Shortly, we will be out of the doldrums of the offseason. Later this week, the Prospect Challenge will take place in Buffalo. Those games were legally streamed online in the past; we should be able to see them this week. Not long after that is training camp and the team’s first and only home preseason game is on the 17th. We are just about to enter the 2018-19 campaign. Before we set our focus, there is one last piece of information from last season that is worth highlighting: penalties.
Penalties lead to the lion’s share of special teams: power plays and penalty kills. The 2017-18 team was not that good in 5-on-5 play; but they were productive relative to other teams with and without a man advantage. How did penalties play a role in that? The New Jersey Devils were around the middle of the league last season when it came to being shorthanded according to NHL.com. On the flipside (and also according to NHL.com), the Devils were a little bit above the league median when it came to power play opportunities. Throw in other penalties (e.g. off-setting calls) and the Devils were still around the middle of the league in terms of total penalties. They were not particularly disciplined or undisciplined as a team.
Player by player, however, is a different story. The 2017-18 Devils did have some players who were able to draw more calls than otherwise as well as players who took plenty of calls based on their position and/or playing style. Ideally, drawing more penalty calls than how many they took is positive. Over a season, that means extra power plays; extra opportunities for offense that the team may need to put a game away or get back into it. On the opposite end, taking more calls is a negative as it could mean more PK situations for a team to kill. While overall the Devils were not getting a large amount of power play or penalty kill situations relative to the rest of the league, identifying who has been positive and negative can also identify who to reward and who could stand to be smarter on the ice. Since I took a look at the 2016-17 team in this regard, I can point out some players who have made positive or negative progress.
All situation, regular season data from Natural Stat Trick was used for this post. Let’s start with the defense:
It is really impressive that for all of the tough situations, defensive zone starts, and loads of ice time in 5-on-5 and penalty killing situations, Andy Greene ended up at +1 in penalty differential. Defensemen tend not to draw penalties since, well, they’re usually defending and not attacking to the point where someone will foul him. That he only took nine penalties all of last season is also very impressive. Similar praise should be given to the limited action Mirco Mueller saw and all 81 games of rookie Will Butcher. To end up at 0 or +1 penalty differential while playing a position where being beaten usually ends poorly is an achievement.
Some praise is also worth giving to Damon Severson and Ben Lovejoy. While the two were deeply negative in that they took more calls then they drew, these are improvements over last season. Both Severson and Lovejoy cut back on the minor penalties. From 2016-17 to 2017-18, Severson went from 24 to 16 and Lovejoy went from 17 to 11. That helped out. It also helped that Severson also led the defensemen in drawing penalties. Sami Vatanen was not to shabby in that regard either; although he ended up at -6 by way of taking as many minor penalties as Severson.
The league median in penalties taken per 60 minutes was 0.65 last season according to Natural Stat Trick. Only a little over a hundred defensemen had a rate above 0.8. So to see Vatanen, Severson, Steve Santini, and Lovejoy in the 0.7 to 0.74 range is that great on its own but it is not relatively real bad. The only defenseman who broke that mark and was a regular last season was John Moore. While Severson has the reputation for making mistakes, Moore led the blueline in both minor (21) and total penalties (22). He drew very few calls so he was clearly the worst in penalty differential at an awful -19. That’s quite a few shorthanded situations provided by #2. His -19 contributed significantly to the group’s collective -44. It is something that I do not think really got a lot of attention throughout the season. However, it is a reason why I think Devils fans may not miss Moore all that much.
Overall, I was pleased to find out how the penalties worked out among the defense. Greene was quite good. Butcher and Mueller also deserve praise. Severson and Lovejoy improved over 2016-17. Santini and Vatanen were not notably bad. Even status quo from the returning defenders in 2018-19 would yield an improvement over this past season, which was an improvement over 2016-17.
Let’s begin with the positives. Hello, Nico Hischier! The rookie showed no fear in getting into the “dirty areas” on offense. He took his licks and kept on putting in the work. He was the victim of many fouls. As a result, he was head-and-shoulders above everyone else on the team when it came to drawn penalties with 35. Only nine players in the entire NHL drew more penalties than Hischier last season according to Natural Stat Trick. One of the many “storylines” for the 2018-19 Devils will be to see how Hischier follows up a successful rookie season. If he continues to play the way he did, he will likely end up again among the top players in the league for drawn penalties. That should yield another large penalty differential; whether it will be as high as +22 will remain to be seen.
Extending from Hischier are two of his common teammates from last season. Kyle Palmieri was the team’s top forward last season at drawing calls, with 31 drawn minors and a +18 penalty differential. Palmieri’s rate of drawing penalties was right along with Hischier and he again finished with a large +13 penalty differential. That was good to see. The 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner, Mr. MVP, the Superstar Taylor Hall finished third on the team in penalty differential at +7. Hall was a little better in 2016-17, but that is still a good number for the man that 30 teams tried to stop but could really only contain. While he only performed very well for a half of last season, Jesper Bratt ended up on the positive side of the penalties - which is good for a rookie, especially who had his struggles as the calendar flipped to 2018.
As one final bit of sort-of-maybe-not-really-praise, there is Miles Wood. Wood actually finished really well when it came penalties drawn. He had 32, which is really, really good. The issue is that Wood took 34 calls. These numbers are definitely consistent with a player being a pest on the ice. Wood likes to initiate contact and get players going and his opponents respond in kind. That this worked out to just a penalty differential of just -2. That means that Wood’s antics were not that detrimental to the team in the bigger picture. I would still like him to take fewer calls as needed, even if it means drawing the ire of the opposition a little less often. It can be done as he was +2 in 2016-17. But he was not the big drag on the team when it came to penalties over all of 2017-18. Your mileage may vary from a game-to-game look.
The above could also apply to Blake Coleman, who definitely pesters players - especially on the penalty kill with awesome forechecking. If he can figure out how to be a pain without taking nearly as many fouls as he did, then that makes him even more of a contributor. He was +1, so he was not bad. But at 23 penalties drawn over 22 taken, I’d like to see a larger, favorable gap.
Surprisingly, the bigger negatives came from Marcus Johansson, Brian Boyle, and Pavel Zacha. In 2016-17, Boyle was -1 with Tampa Bay and Johansson was +12 (!!) with Washington. In this past season, Boyle was tied for the worst penalty differential at -8 and, while he missed large chunks of the season, Johansson was -3 in differential - a far cry from where was in 2016-17. In last year’s post, I figured they would not cause much of an issue. If anything, the two could be a net positive. They absolutely were not. In 2016-17, Zacha had the second best penalty differential on the team at +9. In 2017-18, it was the exact opposite as Zacha drew fewer penalties and took more to finish the season with a -8 penalty differential. That is a stunning turnaround in the wrong direction. It’s questionable whether penalty differential can be repeated; but there are some signs that some can do it. Like Palmieri being positive in 2016-17 and 2017-18. So things just went wrong for Zacha in 2017-18 from this perspective. Am I worried? Sort of? Zacha is still a young player and it remains to be seen how good he may or may not actually be. I see this as an opportunity for improvement that he can work on for 2018-19 as he tries to establish his role on the team. I am hoping for a turnaround in a positive direction; that will be dependent on how he plays.
As a group, the forwards were a +29 last season in penalty differential. Hischier’s and Palmieri’s high positive penalty differentials really put the Devils forwards on the right side of this mark. For improvement, other than wanting Zacha, Johansson, and Boyle to take fewer calls and do more to draw calls, the Devils could just use more contributions in general. Look at the players in grey; those who left the organization during or after 2017-18. They combined for a collective +7 in penalty differential. While they were not particularly prolific at it, every positive step helps. The Devils did not really replace those players in this offseason. However not essential as they may be, others are going to have to step up to replace and hopefully improve upon their performances. This also includes penalties. If Blake
Combined with the defense, penalties ended up being a net negative for the Devils at -15. Which is not that bad over an 82 game season considering all situations and all players are counted. If you take out majors (16) and misconducts (4) - I did not in the charts as the Penalties Drawn at Natural Stat Trick does not differentiate between minors and non-minor calls - then the Devils are at +5. Again, not bad over a whole season. With John Moore gone, the defense could make big gains in this aspect without really much improvement from anyone else. Status quo for them is good in terms of penalties and penalty differential. Up front, the guys I want to see better from are Zacha, Boyle, and Johansson. They’ve been better in 2016-17 in terms of penalties; they should strive to get back to that level. It would be helpful if Wood and Coleman can get to draw more than what they’ve taken. It would be great if Hischier, Palmieri, and Hall repeat their positive differentials. It would really be helpful if more forwards contribute positive values, even if it is a group of a few low ones, that would be more progress.
Is this the sort of thing that will get the Devils into the playoffs or be contenders? More opportunities are usually a plus. But those opportunities need to be realized to make them mean something. If the power play takes a step back or they do not get the puck luck in 2018-19, then having more may help offset things somewhat. And even with a positive penalty differential, there will still be shorthanded situations to kill. This is one of those things where it is good to be positive when it is not an issue. Just like it is good to know that the Devils have some players that are rather good in this category and the worst player at it is now on another team.
What do you make of the penalty differentials of the 2017-18 team? Who impressed you? Who do you want to see make improvements or sustain gains in 2018-19? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about penalties taken and drawn among Devils in the comments. Thank you for reading.