The 2016-17 New Jersey Devils were bad. The Devils, as a franchise, are in the process of rebuilding. Even with Travis Zajac out for four to six months, a goal for this coming season should be to make some kind of improvement. As of this writing, the defense remains largely unchanged with the exception of Jon Merrill being taken by Las Vegas and Mirco Mueller picked up in a trade. The coaching staff remains; Ben Lovejoy remains; and so do other main players on the blueline. What can change? How about discipline?
One area where the Devils were weak in last season was the penalty kill. The Devils killed 79.6% of all of their shorthanded situations, which was only the twenty-third best in the league per NHL.com. The team conceded a total of 53 goals out of 260 shorthanded situations. For whatever reason, the team was far worse at home with 31 goals allowed out of 118 shorthanded situations, or a killing success rate of just 73.7%. Since the 2016-17 Devils were also poor at scoring goals with a low 2.2 goals per game average, a power play goal (or goals) against could and did make the difference against the Devils last season. One could and should definitely hope for more luck for Cory Schneider, whose penalty kill save percentage fell from a solid 88.5% in 2015-16 to a less-than-solid 85.3% in 2016-17. But the best penalty kill remains to be not killing a penalty at all. How were the Devils at penalties last season? Who took the minor penalties that led to them?
For many years, the New Jersey Devils have been associated with the word discipline from their playing style all the way up to their legendary general manager, president, and CEO, Lou Lamoriello. This was also true for penalties. According to NHL.com, from 2007-08 through 2011-12, the Devils no higher than 21st in minor penalties taken and they finished two seasons with the fewest minors taken in the league. The lockout-shortened 2013 season saw the Devils uncharacteristically shoot up to ninth in the whole league. After a seeming return to the norm in 2013-14, the team finished fifteenth, fifteenth, and twelfth over the past three seasons in minor penalties taken. The majority of power plays come from minor penalties taken. Needless to say, improvements can definitely be made there and it might be able to be done in lieu of any personnel changes in the roster or on the bench.
Fortunately, NHL.com makes it easy as their stats section does count who takes minor penalties. They also count who draws penalties; as in, who is fouled that leads to a power play. They even provide a per-sixty minute rate for each. With this information, let’s find out who has been taking and drawing minor penalties for Devils in 2016-17. Let us start with the defensemen who played at least ten games for the Devils last season. (Ten is about an eighth of a season, more than just a small call up):
By the nature of their position, they are not likely to be fouled. However, Damon Severson is an exception of sorts. While he led the Devils with 24 minor penalties, he was the only Devil defender to draw over ten minors last season with 13. In fact, he was tied for 38th out of 250 defenders in the entire NHL who played at least ten games. For perspective purposes, Erik Karlsson, Dion Phaneuf, Ryan Ellis, and Radko Gudas led all defenders with 22 drawn calls. That being said, the hopefully-soon-to-be-re-signed Severson would stand to watch his stick and the usage of said stick for this coming season. 24 minors still led the Devils and while his per-sixty rate was not the highest on the team, he can provide some real gains for the Devils just by taking fewer calls.
As for the other defensemen, Ben Lovejoy sticks out like a sore thumb compared to Severson, John Moore, and especially his late-season partner Andy Greene. OK, the last one is not fair comparison. Greene has been a hallmark for not taking penalties in his career. Only a handful of defensemen in the whole league took fewer than four minor penalties last season. But Severson, Moore, and Greene can all attack somewhat. The defensive-minded Lovejoy does not really do so and so he does not get into a position where he could draw calls. As such, that makes his seventeen minor penalties even more of a detriment in the bigger picture.
The names highlighted in grey are names who are no longer with the Devils. On the defensive side, this could lead to fewer minor penalties. Kyle Quincey was no stranger to the box and Jon Merrill’s rate of minor penalties was higher than most of the regulars except for Severson and Quincey. That’s the good news. To keep it good, I hope the coaches try to smarten up Steven Santini and Dalton Prout. Santini’s rate of penalties was not small and Prout’s was quite large for how little he played with the Devils. Those could and should be better. I also hope that the incoming defensemen like Mueller, Yaroslav Dablenko, Michael Kapla, and others will not provide issues when it comes to penalties that could be costly.
Now let’s look at the group that could draw penalties: forwards.
If you were to ask me who led the team in drawn calls last season, then I would have guessed Taylor Hall. While he definitely drew his fair share, I was surprised to see it was Kyle Palmieri. His 31 drawn calls placed him tied for twelfth in the whole NHL, along with the likes of John Tavares, Ondrej Palat, Nazem Kadri, Blake Comeau, and Mark Schiefele. That’s some good company to be in. For perspective purposes and one more reason why he’s a special player, Connor McDavid led the whole league in drawn minor penalties with 51. Going back to Palmieri, he was remarkably good from a penalty perspective. Even if some of thirteen minor penalties were avoidable, his relatively low rate of minors per sixty minutes was not a concern. More importantly, what he was drawing completely exceeded what he took - making it all worthwhile. Taylor Hall was in the same way, but Palmieri was a cut above in this regard.
So what of Miles Wood? The young winger definitely showed a lot of speed, intensity, and literal fight on the ice last season. The good news is that he did end up on a the positive side of the drawn-taken differential. There may be something to the notion that for some players, in order to draw a lot of calls, then one must be willing to take a lot of calls. For example, the person who finished behind McDavid in drawn calls was Matthew Tkachuk with 47 drawn minors. Tkachuk also finished second in the NHL among forwards with 34 minor penalties. Taking 34 minors in a season is a lot but Calgary can take solace in that he brought about many more minors. Wood may be a pest like Tkachuk. But he did not draw so many more calls than what he took compared to Tkachuk. I think both need to settle down somewhat and take fewer calls. That both will be more experienced - both were rookies last season - may help.
Among the remaining regulars, plenty will depend on who ends up in New Jersey. Other than Wood, the big takers by way of taken per sixty minutes were Blake Coleman, Joseph Blandisi, Blake Pietila, Stefan Noesen, and Nick Lappin. There’s a good chance only two of those five will end up on the 23-man roster by October: Blandisi and Noesen. Only Noesen is likely to be a regular and his gross numbers last season were not really notable. Blandisi already has a reputation for diving which he needs to get away from if he wants to draw calls anytime soon. That’s really it for concerns unless Coleman comes back; the coaches should try to smarten up Wood and provide caution to Blandisi, Noesen, and any newbies as needed.
Will the Devils make some gains from their departing players? Not really. P.A. Parenteau and Jacob Josefson were definitely net-negatives when it came to minor penalties. However, Vernon Fiddler, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Mike Cammalleri were net positives last season. For as little ice time as Fiddler and DSP played, they can at least say drew more than what they took. As a combined group, the departing forwards who played at least ten games last season took 64 minors and drew 67. The good news is that there are two incoming forwards that will more than make up the difference.
It is not a big list, but it is a good one. Brian Boyle was not afraid of the “tough” stuff. But he was good about not taking a lot of minor penalties for his workload and he nearly ended up even given how many calls he drew. I do not anticipate Boyle contributing too many penalty problems. The big plus is in Marcus Johansson. Johansson has always been a well-disciplined player. In 501 NHL games, he has taken a total of just 62 penalty minutes. He’s never had more than 16 in a single season. His attacking playstyle lends himself to be fouled, which means he will draw plenty of minor penalties. He was a big plus in penalty differential for Washington; I think he can do the same for New Jersey. Johansson alone could make up the loss of the group of departed players should he repeat what he did last season from a drawn/taken standpoint.
All together, I think this is something possible for the Devils to do make at least a small improvement from last season. If the Devils players who led in minor penalties taken just take fewer calls and others make some gains, then that will provide some relief for the penalty kill. The PK will still be needed from time to time, sure, but fewer situations mean fewer defense-only situations for small time periods that could end up with no offense at best and a costly goal against at worst. Severson, Wood, and Lovejoy were the worst offenders and their improvements could yield some more solid gains. The good news is that there are positive contributors like Palmieri and Hall; and that Boyle and Johansson could improve the situation. Without further roster or coaching changes, it is an area that can and should be considered as something to monitor and work on in for an at least slightly better 2017-18.