In the Devils’ rocky start to the 2018-19 campaign, the last month has been filled with a constant search for answers to explain the team’s struggles. Varying levels of bad luck, bad goaltending, bad defense, uneven scoring, and poor discipline have conspired to put the Devils near the bottom of the current standings picture. There are a lot of fingers to point and a lot of questions to answer but its tough to do all of that at once. The real answer is likely partially that things just don’t go your way in this league sometimes. One of the things that hasn’t been going the Devils’ way this season, has been the play of Miles Wood, who, now more than a quarter of the way through the season, has seemingly not gotten going. So what’s the deal?
Miles Wood was one of the big breakout success stories of the 2017-18 season for New Jersey. After a so-so rookie campaign, Wood became a legitimate difference-maker for the Devils, putting up 19 goals and 13 assists almost exclusively in even-strength minutes. Among Devils players, he had the third-highest even strength points/60 and did it while constantly getting in the faces of opponents and stirring the pot. Given that information, that he was a hit with fans is no surprise. In a season where a lot of things did seem to go right for the Devils, a huge sophomore season for Miles Wood was one of the biggest.
With his entry level contract expiring, Wood headed into the season due a decent raise. Unfortunately, he and the Devils had a tough time coming to an agreement, but ultimately things did get settled near the end of training camp. Wood came into camp late, but still poised to build on a very successful 2017-18 campaign.
To this point, the 2018-19 campaign has not been so successful for Wood, production-wise. Through 23 games, he has just 2 goals and 6 points and has spent a lot of time recently on the team’s fourth line. Some were hoping to see Wood take another step and become a 20-25 goal guy for the Devils and a powerhouse at even strength. So far, Wood is currently on pace for a paltry 7 goals and 21 points, which would qualify as a huge disappointment for a player who just signed a four-year deal to be a part of the core of this team.
So far this season, Wood’s impressive 2.0 points/60 have plummeted down to 1.12, which puts him 13th on the team. The only forwards with 100 minutes to be behind that mark are rookie call-up Joey Anderson, and well-documented disappointments to this point, Pavel Zacha and Stefan Noesen. Wood was one of the most prolific even-strength scorers on the team last season, but this year he has sunk to near the bottom, which is a major cause for concern. All three Devils 5v5 scoring leaders from last year — Hall, Hischier, and Wood — have taken big steps back this season (digging into the other two’s performances are another post for another time). Luckily, the Devils have seen others like Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman pick up the slack to buoy the 5v5 scoring, but Wood being near the bottom of the team was not an expectation that many likely had.
Underlying Numbers Steady
Those numbers don’t quite tell the whole story for Wood’s season so far, though. Wood’s 5v5 shot rates have held pretty steady, year-over-year, as he is at 10.68 vs. last year’s 10.93. He is first in attempts/60 and third in shots/60 for the team. So what is the problem? In a word (well, two words), shooting percentage. Last season, Wood shot a decent but largely pedestrian 10% at 5v5. This season, he has seen that crater to just 4.26%. Wood is still getting his shots, they just haven’t been going in. Boost him up to last year’s percentage, and suddenly he has 5 goals and 9 points on the season, pretty close to last season’s pace. In response, you might say “well maybe he hasn’t had the same kind of chances as he did last season,” but per Natural Stat Trick, his rush attempts remain tops on the team (1.04 per 60 last season, 1.12 this season) and his individual expected goals/60 at Corsica are still near the top of the team and even up from last season (0.81 versus 0.93). Simply put, it seems like at evens, he just needs some better luck.
Too Many Penalties
That said, there are some negatives to be found in Wood’s game right now. Most notably, he is hurting the Devils with the amount of penalties he has taken. Wood is a minus-4 in penalty differential right now and has taken 10 penalties at even strength while no other forward has taken more than 5. Wood likes to stir the pot and generally plays like a Camaro with a brick on the accelerator and the brake lines cut, so it’s understandable that he’s going to take some penalties. That is tolerable as long as he is drawing them at a similar rate. That was the case last year when he took an astonishing 32 minor penalties on the season, given his somewhat limited minutes (he took 2.03 penalties per 60, only Coleman had more than 1 per 60 among other full-season Devils forwards), but also drew 31 penalties to go along with it. Aggression is part of his game, but he also needs to be a bit more responsible to avoid putting the Devils down a man constantly.
Still No Special Teams Impact
Elsewhere, Wood also has yet to find his footing in the power play minutes he’s been given. He is 10th on the team in PP ice time, so it’s not like the coaching staff has given him a tremendous amount of opportunity there, but among Devils with 20+ minutes on the power play thus far, he has just one secondary assist and the second lowest points/60 besides Stefan Noesen. The Devils continue to flounder on the second power play unit, and Wood’s game may just not be very well suited to the man-advantage, but given that the coaches have no interest in using him on the penalty kill, his utility gets limited when he can’t find a way to contribute outside of even-strength.
The Verdict On His Play
Overall, I think that Wood’s play has been largely similar to what he provided last season. He’s still getting his looks, still creating space with his speed, and still, for better or worse, stirring the pot. He’s an effective even strength player, despite the production dip, and I don’t necessarily think the fourth line is the best place for him at this point. He has produced well while playing on a line with Zajac and that duo’s on-ice numbers together have been very good. While Wood’s game seems like it would potentially make sense in a fourth line spot, it just isn’t really the case and a potentially effective forward is wasted there.
I do think he needs to continue to work on his discipline. On some level, you don’t want him to change the aggressiveness that makes him the player he is, but not every penalty he’s taking is him mixing it up along the boards. I would also say that the Devils would benefit from play that isn’t just in line with last season, but continuing to improve, given his age. The production numbers, though, I think are not necessarily in line with the quality of his play to this point. John Hynes and the coaching staff would be wise to continue giving him top-nine minutes, whether it’s along with Zajac, as has functioned well this season (and last), or with Zacha, which worked very well in stretches last season. Wood continues to fire the puck and generate chances at even strength as well as almost any forward on the team and limiting his minutes at even strength do a disservice to both him and the team. There are some things to be concerned about with his start, but overall, the coaches should remain patient.