There is now an opening with the New Jersey Devils for an assistant coach. Geoff Ward has agreed to be an assistant coach with the Calgary Flames. The New Jersey Devils’ official Twitter account confirmed the news as they wished Ward and his family well. There were rumblings in the past day about Ward making a switch to Calgary. They turned out to be true.
Geoff Ward’s primary responsibility with the Devils was in running the power play. It was effective last season. The Devils finished tenth in the NHL with a 21.4% success rate in 2017-18 according to NHL.com. In contrast, the Flames finished 28th with a 16% success rate. I can see why Calgary wanted to bring him on board. On the surface, it makes sense. However, a deeper look at the results of the Devils power play under Ward shows that the Devils could use this opportunity to make further gains.
Since joining the Devils for the 2015-16 season, New Jersey has committed to a 1-3-1 formation. The Devils have also followed a growing tendency in the league to play four forwards and one defenseman; at least that was the case last season for their main unit. Again, the success rate shows that it seemingly worked out.
It is worth noting that both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 teams were lacking in talent. The 2015-16 team overachieved and the 2016-17 team was generally bad. The 2017-18 team had a successful power play and more talent. Although, it could be argued that the acquisitions of Patrick Maroon and Sami Vatanen were in part to add more potential players for a power play unit - meaning that the Devils still could have used more. At least it was a step in the right direction.
Or was it? I have two frustrations with the power plays under Ward. While the Devils tried some tweaks here and there with personnel and their breakouts (the neutral zone backpass was a notable addition for 2017-18), the Devils power play was often committed to their formation to a fault. This meant that the Devils’ power play could be and has been isolated to one side or two players as the others moved very little and could not be an option for the puck carrier. It meant that if a winger was having a poor night, he could be exploited for easy clears for a PK even after a promising zone entry. It meant that cross-ice passes were attempted almost too many times. When it works, it creates a great shooting opportunity. When it doesn’t, it’s an easy stop for the defense and a zone exit soon followed. In his defense, Ward was limited by who he had available, especially in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. Still, these issues would crop up frequently enough in games where I would have to wonder if the Devils understood the general concept of a man advantage. The pithiest way I could describe it for last season was “feast or famine.” This meant games where they could have one solid and successful power play and at least two ones that wasted a bunch of time. I know power plays are not consistent sources of goals, but they’re offensive situations.
That dovetails into my second, larger frustration: a general lack of offense. Sure, the Devils power play scored a good amount of goals in 2015-16 and 2017-18. Yet even in those seasons, too many times, the power play yielded next to nothing in terms of offense. Not much in terms of shots, scoring chances, or even attempts on some nights. The best power plays over a season are usually above a 25% success rate. Even the best do not score all that often; but they can at least generate offensive pressure. That creates shooting lanes and opportunities that they may not have been able to get in 5-on-5 situations. Given how tight the Devils’ games often were on the scoreboard, a more threatening power play could have helped the Devils even more than it did. Especially in those two seasons where the team was shooting 15.41% (third best in 2015-16) and 14.4% (eleventh best in 2017-18).
The power play team stats at Natural Stat Trick really highlight this lack of offense on Devils power plays under Ward. I will point out that power plays end with a goal. Obviously, there cannot be more shots or attempts taken so a successful power play may not yield much in the way of offense. One shot could do it. However, again, most power plays do not end with a goal. So shooting and scoring chance rate stats do speak to a degree to how well the team does in terms of creating offense. Here are what the Devils’ power play stats were in the past three seasons and their rank within the league in that season.
I will say this for Ward: the team has made gains in terms of creating offense under his three-season reign. While the 2016-17 team was not as successful at scoring goals, they were creating more than the 2015-16 team. This past season’s team was even better. In that sense, Ward deserves some credit. It was not all bad under him. The bad news is that the Devils were solidly in the bottom third of the league even with these improvements with shooting percentage being an exception. Relative to their peers, the Devils were still not creating a whole lot of offense regardless of whether they were scoring a relatively good amount of power play goals. That at least somewhat justifies my frustrations with the power play under Ward.
By the way, for a bit of perspective, Toronto did really well by all of these stats last season. They finished second in success rate. Yes, they have some great offensive talent; but that would be a good marker as far as what was a well-functioning power play outside of scoring goals. Especially since they did that too. Perhaps they are a team to take some ideas from for 2018-19.
The larger point remains: while the Devils’ power play has made some gains under Ward and had some good success rates, they were not really good at creating offense. In contrast, Calgary was doing quite well in terms of generating shots and opportunities last season. But with the league’s third lowest power play shooting percentage, the goals did not come as much as it may have should. I think the Flames may be hoping Ward can do something to spark things, but maybe they really needed some better puck luck instead? Regardless, the Flames made their choice and they’re betting on Ward making a difference.
As for the Devils, they will need to find a new assistant coach to replace Ward. Ideally, this would be someone who can sustain and improve on the gains in the team’s underlying power play stats that happened under Ward. This would also be someone to be willing to make more modifications to the tactics and maybe even the formation given who may be available and what they can do. The 2018-19 Devils will at least have Butcher, Vatanen, and Severson as potential defensemen with Hall, Palmieri, Hischier, (if re-signed) Maroon, Zajac, Johansson, Zacha, Bratt, and Boyle as forward options. There are more pieces here than there were in 2015-16; the key will be putting them together to have the power play be more consistent in creating offense and creating more offense in general to make their power plays more threatening. At least to a level that is closer to the league median. Will it lead to goals? More likely than if they were to only get a handful of chances over one game and hope they finish them at the right points.
What do you make of this coaching news? What are your thoughts about Geoff Ward and the Devils’ power plays under him from the past three seasons? Will the Devils miss Ward? Who do you think would be a good replacement for Ward? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Geoff Ward leaving New Jersey to join Calgary as an assistant coach in the comments. Thank you for reading.