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Palmieri, Mojo, Zajac, and the Plight of the Vets

The Devils are where they are this year because of stellar performances from rookies and other young players, and despite the performance of most veterans.

New Jersey Devils v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

Despite recent struggling, the Devils are still sitting in the top half of the league. This is in large part due to the fact that, as of the writing of this article, we have the 8th, 10th, and 11th top scoring rookies in the league. Also we’re getting very strong seasons from the 22-year-old Miles Wood and second-year pro Blake Coleman. But if we have basically a quarter of the best rookies in the league, and other overperforming youngsters, how is it that we’re only slightly above average? It’s the performance of a few key veterans, forwards in particular, that is dragging us down. I’m going to look at 3 guys as the unfortunate targets of this article — Marcus Johansson, Travis Zajac, and Kyle Palmieri. Here, I’ll attempt to explain the degree to which they’ve disappointed, and distribute blame among the three where warranted.

Below is a graph of the 5v5 Game Score of the three skaters in question, to give an idea of how underwhelming their performance has been.

As you can see by this chart, last year, Johansson was producing like a legit top line forward on an, albeit, significantly better Washington Capitals team. Also, last year, on a significantly worse New Jersey squad, Palmieri and Zajac were fringe top 6 forwards at 5v5. This year, it’s a different story on all three counts. Mojo has fallen from clearly a top liner, to a mid-tier 3rd liner. Palms has gone from a back-end top 6, to a front-end 4th liner. And Zajac has gone from a top tier 3rd liner, to an AHL-quality forward.

This graph is not an all-encompassing story. It only tells us 5v5 and it’s affected by linemates and zone starts among other things. They’ve played with each other a bit as well. So let’s see what they look like with and without each other using Natural Stat Trick’s Line Tool.

I think this gives us a better picture of what’s going on at 5v5. It’s clear from these statistics that Travis Zajac is the biggest anchor on the possession numbers. In almost 80 minutes together, this trio started over half of their faceoffs in the offensive zone, and yet they were significantly negative in both CF% and HDCF%. In the three combinations that include either Johansson or Palmieri but not Zajac, every permutation was positive in both CF% and HDCF% despite comparable or lower OZS%. Johansson in particular has put up a 57.17 HDCF% when not saddled with either of them, a figure which is over the team average.

Those are all what are called “on-ice” statistics though. Those are stats that do not deal with things the player individually did, only what the team did while they were on. They are normally very important as well, and Game Score also includes individual stats like penalties, goals, assists, etc, but it helps to look at what these players are individually contributing.

I’ve been working on making visualizations of zone transition data using Corey Sznajder’s All-Three-Zone Project. I’ve already posted this year’s data, and I’m working on a viz that includes 2016-17 as well. I’m still troubleshooting it, but if you can play around with it here. If you notice any bugs, let me know because I’m still working out the kinks.

Mojo has been better in exiting the zone and worse at the other transition elements in comparison to last year. Given that he’s starting in the OZ so often though, that’s probably the least important skill for him to have. Zajac is still above average in zone transition efficiency — which is to say that he carries more often than he dumps. However, he has gone from a good passer and overall serviceable offensive contributor, to just a complete black hole. This is likely part of what’s making his possession and chance statistics so low — he’s not generating anything. Kyle Palmieri is slightly or significantly worse at everything. I’ve heard some suggest he may still being hampered somewhat by his foot injury. It’s been over a month since he’s returned so he should be fine, but he hasn’t had the same explosiveness and foot speed since his return. His shot is still there, but not much else is from what I can tell.

Concluding Thoughts

I think all three of these guys have been disappointments. Johansson is supposed to be excellent in transition and an overall 5v5 force. In the former, he’s underperforming, and in the latter, he’s not been good enough to make up for Zajac. Zajac has been a drain in every aspect of the game — he’s clearly an anchor at 5v5, he has a positive RelTxGA60 in penalty killing, and a negative RelTxGF60 in powerplay, which are all the opposites of what you want. He’s essentially a faceoff specialist right now. Palmieri has the highest floor of the three of them because it doesn’t seem as though his powerplay shot is going anywhere anytime soon. But for a guy who really profiles as fitting the “fast, attacking, supportive” mantra well, it’s definitely disappointing for him to not be driving play.

In summary; Mojo is underperforming the least, Zajac the most, Palmieri has the highest floor. And the Devils need all of them to improve if we want to weather the storm the rest of the year and appear competent if we make the postseason.

What are your thoughts? Who among these guys do you think is playing well/poorly? Who will turn it around? Who is just bad? Should we change our deployment of any of them?

Thanks for reading, as always, and leave your thoughts below!