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New Jersey Devils 2017-18 Season Preview Part 4: The Special Teams

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Special teams were not kind to the 2016-17 New Jersey Devils. Their power play and penalty kill success rates were in the bottom third in the league. As a part of the AATJ 2017-18 Season Preview, this post breaks down what happened with special teams and what to expect - good and bad - for this coming season.

Winnipeg Jets v New Jersey Devils
Get ready for a lot of Adam Henrique on both special teams. Especially with Travis Zajac out.
Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

One of the many areas where the New Jersey Devils struggled last season are special teams. Both their power play and their penalty kill yielded success rates that ranked in the bottom third of the National Hockey League. While most of the game is played in 5-on-5 - a situation the Devils performed poorly in last season - special teams can absolutely turn the tide of a game. This is a part of the team that ideally would improve as part of a larger goal of showing improvement as a team. Can they do so? Let’s look at where they are coming from and what they might do to in order to set some expectations.

What Happened Last Season with the Power Play?

I lamented the Devils’ power play in too many comments, recaps, and Tweets in this past season. So many opportunities seemingly wasted. So many dump-ins and turnovers to end forward movement. So many shorthanded goals against. I was not a fan. Let’s look at the numbers rather than focus on memories of the past.

The overall success rate was not as bad as that seems - but it was not all that good either. According to NHL.com, the Devils’ success rate was 17.5%, which was the 22nd highest rate in the league. The team went 44 for 251 to get that mark. Their 251 power play opportunities was tied with Anaheim for the eleventh most in the NHL. Their 44 goals ranked 20th in the NHL. Perhaps it would be more fair to state that the team had plenty of opportunities relative to most teams - and they did not score so many goals. Further, their 44 goals were almost entirely 5-on-4 goals as the team converted just one (1) 5-on-3 goal all season. The thought about the shorthanded goals was fair as originally written. Their 12 shorthanded goals allowed were the most in the NHL last season. That just stands out as bad on its own.

The team stats at Natural Stat Trick go a little a deeper and really highlight that the Devils’ power play was not all that effective. Their rate stats for the power play show the following:

  • The Devils’ Shots For per 60 minute rate was 48.1, which was the ninth lowest rate in the NHL. This would be fine if the Devils were scoring plenty of PPGs. They weren’t though.
  • The Devils struggled to get scoring chances. Their Scoring Chance For per 60 minute rate was 44.31, which was the fourth lowest rate in the NHL. Their High Danger Scoring Chance For per 60 minute rate was 18.65, which was the twelfth lowest rate in the NHL. The Devils’ shooting percentages in those situations were roughly 11.4% and 20.3%, respectively. When they were able to get chances, they finished them at a good rate. The issue was getting the chances at all.
  • Over all shots, the Devils’ shooting percentage during the power play was 12.54%. That percentage put the Devils right at the league median. Again, a fine rate - when the Devils were able to get shots off at all.

This all points to a New Jersey power play that really did have issues in terms of generating shots and scoring chances, which are shots within and around the slot. While the rates seem high on their own (it is a power play after all), that they were low in comparison to the other NHL teams shows that they were not high enough.

Why so many issues? It seems like a cliche but the power play lacked a real identity. While the team preferred to set up in a 1-3-1 format, this was not always the case as one of the wingers could drop back to play the point. Even so, there were few common plays that the team would try. Making matters worse was the lack of consistency in personnel. According to NHL.com, only three Devils skaters played more than 200 minutes on the power play (Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac), nine skaters, but twenty skaters averaged at least fifty seconds per game on the power play in 2016-17. You cannot say that John Hynes and his staff were not willing to give some players chances on the man advantage that they may otherwise not receive. Sure, injuries, last season being a lost one in early 2017, and the timing of certain call-ups led to plenty of power play usage for players that otherwise would not get it on other teams. It still did not really work all that well based on the team stats.

The most productive power player on the Devils was Palmieri with eight goals, eleven assists, and sixty shots on net per NHL.com. It is telling that Palmieri, Taylor Hall (45), and Michael Cammalleri (40) were the only skaters to put up over 40 shots on net. Even Henrique and Zajac, who played a lot of gross power play ice time, did not shoot thirty even shots on net. If there were plans, then it tended to end up on these guys to fire away. Results were mixed as the three combined for sixteen goals: eight for Palmieri, seven for Hall, and just one for Cammalleri. If there were any nice surprises among the scorers, then it was Pavel Zacha who scored five goals out of twelve shots while also providing eight assists.

Previewing the 2017-18 Power Play

If there was one aspect of the team that was not all that hot in preseason, then it was the power play. That was somewhat understandable given that the team only had a handful of practices before jumping right into a preseason schedule of seven games over nine days. The penalty-filled games were opportunities for both teams to really practice their power play. Given that it was preseason, rosters were mixed up enough to not really get a feel for what the power play will try to do. It may be another 1-3-1 formation given that the coaching staff remains the same from last season. The team will likely prefer to have four forwards and one defenseman given who they have acquired this Summer.

What is new are the players. Among those twenty players who averaged at least fifty seconds per game on the power play last season, only nine made it to the 23-man roster announced on Tuesday. And it is not likely that Andy Greene or John Moore will be a major part of it unless the roster commands it. The Devils did add defenseman Will Butcher and forwards Nico Hischier, Marcus Johansson, Drew Stafford, and Brian Boyle to the organization. Johansson, Stafford, and Boyle have averaged at least a minute per game on their respective team’s power plays last season. Johansson was especially utilized on Washington’s notorious top power play unit. Boyle, who we hope is able to play as soon as possible, can take some minutes on a secondary unit and at least use his size to cause screens in front. I think Stafford was signed in part because he has been good in front of the net and in power play situations. He’s quite good at passing the puck in tight spaces, which is a plus. With Travis Zajac out for several months, Stafford can be the man in the middle of the 1-3-1 and pounce on opportunities as he sees fit. I think that will be the plan with him for now.

While they are rookies, I would expect to see plenty of Butcher and Hischier on man advantages to at least start the season. Butcher was given lots of minutes on the power play in preseason. Even in a game with Damon Severson, it was Butcher who was the lone defender on the ice with Palmieri, Hall, and Johansson on power plays. His passing skills and shot from the point are well suited for man advantage situations. The Devils are hoping he can be a viable contributor on a power play unit like they use Severson. Assuming when he does play; the Devils are carrying eight defensemen right now and who knows how long that lasts or how often Butcher stays in the lineup. As for Hischier, the 2017 first overall draft pick has shown that he has plenty of skill in his hands, grit in his game, and mind for both ends of the rink. It is unclear where would be the best place for him, but you can bet that the Devils will want to give him plenty of offensive situations to figure that out. He’ll at least stay on the roster as long as he is not injured.

Additionally, as a sort of wild card, the Devils will try to include Mirco Mueller as a potential third option whenever Butcher is not in or if they want to provide a different look. Mueller has to effectively establish whether he is a NHL defenseman at all. He did have a good preseason, which is a good step towards that. It was highlighted by two goals from the point, both right off faceoffs. It remains to be seen whether Mueller’s slapshot is a repeatable threat and that he could be a point man on a power play. I do appreciate Mueller getting this opportunity instead of the Devils trying John Moore again, although I could see Moore getting some PP time if Mueller falters. Over the season, assuming this experiment works out and Butcher does become a regular, I’d expect the main power play defensemen to include Butcher, Severson, and possibly Mueller.

These additions will join a power play side that already includes Palmieri, Hall, Henrique, Severson, and Zacha. Throw in someone like Miles Wood or eventual callups Joseph Blandisi and John Quenneville, and the Devils coaches have some options at hand. They could form one unit that will primarily feed Palmieri passes to the left circle for one-timers like they did in 2015-16. They could form another unit with a different approach to keep opposing penalty killers guessing. They could load up on one unit and have multiple players given the green light to fire if they have a good shot. It is like a puzzle - the coaches seemingly have plenty of pieces to put a picture together.

What the team really needs to sort out first is how they approach making that picture. Again, the stats from Natural Stat Trick were consistent with a team that had problems with gaining the offensive zone and getting into shooting situations. The shooting percentage was fine, it was the shots that were lacking. What I recall from last season is consistent with that. If all Butcher is told to do is dump the puck in for a chase that likely fails or the unit is focused on passing rather than someone taking initiative, then the new additions will not be as effective. The coaches really need to step up this season in terms of coming up with breakout plays that the players can utilize, plays to run when they do get set up in the formation that they want, and means to improve puck control. The Devils power play can save themselves plenty of frustration and goals against with better movement and protection of the puck. If the Devils’ coaches and players can improve in those areas, then they’ll likely have more opportunities to get more shots on net, get more scoring chances, and (hopefully) get more goals. Improvement on the power play is a real possibility in 2017-18; it’ll take plenty of effort to get it.

What Happened Last Season with the Penalty Kill?

The defensive side of special teams was not good last season either. Their success rate at killing penalties was 79.6%, which ranked 23rd in the NHL. This percentage came from allowing 53 goals out of 260 opportunities. Those values are worth knowing as the Devils allowed the sixth most power play goals in the league last season while also finishing tied for eight for the most times shorthanded. Discipline and stopping goals were not pluses as part of the PK. Scoring goals was relatively OK with six shorthanded goals. If there was any notable plus about the NJ PK, then it would have been their road penalty kill. For reasons I am not sure about, the Devils’ success rate on the road was one of the best in the league at 84.5% (22 PPGAs out of 142 situations). This plus was negated by their home penalty kill, which yielded the worst home success rate in the whole league at 73.7% (31 PPGAs out of 118 situations).

Looking further at the team numbers shows that it was not as if the Devils’ PK units bled a lot of shots. According to Natural Stat Trick, the team’s per-sixty minute rate stats on the penalty kill were not too bad. New Jersey’s Corsi against rate (97.7, 12th in NHL), shots against rate (52.27, 12th), and scoring chances against rate (54.32, 14th), all finished above the league median. Their high danger scoring chance against rate (20.94, 16th) was just below the league median. These are all not too bad. They are not amazing and they could be better, but they all point to a PK unit that was OK when it came to allowing attempts, shots, and scoring chances. They had some good nights and some bad nights, but it evened out.

So what was worse than being around or a bit above the median that led to a success rate that below the league median? All signs point to the goaltending. Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid combined for a team PK save percentage of 86.13%, the tenth lowest in the league last season. Schneider was below average in shorthanded situations with his lowest PK Sv% as a Devil at 85.5%. His previous low was in 2015-16 at 88.9%; that’s how big of a drop off it was last season. Kinkaid was around average with a 87.4%. While this was an issue in 2016-17, penalty killing save percentages can be volatile. Just some better puck luck could lead to improvement for both Schneider’s and Kinkaid’s save percentages in shorthanded situations. That alone may push the Devils’ penalty kill success rate to be closer to where the rate stats were.

Getting away from the goalies and onto the skaters, the main four skaters for the penalty kill were Ben Lovejoy, Andy Greene, Travis Zajac, and Adam Henrique according to the ice time stats at NHL.com. Lovejoy and Greene were leaned on as they both averaged over three minutes of shorthanded ice time per game. The second unit (or if Lovejoy or Greene were unavailable) had a mix of Kyle Quincey, John Moore, Jon Merrill, and Steve Santini sharing minutes. As for forwards, Vernon Fiddler and Sergey Kalinin both played quite a bit on the PK until both were no longer Devils last season. Other forwards that averaged around a minute or more of PK time that were given chances included Devante Smith-Pelly, Blake Pietila, Blake Coleman, Blake Speers in his three games, and Kyle Palmieri. Only Coleman and Palmieri return in 2017-18.

How did they do? The top four in minutes did relatively well. According to Natural Stat Trick, 226 players played at least 100 minutes on the PK last season. When ranked by shots against per sixty minutes, Lovejoy, Greene, Zajac, and Henrique all finished in the top 100. Lovejoy, Greene, and Zajac all had SA/60 rates below 50 and Henrique below 52. Those are some solid rates from a shot prevention standpoint. I’d go as far as to say that this was where Lovejoy was the most valuable and his pairing with Greene was functional. As for the guys outside of those four? Well, Fiddler, Smith-Pelly and Quincey were not too bad; but the team faced a higher rate of shots against when Santini, Moore, and Kalinin were involved. I know SA/60 is only one stat, but I think shot prevention is what a skater should focus on during a penalty kill. Even the higher rates were not so awful. Again, the goaltending was a relative weakpoint of the Devils’ PK and, as a result, the success rate suffered.

Previewing the 2017-18 Penalty Kill

The good news is that most of the top PK unit returns for this season. Lovejoy, Greene, and Henrique are all back and ready to go. The bad news is that Travis Zajac is injured and will be for most of this season. There really is not a good replacement available.

The new acquisitions at forward should not be expected to fill the gap. Marcus Johansson was not a regular on the PK in Washington. Drew Stafford has done some PK work in the past, but never to the amount that Zajac had done. Brian Boyle did average over two shorthanded minutes per game for a couple seasons in Tampa Bay. But that average shorthanded ice time per game dropped in each of the last two seasons and his SA/60 of nearly 73 was one of the highest rates in the league according to Natural Stat Trick. While he may be a center, knowing that does not fill me with confidence that Boyle could step in for Zajac. Nico Hischier definitely works hard on defense, which is great to see from a 18-year old jumping right in to the NHL. It would be asking a lot to have him play on the first penalty killing unit right away. Brian Gibbons, who made the Devils roster, could be utilized but, again, it would be asking too much to throw him into a top spot immediately.

There really is not an internal replacement for Zajac that looks to step in right away. Blake Coleman was utilized on the penalty kill quite a bit in preseason and he could be a member of a unit as the season starts. Whether he can stick around in the NHL is another question, much less move up within the PK depth chart. Palmieri and Zacha both received some ice time last season. They may have to take some more shifts if only for the coaches to find out whether they can handle a larger PK role at all. Even then, it is questionable they can replace Zajac right away either.

It is a tough decision. John Hynes and his staff may have to undergo some trial and error to find out who could fill in on the first unit until Zajac returns. That will help drive who ends on the second unit. It could be Coleman and Boyle, when Boyle is good to go. It could be Coleman and Hischier or Coleman and Stafford. Or even Zacha and Hischier. There are a lot of different options up front. Defensively, do not be surprised if it involves Santini when he’s in the lineup, Dalton Prout when he’s in the lineup, or Moore. This may not be such a huge deal since Lovejoy and Greene will likely and can take the majority of PK shifts. But you may see a little more trial and error on the secondary PK units.

The coaches can make things a little easier on themselves if they continue to play a triangle-plus-one penalty kill. The plus one does not necessarily need to be a defensive stalwart. It needs to be someone who can pressure the puck carrier or point men into making a play while the triangle focuses on the middle. It is a role that someone who is aggressive and quick could fill in well. If the coaches can identify who that can be, then the first unit’s triangle could be manned by Henrique, Lovejoy, and Greene and the second unit’s triangle could be manned by other defensive minded players. While the PK unit was not so successful last season, the triangle-plus-one did work well in 2015-16 - and it helped that the goaltenders were much better.

That’s the awkward thing about the penalty kill. If Schneider and Kinkaid are more fortunate and/or able to stop more pucks, then things will be better provided that the skaters can at least be a little better than the league median on the penalty kill. Not having Zajac for several months is a big deal and the Devils will be forced to try out some new faces on the PK units to see if anyone can fill the role in the meantime. But short of the skaters getting rolled over, improved goaltending performances may drive more success.

There is one other aspect: discipline. The best penalty kill is not to take one. The good news is that Kyle Quincey and P.A. Parenteau are not on the Devils so they will not be among team leaders in minor penalties. The bad news is that Damon Severson, Miles Wood, Lovejoy, and Hall were also standouts in taking minor penalties and they’re on the team. Throw in Coleman taking 11 minors in 23 appearances last year and an emphasis on slashing penalties that may implicate plenty of slower defensemen who can get beaten by speed (Lovejoy), and I question whether the Devils can take fewer penalties in 2017-18. Whatever improvements these players can make as to avoid taking penalties will help lighten the load for the PK. Can they? I don’t know. Again, it is on the players. I wouldn’t hold my breath; don’t be surprised if the Devils remain around the top ten in shorthanded situations again.

Additional Special Team Situations

The Devils were not awful at shootouts last season. Really. They went 3-3. It will be a challenge to identify who will be taking shootouts, though. I wrote more about it in this post. If the Devils can find reliable shooters, then that could help them get a few extra points in the standings.

As for overtime situations, well, the Devils had only one overtime period in preseason and it was in their second game with a not-at-all full NHL roster. In general, the 3-on-3 overtime is all about possession and smart play. Throwing pucks away on shots or turning it over or taking a penalty can be costly. The 2016-17 Devils know all about that as it led to some of their seven overtime goals and many of their eleven overtime goals against. The good news is that the Devils should be able to nail down who can be their three players. Should Butcher prove to be the real deal in offensive situations, they can pick from him, Severson, Greene, and even Moore for a defenseman. Up front, Hall, Palmieri, Hischier, Zacha, Johansson, and Stafford will enjoy the extra room. It all comes down to which group can best maintain possession and win it back without taking a call. Succeeding there would be good first step to turn that OT record around. Again, it can help them get a few extra points in the standings.

Your Take

I see some possibility for improvement on the power play; improved save percentages while staying the course on the PK could yield more success on its own. Overtime and shootout remains up in the air, but the possibility for improvement is not totally impossible - just a bit difficult to identify. Can the coaches realize it? I’ll leave that question to CJ, who will address the coaching and management side of things later today.

In the meantime, I want to know your opinions and thoughts about the Devils’ special teams. What do you expect the power play and penalty kill to do this season? Who should feature on each one? What sort of tactics should the Devils utilize? How should they handle shootouts and overtime situations? Can the Devils make improvements after a not-so-good 2016-17 season for the special teams? Please leave your answers and other comments about special teams in the comments. Thank you for reading.