One of the common factors in that five-goal-against second period in the recent 2-5 loss to the Winnipeg Jets was that the Jets scored from in close. Three of the goals were within just a few feet of Cory Schneider. While this was just one game, the New Jersey Devils have had defensive woes throughout 2017-18. According to the 5-on-5 team stats at Natural Stat Trick prior to Sunday’s games, the Devils have the highest shot attempts against per sixty minute rate in the NHL (64.32), the second highest shot against per sixty minute rate in the NHL (34.95), and the eighth highest scoring chances against per sixty minute rate in the NHL (29.51). The Devils have been porous throughout this season. Between that and what I witnessed in the Winnipeg game, a question came to mind: How well are the New Jersey Devils defensemen pairings defending in the front of their net?
The scoring chance against rate suggests it is not going well. Again, the Devils have one of the highest rates in the NHL in 5-on-5 play. The scoring chance zone includes the front of the net, out to the faceoff dots, and ends at the top of the circle. The “homeplate” includes the slot; the area that teams try to defend as much as possible. It is not an easy area to defend as opposing offenses try to mix it up as much as possible. Whether it is cycling to find open players, keeping play out to draw out defenders, or just overloading it with bodies, there’s a lot that can go wrong. However, a chance could be at an angle as the chances could come from the circles - from the dot, towards the middle. And it can be from some distance as the “homeplate” does include the high slot. So it suggests that the Devils are not good at this in the most common situation in hockey (5-on-5).
Fortunately - or unfortunately - there is a more visual method that can highlight where the attempts are actually coming from: Heat maps. Natural Stat Trick has a heat map for shooting attempts in their game stats. The easily show where the attempts are coming from in different situations with “hotter” colors indicating more attempts coming from those areas. Dr. Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz has a WOWY Shot Map that breaks it down by team, season, and even players. With and without teammates. The maps were free for a short time, but now they’re only available for subscribers to the HockeyViz Patreon. I am a subscriber and so I want to pass on what has been recorded for the different Devils defensemen pairings. These pairings were confirmed with ice times at the player stats’ teammate section at Natural Stat Trick (link goes to Andy Greene’s). The maps were captured yesterday night so they should include the Winnipeg game. The sample sizes may be small as the team has only played 19 games. But I think enough has happened that should have the coaches re-think how the defense is organized.
The Current Situation
First, here is how the Devils as a team have performed in 5-on-5 play for unblocked attempts against (misses and shots). The colors are relative to the league average.
I know the tagline for this season is Red Dawn. This is not what the organization had in mind. Opposing teams have found a lot of opportunities in the high slot and on the left side of the ice. While there is a hefty amount of attempts from the points, the red blob propgates to the left side of the net. Curiously, the right side has been better defended. This suggests the issues on defense really come from the left side. Let’s go through the different pairings that the team has used to see where the pain has come from.
The pairing of Andy Greene and Steve Santini has been utilized more and more as a “tough minutes” pairing. According to Natural Stat Trick, the pairing has an offensive zone start ratio of under 23% and they have faced the toughest opposition on a regular basis. To that end, it may not be surprising to see a very red heat map.
However, it is clear that it’s Greene’s side that has been attacked more and more. This has been pervasive from the point all the way down to the crease. I think it is enough to question how well Greene is handling that side. It is also enough to wonder who is supporting him on that end. Per Natural Stat Trick, his most common would-be left wingers are Taylor Hall and Brian Gibbons with quite a few minutes from Jesper Bratt. A struggling forward matchup may have made life harder for Greene on that side. This map also somewhat vindicates the usage of Santini. It is a little concerning to see a blotch of red on the right side; but it is at least in between two dangerous areas where the opposition has not taken as many attempts. Provided he’s been responsible on that side, that speaks well of him. I still question the use of this pairing as the designated “difficult situation” pairing. I’ll show off an alternative in a bit.
The second pairing behind them has been John Moore and Damon Severson. I’ve defended Severson quite a bit last season. I have highlighted how much of a shot colander Moore has been as a Devil. Combined, it is not pretty for these two:
Opposing teams love the 2-28 pairing. There’s a slight area where the opponents have been limited on Severson’s side, but it’s small bit of blue (which is good) among a whole lot of red (which is bad). This pairing has been the worst among the current three pairings in front of the net. They’ve allowed a much higher than league average rate of unblocked attempts in front of the net, in the slot, just inside the circles, and right into the high slot. The rates are even high at the points and above both circles. It could be questioned that the forwards they have been with have just not been helping as much as they could. But the larger question is why this defensive pairing has been so porous. If there is any pairing that should cause the coaches concern from a defensive standpoint, then it should be this one. The on-ice save percentage for this pairing being only 91.25% in 5-on-5 play may have also grabbed their attention, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Will Butcher has solidly been on the third pairing. With the previous play of Mirco Mueller and his current injury, Butcher has received a similar amount of 5-on-5 minutes with Ben Lovejoy. I’d like to show off both of their heat maps. Here’s Butcher-Mueller.
If you thought Mueller was improving by way of how he handled himself by the net, then this map shows that you were onto something. That right side has been well defended on the basis of attempts being allowed. On the flipside, Butcher appears to have been targeted a lot. A whole lot that red is from the left side, both in close and from far away. That there are huge red areas in the high slot and points makes me really question the forwards in front of them. Still, Butcher was exposed in part by Winnipeg for two goals against on Saturday. He has been exposed for loads of shooting attempts all season long. It appears he does need some help beyond just trying to improve his game.
What about a veteran defensive-minded defenseman named Ben Lovejoy?
I was critical of Lovejoy last season. That was a season where he was a mainstay of the top four and played a ton of (bad) hockey with Greene in the second half of 2016-17. This season, Lovejoy has been a healthy scratch and has been more limited in his usage by the coaches. As it turns out, they were right do so. Against lesser competition and minutes, Lovejoy has been quite good. And it has seemingly helped Butcher. You can see it here in the fifty minutes he has had with Butcher. Even the left side has been relatively quite good compared to the league. There are some sore spots in the high slot area. But this is a world of difference from Butcher-Mueller and especially with the other two pairings, even though those two pairings have played more and more difficult minutes. I know it does not mean much, but at least the Devils have a capable third pairing in 5-on-5 play.
Based on these maps, the top two Devils defensemen pairings have not done well around their net. While there’s a real question about how well (or not) the forwards are helping, the Greene-Santini and Moore-Severson pairings are giving up quite a bit. Especially on the left side of the ice. Only the more recent Butcher-Lovejoy pairing has done well - and who knows how long that may last as they play more 5-on-5 hockey. What can the coaches do about this?
Ideas for Improvement
There is an easy one. The coaches can try mixing up those top two pairings. Severson has been Greene’s second most common 5-on-5 partner in this season. Santini has been Moore’s second most common partner too. While they have played less, they have been more successful by their net. Here’s Greene-Severson:
That’s a definite improvement around the net and going into the right side of the slot compared with Greene-Santini. There are still hot spots in dangerous areas so it is not a complete solution. It is still something to try out. It may even have the added benefit of giving Greene some more offensive zone starts as that is where Severson can contribute too. It would definitely help out the CF% for the Devils. Just look at Greene’s teammate page When Greene was with Severson, the on-ice CF% was just under 50%. It is below 40% for Greene-Santini. Defense is not just about shot prevention and trying to limit goals; it is also about getting the puck out of the zone and helping it move forward for offense. Greene-Severson has done that in about half of the minutes Greene-Santini has been a thing. The numbers and this map suggests they should re-unite.
Would Moore-Santini be even worse? Santini is still young and Moore is all about allowing lots of shots against when he’s on the ice. Surprisingly: no. They wouldn’t be.
Hey, it’s a blue area right in front of the net! That’s rare for a shot map that includes John Moore. The defensive effort has been better on Santini’s side. Sure, there’s a big red blob on Moore’s side. But it is an improvement over what has been shown for Moore-Severson. While the CF% may suffer a lot (Moore-Santini is about 40% together so far this season. In contrast, Moore-Severson has around a 51 CF% together. My conclusion: Severson is good for the run of play), the gains where the attempts against have been taken combined with how much Greene-Severson would improve may be worth it. I think it is worth a try over the status quo. As for that third pairing: keep Butcher-Lovejoy as much as possible provided they do not get ugly as time passes. No, these changes may not turn the Devils into defensive stalwarts. But they can help themselves more around the net based on what the shot maps from HockeyViz has shown so far this season.
Could the Devils do more? Sure. General manager Ray Shero could seek out a defender in a trade. Not a bad idea at all. If the Devils want to go out and acquire a defenseman, then they need to identify who should be replaced and what they have done in the most common situation in hockey. But this would leave too many defenders on the team. Someone would need to be replaced. Who should that be? These maps can guide us. Well, provided the coaches keep Lovejoy in a more limited utilization like they have been this season, then perhaps not him. Here is his shot map for evidence:
You want defense around the net? Lovejoy has been a part of doing that well. There’s been many more shots from the high slot and beyond. But that is preferable to having opposing forwards get in closer and get many attempts around the net. Again, fewer minutes and weaker competition, but Lovejoy has been doing his job. In contrast, the defender they should move on from is Moore. This shot map is not safe for John Moore fans or fans of defense:
It’s stuff like this that makes me shake my head when I hear or see that Severson has defensive issues. Compared to Moore, Severson is the second coming of Scott Niedermayer. Moore is the most problematic defenseman on the team right now and he has been problematic from a defensive point of view last season too. Sure, he can score some goals and he scored a bunch in OT. But for the amount given up when he takes shifts, is it really worth it? Should Ray Shero look for a defenseman, then an upgrade for Moore at left defense may be worth it for a short term and maybe a long term answer.
I want to acknowledge Natural Stat Trick for having fantastic data available for players and teams in 5-on-5 situations. I especially want to thank Dr. Micah Blake McCurdy for coming up with these WOWY Shot Maps at his stats visualization site, HockeyViz. They are available to Patreon subscribers at HockeyViz. I got into them when he had a free trial earlier this month and I found it to be a great tool to identify location data beyond what the game-by-game maps show at Natural Stat Trick. The maps were enough for me to want to subscribe. If you support that kind of work and the other stuff Dr. McCurdy does, then go do so through HockeyViz - the Patreon link is at the bottom of the main page and available through other sections of the site.
That out of the way, the shot maps show that the Devils have really struggled in front of their net so far in this season. The damage has mostly come against the Moore-Severson pairing followed by the Greene-Santini pairing. The usage of Butcher with Lovejoy has been helpful. However, the lesser used pairings of Moore-Santini and Greene-Severson has shown some improvements with respect to defending in front of their net. Enough such that I would like the coaches to try those out for a number of games. The current set-up has not been effective. If the Devils do want to try to pick up a defender, then this person should ideally try to replace John Moore, who has been all about allowing shots in his career as a Devil.