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Thoughts on the Unbalanced Devils Power Play Units

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After trading for Sami Vatanen, the Devils now have a 1-defender unit and a 2-defender unit on the powerplay. I look at how it’s been working.

Columbus Blue Jackets v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s now been two weeks since the Devils sent Adam Henrique to Anaheim in exchange for Sami Vatanen. It’s a trade that was written about here when it happened, followed by analyses from John, Mike, and Alex. The butterfly effect of this trade reverberates through every unit on the roster as Henrique was an all-situation defender who played more minutes than any forward on this team not named Taylor Hall, and Sami Vatanen currently leads our team in average ice time (via Hockey-Reference)

One of the places that it has had a big effect is the powerplay where both of these players average(d) about 2.5 minutes per game. And this is something that I found to be a very interesting component of the trade. One of Vatanen’s biggest assets is his powerplay prowess. He led Anaheim defenders in PP assists last year despite playing 50 less minutes than Cam Fowler. I was eager to see how the staff would deal with losing a powerplay forward, and gaining a powerplay defender from a personnel standpoint. Turns out the answer was easier than I thought...

The Situation

In this week’s Talking Red Mike and David talked briefly about what has happened to the Devils power play since the trade. One thing they mention is the interesting unbalanced pair of units the Devils now ice. In the first game after the trade, Sami Vatanen was a one-for-one replacement for Henrique -- he played as a forward, at the half-board, if I recall. They changed that pretty quickly, flip-flopping Vatanen and Severson, so that Vatanen’s point shot could be more featured and Severson’s superior passing would be more pronounced at the half-board, and have stuck with it since.

I agree that this is an unusual situation considering the scheme doesn’t change with altered personnel. We run the same power play, but we do it with 1D the first unit and 2D on the second unit, rendering the “positions” rather meaningless. Positionless hockey is pretty recent consideration among analytical minds, including AAtJ alum Ryan Stimson. On the powerplay it’s much more mainstream due to the very common 1-3-1 setup that the Devils, among other teams, employ. Furthermore, it’s been well-researched that a 1 defender, 4 forward alignment is more effective. I first learned about this phenomenon from Matt Cane who published pieces on it here and here. He elaborates on it more on twitter. In that conversation he talks about how there is a time in the game at which 2 defenders is more beneficial because it decreases overall scoring and if you’re trying to preserve a lead it’s appropriate. There are situations for both of these combinations to be used, this particular application hasn’t really been working. The since the trade (but before last night) this is the change in powerplay efficiency (courtesy Corsica’s Custom Query)

Clearly the Devils have struggled since the trade with massive decreases in all the rates. So I think the guys and I are on firm ground pointing out the problem.

However, I disagree with Ryan and David’s conclusion which is that Severson needs to be removed from the powerplay. I’ve been taking data from Corey Sznajder’s Patreon (@ShutdownLine), and making it into Vizzes for zone entries, exits, defense, and shot contributions. Recently, I added powerplay shot contribution rates. After doing so, I found something very interesting ...

Severson is Good (Butcher Too)

Severson and Butcher have been among the best powerplay defenders in the league when it comes to contributing to shot attempts. I think that it’s unlikely to be a good strategy to remove either of them from a unit they’ve been so successful on. This is a small sample size, though, with only 10-20 minutes recorded for each of them. Reminder: this is only part of the season — the games which Corey has tracked. If we want a full picture, though, we can use Natural Stat Trick to find at least on-ice statistics. Our top 2 skaters (>10 minutes played) in on-ice scoring chances per 60 minutes were Kyle Palmieri (67.38) and Adam Henrique (59.62). The bottom two players on that list are Sami Vatanen (33.1) and John Moore (16.4). Now the first three of those names serve to make my point that the combination of the players we lost, and who we replaced them with, is a big reason for the decrease — not necessarily the 3F-2D alignment, and CERTAINLY not Damon Severson. The last name in that list is there just because I love to rag on John Moore. Seriously, he’s an “offensive” defenceman that is a poor passer and can’t function on the powerplay. How is that a thing? But moving on to how we can address this recent downturn.

Solution?

So what is the solution? Well, I’m sorry to say that it’s not that easy. Sometimes the explanation is simple, and there’s no fix. Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique were two of our best PP players and they’re both injured. Marcus Johansson played more PP minutes per game than any forward other than Palmieri and he’s injured too. As of this writing, Taylor Hall is not speaking to the media after suffering a lower-body injury. If you add him to the list, the PP becomes irredeemably worse. Injuries make your team worse and the PP is not only not an exception, but is actually uniquely susceptible to downturns due to a shortened lineup.

It’s possible that moving to a 4F-1D second unit would work well. But who goes in that spot? The Devils have 5 forwards that should definitely be on man-advantage units (Palmieri, Johansson, Hall, Bratt, Hischier) but possibly 3 of them are injured and the other 2 are rookies. The rest of the spots get filled in with guys like Brian Boyle, Jimmy Hayes, Travis Zajac, and Drew Stafford typically. Those are not exactly confidence-inspiring names to shift to when considering a new PP unit.

I would make two suggestions when considering changes to the powerplay personnel. Firstly, I think Miles Wood has been playing very well this year and has earned time on the powerplay. Before the haters go and say something like “CJ, you can’t just take a guy playing well and put him on the powerplay — it’s a totally different type of game that requires much more offensive discipline in puck movement as well as vision and awareness,” I’d like to point out that Miles Wood leads the team in high-danger scoring chance rate on the powerplay ... by a lot.

My second suggestion is that IF you are going to remove a defender, add in a guy like Wood, and go for two 4F-1D units, then the defender to remove is Sami Vatanen. In 15 minutes of powerplay, Sami Vatanen has taken 4 shot attempts, only one of which made it on net, and none of which were scoring chances. And his shot is the thing that’s supposed to make him special. Severson is a better skater and a better passer, and we need his playmaking in these situations more than Vat’s shot.

Your Thoughts?

What do you guys think about the powerplay as currently constituted? Does it need a personnel change? A scheme change? Will it improve when we get healthier? How do you feel about going 4F-1D in one unit and 3F-2D in the other? Who would you remove, Vat or Severson? Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts below!