After four straight wins with varying levels of quality and consistent levels of results, the streak has been dusted. The New Jersey Devils have not played well in their last two games and they both lost those two games. The Devils demonstrated multiple issues in the last two games that will need to sort out if they want to get back to winning ways. There are many that can be discussed. Today, I want to focus on discipline.
Penalties are bound to happen the vast majority of games. According to Hockey-Reference, the Devils put up zero PIM in a game only 23 times in franchise history. It happened twice last season (February 8, 2018 against Calgary; November 18, 2017 at Winnipeg) and the previous instance before that was in 2015. So the issue is not that the Devils have taken penalties at all. It is really that they have been shorthanded several times. In the six games the Devils have played so far this season, they have been shorthanded at least three times in each game. Their total number of shorthanded situations is 25. That does not rank highly at NHL.com, but consider that the Devils have played only six games this season. Among all teams who have played only six games as of Sunday afternoon, that is tied for the most. Their times shorthanded (TS) per game is 4.16 - which would be among the top five rates in the league. That is not at all ideal for the Devils.
There is a direct and indirect impact when it comes to being shorthanded. The direct impact is obvious: giving up power play goals. On that front, the Devils look fantastic. The Devils have only conceded three power play goals against (PPGA) this season. None of them have ultimately cost them either loss. As of this writing, the Devils’ penalty kill success rate is 88% (22-for-25) and ranks in the top five of the NHL. That looks great on the surface. The deeper numbers also look great. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Devils’ rates of attempts (Corsi) against per 60 minutes (86.85, 6th), shots against per 60 minutes (33.92, 1st), and scoring chances against per 60 minutes (42.07, 4th) are all excellent for penalty killing situations. In other words, the Devils’ PK has done a great job ensuring their shorthanded situations are not blowing up in their faces. There is no direct damage.
The bigger problem is the indirect impact of killing penalties. Yes, the goal is to not allow the opposition to score. Teams do this by killing clock, denying clean looks at goal, and winning all kinds of smaller battles - faceoffs, board battles, races to pucks - to keep the team with the extra man from making something happen. Teams have special units that do this and they tend to stick to those players for the length of time needed. Sometimes they can change and other times, those players’ shifts will be long ones by being forced to defend until they make a clearance or get a stoppage. And the shorthanded team typically does have to defend. When I did a study of the Devils’ penalty kill over two seasons (2014-15 and 2015-16), I found that even a successful kill meant the Devils were in their own end of the rink for about 60% of the time. Even if the team allows no shots on net, they’re scrambling in their own end, often reacting to what the power play is doing to ensure they can get a block or dissuade the puck carrier from making a pass or whatever it takes to get that puck and clear it. That’s a lot of effort spent on defense among a select group of players. Doing that over and over undercuts potential time that could have been used at even strength where the whole roster can play. This has hurt the Devils’ cause, especially in their last two games.
Against Colorado, the Devils were shorthanded six times. While they only conceded one power play goal (Gabriel Landeskog torched Andy Greene and then Keith Kinkaid on an individual effort) and only five shots on net, the Devils gave their opponents 10:36 of ice time with at least one extra skater on the ice. The following Devils had fewer than one minute of shorthanded ice time in that game: Taylor Hall, Will Butcher, Drew Stafford, Travis Zajac (who was injured in this game), Kyle Palmieri, Stefan Noesen, Damon Severson, Miles Wood, and Marcus Johansson. That’s a bunch of players that could have an offensive impact on what was a close game. Having the NHL MVP sit on the bench for over ten minutes is not ideal for the team’s cause that night. Having a hot shooter in Palmieri sit for over ten minutes also hurts the offense. Having the team’s two best offensive defensemen be idle for most of those ten minutes does not help. Even two fewer penalty minutes would have possibly given an extra shift or two to these players that could have provided an impact. Granted, Palmieri, Wood, Stafford, and Johansson contributed to this problem so they may have taken a shift or two away from themselves and their regular linemates.
The same applies for what happened in Philadelphia. The Devils gave Philly 9:24 of power play time. The direct impact was limited to conceded one goal against and only three shots as the Devils’ PK blocked their way to holding Philly to no shots on net on three power plays. Again, this meant the same players - Hall, Butcher, Wood, Palmieri, etc. - had less time in what was mostly a close game. Not that the Devils played well enough on the puck that they could have taken advantage, even strength would have been more helpful than to just get pinned back and hope the next shot by Philly does not injure a Devil. Making matters worse in this game was that the Devils took four straight calls with one happening after one ended. Again, this meant that the non PK players were held on the bench while others were put to further work. On top of that, Steve Santini was taken out of the game early with a broken jaw and the penalty takers included PK regulars, Pavel Zacha, Andy Greene, Blake Coleman, and Kevin Rooney (he was a call up in part to play on the PK, which he did). This meant a few additional shifts for others on the PK, which only took more time for lines to re-organize to what they were originally planned to be - even after a successful kill.
While the direct results of each performance was not bad - yes, they conceded a goal each but it could have been a lot worse - the indirect results hindered the Devils in each game. Adding to this, the Devils did not generate more power plays in these two games. They were not devoid of advantages but they did not draw as much time - which is unfortunate as the power play did well in both games and was arguably the best thing about each loss. It is also worth noting in the Devils’ three wins, they did not go shorthanded more than four teams in either game.
As far as why the Devils have taken so many calls, I do not think it is a coincidence that their performances resulted in it. Sure, mistakes were made in each game, but against Colorado and Philadelphia, the Devils struggled to maintain possession, they did not win a lot battles in the neutral zone, and they were forced to play catch-up on more than a few shifts. Their general frustration in the game contributed to some offensive zone calls as well as additional physical fouls. Because the Devils were doing more chasing than they would have liked, the opposition had no real reason to foul of them. Were some of the penalty calls weak? Sure, but most of them were for actual penalties that actually happened and actually could have been avoided with a cooler head and a more focused approach to the game.
I thought about whether the Devils were more prone to going shorthanded in October in general. It is the first month of the season and no matter how hard players work out in the offseason and teams work in preseason, there is some rust to get off early on. It is also early in the season for referees. Perhaps they are more particular about certain penalties than others and make that point clear before the emphasis fades during the season. Thanks to the game-by-game stats at NHL.com, I took a look back at the last three seasons - all coached by John Hynes - to see if this was the case (and how much it cost them).
There might be something to this as the Devils were shorthanded more times per game in October compared to the entire season. The difference in rate was not as large in 2015 but that was definitely the case last season. 49 times shorthanded over 10 games is a lot worse than what the Devils’ currently have. Also, it cost the Devils quite a bit in 2015 and 2017. Fortunately, the Devils’ PK would tighten up the goals against per game rate those two seasons. While it remains to be seen how many times the Devils will be shorthanded, around 260 seems like a safe bet given the last three seasons. The takeaway from this is that the Devils have encountered something similar in past Octobers and have made improvements. The 2018-19 Devils are not necessarily doomed to being shorthanded an average of 4.16 times per game. That is a positive to keep in mind.
However, it will not improve without some effort to make it happen. And the Devils should really do so. Their early penalty woes may have not cost them games, and it was not as bad as it was last season. But it has been bad enough to make games more difficult than they need to be and have less time to attack regularly with some of the best players on the roster.
If the Devils want to improve their fortunes for their upcoming games, then this is something the Devils can do right away. Even if they have not caused a direct impact, the indirect impact has been negative. It has kept several players, most notably Taylor Hall, out of a significant portion of the game. It has forced the Devils to play a lot of defense; even when successful, it is time where they really cannot attack with a full unit - which undercuts the team’s effort in a close game. It is also no coincidence that the Devils have been called for so many calls in the last two games so poor on the puck in these last two games. Again, teams who are in control of the puck and/or the run of play have less reason to foul the other team. The Devils can help themselves in multiple areas by improving here, but that is way easier said than done. Penalties themselves are easier to adjust for.
With the penalties, everyone knows the rules of pro hockey and what they can/cannot get away with. If a ref is calling the game tight early on, then adjustments need to be made. Don’t keep trying to get away with fouls; that’s how a Devils team can take four penalties in the second period (like it did against Colorado). If the other team is playing nasty, then resist the desire to retaliate (they tend to get called). If you get beat, resist the desire to use the stick to restrain, take down a player, or strike the hands. Be smart about pressure and make your move legally. If you have to take a penalty to deny someone a goal, then great. Outside of Palmieri hooking MacKinnon against Colorado (which was kind of touchy as a call), the Devils have only done that once this season. And stop the nonsense and entirely avoidable ones like pucks over glass or throwing elbows. These and more will all help with being shorthanded so much. I’m not saying that only going shorthanded three times will get the Devils back to winning ways. But it will help the cause if only by not taking shifts away from players that can make a difference, whether it is the speedy sparkplug we call Miles Wood, the offensive-minded defenders in Butcher and Severson, or the 2017-18 NHL MVP Taylor Hall.
The combination of Keith Kinkaid’s hot start to this season, strong work on the PK by the skaters, and some puck luck has led to the Devils ensuring that most of their penalties that cost them do not end up costing them games. I can understand the fan who sees this PK success percentage and wonders why penalties, of all things, is an issue. It is not a direct issue - yet. But it has been an indirect problem and that played a role in their two losses. For the Devils to find more success, then they need to put themselves in better positions to succeed. Not having players put themselves in a penalty box so much is a good and immediate way to do that.
What do you make of the Devils’ early penalty woes for this season? Would you agree about the indirect impact of all of these penalties to kill? Will the Devils make a legitimate effort to not take as many penalties in their next few games? Could the issue resolve itself? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ penalties so far this season and what they can do about them in the comments. Thank you for reading.