It is a fact that the 2016-17 New Jersey Devils were a bad hockey team. Their record of 28-40-14 was enough to secure last place in the Eastern Conference. Their 70 points earned was the fourth lowest in the entire league. Many things went wrong. One of the few things that did not go so poorly or awry in some way were shootouts.
That’s right, shootouts. The 2016-17 New Jersey Devils were not bad at shootouts last season.
Does it matter? I think so. Unless the Devils suddenly get a massive amount of puck luck and/or somehow become offensive dynamos, the Devils will likely be a low-scoring team next season. In order to stay competitive in games, Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid will have to be as stingy as they can be. This can and will lead to plenty of games going beyond regulation - and that means several games will be decided in the shootout. If the Devils want to show they are making progress in this rebuild, then some extra points picked up through shootouts can help at least provide the perception of progress.
The shootout has become the bane of the Devils and their fans in recent seasons. Way back in July 2012, I noted that the Devils were one of the best teams in the NHL in the shootout since its inclusion in 2005-06. That did not last. It all fell apart in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, with the Devils winning only two out of nine shootouts. The 2013-14 season’s shootouts were legendarily awful as the Devils lost all thirteen shootouts. Adding to the sting of long games ending with a loss was that the Devils only missed the playoffs in those seasons by seven points in 2013 and five points in 2013-14. Considering that several of those shootout losses were against teams they were competing for playoff spots with, they really just needed to win a few to get to the postseason. The 2014-15 and 2015-16 Devils were so bad that even being perfect in the shootout would not have helped. And they weren’t so good then either. But last year’s team? It was actually decent.
Let’s put the numbers side-by-side. The data is from NHL.com:
The Devils ended a four-season slide of losing more shootouts than they won last season. It was not a net positive, but it was also not a net negative. They did not score many goals, but the goaltenders allowed fewer goals. Their shooting percentage was at the league median and their save percentage was above it. Both were the best the Devils have seen in the last five seasons. They also ended up in the fewest amount of shootouts within the last five seasons as well. That is due to another source of pain from the 2016-17: overtimes often ending with losses. Still, it’s refreshing to see that something from last season was not abysmal, ugly, or bad. This was OK.
What is interesting is that there were lows also set in shots by both the Devils and their opponents. Again, fewer shootouts played a role in that. However, a per-game average shows that the 2016-17 Devils matched the 2014-15 squad for an average of three shots per game while their opponents averaged just 2.6 - which was the lowest in this window of five seasons. The shootouts themselves were completed quickly in addition to being split apart and low-scoring. Most importantly, they broke in a better way for the Devils that they have not enjoyed since 2011-12.
So here’s the challenge. Can the Devils keep it even or perhaps improve in the shootout next season?
The easier part of this is the goaltending. Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid will return as the Devils goaltending tandem. Here’s how they did according to NHL.com last season. Schneider faced most of the shootouts last season with four shootouts, eleven shots against, and eight saves. Kinkaid only allowed one shootout goal out of five shots. Both did quite well. I question if it can be maintained, though. It is a very volatile situation where a good move made or a tricky bounce can make the difference. While Kinkaid is at a 70% save percentage, he has faced only twenty shots. Schneider has a lifetime save percentage of 61.3% in the shootout - which isn’t that good. 66% is about average. Schneider surpassed it with flying colors last season but history is not on his side. (Aside: There are some “name” goalies with low percentages in the shootout like Miikka Kiprusoff, J-S Giguere, Evgeni Nabokov, Mike Smith, Devan Dubnyk, Braden Holtby.) At least the goalies are back with the team. I cannot say the same for the shooters.
Last season, the Devils largely relied on four players for their shootouts. According to NHL.com they were: Michael Cammalleri (2 for 4), Jacob Josefson (2 for 3), Taylor Hall (1 for 3), and P.A. Parenteau (1 for 4). Three of those players are no longer Devils. That could be an issue. Especially with Josefson, who has had an astounding 52.4% shooting percentage in his career with New Jersey. There were four other Devils who took an attempt last season: Damon Severson, Travis Zajac, John Quenneville, and Pavel Zacha. Each took only one and none of them scored. At least they are on the team. Zajac is the only one who has taken more than two, where has converted 6 out of 27 attempts in his career. That isn’t exactly amazing. Besides, he’s out for months, so whether he was really good at them or not is moot for the time being. This presents another challenge for the coaching staff: identifying who should be the team’s first three shooters for the shootout.
What about the new guys? Here is how they did based on the lifetime numbers kept at NHL.com. Marcus Johansson has taken only four attempts in his career and scored on none of them. Brian Boyle has taken only seven in his life and scored on two of them. There may be a hope in Drew Stafford. He has taken 47 shootout shots and scored in 15 of them. A 31.9% shooting percentage is not out of this world great, but it may do on a Devils team that lacks past success in shootouts. It’s better than Hall’s 27.8% (5 for 18) and pretty much everyone else left on the Devils (Palmieri is 1-for-8, Henrique is 2-for-16, by the way). When Stafford plays, do not be surprised if he’s in the shootout if the Devils get to one.
Ultimately, the Devils may be forced to give some players further shootout opportunities out of necessity. Perhaps Pavel Zacha and John Quenneville can display more success with more than one attempt. Maybe we’ll see the likes of Miles Wood given a chance. If Will Butcher shows some flair with the puck, then we could see him have a go. There’s also this Nico Hischier player that could dazzle. It reads like reaching because it is. There’s a lot of unknowns. For all I know, the coaches will do it on an night-by-nice basis. Such as whoever did the best in a recent shootout in practice or whoever scored that evening. It could go well. It could go awfully. It is a massive question mark. Identifying shooters will be one of the many challenges to start sorting out this month’s training camp and preseason.
Shootouts will happen at some point. For a low-scoring and hopefully low-goal-conceding team like New Jersey, we could see quite a few of them. While it is definitely not one of the most important things they need to improve upon, it would be good if this season’s team did not revert to the point-losing ways they had in four out of the last five seasons. Unfortunately, that may require hoping whoever the coaches select actually are productive in the shootout and that the goalies continue to surpass their lifetime save percentages in it. That may be a lot of hope. That makes it a challenge.
Of course, the Devils could avoid the shootout entirely by winning games in regulation or in overtime. Both of which did not go well last season and will definitely deserve more focus for improvement and adjustment. But those are topics