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How Bad Ben Lovejoy Has Been for the Devils in 2016-17

In a deep dive into his production, competition, With or Without You, and other 5-on-5 stats, this post explores how bad Ben Lovejoy has been for the New Jersey Devils in 2016-17.

NHL: Boston Bruins at New Jersey Devils
This is not going to be a very complimentary post.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

How bad has Ben Lovejoy been for the New Jersey Devils this season? That’s the main question for this post. Let’s look at the data. But, first, some background as to why even ask this question and look more closely at Lovejoy’s stats:

Last week, I wrote a detailed post on how good Damon Severson has been for the New Jersey Devils. While on the surface, the stats aren’t so impressive; in context with the other Devils defensemen, they’re quite good. A deeper dive in attempt differentials has shown that Severson has had a positive impact with most of his teammates on the ice in that category. That is impressive since the Devils have the third lowest attempt differential percentage in whole NHL. Corsica had them at 47.22% CF% before the weekend’s games. In short: Severson has been very good. In the process of looking at the data, I made mention of how bad Ben Lovejoy has been and there will be a post about it. This is that post.

Now, Ben Lovejoy has only been a New Jersey Devil for this season. Since the Devils traded Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall, the team needed a right-handed defenseman. Since Larsson was primarily playing against difficult competition and receiving defensive zone starts, that’s where the hole in the lineup was. The Devils identified Ben Lovejoy as a defenseman to fill that role. Ray Shero signed him to a three-year, $8 million contract. The then-32 year old did have good possession numbers with Pittsburgh. Defense has been his primary focus as a player since his offensive numbers - shots and points - were rather unimpressive. I wasn’t a huge fan of the signing at the time; but I could understand why it was done. The team bet on Lovejoy to solidify a defense for the future and play significant minutes.

The latter has happened Lovejoy has played 73 games and averaged 20:53 per game per, which is the second highest average ice time among Devils defensemen. However, as his first season as a Devil is winding down, his performances point to that bet busting.

Note: All stats were taken prior to this weekend’s games.

5 on 5 Performance

Lovejoy has never been much of an offensive player. His most productive season was in 2013-14 when he put up eighteen points and took 107 shots. He has put up less points in each of the following seasons and has not come close to taking at least a hundred shots on net. So the issue isn’t that Lovejoy is unproductive. That’s not a concern. An effective defender would be able to contribute to offensive play by limiting attempts, shots, and scoring chances against the team. Unfortunately, Lovejoy has not been able to do that on this team in 5-on-5 play.

Ben Lovejoy 5-on-5 Stats as of 3-24-2017
Ben Lovejoy 5-on-5 Stats as of 3-24-2017

As Lovejoy only played for the Devils in this season, I included how he ranked compared with other defensemen on the team that played at least 250 TOI in 5-on-5 play. Lovejoy has played a lot - and has been pinned back a lot when he’s out there. When Lovejoy has been on the ice in this season, the Devils have been significantly out-attempted (CF%) and out-shot (SF%). When he steps off the ice, the run of play gets better for the Devils. Again, I understand that Lovejoy isn’t an offensive player and I’m not trying to say that only defensemen that are offensive are any good. But a relative CF% (RelCF%) of nearly -5% means the opposition is just picking on the Devils when he’s out there. That he struggles with forechecking opponents, making passes in general, and doesn’t involve himself on offense more than taking long shots from the point only adds to the woes these stats present. How good his defensive play really be if the other team is taking so many attempts and the Devils are taking so few? My conclusion is that it really isn’t; on the surface, he’s an anchor in that the team is held back when he’s out on the ice.

The second group of stats adds some further context and mitigates his hideous CF%, SF%, and relative percentages for both. Corsica’s count of scoring chances show that while the percentage of scoring chances (SCF%) isn’t in New Jersey’s favor when Lovejoy is on the ice, the rate of chances against (SCA/60) isn’t so bad among the Devils. Andy Greene, Severson, and the Defensive Sieve That is John Moore has higher rates of scoring chances against than Lovejoy. This suggests that while Lovejoy witnesses loads of attempts and shots against, they’re not necessarily all dangerous. That’s at least something.

Additionally, a big factor as to why Lovejoy has the team’s lowest CF% among these eight defensemen is his offensive zone start ratio (OZS%). It’s also the lowest among those same eight defensemen at 41.29%. That means when Lovejoy is on the ice for a faceoff, it’s most likely in the defensive zone. And while it isn’t listed here, Corsica does list Lovejoy as having the highest percentage of defensive zone starts - 42.77% - among the Devils defensemen in 5-on-5 play. Starting so often in his own end of the rink will make it difficult for a positive shooting and attempt differential; the opponent is already starting in an offensive location and Lovejoy and his teammates need to deny that offense and then generate something of their own. That all said, if we adjust CF% and SF% for zone starts, score and even venue (home or away) at Corsica, then Lovejoy’s CF% is the second-worst on the team at 46.05% and the third-worst on the team at 47.75%. The adjustments help, but the conclusion remains: when Lovejoy is on the ice, the Devils are often getting out-shot and out-attempted.

So why does Lovejoy remain receiving significant minutes? Partially because there really isn’t anyone else to share that amount of load other than Damon Severson. Partially because Lovejoy has not been getting lit up. I can’t say that fortune has favored the Devils when Lovejoy is on the ice. Not with a really low team shooting percentage (Sh%) of 5.38% and goals scored rate (GF/60) of 1.38 - both the lowest among defensemen in this group. But the fortune is present on the other end. The goals against rate (GA/60) when Lovejoy is on the ice is a mere 1.89. Only a non-current Devil has him beat there. Both Kinkaid and Schneider have been excellent when Lovejoy is on the ice; the team’s save percentage is just above 94% when Lovejoy is playing in 5-on-5 situations. Does Lovejoy influence that, knowing his scoring chance against rate isn’t so out of control? That remains to be seen. I’m skeptical because all together, while Lovejoy may not be present for a lot of chances against, both goalies are seeing plenty of rubber when he does play. That carries risk, especially the real possibilities non-chance shots becoming goals through screens, failed blocking attempts, and deflections. Further, those goalies certainly aren’t receiving much offensive help and Lovejoy hasn’t contributed, directly or indirectly, to that.

4 on 5 Performance

Of course, the game isn’t just about 5-on-5 hockey. Ben Lovejoy has played a lot on the team’s penalty kill in this season. In fact, according to Corsica, only four defensemen in the entire league have played more in 4-on-5 situations than Lovejoy as of this past Friday: Chara, Alzner, Giordano, and Engelland. The Devils’ penalty kill may not be supremely successful; but it’s not abysmal either. At the time of this writing, it has a 80.2% success rate and ranked 20th in the NHL. How has Lovejoy performed? Let’s look at his 4-on-5 numbers Similar to the 5-on-5 data, I ranked those numbers among Devils defensemen who played at least 50 TOI in 4-on-5 situations.

Ben Lovejoy 4-on-5 Stats as of 3-24-2017
Ben Lovejoy 4-on-5 Stats as of 3-24-2017

I will admit that I’m not as knowledgeable with shorthanded situation stats as 5-on-5 stats in terms of what to look for. So I focused on the rates of attempts (CA/60), shots (SA/60), scoring chances (SCA/60), and goals against the Devils. I also included save percentage (Sv%). With that in mind, Lovejoy actually looks good here. Shorthanded situation will yield high attempt, shot, and scoring chance rates. The key here is how those rates compare to his teammates. Lovejoy comes out with the second lowest attempt against rate, the third lowest shots against rate, and the lowest scoring chance against rate on the team. Since Lovejoy is much closer to having the lowest SA/60 (Greene at 44.2) than having the fourth lowest (Merrill at 49.2), that 45.8 SA/60 rate is defensible.

Unfortunately, either as a function of playing so much on the PK or just who’s been facing on the PK, Lovejoy has not enjoyed the best goaltending. Kinkaid and Schneider have combined for a 87.2% save percentage when Lovejoy is playing in a 4-on-5 situation. The other four defenders that met the ice time requirement have enjoyed better goaltending. However, an 87.2% in 4-on-5 situations isn’t bad at all. It doesn’t rank among the 50 worst save percentages among defensemen who have at least 50 TOI in 4-on-5 situations. It’s just lower than the rest of the Devils. Does Lovejoy impact that? For the same reasons in 5-on-5 situations, I’m skeptical. In any case, because of this relatively low save percentage, Lovejoy has a higher goals against rate than all but one other defender. But the other three metrics point to the notion that Lovejoy may be OK on the penalty kill. Unfortunately, most of game is not played in 4-on-5 situations.

Let’s go back to 5-on-5 situational play and look at how Lovejoy has performed against varying levels of competition.

Lovejoy’s Usage in 5-on-5 Play

Lovejoy was signed in part to replace Adam Larsson’s role, which was involved a lot of tough minutes and defensive zone starts. We know that John Hynes and his staff has given Lovejoy more defensive zone starts than the other defensemen. What about his level of competition?

According to Corsica, Lovejoy is tied with Greene with the highest CF% of Quality of Competition on the team at 50.13%. Lovejoy is second to Greene in Time on Ice of Quality of Competition at 29.35. Curiously, Lovejoy has the highest CF% of Quality of Teammates on the team at 49.1% but only the fifth highest time on ice of Quality of Teammates at 27.62. What do all of those numbers mean? Over this season, Lovejoy has faced tough competition. Only Greene can say he’s had it harder, but not by much.

However, players do not just face only top opposing players. They’ll see a mix in just about every game in 5-on-5 play. What helps filter out how a player does against each level is the WoodMoney metric for Quality of Competition. I used this in the post about Severson and it showed how the run of play improved when Severson was involved. Similar to that, I have the data for Lovejoy along with some other defensemen for comparison’s sake, including Severson.

WoodMoney for Lovejoy, Severson, Greene, Merrill, and Auvitu as of 3-24-2017
WoodMoney for Lovejoy, Severson, Greene, Merrill, and Auvitu as of 3-24-2017

It’s bad. It’s really bad for Lovejoy. It’s almost the direct opposite of Severson. When Lovejoy steps on against either elite, middle, or low-level (a.k.a. Gritensity) competition, the run of play gets worse. Lovejoy has the second highest percentage of ice time against elite competition on the Devils and he’s just under 40% CF%. The CA/60 rate at that level is above 60. That’s absolutely terrible. The team gets rolled when Lovejoy gets to play against the toughest competition and he’s been receiving a lot of minutes for it while also playing so much with the Zajac line and Greene. It’s just maddening. While it rose somewhat expectedly against middle competition, it’s still sad because A) it’s still well below the breakeven point of 50% and B) it doesn’t rise even more against worst competition than that. Even with different teammates against Gritensity, CF% remains low for the Devils when Lovejoy is on the ice. The run of play goes very much against Lovejoy and few others on the team can claim a similar effect.

I included Severson to really show the contrast between the two defensemen. While Severson receives many more favorable zone starts, he’s not getting worked over nearly as much as Lovejoy. I included Greene because he’s the common partner for Lovejoy . I may be jumping ahead, but this combination is a big reason why Greene’s CA/60 against elite competition is also above 60. Even there, Greene’s CF%, while still very low, is at least above 40%. The other common defensemen are Jon Merrill and a guy I think should have stayed up with New Jersey, Yohann Auvitu. Merrill, strangely, has a high percentage of elite competition ice time and that hasn’t gone well. Again, his CA/60 is still well under 60 unlike Lovejoy. Merrill somehow managed to be better this season against middle competition than the lowest level of competition. That’s beside the point. As for Auvitu, his limited minutes has went well from a run-of-play perspective - and he curiously played quite a bit of his time in New Jersey with Lovejoy. It’s a mark of Auvitu having an offensive game. His performances may have had other issues, but one of them wasn’t getting pinned back repeatedly like Lovejoy. Overall, these other defensemen may not be perfect and may not be having good seasons, but they haven’t been as much of a negative on the run of play as Lovejoy.

With Or Without You in 5-on-5 Play

In the Severson post, I questioned why Greene and Severson were split up. Triumph44 had this comment about that:

- Splitting Greene and Severson isn’t a bad move when you consider how bad the rest of the defense would be without them. Already I’m cringing thinking about Merrill-Lovejoy or Moore-Lovejoy. Now Lovejoy is obviously really bad and limiting his minutes next year has to be a top priority for Shero and Hynes, but I can see why they did this to finish out the year.

Triumph is rather smart and is a reason why it pays to read the comments here at All About the Jersey. I understand the idea of keeping Lovejoy with Greene, who has received a lot of tough minute situations over the years in New Jersey and has the experience. That may be better than sandbagging other defensemen with Lovejoy. Does the data prove that out? Lovejoy’s With or Without You 5-on-5 stats at Puckalytics can answer that. Triumph and other readers, I hope you’re ready to cringe:

Ben Lovejoy WOWY with Defensemen
Ben Lovejoy WOWY with Defensemen

Lovejoy and Greene have combined for a 43.4% CF%, their CA/60 is above 60, and they have an exceptionally low offensive zone start percentage of less than 23%. However, adjusting for zone starts, the CF% of Greene-Lovejoy only rises to 44.1 and their CA/60 actually increases to 64.1. It’s a pairing that has been so poor together inthe run of play, both Lovejoy and especially Greene have better away from each together. Greene-Lovejoy just isn’t an effective pairing for helping the Devils in 5-on-5 hockey.

Jon Merrill is the only other defenseman who has played over 200 minutes with Lovejoy. While this pairing hasn’t conceded as much and has a better CF%, it also has had a lower CF/60 - so there’s even less offense generated than usual. This row is in a different color to highlight that Lovejoy has been worse away from Merrill but Merrill has been better away from Lovejoy. It’s still a bad pairing, but it hasn’t been as bad for possession as Greene-Lovejoy. I wonder if it’s because Merrill-Lovejoy had received somewhat easier competition?

As Auvitu was cited as a common partner in Woodguy55’s numbers and Triumph mentioned Moore, I included them too. Surprising to me, the Auvitu-Lovejoy pairing had a high offensive zone start ratio; the only one above 50% among these four combinations. Even then, their CF% was below 50%. Again, Lovejoy’s numbers went way down apart from Auvitu, who had higher numbers with very favorabler zone starts. Lastly, Moore-Lovejoy was a nightmare for the 161 minutes they had together. A CF% below 40%, a CA/60 above 62.1%, and an inexplicable 26.3% offensive zone start ratio. Somehow, someone on the Devils staff thought Moore-Lovejoy should get a lot more defensive zone starts. Or perhaps they ice the puck enough to drive that percentage. Either way, it was terrible and both players were better apart than together.

After all this, if the alternative is Moore-Lovejoy, then I agree with Triumph that Greene-Lovejoy is preferable. But Merrill-Lovejoy wasn’t as bad as Greene-Lovejoy and if that could result in Greene-Severson, which was close to breaking even in 5-on-5 play, then that would be more ideal. It’s a bit moot with this being the end of the season and the Devils having every reason to not win a bunch of games, though. All the same, Merrill-Lovejoy was just the best of a really poor four combinations - it hasn’t been good on its own. Since Greene, Merrill, Moore, and Auvitu were all better away from Lovejoy, it’s hard not to conclude that Lovejoy’s play may be the issue.

Let’s look at the forwards. According to WoodMoney, Lovejoy’s minutes against elite and middle-range competition had the likes of Travis Zajac, Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Adam Henrique as teammates. We can look at the With Or Without You data for forwards who played at least 200 minutes with Lovejoy and see how that went. You’re probably going to cringe at this too:

Ben Lovejoy WOWY with Forwards
Ben Lovejoy WOWY with Forwards

Coincidentally, these are the same forwards who played at least 200 minutes with Severson. Whereas most of those combinations were better with Severson, they’re uniformly worse with Lovejoy. Only Beau Bennett has managed to post a CF% above 50% with Lovejoy. That may be only in under 209 minutes of hockey, but that’s still impressive since none of these other forwards broke 46% with the defenseman. Even so, Bennett has been better away from the veteran defenseman.

Again, the orange indicates combinations where the player is better without Lovejoy while Lovejoy is worse without that player. The fact that the CA/60 for Palmieri, Zajac, and Hall are all above 58 tells me that he’s been a drag on them. That’s also partially the fault of the coaches, given their very low offensive zone start percentages with Lovejoy. It may be an over-simplification, but when the Palmieri, Zajac, and Hall don’t have Lovejoy behind them, then it’s likely an offensive situation and offense has been generated. Especially with Hall.

There are some worse combinations, though. Lovejoy with Adam Henrique, Michael Cammalleri, and Pavel Zacha have also been rather poor. Not that Zacha, Cammalleri, and Henrique have been good for possession or generating attempts this season, but they appear to have been hindered by Lovejoy and the defensive zone starts he has with so many of his teammates. It’s been so bad that even Lovejoy was better away from them.

This is almost the total opposite of what I found with Severson’s WOWY. The Devils’ run of play in 5-on-5 hockey goes so much against Lovejoy and any of his common teammates. With all of these combinations having gone awry with high CA/60 rates and low CF%, I can only conclude that Lovejoy just a general negative impact on the team on top of his primarily defensive usage.

Concluding Thoughts

When I write, I generally make a point of it to back up what I claim. Even if I end up being wrong or mistaken, you know where I’m coming from. None of this personal, none of this is to be a hater for Lovejoy, none of this is to claim that he’s a bad person, and all of this is from the perspective of wanting the best for my favorite team, the New Jersey Devils. I understand I’ve given you over 3,000 words, a bunch of charts, and a whole lot of numbers and stats about Ben Lovejoy. All of this can be summed up in the following pithy statement:

Ben Lovejoy has been very bad for the Devils in 2016-17.

It is true that he has been limited to a lot of defensive zone starts and that impacts his very negative attempt and shot differentials. It’s definitely intentional and I think I can explain why. We already knew that Ben Lovejoy has never been and will never be a producer of points or shots on net. In the 73 games Lovejoy has played as I’ve wrote this, his issues go beyond just not being put up points or shots. He’s not that good of a passer. He doesn’t jump up on offense or have the speed or the awareness to do so. He does not lead breakouts and he struggles under the pressure of even a single forechecker. To that end, why would any coach give him offensive zone starts unless he’s paired with someone who thrives with them. We know from his WOWY with Auvitu that isn’t going to lead to better play. So Lovejoy keeps receiving a lot of defensive zone starts. And since his skillset is primarily defensive, he’s received tough defensive situations. Perhaps with the idea that if Lovejoy absorbs those tough minutes, other defensemen and players will thrive.

Well, Lovejoy’s 4-on-5 stats suggest that he is capable in primarily defensive situations. And other players do thrive away from Lovejoy, where they have more favorable situations in 5-on-5 play. However, someone has to play with him, he plays a lot of minutes, and in the 5-on-5 situations Lovejoy is in, the Devils are getting pounded with attempts and shots against. I understand that I’ve used Corsi quite a lot in this and in Severson’s post. It doesn’t directly evaluate defense. However, it does knowing how the game is played. The thing is that if a player is good at stopping attacks, winning puck battles, cleaning up rebounds, and contributing to zone exits and breakouts, then that will eventually show up in Corsi and shot rates over time. Those successful plays on defense will lead to offense, even if the player isn’t performing the offensive play by them self. So given that Lovejoy has such a negative impact on Corsi and shots against, his own rates are low on the team, and his teammates are worse off with him, all that tells me is that he’s not being effective in 5-on-5 play. Whatever he is doing on defense is not leading to offense. A defenseman doesn’t need to play the same style as, say, Scott Niedermayer or score like Brent Burns to be successful and effective on the blueline. But in this day and age of the NHL, an effective defense has all players contribute to the cause. The data is clear. Lovejoy really isn’t doing that and that’s partially why the team as a whole suffers by the same stats.

Having a high CA/60 and SA/60 rates carries additional risk of being scored against. While Lovejoy has been fortunate to receive great goaltending this season, that may not happen in 2017-18 and 2018-19, also known as the next two years on Lovejoy’s current contract. It would be one thing if this was all about a young defenseman receiving bad instruction and not being used appropriately. But Lovejoy is 33 and he’s not going to get any better or add something new to his game. Therefore, while it’s been only one season which still has a few weeks left in it, the bet that he could step in for Larsson or strengthen the overall defense was lost.

So the Devils are going to have to control the damage going forward. If the Devils are really intent on improving as part of this rebuild, then they have to minimize the risk Lovejoy’s play has represented in this season. From looking at his current stats, I would think that would require reducing his minutes overall, reducing his minutes against tough competition, and finding teammates where if the combination goes south, it won’t be as impactful as holding back a top line (Zajac, Palmieri, Hall) or another top defenseman (Greene). Lovejoy could still be utilized a top penalty killer and there can be situations where he useful. The main point to accept is that he’s being used against tough competition in tough situations, but he’s not being effective or helping them team in those situations. The coaches have to figure that out for the next season, assuming he stays on the team. Which is likely since I can’t imagine teams see a lot of value in Lovejoy for a trade, I don’t know if he’d be exposed for Las Vegas, and a buyout on June 15 would be on the books until 2021.

For now, the Devils can keep on keeping on because, again, this is a lost season so it’s moot to win any more games. But the fact remains is that Lovejoy has provided such a negative impact on the team in this season, and so it’s a problem the Devils will have to figure out for the next two seasons.

Let me know what you think about Lovejoy and this deep dive into his stats in the comments. Thank you for reading.