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Miles Wood is Now Signed; So Who Should He Play With on the NJ Devils

Miles Wood re-signed with the New Jersey Devils. With three games left in the preseason, the team can now try to answer the big question: Who should Wood play with? I give my thoughts in this post.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils
Miles Wood with two defensemen he has mostly enjoyed his hockey with in 2017-18. Especially with Will Butcher.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Miles Wood has finally been re-signed. It was to a four-year, $11 million contract on this past Saturday which I think was a good one for all sides. Wood joined the New Jersey Devils for practice today and is now available to play in preseason games. While he can only play in three, that and the practices should be enough time to at least get him to speed for the regular season debut on October 6. Now that Wood is officially a Devil again, we can now ask the big question. Who should he play with?

Wood scored 19 goals and, somewhat impressively, did so while averaging less than 13 minutes of ice time. With an average of under a minute of power play time per game last season, Wood mostly did this at even strength where he only had more minutes per game than Brian Boyle and Jimmy Hayes among Devils who played more than 10 games last season per NHL.com. Its arguable he maximized his minutes last season. At the same time, should he not get more than fourth line minutes and a power play role on one unit? Especially a power play role where he is usually placed in front of the net. While Wood is large enough player to screen goalies; his best asset - his speed - is completely not used. I’m not sure what to do about that, but we can at least discuss who he should play with in the most common situation in hockey: 5-on-5 hockey.

With preseason still going on, the coaches will likely try some things out with Wood in the lineup. Still, we can a look at his 5-on-5 stats from last season in With Or Without You format. There are three variations of the stat: Wood with the player, Wood without the player, and the player without Wood. It is not the be-all, end-all of analysis, but at least it can identify what worked and did not work so well last season. For that, I used the stats at Natural Stat Trick and filtered out forwards and defensemen who played at least 100 minutes in 5-on-5 hockey with Wood.

Now, one of the issues involved with a WOWY - and most stats, really - is sample size. While the minimum time on ice with a teammates is 100 for the purposes of this post, Wood only played with one player for more than 300 minutes. That is not even half of how many 5-on-5 minutes Wood played in total. Since the population size of the ice time together with each teammate is rather small, I do not suggest that these stats will necessarily repeat. However, coaches have to deal with this problem all the time. There are only 82 games and decisions have to be made with the idea of what’s best for the team at the time. If something works (e.g. goals, good play, etc.) in the short term; then it is going to continue until that ends (usually after repeated bad/nothing performances from the combination) or something else happens (e.g. injuries, returns from injury). The long and short of it is that coaches (and management) do not get the luxury of trying something out for a while and hope that “chemistry” or somesuch just happens in time. To that end, the best way to view the data in these WOWYs is to highlight what is worth trying out and what should be avoided based on last season.

Glossary: CF% is for Corsi For%, or the percentage of all shooting attempts by the Devils over all shooting attempts. SF% is for Shots For%, or the percentage of all shots by the Devils over all shots. SCF% is for Scoring Chances For%, or the percentage of all scoring chances by the Devils over all scoring chances. GF and GA are goals for and goals against, respectively.

Defensemen

Believe it or not, who is behind Wood or any forward can make an impact on the run of play. If a defensive pairing tends to get overwhelmed, then the forwards are stuck back on defense and/or have to support the pairing to mitigate their issues. If a pairing has someone who is adept at zone exits or, better yet, passes on a breakout, then they can help facilitate an offense that would not be realized consistently with other defenders. Forwards and defensemen are not always utilized together. For example, lines and pairings change differently on the fly plus there are usually four lines and three pairings. But there are tendencies to have certain pairings support certain forwards and lines.

2017-18 Wood WOWY with Devils Defensemen
2017-18 Wood WOWY with Devils Defensemen
Data from Natural Stat Trick

John Moore is in grey because he is no longer a Devil. And that is probably a good thing for Wood. While the run of play was OK when they were together, they tended to be out-shot and definitely out-chanced. There are better combinations.

What Worked: Wood with Will Butcher behind him tended to work rather well. Together with Butcher, Wood had superb numbers for CF%, SF%, and SCF%. Apart, Wood fell right below 50% in each - meaning that he was doing more defending than attacking. While Butcher did well without Wood, there was a drop off there too. Also, when Wood-Butcher was on the ice, the Devils out-scored their opponents 18-9. That’s the best differential for Wood in 5-on-5 play last season and more of a reason to have #8 on the ice when #44 is on there.

There were positive numbers resulting when Wood had Sami Vatanen and Ben Lovejoy behind him. With Vatanen, the combination yielded great CF% and SF% values, similar to Butcher. And both were worse apart from each other in those categories. That did not yield similar numbers for scoring chances. Together, they were OK and they were not that much worse off apart. The goal differential was also negative. But the first two stats are more than enough to warrant trying Vatanen behind Wood. While Wood had way better percentages in CF% and SF% apart from Lovejoy, they had an astounding SCF% over 60% when together. Plus, Wood with Lovejoy did yield positive CF% and SF% values anyway. Since Lovejoy played quite a bit with Butcher last season, that may have helped those numbers out. Not a lot of goals happened for New Jersey, but the goal differential was just -1, so it was not a disaster. Still, the evidence shows that Lovejoy would not necessarily be a drag on Wood.

Damon Severson is more of an edge case. In terms of CF%, Wood with Severson were good times for the Devils - and for each of them. In terms of scoring chances, though, the pairing got rocked. It may have contributed to the -6 goal differential for those two. Severson played a lot with Moore last season, so I suspect that is a factor. Severson will have a brand new partner this season, but I would cautious about the two to be out together regularly.

What Didn’t Work: Andy Greene and Steve Santini. Since Wood had good numbers with Vatanen in 5-on-5 play, it is possible that things could work with Greene. And it is possible they may have to depending on what line Wood plays on. Still, the WOWY shows that both Wood and Greene had to defend attempts, shots, and scoring chances more often than being present for New Jersey taking them. So much so that Wood was better off apart from Greene. The combination was also out-scored. Putting #6 behind Wood would not be my first choice unless the inclusion of Vatanen is enough to offset the declining captain.

While the work together only lasted for 132 minutes, it was hard times for both Wood and Steve Santini. The percentages being so far below 50% is abysmal to see now. Wood is very much an offensive player. While he made strides in terms of backchecking and playing defense, that he had to do it this much does not help him - or the team. Santini’s own percentages were not good apart from Wood, but they were still an improvement over being with Wood. Amazingly, the Devils out-scored their opposition 6-3 when they were together on the ice. That does not make up for the ice tilting against the Devils so much in the run of play when they were together. I would like to think Hynes and his staff agreed since Wood played more with the other regular defenseman last season than Santini.

Forwards

Now this is the more relevant position. Lines are set before games. While there may be some switching off in a game, who commonly plays alongside each other has an impact. For a left winger like Wood, who his center and his right winger are has a direct impact on what they can create and contribute. Put him with someone who can pass and skate at least well enough and it can benefit. Put him with someone who is slower and more of a grinder, and it may not work so well. The latter was not made up as an example, as you’ll see:

2017-18 Wood WOWY with Devils Forwards
2017-18 Wood WOWY with Devils Forwards
Data from Natural Stat Trick

The only grayed out player in Jimmy Hayes. The combination did not last long and when it was together, it was bad across the board. No one will miss Hayes being on the opposite wing with Wood. As far as who is still on the team, there are some solid options:

What Worked: Anytime the name Pavel Zacha is mentioned, a discussion inevitably forms about whether he should have been drafted and whether he is a bust and whether he will breakout this season, if ever. I know that by putting his name on a chart, much less at the top of one, will almost guarantee this digression in the comments or elsewhere on the Internet. But we cannot ignore it in the hopes of avoiding a re-litigation of the 2015 NHL Draft. The combination with Wood and Zacha actually was a good one. It wasn’t the best on this chart, but CF% and SF% values were quite positive and better than each when Wood and Zacha were apart. While scoring chances were not as positive, the SCF% together was still just above the breakeven mark. The Devils did outscore their opposition when they were together and only Wood with Butcher saw more goals (18). It was not an accident that Hynes put Wood with Zacha for over 300 minutes together - and no one else came close to that mark. As it turned out, it worked. If you want to keep the good times rolling for Wood and give Zacha an opportunity to have that proverbial breakout season, then perhaps having Wood on Zacha’s left would be a good place to start when constructing lines.

Wood would have much more success in combination with Stefan Noesen and Blake Coleman. I assume this was when Coleman was a center since Wood and Coleman cannot both play left wing at the same time. In any case, the numbers across the board for when Wood was with either player was great. They were greater than when Wood and Coleman or Noesen were apart. The Devils out-did their opposition in 5-on-5 play, including scoring, when Wood was with either Coleman or Noesen. While it was not for a rather long amount of time, a line of Wood-Coleman-Noesen may actually work out. Except that Hynes showed a regular preference for Coleman-Zajac-Noesen late into last season and may opt to start with that again. Still, if either (or both) become broken away, then putting Wood with them makes some sense to try it.

Lastly is a teammate who just made the minimum time requirement. With just over a hundred and a half minutes together, it is a long shot among long shots to expect things to continue. But in their limited time together, good things happened when Wood and Kyle Palmieri were on the ice. The run of play was excellent with a CF% of over 55% together. Shot and chance differentials were well into the green with SF% and SCF% above 53%. The Devils even outscored their opponents 4-2 in their hundred-and-change minutes together. It is possible that with more time, things may go south. But the relatively brief time together last season suggests this is absolutely worth trying out. Palmieri is by no means a slow player and he can finish plays with power. Wood is quick and if the issue is that he needs someone to feed instead of just firing away, then Palmieri could be that player.

What Didn’t Work: What I really like about WOWY charts is that you can easily identify good and bad percentages right by each other in a chart. Brian Boyle’s line is right in between Pavel Zacha’s and Stefan Noesen’s. It sticks out like a sore thumb. The Devils were pinned back quite a lot when Wood and Boyle were together. The Devils were out-attempted, out-shot, and out-chanced when they were together. They were also definitively out-scored, 7-13. Boyle is a good enough fourth liner; a grinder in today’s game. But he is also fairly slow, he is not a good enough passer to spring Wood into space, and he is not good enough on defense to help Wood, who is still (hopefully) improving in that area. His overall game just does not appear to mesh well with what Wood does. Since I anticipate Boyle being a mainstay on the fourth line, Hynes really should keep Wood away from Boyle in 5-on-5 hockey.

While there are three more preseason games left, I would not hold out hope for Drew Stafford being signed from his try out contract. Which is just as well as Wood with Stafford did not work out well either, except for shot differential. Somehow, that worked. Even as the Devils were out-attempted, out-chanced, and out-scored for the 130 and a half minutes Wood was with Stafford.

Combinations

It is not lost on me that the two (three if you include Hayes) players with Wood that resulted in bad percentages for the Devils are all players who are not fast, they were not particularly effective in generating offense, and they were not good on defense. Say what you want about Zacha, but he has an offensive skillset. While Coleman and Noesen are more limited in their offensive skills, both can (and have) chipped enough in on offense, both play defense well, and both can be quick enough to keep up with a fast pace. Palmieri is a tantalizing option. Outside of Ben Lovejoy (who played a lot with Will Butcher last season), it seems that it is in the best interest of the Devils to put players who can skate and show some skill at either end of the rink with Wood.

The challenge here is to avoid robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. Wood has shown up well alongside Coleman and Noesen. But is it worth breaking up an effective Coleman-Zajac-Noesen unit to slide Coleman to center and do that? If so, where do you then place Zajac? Is it worth putting Palmieri with Wood? The WOWY stats suggest so, but wouldn’t Palmieri - and the Devils - be better off up top with 2017-18 NHL MVP Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier? Could Jesper Bratt handle that role again? And as far as Zacha goes, is he going to even be the second line center? If that second line is Wood-Zacha-Palmieri, then what do you do with Marcus Johansson?

Johansson is actually an X-factor in all of this. He can play any forward position, so the coaching staff has some flexibility about how to use him. I would have loved it if Wood played enough with Johansson to get an idea of whether the combination would work or not. It may not be ideal, but could a Wood-Johansson-Palmieri line work? Alternatively, if Bratt cannot handle the top spot, then what about Wood-Zacha-Johansson? I would like to see both at least be considered. For all I know, we’ll see it in a preseason game. It would be a way to get Wood onto a top-six line without breaking up that Zajac line, which seems set to be a modern-day checking line. It would also get Wood far away from Boyle. If nothing else, Hynes and his staff need to keep those two apart.

Defense is up in the air as there are some outstanding questions. Who does Butcher play with? Who does Severson play with? Will Greene-Vatanen still be a thing? What if Santini makes the top six on the blueline? The answers to those questions will impact who would likely be behind Wood and his line in the run of play. Based on the WOWY, I would highly suggest wanting Butcher behind Wood to support the attack. Whether that is Butcher-Severson or Butcher-Vatanen or something else, that is a good place to start. Butcher-Lovejoy could still be viable. There could be some other combinations; the only ones that really dragged Wood down were Greene and Santini. Given that Wood with Vatanen was positive, I think the issue lied more with the Greene-Santini pairing. I do not anticipate that being the team’s first pairing again, so I am not as concerned.

Your Take

These are the thoughts I currently have about Wood. The WOWY stats are not the be-all and end-all of this kind of analysis, but they do point pretty strongly to which teammates worked well with Wood last season and which ones did not work well with him. As most of those teammates are returning to the team in 2018-19, they are relevant to the season to come. They show it is possible that Wood could be the second left winger on the depth chart and be effective in an offensive role with certain teammates. They also show that Will Butcher should likely be on the ice with him as a defenseman as much as possible. We shall see what the coaches are considering in the next week or so.

In the meantime, I’d like to know your take on who Miles Wood should play with. Who should be on his line and why? Which defensemen should support him and why? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.