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New Jersey Devils 2018-19 Season Preview Part 4: The Special Teams

In the fourth part of the week-long 2018-19 Devils season preview at All About the Jersey, John goes over special teams. Power plays and penalty kills were good for the Devils last season - but what can we expect for this coming season? This post explores the special teams to find out.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils
Hope for many more power play celebrations like this one, involving key special teams players (L-R): Zajac (PP & PK), Hall (PP), Butcher (PP), and Palmieri (PP & some PK)
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After struggling in 2016-17, special teams were a source of strength for the New Jersey Devils in the 2017-18 season. The power play rebounded from a sub-20% success rate to exceeding it while finishing tied for ninth in the NHL in that category. The penalty kill success rate was in the top ten while the Devils led the league in shorthanded goals (12). Even overtime and shootouts both ended up being net positives as the team went 6-5 and 5-4 in both, respectively. Can the Devils keep the good times rolling? What can we expect for 2018-19? Let’s dive deeper into special teams and find out.

What Happened Last Season with the Power Play?

The power play went well for the Devils last season. How well? At a glance, here is how the team performed statistically with the man advantage. Stats come from, which has a helpful of breakdown of situations, and Natural Stat Trick, where I pulled counts of shots, attempts, and chances specifically by that player.

Note: Ranks are out of 31 where the higher ranks assigned to the desirable version of the stats. In other words: rank as high as you can in “for” stats and be as low as possible for “against” stats. Corsi means all shooting attempts. Fenwick means all unblocked shooting attempts. Chances mean scoring chances. HD Chances mean High Danger scoring chances (the slot and crease).

2017-18 Devils Power Play Team Stats and Ranks
2017-18 Devils Power Play Team Stats and Ranks, Natural Stat Trick

On the left side are the stats from The Devils had one of the more productive power plays in the league. They scored over 50 goals with the man advantage, largely due to 5-on-4 situations. They finished tied within the top third in the league in success rate. They had a decent amount of ice time and an above-median number of opportunities. The vast majority of those were 5-on-4 situations. 4-on-3 and 5-on-3 situations were rare for the Devils last season; and when they did occur, the Devils only scored once each. All the more reason to focus on the more common situation of 5-on-4; though the Natural Stat Trick stats pulled did include all power play situations.

What’s very curious is the home-and-away split for success rate. If you attended games at the Rock or better remember those games, then you may have thought the Devils’ power play was one of the most potent in the NHL. The splits say, “Yes, they were - in Newark.” So you can feel good about that bit of validation. You cannot feel so good about the split also showed that the Devils were far from potent away from the Rock. I’m not sure what could account for such a big disparity between home and road games. Can it really be from having the last changed? Are power plays just more used to running their plays on their home rink? This is something to explore for the future.

On the right side are the rate stats and percentages from Natural Stat Trick and they paint a more sobering picture. Whether it was in attempts, unblocked attempts, shots, chances, or high danger chances, the Devils were well below the league median in each “for” rate stat. While power plays will not generate much if the first or second shot goes in the net, that the Devils were uniformly in the 20s for all five rate stats suggests that the Devils’ power play was not as efficient or effective when it came to creating offense. Fortunately for the Devils, when they were firing away, their percentage of finishing them was quite good. Their shooting percentage on all shots, scoring chances, and high danger chances were above the league median. In other words, it is quite good. In some other words, it is concerning because percentages tend to vary from season to season. The rate stats are a better reflection of how much is or is not being created with the man advantage. The 2017-18 power play was relatively effective when it came to scoring but when that was not happening, the attack could have stood to be more threatening. This actually lines up with my memories of last season’s power play.

I included against-per-60 minute stats because I wanted to see about how the Devils compared with other teams in giving up opportunities. As you can tell, those rates are much, much lower. This makes sense, the other team is down at least one man; they are not going to attack regularly. Still, relative to other teams, the Devils were on the higher end of giving up opportunities. Again, the good news is that the save percentages were relatively good and the Devils did not get relatively torched over and over. Giving up six shorthanded goals was tied with the league median last season.

The trend in the NHL is a 1-3-1 formation with four forwards and one defensemen. The 2017-18 Devils stuck to that for their first unit and often for their second unit. The Devils typically use the wings and the defenseman to move the puck primarily in the zone with the center and man at the crease being utilized as an option or to be in the area to clean up loose pucks or to keep the opposing penalty killers honest. This means that a bad decision or an aggressive penalty kill can cause issues - and it did here and there for opportunities.

The first unit featured Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri (when available, before it was Jesper Bratt) at the wings with Will Butcher as the top man on defense. There was some variation for the center and the man in front of the net (the bottom man) due to injuries and transactions. It was usually Travis Zajac (Adam Henrique had some minutes here before Zajac’s return) and/or Brian Boyle (Patrick Maroon took that spot). The second unit featured more of a rotation, usually with Nico Hischier as the common man. There was some variation in formation, usually some nights where Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen were in the back with a more “traditional” power play set up. That did not last though. Often, the second unit is, well, second to the first unit and does not always get prime minutes to perform and the prime players to make it work. The first unit is the main one for most teams and that was definitely the case in 2017-18. Hall, Palmieri, and Butcher were producing quite a lot on that first unit - and more than all of the other Devils.

2017-18 Devils Power Play Player Stats
2017-18 Devils Power Play Player Stats, Natural Stat Trick

Hall was a monster at production in 2017-18. One of the top power play scorers in the NHL, in fact. When I wrote about expected goals back in August, it was largely due to the power play where Hall crushed the model’s expectations. You better believe he’ll be crucial to the PP this season. Palmieri was a similar monster. Even with 22 fewer games played, Palmieri led the team in shots, attempts, unblocked attempts, and chances. He could have surpassed Hall’s awesome power play production. He may even do so in 2018-19. What’s so impressive is that these two can switch to their offwing. Hall can set up on the sideboards like a left winger and Palmieri hangs out in the right circle for a one-timer play not unlike what Ovechkin does for Washington. The two can play their natural wing positions. It worked big time for the Devils last season. Expect to see it again this season. The rookie defenseman, Butcher, did not shoot the puck nearly as much - Vatanen and Severson played much less than him and still nearly matched him in shots. But his role was to distribute pucks and help lead the breakout (which often had a drop pass). When the latter worked, so did the former where Hall and Palmieri made things happen.

There are some notable names here. Given how the Devils use their 1-3-1, the man in the slot and at the crease does not necessarily have to be great on the puck. They’re not the ones usually moving it around and setting up plays. To that end, Zajac and Brian Boyle and many others (Jimmy Hayes for over 50 minutes!) received PP ice time. Zajac and Boyle did serve one important purpose: winning the draw. Almost all power plays start with an offensive zone faceoff. Winning that helps the power play get set up. On top of that, while Maroon was excellent at screening goalies, Boyle was able to make a lot of up-close attempts happen. That he led the team in it speaks to how the Devils’ power play formation builds from the outside and may even take the shot from an angle or outside of the traditional “homeplate” chance area.

The players in grey are no longer Devils. No one of real consequence is missing. Maroon would have been a big help given how the Devils utilize their 1-3-1 formation. And Drew Stafford was not so useless here (he surprisingly won many faceoffs). But all of the major players who received significant power play ice time are still Devils.

Previewing the 2018-19 Power Play

Assistant coach Geoff Ward largely ran the power play in his time with the Devils. He has moved on to another position this summer. Rick Kowalsky, previously the head coach of the Binghamton Devils, was promoted to the New Jersey bench where it is expected that he will take on the power play. Kowalsky has been the head coach of the Devils’ AHL affiliate since 2010. He may make some changes to how the Devils take care of business on man advantage situations. Some may be with personnel, but there are some signs of changes to how the formation

In the previous chart, it remains a little surprising to see that Hischier only had six power play points last season. That may change based on what was shown in preseason so far. The first power play unit still ran a 1-3-1 formation. In the last two preseason games, the unit was Butcher, Hall, Palmieri, Hischier, and Zajac. They did not get a lot of time together, but this may be what the Devils start out with in 2018-19. Zajac would still be the faceoff taker and the unit would still be largely driven by Hall, Butcher, and Palmieri. The inclusion of Hischier instead of someone larger like Miles Wood or Boyle suggests that the “bottom man” in the 1-3-1 may not just hang around the crease. Hischier absolutely has good skills on the puck and so he should be able to see some touches. Kowalsky may need to modify the game plan to make that happen, but that he’s on the first unit at all suggests that the team is opening to modifying their tactics to generate more offense.

The second unit in recent preseason games did not feature a 1-3-1. They would have two defensemen and a forward line in a more “traditional” five-man set up. This may have been to who was playing, but Vatanen and Severson shared the ice together in Winnipeg with Jesper Bratt (who received PP time when he played), Marcus Johansson (who also received PP time when he played), and John Quenneville (who received PP time in Binghamton when he played). In the last two games, the even strength line was Johansson, Pavel Zacha, and Bratt. Zacha did receive some games on a power play unit last season, but he wasn’t particularly offensive or even good at winning draws. To that end, I would expect someone like Boyle to be with Johansson, Bratt, Vatanen, and Severson. He can take the draw (and probably win it), fill in space down low, and let the other create as he cleans up what is around them. Vatanen’s slapshot can be threatening and Severson has offensive skills. Even if Bratt and Johansson are not big shooters, they would have options. The second unit will always be secondary to the main unit, so I would expect more variation as to who is and is not on it due to injury or performance. I would expect Wood and Zacha to be additional options for forwards on this unit. And maybe Kowalsky will have this unit run a 1-3-1 as well if/when he decides on being the lone defenseman.

The 2018-19 Devils’ power play is still expected to be on the backs of Hall and Palmieri with Butcher setting things up on the first unit. I’m confident both Hall and Palmieri will be effective. Still, last season’s stats point to some areas of improvement. The Devils can generate more attempts, shots, and chances by being more successful on zone entries and executing their passes well. If Hischier’s presence on the first unit will force the unit to be driven by more than three skater, then that may pay off with more looks and attacking opportunities. The second unit running a different style may be off-putting, but the same principles apply. If they can make more zone entries more often and make good decisions on the puck, then a different look may surprise their opponents on their way to chipping in here and there. The first unit is still the primary and will likely yield a lot of the conversions in 2018-19. Expect that to come from how well Hall, Palmieri, and Butcher does in this season.

The Devils do need to be careful with really aggressive penalty killers. Teams who will rush puck carriers down or go for interceptions in the neutral zone (like chasing down a man from behind to deny a drop pass) can cause the Devils’ fits. The Rangers last season and in this preseason provided plenty of good examples, which dulled the Devils’ approaches into their zone and their power play overall. Again, with how the Devils run their 1-3-1, if they can deny a pass from the defender to the wing, then they can create a dangerous counter-attacking opportunity on top of denying the Devils. I would not be surprised if more teams try to apply pressure to mitigate the Devils’ power play in 2018-19.

One more thing: I would expect some down turn in terms of production unless the Devils start attempting and shooting much more. It may not happen. I hope it does not happen. But Hall had a standout season of all standout seasons, the team’s shooting percentages were good and ranked better than their actual rates of taking shooting opportunities, and the team’s home power play rate was astounding. Some or all of that may dip a bit. I think the Devils still have the pieces to put together a solid power play; but they need to be more threatening more often and just create more chances. If they can sort out the breakouts, involve Hischier somehow in their 1-3-1, and sort out the second unit, then they can do it.

What Happened Last Season with the Penalty Kill?

The power play went well for the Devils last season. How well? At a glance, here is how the team performed statistically with the man advantage. Stats come from, which does not have a helpful of breakdown of situations like they do for power plays (hence the big white space), and Natural Stat Trick, where I used on-ice rate stats since there really are not many individual stats for killing penalties.

2017-18 Devils Penalty Kill Team Stats and Ranks
2017-18 Devils Penalty Kill Team Stats and Ranks, Natural Stat Trick

Despite the lack of interesting situational stats at for the penalty kill, they do show that the Devils were one of the better teams in the league when it came to shorthanded situations. Their success rate was a top-ten rate. While there was a 4.2% gap between the home and road penalty kill success rate, both were good relative to the league. Just as importantly, the Devils minimized the damage further with twelve shorthanded goals of their own. If there is a concern here, then it is with how many shorthanded situations the Devils were in. They did not rank particularly highly in that regard. But they could stand to be more disciplined so they are not shorthanded as much as they were in 2017-18. The best penalty kill is not having to kill one at all.

Unlike the power play, the on-ice rate stats at Natural Stat Trick support the statement that the Devils’ PK was one of the better ones in the NHL last season. All “against” rate stats towered over the “for” stats, but the Devils were a top ten team in all categories. While penalty kills do not generate a lot of offense; relative to the NHL, the Devils were one of the best. In terms of defending, you cannot really ask for much more than what the Devils allowed as a per-60 rate stat from attempts to shots to chances. The only non-top ten stat here is goaltending (and high-danger chance shooting percentage but 21% is still good). The Devils were closer to the league median for saves against all shots and scoring chances. High danger chances were better relative to the league, but the stops were the only thing not-top-ten about this PK. That may not look so hot as the goaltender is one of the most crucial penalty killers on any team. But it was by no means bad for the Devils last season. Combined with the others, I can confidently type that the Devils’ penalty kill in 2017-18 was very good.

2017-18 Devils Penalty Kill Player Stats
2017-18 Devils Penalty Kill Player Stats, Natural Stat Trick

In terms of who made it happen, the Devils’ PK was largely buoyed by veteran defensemen Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy. Neither are particularly fast, neither are particularly good at going forward, but both have the experience and mindset to make zone exits, win pucks, and cover opposing men in a formation. Greene led the team by ice time while the team posted up some solid rates while he was on the ice. Those same rates were even better for Lovejoy. Blake Coleman broke out in a big way last season by rushing the opposition down for offensive opportunities. He led the Devils and nearly the entire league in terms of shorthanded shots on net. The team’s on-ice rate stats were great with Coleman out there. The only issues with him are his faceoffs (which weren’t awful but still below 50%) and that he takes penalties of his own (Coleman can’t kill penalties in the box).

The penalty kill is where the team’s departures this summer take more of a hit. Brian Gibbons was Coleman’s common partner and #2 among forwards in terms of shorthanded ice time. He is now a Duck. John Moore, of all defensemen, ended up as the #3 defenseman used on the PK last season. He is now a Bruin. While the trade was in November 2017, Adam Henrique was a big part of the penalty kill in New Jersey before he was sent to Anaheim. The point remains: Some holes will have to be filled in.

From a defensive standpoint, the Devils did give plenty of time to Steven Santini, when he was with New Jersey, and Sami Vatanen, after he arrived with New Jersey. Both played frequently with Greene at even strength last season, so if Lovejoy was unavailable, they made for an easy fill-in. Left defense is a little riskier as Mirco Mueller played less than 60 minutes on the PK - but the team’s on-ice rates did not blow up when he was on the ice. As for forwards, the Devils do have options with Gibbons gone. Travis Zajac has been a PK mainstay for the Devils and will likely continue in that role. Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha have been used on a second or third pair of forwards and things went well. Really well for Zacha on a secondary unit; that is why he got the highlighted cells for his numbers. Kyle Palmieri has received PK shifts as well in this past season and in prior ones, so he could be called upon to contribute there. Nico Hischier almost received as much time as Palmieri, which is another option for the Devils’ young stud forward.

As far as how the Devils did all of this, their main formation was a wedge plus one in 4-on-5 situations. Three skaters surround the slot and react to whoever is or is not there. The plus one applies pressure to the puck carrier and/or the player on the perimeter. They can support any exit attempts by the other three, they can drop back in coverage if needed, and they can press forward if they get an opportunity to rush up ice. The plus one can rotate between the forwards

Previewing the 2018-19 Penalty Kill

It looks like the Devils will try to keep on keeping on. The wedge plus one formation does tend to work for the players the Devils have. The defensemen do not need to be mobile to contribute and the team has plenty of forwards who are quick and smart enough to apply pressure without regularly getting caught out of position. Even with Binghamton Devils in games, the Devils stuck to a wedge plus one throughout preseason. Why change what has been working?

The changes will be in personnel. For the first unit, expect Greene and Lovejoy as defensemen with Coleman and Zajac. As with power plays, Zajac will take draws. But Zajac is very experienced and very good at helping in defensive situations. Coleman can continue to threaten opposing players who have the puck and charge up ice in the hopes of punishing them for their errors. For the second unit, the Devils have some options. It could be Mueller and Santini (if he’s in the lineup) or Mueller and Vatanen. I’m not sure if the Devils would want to put two right-handed shots on a penalty kill. And I’m not sure how likely it will be that Lovejoy, Santini, and Mueller are all in the lineup for the same game outside of injuries to others. The forwards could be Zacha and Bratt. While Zacha on faceoffs may not go so well, both of them have done well in more limited usage last season. Bratt can be the plus one. Hischier and Palmieri can act as a third set of forwards; something the Devils have tended to utilize with their penalty killing units. We could see some mixing and matching with the other set depending on the situation. The good news is that even with Gibbons and Moore leaving some open spots, the Devils have more than enough players who know what the coaches want to run on the penalty kill and what the expectations are.

I will type that you may not want to expect 12 shorthanded goals again. While the Devils will get their opportunities and score a couple, it is a lot to ask for twelve shorties in a season. Three of them were scored by the departed Gibbons and Moore chipped in one. This number included the very rare 3-on-5 goal. I can see Coleman having at least 10 shorthanded shots and others like Bratt and Palmieri have a handful of chances too. Expecting the Devils to repeat last year’s production from the PK is a stretch.

But expecting the Devils’ PK to be one of the more effective ones in the league again? Provided the goaltending does not fall apart, I think that is more likely to happen. It is more likely to repeat than the power play repeating last season’s results.

Additional Situations: Overtime & Shootout

The Devils went 5-4 in shootouts last season and I wrote a ton about them after watching and analyzing each attempt for and against the Devils during the offseason. Without Drew Stafford, I question who will be a reliable shootout taker for the team. Bratt has a great move but only finished it once out of four attempts. Palmieri has some moves but, again, he does not have a high success rate. Hall could have moves but faltered when trying them on top of historically not being a good shootout taker. Boyle was surprisingly good - and he doesn’t have a move. Stafford was the team’s best shooter and he may not return. Even if Keith Kinkaid is better and Cory Schneider returns to last season’s shootout form, you have to score to win. Can anyone on this roster score at a rate of 1 out of 3 or better? Shootouts could be a concern and Hynes may just have to keep throwing guys out there until he finds someone to be successful. Based on last season, expect Palmieri and Hall to get opportunities followed by others as needed. If I were to guess at a third shooter, then it may be Bratt. He does have great hands with the puck and the courage to try a difficult deke on a goalie. But if he keeps losing pucks on his attempts of those dekes like last season, then it may quickly go to others - such as a goal scorer in the game or someone who excelled in shootout practice. There is not a lot to be confident on paper with the shootout and that could cost a few points here and there in 2018-19.

As for overtime, the Devils were 6-5 in games decided in overtime. Yes, John Moore scored two goals early in the season and went on to contribute little else. Like most teams, the Devils emphasize puck possession more in 3-on-3 and they have displayed enough patience on defense to try and avoid being picked during cross-ups. They will rush up ice when given a chance. I’d love it if the stat sites had more 3v3 information. As short as the situations are, the data may reveal more in terms of who is actually good at it. Anyway, the Devils have had some OT time in preseason. Hall and Hischier with Greene or Vatanen is a safe bet for a starting three. Expect to see Palmieri, Bratt, Wood, and Severson in OT situations too. You may see Butcher as well, although that may require him working on his defensive game a bit first. You could see up to three different units, but that is not common. The run of play in overtime can be chaotic and players may be stuck on a shift for a while. Or the overtime period will end quickly and there won’t be a change. As the team has multiple forwards who can skate well and defensemen who can support them, 3 on 3 for New Jersey is not a bad situation to be in. The Devils would do well to try to end their games their way in OT than go to shootouts and hope for the best.

Conclusions & Your Take

Last season’s power play and penalty kill were good for the Devils. The power play was supported by some stronger-than-usual shooting percentages and production largely driven by Hall and Palmieri (combined for 24 goals, or about 44% of all Devils power play goals last season) than necessarily good rates to justify that the Devils had a good process. The penalty kill had both strong on-ice rates that support the notion that their strong success rate was representative of their play. The 12 shorthanded goals helped. The team’s record in overtime periods and shootouts were above break even. In total, special teams were good for New Jersey and it helped them make the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

It remains to be seen whether they can keep it up. We will some new faces in roles that we may have only seen for small parts of last season. I would not anticipate more changes to the penalty kill. Given their good rates and that most of their main penalty killers are returning to it, I would expect the PK to be good again. The power play’s future in 2018-19 is a little hazier. How will Hischier help on the first unit? Will the second unit become (stay?) different in formation and design from the first unit? What other changes will Kowalsky make? I’m not concerned about overtime, but the shootout begs the question: who should actually be taking shots for this team? This is not to say that shootouts will go back to being a losing endavor and that the power play will crash hard into the bottom third of the league. But I am less confident in the power play being a top-ten or near-top-ten aspect of the team in 2018-19; and I am less confident about the shootout being more successful than not for another season. As usual, I can be wrong.

In the meantime, I want to know your opinions and thoughts about the Devils’ special teams. What do you expect the power play and penalty kill to do this season? Do you want Hischier on the first unit and how should the unit involve him? What would you do about the second power play unit? Can they really keep the good times rolling on the PK? Who would you select as shooters for shootouts? Do you think they should adjust their approach to overtime periods? Most of all, will special teams be a net benefit for the Devils and help them succeed in this coming season? Please leave your answers and other comments about special teams in the comments. Thank you for reading. Check out All About the Jersey later today for Part 5 of our week-long season preview.