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Happy National Pickle Day! Blake Coleman is the Devils’s Best Non-Top-Line Forward

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Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri are the Devils 3 best forwards. There’s a glut of guys after that, but it’s extraordinarily easy to make the case the Coleman is the best of the rest.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Winnipeg Jets James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

I love Blake Coleman. I’ve loved watching him since the first game of last year. By the 3rd game of last year, I was tweeting incessantly about him during games (one, two, three, four). His name certainly doesn’t carry the weight of stars some of the more veteran or more influential players on the team, but I’m rapidly approaching the viewpoint that no forward on this team outside the top line of Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri is as good as #20. And, seeing as today is National Pickle Day, I figured, what better time to celebrate the wonder that is Mr. Coleman.

Part of what is so great about his game is that there’s a little something there for everyone — the old guard fans, the casual fans, and the modern analytics crew. The older hockey crowd love a guy that isn’t afraid to grind it out in the corners and lay down a body when the situation calls for it — a classical “Power Forward”. Blake Coleman was top 10 in the NHL among forwards in hits last year and only Milan Lucic had more shots (147 ... Coleman had 146). According to Corsica only 5 forwards in the NHL have more combined hits and shots than Coleman’s 374 in the last two years.

I was inspired to write this piece after seeing this goal against the Maple Leafs from Coleman.

This is textbook Coleman — and a perfect reason why even the casual fan can recognize Coleman’s impact. And this wasn’t a random one-off play — he does this consistently.

Here’s one clip of last year where he enters the zone, gets a shot off, chases his own rebound, pins defender Thomas Hickey in midair like a bully holding a wailing short-armed kid away from his lunch money, and then slides the puck in front for Noesen to bury. The Devils would go on to win this game by one goal — Coleman scored the game winner.

He’s an energizer bunny out there. Perhaps he had loaded up on his, now trademarked, pickle juice because when he get’s a full head of steam — the juice is loose.

And, of course, before the scoring production, the reason he made the team at all was because of how that tenacity plays out on the penalty kill (side note, there’s a joke involving P-Kill sounding like Pickle somewhere in there, but it’s late and my wit is sore so if you’ve got one throw it in the comments). For instance, how about that time he killed the first 30 seconds of a penalty by himself:

And don’t misjudge him due to his physicality, he’s got some soft hands too. His hustle is his calling card, but he has genuine athleticism to amplify the result. I mean is this clip from Blake Coleman or Alex Ovechkin?

So he’s clearly capable of regularly making “wow” plays — I’d argue, morseo than anyone other than Hall and Hischier. But plenty of people can play well in isolated spurts, what do the stats say the result is overall?

Well first of all, he’s among the best defensive forwards in the league. Take a look at EvolvingWild’s RAPM metrics. The last two bars are the defensive categories and this is Coleman as compared to last year’s Selke winner, Anze Kopitar:

Data via Evolving-hockey

For those not well-versed in statistics, 1.5-2.0 standard deviations translates about the 95th percentile — Coleman is in the top 5% of NHL forwards defensively. And this proficiency last year was virtually inarguable — Corsica had him as the 11th ranked forward in DGAR. But the GAR love goes even further than that!

In overall GAR from Evolving-hockey, Coleman ranked 4th among forwards last year for the Devils behind only Hall, Hischier, and Gibbons (? ... okay). Then, this year, he’s thus far reprised that role and is 2nd on the team behind only Nico (though I suspect that may change after Hall’s night last night). Over the past two seasons, among the 298 forwards with 1000+ minutes, Coleman ranks 29th in the NHL in even strength GAR rate.

For more conventional stats, of the 13 Devils forwards with 800+ minutes the last two years, on RelT stats, Coleman is 5th in CF% and 2nd behind only Taylor Hall in xGF%. Not that surprising from the guy who trails only Nico and Hall in individual expected goals and high-danger chances in that time. As strange as it may be to admit, Coleman is one of the best forwards on the team at 5v5! And that’s arguably not even when he’s at his best!

As you saw above, he’s also an absolute nuisance as a penalty killer. In fact, he’s likely the most dangerous penalty killer in the NHL. Over the past two seasons, Coleman leads the NHL with 17 high-danger scoring chances on the penalty kill — 5 chances higher than #2 on the list, Michael Grabner. FWIW he also leads the NHL with 31 takeaways which are 12 more than #2 in the league on that list.

Taylor Hall is still clearly the best forward on the Devils. Nico Hischier is pretty obviously 2nd. If Kyle Palmieri is healthy and scoring, he’s 3rd. But whatever the forward rankings were in your head up until this point, make room at #4, because that’s Coleman’s spot.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of Blake Coleman? Where does he rank among Devils forwards for you? Am I too high? Do you have Zajac above him maybe? How do you feel about his pickle company. Or his community platform, Pickle Pals? I expect at least one thread in the comments to by dedicated exclusively to pickle puns. Thanks as always for reading and leave comments below.

Thanks to @NJviDs for their continued invaluable contribution to Devils twitter making the gifs of the highlights (btw, you should browse his Coleman posts if your as big a fan as I am). Also thanks to Natural Stat Trick (Patreon) for all scoring chance data, and Evolving-Hockey (Patreon), and Corsica (Patreon) for most of the other stuff.