In a 2017-18 season where the New Jersey Devils have surprised many - including myself - by being in a playoff position in the standings for as long as half of regular season. For a team to go from dead last to honestly thinking about playing some meaningful games after the trade deadline, some players must have emerged to contribute in an unexpected fashion. This is very much true in the case of the 2017-18 Devils.
While I was hoping Nico Hischier to be a successful player, I am very pleased that the now-19 year old center has been mainstay on a top line and is tied for second on the team in points with 26. Speaking of 19-year olds, a sixth round draft pick from 2016 named Jesper Bratt wowed his way into training camp, preseason, and is now a right winger next to Hischier and Taylor Hall. He is tied with Hischier with 26 points. The hope was that defenseman Will Butcher would be a regular and play on the power play. The reality is that he has 25 points, 14 power play points, and leads the first unit even after the acquisition of a more experienced Sami Vatanen. I don’t know about you but it’s a pleasant surprise to see Brian Gibbons, Miles Wood, and Brian Boyle each score at least ten goals already.
But among this roster there is one surprising player who has emerged to take a spot on this roster that deserves some further attention: Blake Coleman.
The Path Taken
Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen are two of the four active NHL skaters that were born in Texas. Much was made of this during the broadcast of the Devils game in Dallas. Those two took different paths to the NHL. While Noesen started with youth teams in Texas, he would join the Compuware Bantam Major AAA squad ahead of being drafted by Plymouth of the OHL per Elite Prospects. Noesen was born in 1993 and was drafted in the first round by
Anaheim Ottawa (I got this wrong; Anaheim acquired him in 2013. Thanks wemissparise for catching this error) in 2011. There was an expectation that he would be a player. Coleman was more of a longer shot for a number of reasons. Let’s look at his path to the NHL.
Per Elite Prospects, after a season with Belle Tire U16 in Michigan, Coleman went back to Texas for youth hockey in 2008-09 with the Dallas Stars U18 team. Coleman turned 18 as he joined the Tri-City Storm of the USHL. He did not stay there. He ended up with the Indiana Ice before the end of 2009-10. In the 2010-11 season, Coleman broke out in a huge way and racked up all kinds of accolades such as the USHL Forward of the Year, USHL Most Points, and USHL Player of the Year. Coleman was head and shoulders above his peers. He was also older than most of them as he was 20. After being passed over
twice once (He has a late birthday, so it was just once. My bad, thanks to Triumph44 for pointing it out in the comments) in the NHL Entry Draft, the Devils took a chance on Coleman with a third round pick, 75th overall in 2011. They knew they could let him work on his game as Coleman was committed to the University of Miami (Ohio).
In college hockey, Coleman was fairly successful. He shot the puck a lot, he eventually became an assistant captain in his senior year, and he was the NCHC Tournament MVP in 2013-14 when Miami won. Per Elite Prospects, Coleman finished his college career with 60 goals and 47 assists in 143 games for a point per game average of 0.75. Those aren’t numbers that suggested he would be a sure-fire NHLer, but they are not bad either. Still, Albany awaited for Coleman. His first fourteen games went well enough with four goals and three assists. Then on November 27, Coleman was hurt by a hit from Mark Fraser so much so that he required shoulder surgery. The 24-year old’s first season in pro hockey was cut short. To get an idea of how he was regarded then, he ranked 26th in our 2016 Top 25 Under 25 as Brian noted that his opportunity to show off what he could was closing quickly with an influx of younger prospects. Hopes were not high for a future.
In 2016-17, Coleman returned to Albany and continued to work on his game. He was someone who could chip in some scoring as he would end the season with 19 goals and 20 assists in 52 games. Coleman attained his NHL dream in that season as he made his league debut on January 12 against Edmonton. It was a nondescript debut. That first call up led to five appearances before he was sent down. Coleman ended up playing 23 games with the Devils, largely staying with the team from February 27 onward. By that point of the season, the Devils were just playing out the season and seeing what they had in their system. Coleman did not make much of an impression. In those 23 games, Coleman averaged about 13 minutes per game, scored one goal, picked up one assist, took 29 shots on net, and took 27 minutes in penalties per Hockey-Reference. There was not much remarkable about his season other than that he was used on the penalty kill regularly. He wasn’t particularly noticeable there either.
Let’s put all of this together. He was an overage draft pick. While he succeeded in the USHL, he did so in his 20-year old season and on his second team. Coleman could be aggressive - and to a fault given his PIM totals where he played. While he played for a good college, Coleman did well but was not a dominant offensive force. Not in the sense that you’d see the numbers and think that he would be a NHL player in some way or form. He joined the Albany at age 24, older than most rookies that join the league. Coleman suffered a torn labrum to not only end that season prematurely but perhaps raise a question about his future health. When he did make it to New Jersey, it was because the team was so bad that they figured on trying out anyone they could. It was hard to say he really impressed in his 2016-17 season. If the Devils didn’t re-sign Coleman, then it would not have been a loss at the time. After all, that new contract was a one-year, two-way deal where he’d make $660,000 in the NHL and less than $100,000 in the AHL. It was not like the Devils valued him that highly. There was no reason to think Coleman was guaranteed a spot in New Jersey in 2017-18.
Coleman has been a perfectly acceptable for a bottom-six winger in 5-on-5. According to Natural Stat Trick, he has a CF% (Corsi For%, or Devils attempts over all attempts) of 48%, a SF% (Shots For%, or Devils shots over all shots) and SCF% (Scoring Chance For%, or Devils scoring chances over all scoring chances) both just under 50%. Coleman ranked at least tenth on the team in each of these stats among Devils who have played at least 200 minutes in 5-on-5 hockey. These aren’t bad for a player in his position on a team that has not done so hot in CF%, SF%, or SCF% as a total squad. (Note: the recent loss to the Islanders haven’t killed these values either). He has put up five goals and six assists in 41 games. This all well and good for the role he has played. However, what makes Coleman notable goes beyond even these numbers.
Coleman basically proved his worth in training camp and in preseason to beat out other players like Joseph Blandisi, John Quenneville, and Blake Pietila among others. From watching him play, you can easily see how he did it. He’s an aggressive player. Coleman isn’t necessarily fast, but he is far from slow. He just keeps on hustling. More importantly, Coleman can be aggressive going forward. If he has an opportunity to shoot, he’ll do it. That’s why he’s fourth on the team in shots with 74 despite not playing on a power play unit and averaging less than 12 minutes per game at even strength. This isn’t to say he’s a puck-hog. He will pass the puck if the lane is there, most recently he tossed a great pass by a defender in a 2-on-1 that Brian Gibbons (somehow) didn’t cash in on. But if you like your bottom six forwards to fire away, then Coleman has been your man.
Sometimes he’s been aggressive to a fault. Coleman is second on the team with 14 minor penalties and in 5-on-5 play, Natural Stat Trick states he took 11 minors and 1 major. At least Coleman has not been a net negative in that regard. Coleman’s play has drawn fouls as well. Natural Stat Trick has him for 11 penalties drawn in 5-on-5 play. Only Wood, Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri have drawn more fouls in 5-on-5 play on the Devils.
Basically, if you like your hockey players to be hard workers who don’t really give up on a shift, then you are liking Blake Coleman this season. But the real area where Coleman shines is on the penalty kill.
Killer Penalty Killer
Coleman’s aggressive approach to the game really has stood out in shorthanded situations. The New Jersey Devils have tended to use a triangle-plus-one formation on their penalty kill. The one is supposed to challenge a puck handler and roam higher up in the zone while the other three form a triangle around the slot area. Coleman has thrived at going after skaters. Combined with either Brian Gibbons or Jesper Bratt, who are both swift skaters, Coleman has been able to go forward and make an impact.
On a penalty kill, the idea is to kill the clock so the team can be back at full strength. Coleman does more than just get a clearance. He actively forechecks on the penalty kill when he has the opportunity to do so. He is able to apply pressure, go after opposing players, and waste time by holding onto the puck against the boards. In the last two games, Coleman took as much as ten seconds off the clock just by battling and winning pucks away from the opposition. These are the sort of hard working plays that do not end up on the scoresheet but should be praised and highlighted. And they aren’t so uncommon; it happened at least once in the recent games against Dallas and the Islanders. It’s effective work that keeps an opposition power play back for a bit of time. That’s enough time to make a change in personnel as well as shorten the opposition’s window for a conversion. When Coleman sees he can force a turnover and/or get the puck in deep, he will do it. Per Natural Stat Trick, Coleman has not taken a minor penalty during a penalty kill. He has done so without taking a penalty to make matters worse. While it’s not happening everytime there’s a penalty kill, it happens enough to command some attention.
There’s more to that impact than wasting time. He is often attacking from shorthanded situations. According to Natural Stat Trick, Coleman’s offensive numbers on the PK have been remarkable. Coleman currently has 14 shots on net and 16 shooting attempts in penalty killing situations. 14 shots is second in the entire NHL to only Andrew Cogliano, who has 15. 16 shooting attempts is third in the league, only behind Cogliano (20) and Dylan Larkin (17). Coleman is tied with Vincent Trocheck and Michael Grabner with 16 attempts. In terms of individual scoring chances and individual high danger scoring chances, Coleman leads the league with 14 and 10, respectively. The only thing that Coleman does not have with all of those shots and chances are goals. He has just one shorthanded goal. I wish he would have more. That it is not uncommon for Coleman to create a shot that is often scoring chance on a penalty kill makes me think that he will have a few more if he keeps it up. I knew Coleman has been good about moving the puck up on the PK. I didn’t know that he was ahead of all but a handful of players in the NHL at doing it. That’s how impressive Coleman’s numbers are in that regard.
Of course, this would be undercut if the Devils’ PK suffered with Coleman on the ice. It has not. Last season, in 23 games, the Devils’ rates in penalty killing situations when Coleman on the ice were not so hot. Coleman himself witnessed eight PPGAs and zero shorthanded goals. This season, after 41 games, Coleman himself witnessed three shorthanded goals and eight PPGAs. When Coleman is on the ice, the Devils allow shots at a rate of 51.1 SA/60 (shots against per sixty minutes). The only regular penalty killing forward on the Devils with a better SA/60 is Coleman’s recent partner on the PK, Bratt. To put that in further perspective, among the 184 forwards in the NHL who have played at least 30 minutes of shorthanded ice time, Coleman’s SA/60 rate currently ranks 52nd. As for goals against, his GA/60 is 5.76, which ranks 63rd in the NHL. He’s not ranked among the elite, but he’s well above your average PK forward. Not that an average penalty killing forward would create more attempts, shots, and chances than nearly everyone in the entire NHL. The point is that Coleman’s aggressive play on the PK has not burned the Devils in the back end.
What makes this all even more impressive is that there were no real indications that Coleman could do this. He did not really show much of this off in 2016-17. He wasn’t creating much of any shorthanded offense in 2016-17. The Devils did not have a relatively low SA/60 when Coleman was on the ice in PK situations in 2016-17. To put it simply, Coleman was just a guy last season. A guy that was 25 years old going on 26 with an not-so-impressive pedigree behind him and not a lot of easily identified reasons to keep him around in the NHL. That guy isn’t on the 2017-18 Devils.
This season, Blake Coleman secured himself as a NHL player. He has been perfectly fine in 5-on-5 play as a third/fourth liner. Coleman could stand to take fewer penalties. Seeing that he has racked up PIMs throughout his amateur and professional career, I’m not holding my breath. But he absolutely should have a reputation for being a shorthanded attacking dynamo. Not even a year after he was signed among a group of other RFAs - Noesen included - I expect and hope he’ll be re-signed by New Jersey this summer. As a pending restricted free agent, per CapFriendly, he likely will be anyway but I’m looking forward to it this time. That’s a big turnaround.
In a half of a NHL season, Coleman has broken out to be an impressive player on the penalty kill and a part of the reason why the Devils’ penalty kill has been so good this season. He’s not a bit taller and more Texan version of Stephen Gionta, Coleman is an attacker in shorthanded situations. He’s a very hard worker when does get forward and he is not a liability in terms of the run of play in 5-on-5 or defending on a penalty kill. This is a player that now has some value to a team. Blake Coleman’s emergence is another positive surprise in a 2017-18 campaign full of them for the New Jersey Devils. He’s come a long way from Texas, the Indiana Ice, getting drafted as a 20-year old, having his first pro season cut short due to injury, and not making a big impact in last season’s campaign.
How do you regard Blake Coleman this season? Are you surprised as I am at how much he has contributed? Were you also surprised to learn that he’s among league leaders in terms of individual shots, attempts, and scoring chances on the penalty kill? Do you want him back for next season? If so, how much and how long? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Blake Coleman in the comments.