to last for 82 games is foolish.

Let me put it this way: The Devils have scored 31 goals so far. Of those 31 goals, six were off deflections, two were created off the rebounds from missed shots off the endboards, one breakaway resulting from a defender mishandling a puck, and one was a total soft goal allowed by Peter Budaj. That’s about a third of the total goal production coming from chances that are either flukes or can go awry through the fault of nothing but physics. This does not mean the Devils will not get these goals in the future. But it does mean they’ve had some fortunate bounces. This does not even dive into whether teams will allow the kinds of rushes and situations that the Devils have capitalized on. The recent loss to San Jose is a good example of not getting the bounces that they were getting in games prior to that. That loss does not mean that the team will now suddenly go cold and go back to averaging less than two per game. It is a data point that indicates that the shooting percentage is not sustainable.

There is a mitigating factor. It’s the first treat: the shooting. If the Devils can truly maintain a higher volume of attempts, shots, and scoring chances than previous seasons, then they’ll still be able to score more goals than they have been even if the percentage drops. It is so early in the season to identify who is well above their usual rate; but I’d like to think Taylor Hall is not going to stay at 4%. Provided he keeps shooting, he’ll get his goals and everyone will benefit. Of course, those who have been super-hot (read: Jesper Bratt, Marcus Johansson, Miles Wood, and Brian Gibbons) will not stay above 25% in time.

Trick: The Opponents’ Shooting

Whereas the shooting by the Devils have been quite good to see, the shots against have also gone up. That’s quite bad. Per Natural Stat Trick’s 5-on-5 team stats, the Devils rank in the bottom ten in the NHL - and not near the margins of that group - in CA/60 (63.45), SA/60 (46.65), and SCA/60 (scoring chances against per 60, 33.56). The HDCA/60 (high danger scoring chances against per 60, 11.74) ranked 20th, or just outside of that group but that is small comfort given the other numbers. Worse, the only opponent who has been consistently in the top ten on offense has been San Jose. There are more potent offenses coming and they could really do a number on the Devils.

What this all means is what most Devils fans were most concerned about: the defense. I suggest expanding it to the defensive effort. While not all of the Devils’ defensemen are getting pinned back regularly, most of the regular defenders have a SA/60 above 30. It was not that long ago when only John Moore on the blueline would post a SA/60 above 30 (you don’t want to see what he has now). The team as a whole has been bleeding shots, attempts, and chances. It is a wonder that Schneider and Kinkaid have been so good in 5-on-5 play. But even they are going to have off nights and even when they have good nights, the volume may yield some shots that they are just not going to stop.

It is encouraging to see younger players like Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt help out on defense, but the skaters as a whole have to perform better in their own end. From their positioning to their aggressiveness to their communication, it all has to be better. They cannot just wait for the shot, win the rebound or make a block, and then go off to the races for a shot. The forwards need to provide more and better support and the defensemen need to stand their ground, especially around the net. Until that happens, this is going to be a nasty trick that will likely cause some bigger losses in games that may otherwise be closer or winning nights. Again: this was feared ahead of this season. The fear has come true.

Trick: The Special Teams

The penalty kill currently stands at a 78.6% success rate per NHL.com. The power play currently stands at a 22.9% success rate. Neither success rate is as indicative of their performances.

For the power play, the team has hit a lull with no power play goals since Drew Stafford’s equalizer against Tampa Bay. Worse: the team has not been as prolific in generating offense. Their CF/60 and SF/60 rates in power play situations rank near the bottom of the league at 85.4 and 48.1, respectively, per Natural Stat Trick. The same goes for scoring chances with a SCF/60 of 44.31 (fourth lowest to be precise). This would be fine if the Devils were scoring goals with some regularity. But their 8-for-35 stat belies their current 0-for-9 streak. With a TOI/GP of 5:13 on the power play, it is not like the Devils have not had their opportunities. But they have been recently squandered. While San Jose limited the Devils well in 5-on-5 play, the Devils bombed away on Ottawa. Therefore, it is not so much that they have been facing great defenses.

From these games and even in ones prior to this one, the old issues from last season’s power play have returned. Struggles with gaining the zone and getting set up to attack. Those issues have been exacerbated when someone makes an errant pass or just loses possession on their own, which has happened even in games where the power play gets a goal. It happened several times even before Stafford’s goal against Tampa Bay. It’s clear the team thinks highly of Will Butcher and they have the players on paper to have two legitimate units running a 1-3-1 system. But to still see dump-ins, players forcing passes across the slot where penalty killers reign, and players just make errors in execution tells me there is a lot of work to be done. Some new ideas may be needed. It could right itself after some practices in this long break in games. But expect the power play success rate to fall lower and lower as those issues remain at large.

As for the penalty kill, a 78.6% is not so hot of a success rate. But it is not as if the Devils have been getting lit up as if they were playing Toronto every night. No, the Devils’ CA/60 (97.7) and SA/60 (52.27) rates on the PK rank in the upper half of the league. Their scoring chance against rates for both all chances (54.32) and high-danger chances (20.94) are around the league median. This is not a team giving up loads of shots or opportunities. There are two big issues at hand. The first may correct itself in time: goaltending. Keith Kinkaid has been perfect so far whereas Cory Schneider is rocking an 83% on the PK. That’s not good. However, Schneider has a 93% save percentage in even strength play - it is not like he is forgetting how to stop pucks when the Devils go down a man. It is more likely that the other team has made the most of their opportunities. A closer look at his goals against may be warranted to see whether it is really him or someone making an error. I’d like to think with more games, Schneider’s PK Sv% will correct itself. Unfortunately, Kinkaid will not likely stay perfect.

The bigger issue is the fact that the Devils’ PK has been utilized as much as it is. Repeat after me: too many penalties! The Devils’ TOI/GP for penalty killing situations is 8:44 - the second highest in the NHL. As of Saturday night, the Devils are tied for the most shorthanded situations in the NHL with 42 per NHL.com. The Devils have also averaged over five minor penalties per game in their first eight games. The Devils have allowed five shorthanded situations in six out of their eight games so far. Even if you like how the penalty killers are performing and even if Schneider is doing well in net, handing out power play after power play night after night can and does lead to failures. Even if you like how aggressive the Devils’ PK units are and you enjoy the likes of Jesper Bratt, Adam Henrique, Brian Gibbons, and Blake Coleman threaten in shorthanded situations, this is too much. The Devils can help themselves by just being smarter with their sticks and their bodies. It is not like they’re suffering the emphasis on slashing calls and are too thick to learn from it. Plenty are just stupid decisions like raising a stick at a guy behind you after a dump-in or cross-checking someone away from the play or tripping up a player for little gain. The coaches know this is an issue as players have been benched and have had their ice time cut for penalties in some of these games. Expect this to continue to get it right. But the mitigation factor remains: if the Devils can stop going to the PK so much, then the PK success rate may improve to be more reflective with how they’re performing. The goalies aren’t being shelled and they will be less likely to face those dangerous chances that have been getting in.

Treats: The Devil Skaters Above 50 CF%: Top Forwards, Depth Forwards, and the Top Defensive Pairing

The Devils are not a good possession team but there are five players above 50% CF% who have also played at least fifty minutes in 5-on-5 hockey per Natural Stat Trick. They are: Stefan Noesen, Andy Greene, Damon Severson, Brian Gibbons, and Taylor Hall. If we adjust for score and venue, you can add Kyle Palmieri to that group with Adam Henrique and Blake Coleman barely missing 50%. And those two may be added given how few offensive zone starts they receive - especially Coleman. While CF% is not the only thing that matters, but a positive CF% for a player means the team is out-attempting their opposition when the player is on the ice. That’s an important aspect and the Devils certainly did not have enough of those players last season (or the season before that). What is remarkable is that this group includes two to three top line forwards (Hall, Palmieri with adjustments), three bottom-six forwards (Noesen, Gibbons, and Coleman with adjustments), and the team’s top defensive pairing (Greene and Severson). Some of these players have some absolutely tough offensive zone start percentages, which only makes these values more impressive.

The most impressive one is a guy who has not really received a lot of credit this season: the captain Andy Greene. This “old” man has been quite good against some really tough competition and a offensive zone start percentage of about 34%. Greene is among the lowest CA/60 and SA/60 rates in 5-on-5 play and when he’s on the ice, the Devils tend to outscore their opponents. Those are all good things for a defenseman I and probably some other Devils fans were hoping he may not fully decline. This start from him makes me hopeful that the decline will at least be delayed. I also like to think he’s been helped by having Severson with him for the most part. While Severson has had some bad moments, it has been a positive pairing given both of their stats. As the two have been lit up for a lot of goals, then I think the coaches will keep them together - as they should have done last season.

This is not to shame the forwards either. Hall, Palmieri, and Henrique have not faced scrubs in 5-on-5 play. That they have come out ahead in attempts overall is a good thing. The future may be on the roster, but those three (among others) need to set examples today. Seeing Noesen, Gibbons (San Jose game notwithstanding) and Coleman fare well in the face of limited minutes and tough zone starts points to their usefulness so far. Their utilization by the coaches has been good so far and should they maintain it, those coaches will find ways to keep them in the lineup. The team as a whole is on the wrong side of CF%, but a number of Devils are on the right side.

Trick: The Devils Not Doing Well in CF%, or The Rest of the ‘D’ and the Middle of the Lineup

While there are Devils on the right side or on the cusp of breaking even in attempt-differential, there are several well on the wrong side of it. That has not helped the larger cause and if it continues, it will likely cause further issues for the team.

Per Natural Stat Trick, here is a run down of who is on the wrong side. Mirco Mueller has been remarkably good for the opposition’s offense as when he’s on the ice, the team’s CF% is less than 40%. Steve Santini has been thought to be a defensive defenseman of the future and he has been playing more on defense in 5-on-5 situations than anywhere else. Miles Wood was heinous in CF% last season and he’s low again to start this season. Jimmy Hayes and Drew Stafford were brought in to strengthen the right wing position and most of their 5-on-5 time has not been on offense. Young players like Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Will Butcher have done plenty - but driving the play has not been one of them. I highlight all of these players as they are below 47% CF% as of this writing, which is lower than the team’s 5-on-5 CF% of 47.66%.

There are mitigating factors all over the place here. First, it has only been seven or eight games for these players (five for Stafford). Plenty can change. Second, most of these players have something else going for them that makes this not such a massive problem. For example: expecting the 18 and 19 year old Hischier and Bratt to be play drivers right away is too much of an expectation. Ditto for Butcher, who has also begun his professional career. For another example: Santini has one of the lowest offensive zone start percentages on the team at 19.3% - he is often seen in his own end because that is where he starts off. For a third example: Wood, Hayes, and Stafford have slightly better percentages when it comes to unblocked shot or actual shot differentials.

Third and above all, most of these players have contributed in other ways. This is not to say these players have all been bad. This is to say that if you’re wondering who has dragged down the team’s less than stellar CF%, these are the players. If you’re on the coaching staff, then this may be a reason to want to look at what could be done. Could they be utilized better? Could they be given different instructions? Drew Stafford was not brought in to be a defensive machine; what you see is what you get from him. Have him get shots and if he’s scoring, then that’s what you have for him. The younger players like Hischier, Bratt, Wood, and Butcher could be given better instructions as far as what to do. Santini may be actually not so bad; we may just not notice because, again, he’s being given a really unfavorable zone start ratio.

Treat: Roster Depth

I do appreciate and think it is an asset that the Devils are carrying and utilizing a full roster. While they have all of two of these situations, the Devils have kept to splitting back-to-backs for starts. Starting Keith Kinkaid in MSG was a big deal; in the past, a big rivalry game would have demanded the #1 to play even if he did so the night before. Poor performances out of players like Mueller - who has not been so good this season - has not stopped the coaches from rotating in another defenseman. Say what you want about Dalton Prout and Ben Lovejoy, but their presence at least forces those in the lineup to try to play well. The same applies at forward; Jimmy Hayes, Miles Wood, and Stefan Noesen have all been in and out at points in the season. If you want John Hynes to show accountability in a big way, then you got it (perhaps to a fault) in benching players - young and experienced - for really poor penalties and performances in games. The larger point is that you’re not likely going to see the same twelve forwards and six defensemen; players will come in and out as needed.

What’s more is that the Devils’ depth could be added if it comes to that. Brian Boyle is back in practice and his eventual return could soak up some of the tougher minutes to make things easier for others. Later in the season, Travis Zajac will return and that will strengthen the center position. In Binghamton, Nick Lappin and John Quenneville have started off their season well. Should the Devils need additional forwards, those two should be ready to jump right in. Unless this season goes south, the 2017-18 Devils may have legitimate NHL players or fringe NHL players make up most of their depth in the lower end of the depth chart and for call ups. That is a plus over last season and it gives the team some flexibility in setting up their rosters.

Treat: A Contributing Group of Young Players

While they are not driving the play well in 5-on-5, the younger players on the Devils roster have been quite useful. I do think they will be able to contribute throughout most of this season based on what they have done so far. Jesper Bratt has been an impressive player so far. From just being a standout in prospect games, Bratt has taken a roster spot, he has been given significant minutes and penalty killing duties, and he has made the most of it. His production has stalled a bit, but given how he’s pushing for offense in shorthanded situations and has played with remarkable discipline (zero penalties!), he is not just a guy on the ice. Expect Bratt to play his ninth game soon and keep on going in New Jersey. Nico Hischier has displayed plenty of talent from stickhandling, reading offensive plays, coming back to try and help on defense, and going hard to the net and other “dirty” areas. The points are now coming for him and while his game will need further refinement, he has been rather good for an 18-year old thrust into big minute situations. Will Butcher has been providing legitimate passes for goals and has backed a power play. He could use work in terms of his defensive play and what kind of zone entries he should aim for on the power play; but his passing has been on point for the most part.

Young players on the roster that were on the team last season have also contributed in positive fashions. Pavel Zacha has not been a doormat higher up in the depth chart and has displayed some more initiative in his play. Miles Wood still has his issues with discipline and defensive effort, but he is not just flying around completely directionless and he has averaged close to two shots per game so far. Steve Santini may not be necessarily turning all of those defensive situations into positive ones, but he is also not getting floored in the shots against department like John Moore. Damon Severson, as mentioned earlier, is one of the team’s better players in the run of play. Ditto the 24-year old Noesen. The only young player that really has not contributed much has been Mueller and, again, that’s why he has not stayed consistently in the lineup so far at the start of this season.

While it remains to be seen whether they can all keep it up, what it means is the fans are seeing the future of the team develop before their very eyes. They’re not just players getting minutes because this season does not matter and so they’ll just be on the ice in the NHL and we can hope by somehow just being there will make them better players. No, these are players who have brought something to the table. Whether it is production, filling a role on special teams, or displaying some skill they have to help the team; they are adding something - even if they are held pointless or have a nondescript night. This was not present last season when they started 9-3-3 and then fell off a cliff. That adds to the excitement from this season’s team at this start. Sure, the tricks and the issues they present could result in the 2017-18 Devils missing the playoffs by a lot again. But the idea of a rebuild is to build towards something. And the pieces to do that are already in Newark and wearing the bedeviled NJ. Combined with the skillsets from not-really-old players like Hall, Palmieri, and Henrique, they have been a treat to watch. I think they will be long after Halloween passes and pumpkins are tossed.

Your Take

This is how I see the team’s start. With the Devils off until Friday (As a total aside, bring a coat to either the Friday or Saturday games! It’s a two-night Annual Coat Drive per the Devils’ own schedule at their site.) What do you think of the team’s start so far? What do you think will last beyond this start (say, the next few months) or what will not? What has been a trick or treat in your perspective? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the team in the comments. Thank you for reading.