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The Devils Need To Rethink Their Overtime Strategy (Hint: Less Sami Vatanen)

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The Devils are the worst overtime team in the NHL due in large part to some rather bizarre tactical decisions about who gets OT minutes and how they are to play the puck. What gives? What’s the fix?

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Devils are 1-7 in games that are tied after regulation. It’s not a fluke either — the record is well-deserved. The Devils have the worst shot differential, goal differential, and expected goal differential in the NHL in 3v3 play according to Corsica. There are many things in analytics that are vague or debatable. You will seldom see something as unambiguously true as the following statement: The Devil have been the worst OT team in the NHL this season.

Why is that? We have one of the best young players in the league in Nico Hischier as well as a reigning MVP in Taylor Hall. Top-heavy teams should thrive in OT no? We were, by all those metrics, a slightly above average NHL team in OT last year and we bring back almost our entire roster. What changed?

Well, as much as it pains me to admit, as one of his staunchest critics, the one part of the game where John Moore is sorely missed is in the 3v3 overtime. John Moore led Devils defenders last year with 23 minutes played, during which the Devils gave up only 1 goal, and John Moore scored two himself. He and Taylor Hall were the only two multi-goal scorers in OT on the squad last year.

Moore is now gone, but he was already ceding time to Vatanen even last year. And I don’t know why. Vatanen looks great when he plays. His jersey’s either wrinkled up or tucked in, he skates low to the ice, he moves his arms and legs swiftly but elegantly — his game is just very aesthetically appealing. Unfortunately, being pretty doesn’t put points on the board, and neither does Sami.

For a hint of why this may be happening, I give you this: Sami Vatanen’s opening shift against the Anaheim Ducks in OT. I cut off 15 seconds in the beginning (full video) where Nico wins the faceoff and Sami is walked back behind the net by a lackadaisical forechecker.

At this point, Vatanen passes the puck to Marcus Johansson and the shift is over. Yes. Forty-five seconds of solid and consistent puck possession with two of the most electric players in the NHL at our disposal, and Sami Vatanen had the puck for over 30 seconds doing some mixture of retreating, standing behind the net, and attempting double/triple line passes. Nico had the puck for ~10 seconds and Hall never touched it. Taylor Hall, the most valuable player in the NHL last season, did not touch the puck in 45 seconds of consistent possession.

Sami is a pretty good skater and a fair puck mover. I don’t want to make it seem like I believe his skillset is severely lacking. But he was BY FARRRRRR the least skilled Devil on the ice at that moment and to have the puck for the amount of time he did and not find a way to do get it to the two forwards was either a colossally poor gameplan, or simply inexcusable hockey from Vatanen. And that’s the crux of my issue with Sami. It’s not that he is notably poor at any particular skill, it’s that either the he or the coaching staff overestimate the impact that a slightly above average defender can have on the pace of play. Severson and Butcher do what they’re supposed to do, the get it to the forwards with consistency and expediency and let them go to work.

While Sami Vatanen is on the ice in 3-on-3 hockey, the unblocked shots are going 13-1 in favor of the opponents. It’s time to dial back the Sami Show and see if we can do something more productive with that slot.

My defensive suggestion would be Will Butcher. I’m sure that some people would scoff at the concept of having Butcher be the lone “defender” in overtime given his perceived shortcomings in that area. But 3v3 isn’t 2 forwards and 1 defender — it’s 3 hockey players. How many times in 3v3 play is there a moment that in any way resembles 5v5 defensive play? I’d say that is seldom, if ever, the case. Butcher has more creativity and vision with the puck than any of our other defenders and many of the forwards. Unsurprisingly, as is the case in every situation Butcher’s been placed in, the Devils are outshooting and outchancing opponents when Butcher is on the ice in 3v3 play. He is, in fact, the only defender who can lay claim to that description.

Stats via NaturalStatTrick

You might be asking why I am pushing Will as the best “defender” when I just said moments ago that it’s about the 3 best “skaters.” GREAT QUESTION!

I see no reason why that third spot needs to be a defender. I’d throw the whole first line out there in the first shift. I’d feel good about a Hall, Hischier, Palmieri unit in OT. You might be concerned about what happens if Nico loses the faceoff. Understandable— he is 42% on faceoffs and we’d have 3 forwards on the ice. First of all, I don’t think that makes as big a difference as you may believe (see 3 skaters vs. 2:1 argument). But if that’s a concern then let’s start with Hall, Zajac, Vatanen (or any D). If we lose the faceoff, we have a good defense out there and a stacked 2nd line for when we get the puck back. If we win, then we have and Zajac and Vatanen do a FOGO (faceoff, get off) and bring out Hischier and Palms for an all out offensive.

The lack of production in 3v3 can be partially blamed on the players. The lack of creativity and scheme though falls on the coaching staff who has now cost us ~3 points with the atrocious product that we’ve seen after regulation so far. And it may not feel like it, but if the Devils win their game in hand, they sit only 5 points out of a playoff spot.

This team needs every inch it can get, and the overtime inch is in need of addressing.

Your Thoughts

Who do you think should be on the ice? What are your thoughts on Vatanen’s usage/play in 3v3 situations? Do you think Butcher should get a shot? Another defender? Mix it up and go 3 forwards?

Thanks as always for reading, and leave your thoughts below!