The 2019-20 New Jersey Devils are winless in their first five games and they have no shortage of issues. Today, I want to explore one of those issues: the penalty kill. Namely because it is shocking at how much the Devils have failed in shorthanded situations. Last season, despite being one of the worst teams in the league, the New Jersey Devils have had one of the best penalty killing units in the National Hockey League. They finished fourth in success rate with 84.3%. Their regular forwards and defensemen ranked among at least the top half among all their PK-regular peers in the NHL. Most of those players are back as is the system and the assistant coach, Alain Nasreddine. Nobody reasonably expected the Devils to have a success rate of just 50% after their first five games this season per NHL.com. What has been going wrong? I want to take a closer look.
A 50% Success Rate? It’s Worse Than You Think
First, let us be clear. The Devils’ penalty kill has been lit up. After Saturday’s games, per NHL.com, the Devils lead the league with the most power play goals allowed with eight. They have been shorthanded sixteen times which is only one or two more than the league median. The best penalty kill is the one you never have to kill but it is not as if the Devils have been frequently going to the box more than everyone else. Sure, some penalties taken by the Devils were avoidable; but I do not think that being shorthanded an excessive amount is one of the reasons for their PK woes. There is consistency in this issue. Ever since their home opener, they have allowed at least one power play goal per game. The most recent shutout loss to Boston ended a three-game streak of allowing at least two per game. There should be no doubt that the Devils’ penalty kill is a source of pain for a winless team.
We know that they are giving up plenty of goals, but what else are they giving up? The team rate stats at Natural Stat Trick should give us some idea. Looking at team rate stats so early into the season should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it points to a team that has been giving up much more than just goals.
- Corsi (Shot Attempts) Against per 60 minutes: 123.32, 30th lowest
- Fenwick (Unblocked Shot Attempts) Against per 60 minutes: 104.96, 30th lowest
- Shots Against per 60 minutes: 68.22, 26th lowest
- Scoring Chances per 60 minutes: 65.6, 27th lowest
- High Danger (Slot and Crease) Scoring Chances per 60 minutes: 26.24, 26th lowest
- Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes: 9.21, 30th lowest
- Save Percentage: 69.23%, 31st lowest
The above team rate stats make it clear that the Devils’ penalty kill is worse than what a 50% success rate implies. It is not just that goaltenders are not making a lot of saves - and they are not - but the Devils are allowing a lot. They are allowing lots of shooting attempts both blocked, unblocked, and on target. They are not protecting the slot or the crease despite the wedge-plus-one being designed to primarily protect those areas. Based on the combination of all of their efforts on the ice, the expected goals model calculated that the Devils should have given up more than what they already have allowed. The 50% success rate alone is terrible. Knowing how the team has performed in the run of play in shorthanded situations confirms that the team’s penalty kill is truly abysmal.
(Aside: Montreal and Pittsburgh looked really bad by these metrics. Carolina with their stalwart defense too. I mention them here to show that a bad PK can be overcome if they play well in other areas.)
The Players Involved
We know the team as a whole has been horrible when killing a penalty so far this season. Who are the people responsible? Let’s go over the players.
In net, Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood have combined for eighteen saves out of twenty-six shots per NHL.com. Schneider’s save percentage is a bit better at 75%, or nine out of eighteen. Blackwood has faced a little more and made the same number of saves so he sits at 64.3%. Both are awful percentages. Both need to be better. Are they truly at fault? We till take a closer look at them later.
On defense, five players have played enough to warrant further investigation. Per NHL.com, Andy Greene has the highest shorthanded ice time per game at 3:32. This is no surprise as Greene led the whole league in shorthanded ice time last season. Greene has also been on injured reserve recently and did not play in the last two games. Sami Vatanen and Damon Severson have joined Greene in breaking ten minutes total on the PK. Following those two are P.K. Subban (6:51 total, 1:22 TOI/GP) and Mirco Mueller (6:37 total, 1:39 TOI/GP). Mueller is playing about the same amount of ice time as he did last season. Ditto for Subban, even though it was in Nashville - where it did not go so well for him. Severson and Vatanen have been playing more than they did last season on the PK. With Ben Lovejoy gone, someone needed to play next to Greene on the first unit. It is seemingly an open competition.
At forward, the regulars from last season have mostly resumed their positions. Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac are the team’s leaders in total and per-game shorthanded ice time among forwards. They are on the first unit. When in the lineup, Pavel Zacha and Kevin Rooney are on secondary units. The new faces are Nico Hischier, who has been involved for 4:32 for a rate of 0:53 per game, and John Hayden, who has played just 3:24 total in two games for a rate of 1:42 per game. There have been some shifting due to penalties and who is in the lineup, but those are the regulars. Again, four of them are back from last year’s group.
I can understand the frustration over John Hayden or Mirco Mueller or Kevin Rooney being involved. But look at those ice times and look at the team’s stats. You do not get one of the worst penalty kills in the league because Hayden played nearly three and a half minutes. Or because Mueller, who was on last season’s excellent penalty killing unit, has been on the ice for a little over six and a half. A 50% success rate and near-bottom team rate stats are a result of everyone getting rolled over in shorthanded situations.
Is there a player who has notably terrible on-ice rate stats compared to their peers? It is so early in the season so you may want to take them with a grain of salt. According to Natural Stat Trick, the answer is yes. At forward, the Coleman-Zajac pairing has been especially porous with CA/60 rates above 120 and expected goals against per 60 above 12. For the defensemen, the trio of Greene, Severson, and Vatanen have similar rates when it comes to allowing attempts and more. Severson and especially Vatanen have also been particularly awful when it comes to allowing scoring and high-danger chances. Those players are typically part of the team’s primary PK unit. They typically would see the other team’s primary power play unit. Clearly, the opposition has feasted on them. It could be that they allow a lot, the goalies then allow a goal, and then the penalty kill - and the team - are left looking worse for it.
Let’s Go to the Tape
We know the Devils have allowed a lot of, well, everything on their penalty kills this season. However, the rate stats are for when the player is on the ice. The save percentage just looks at whether a goal was allowed or not. With only four games out of five yielded power play goals against, all of this data does not necessarily point to a clear issue. It does confirm that the penalty kill has been a dumpster fire heading into mid-October. They do not clearly tell us what the causes could be. What could help would be reviewing how the Devils have failed on the penalty kill. There could be a common event or practice happening on each one that could explain why the Devils’ penalty kill is so bad right now.
Let’s review the eight power play goals against. I watched all eight goals through NHL.com’s videos of the goal. I will link to each one so you may do the same. Feel free to explain what you observed and give us your conclusions as to what is wrong in particular in the comments.
Impact: Buffalo goes up 1-0 in the game.
Devils Personnel: Hischier, Zacha, Subban, Mueller, Blackwood
The Play: Rasmus Dahlin and Jack Eichel make two passes by the blueline before Eichel heads down the left wing. Meanwhile, Victor Olofsson skates around the zone and behind Mueller and Subban to get to the right circle. All four Devils are watching Eichel. Zacha is engaged as the “plus one,” Hischier is looking at #53. As Eichel gets to below the left dot, he fires a pass across the slot to Olofsson. Just as the pass is being fired, Subban turns to take Sam Reinhart, who eluded Mueller and Hischier’s stick is not out or on the ice. The pass gets through. Olofsson takes a touch to settle the puck and fires a shot to the left post. Hischier dove too late to try and block it. Subban moved closer to Reinhart to not screen Blackwood and try to block the shot. Blackwood is too late to get his left part or glove out. The shot goes in.
The Major Issue from New Jersey: Awareness of the Non-Puck Carriers. The four Devils were primarily concerned with Eichel, who had the puck. Olofsson got around the entire wedge untouched and unnoticed. Reinhart got close to Mueller, had Mueller’s attention for a second, then went to the middle only to get Subban’s attention as a pass was going across. If you want to really fault a Devil, then you may need to make it Hischier as his stick could and perhaps should have been in the passing lane. Maybe the pass would have eluded Hischier but it would have been a smarter move than trying to dive too late at a shot attempt. If one of the Devils were paying attention to Olofsson, they could have communicated to Hischier to pay more attention. Jeff Skinner may have been open near the high slot but there would have been bodies in front. Olofsson was wide-open for himself and for his shot.
Impact: Buffalo goes up 2-0 in the game.
Devils Personnel: Hischier, Zacha, Greene, Severson, Blackwood
The Play: Hischier takes a defensive zone faceoff to Blackwood’s left. Hischier knocks the puck directly behind him. Severson goes to collect it but Olofsson denies (lifts?) the stick so the puck bounces off the endboards. Blackwood stretches to his left to cover the puck. He tries to get his body on top of it. Skinner stretches his stick out to pry it away - and he does. The puck moves to above the center of the crease. Greene’s stick is on his right so he cannot reach it. Eichel beats Hischier to the loose puck and slams it into the empty net.
The Major Issue from New Jersey: I blamed Blackwood live for this one. I still do. Skinner’s attempt was bold and rewarded when most times it is not. Namely because when the goalie has to lunge or reach out to get at the puck, then he needs to do so otherwise he risks being caught way out of position. Blackwood made the decision to try and collect the loose puck himself. He did not succeed, Skinner’s attempt notwithstanding. Greene’s “effort” at trying to deny Skinner’s poke was not very good. Had he not even tried, he had a chance of cleaning up the loose puck. Still, Blackwood needed to cover it up since he went for it - and he did not.
Impact: Buffalo goes up 5-1 in the game.
Devils Personnel: Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Subban, Mueller, Blackwood
The Play: Eichel comes of the right corner and receives a short pass from Olofsson by the right dot. As Eichel took the pass, Olofsson weaved his way across the slot. Eichel was patient on the puck as the Devils were more or less in a small box formation with Subban sort of engaging him and Bratt trying to ward off any diagonal passes back to Dahlin at the point. Eichel headed closer to the goal line to separate from Bratt’s pressure and beat Subban with a pass across the slot. Mueller was above the crease and saw the pass go by. Blackwood tracked the pass as it went across. While Casey Mittelstadt is behind Mueller, Olofsson tried to pass it to his teammate for a re-direction on Blackwood’s right flank. Mueller denied the pass. Mueller’s denial sent the puck right back to Olofsson. Meanwhile, Blackwood went into a butterfly and fell to the middle. Olofsson had the left side of the net open and sent a low shot into it.
The Major Issue from New Jersey: Awareness of the Non-Puck Carriers. Again, just like with Olofsson’s first PPG of the night, he was able to get into space without any Devil changing course on how to deal with him. I understand it is a penalty kill and not everyone can be covered man-to-man. The passing lane across the middle should have been filled in a lot better. It would have been if a Devil realized and communicated that Olofsson went to an unoccupied faceoff circle. The pass beat Subban but Mueller looks worse on this play as he A) saw the pass go across and B) blocked Olofsson’s first plan only to send the puck right back to him. As Hischier scrambled again to try to disrupt a second attempt, Olofsson was too far out and wide for Hischier to make it.
The goal against also reflects poorly on Blackwood as his reaction to Olofsson’s move took him away from the post. Not that the goalie could have controlled the puck going right back to Olofsson, but it explains how he was able to be scored.
The Impact: Philadelphia goes up 1-0 in the game.
The Devils Personnel: Rooney, Hayden, Subban, Severson, Schneider
The Play: Philly was moving the puck well in their own end. The scoring play began from the blueline. Travis Konecny wheeled around the zone from the right side to the left point, with John Hayden engaging him until about the center point. Konecny dumps the puck off to Matt Niskanen at the blueline. Kevin Rooney moves up to engage him as Hayden moved back to the high slot. Before Rooney could get close to Niskanen, he sent a pass across to Provorov at the right point. During that entire sequence, Charles Lindblom is behind Subban and in front of Schneider. Subban stepped away from Lindblom as Konecny continued his move. As Provorov took the pass, he moved forward and both Hayden and Severson shifted to their right. Provorov was too wide for Hayden to have a chance at him and the defenseman saw Lindblom in front. He took a slapshot, Severson ended up in line with Lindblom, and so Schneider was screened twice. The shot went off the left post and beat Schneider.
The Major Issue from New Jersey: Awareness of the Non-Puck Carriers. Provorov and Lindblom were crucial to this goal occurring. It is understandable to leave Provorov alone at the point. Forcing a slapshot from above the circle by the boards is not a bad shot to force. It became a good shot for Philly because Lindblom was able to get behind Subban and no Devil gave it any thought to do anything about it. Severson was too forward to do anything and Konecny’s off the puck movement made Subban react towards him. I would like to think Lindblom’s screen alone doomed the Devils on this play but Severson inadvertently made it worse.
The Impact: Philadelphia goes up 2-0 in the game.
The Devils Personnel: Coleman, Zajac, Greene, Severson, Schneider
The Play: There is a defensive faceoff to Schneider’s left. Zajac was tossed out so Coleman took the draw. No one won it cleanly. I guess Coleman technically did because it went an inch or so towards him. But a battle of bodies ensued to win the puck. Kevin Hayes stayed out of the scrum below the dot in case the puck came out that way. It did. Hayes took a quick shot and beat a late stick-check by Severson and a surprised Schneider shortside.
The Major Issue from New Jersey: I stated this was a bad goal to allow by Schneider and that he probably wished he had this one back. Yep. It was definitely a broken play and Hayes ended up benefitting from a bounce (or several) off the draw. But Schneider was caught away from the left post and Hayes was able to get the puck through the gap as he lost his own stick after the shot. It would have been nice had Coleman won more of the puck off the draw, but the issue here was goaltending. Schneider should have had this one.
The Impact: Edmonton tied up the game 2-2.
The Devils Personnel: Zacha, Rooney, Vatanen, Mueller, Blackwood
The Play: The clip starts with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in between Zacha and Rooney. However, they both watch Oscar Klefbom from the center point send a pass to Connor McDavid by the right half-wall. McDavid sends a pass back to Klefbom as Zacha heads over as the “plus one” on the play. Rooney drifted back to the slot to be part of the wedge. As Zacha tries to engage Klefbom, the defenseman sends a puck up the boards to McDavid. Nugent-Hopkins has been waiting alone above the high slot. McDavid took a stride or two towards the right dot and then passed it off to an open Nugent-Hopkins. He one-times it and James Neal, who is behind Vatanen and Mueller, tips it in front for a score.
The Major Issue from New Jersey: In a way, this is very much a System goal against. Zacha did his job as the plus one to engage the puck carrier above the zone. Rooney, Vatanen, and Mueller had the slot covered. But look at the Oilers at 5 seconds into the clip. All four of them are open with no Devil really able to do anything about them. One could argue that Rooney should have stepped up on Nugent-Hopkins. Had he done that, McDavid could have sent a cross-ice pass to Leon Draisaitl and get the Devils scrambling. The wedge-plus-one is meant to protect the slot as with most penalty kill formations. The Oilers worked around that entirely.
However, once again, no one paid any attention to who was behind the skaters and in front of the goalie. Neal was screening Blackwood. While Blackwood got around him as the shot was taken, Neal was in position to go for a re-direction and he did.
The Impact: Edmonton tied up the game 3-3.
The Devils Personnel: Rooney, Zajac, Vatanen, Mueller, Blackwood
The Play: It was late in the game and Edmonton was down one goal, so they pulled Mikko Koskinen for an extra skater. This was a 5-on-4 turned into a 6-on-4. After Edmonton won the draw, the play moved to the back with Klefbom. As the Devils set up, Klefbom and Nugent-Hopkins exchange passes. Two Oilers, Neal and Zach Kassian, are behind Mueller and Vatanen and McDavid lurking in the left corner. Klefbom unloads a slapshot into traffic from the center point. Blackwood makes the save with his pads in front of a Neal screen (and maybe a tip attempt). McDavid charged in from the corner, picked the puck from between Blackwood’s legs from behind, and put it in the net while a whistle went off. The referee made no initial signal for a goal, conferenced with the referees, announced that the goal was good, and then went to a video review which confirmed it. Intent to blow or actual blowing of the whistle did not deny the play.
The Major Issue from New Jersey: The whistle should have went off sooner. The Devils got a raw deal here. OK, I am still peeved by that non-call. As far as the play itself, it seems somewhat petty to pick on the Devils here. Mueller was already dealing with Neal so expecting him to come around to defend behind Blackwood or defend McDavid from the corner is not really fair. Blackwood made the initial stop. In retrospect, you would have liked him to close his legs to secure the puck better. However, I highly doubt that the ref - who was behind McDavid on the goal line - saw that a puck was somewhat loose between his legs. Of all eight goals, this is the one I am most forgiving given the circumstances involving the officials even if it denied the Devils from a potential and badly needed win.
The Impact: Boston went up 3-0 in the game.
The Devils Personnel: Zajac, Coleman, Vatanen, Severson, Schneider
The Play: Torey Krug collected the puck at the blueline from the right point. Zajac moved up to engage him. Krug passed the puck across to Brad Marchand, who was above the left circle. He moved down to the circle as Coleman followed him, Severson shifted to his left, and Zajac returned to the slot. Bergeron was initially covered by Severson and the duo went to the left as Marchand kept moving. But as Marchand was about to shoot, Bergeron drifted back to the slot. He would be open. Meanwhile, Jake DeBrusk has inside position on Vatanen above the crease, though he was engaged with Vatanen. The shot gets by Severson but Schneider stops it with his right pad. DeBrusk fishes out the puck and Bergeron crashed the net. The puck goes to the right and Bergeron is free to tap it past a fallen Schneider and a falling Vatanen.
The Major Issue from New Jersey: It is a repeat at this point: Awareness of the Non-Puck Carriers. The Devils were showing good coverage right until Marchand’s shot. The eventual goal scorer got away from Severson and went back into the slot. No Devil seemingly called out that #37 was free. Despite having white jerseys around him, Bergeron was not covered in any sense of the word and no one was going to get to him. DeBrusk did well to fish out the puck. Vatanen did lose that battle for the puck in front. It was likely that he was going to lose since DeBrusk was in a favorable position to start it. Since Vatanen had DeBrusk, no one could be by the right post. In retrospect, Coleman or Zajac (I’m thinking Zajac) should have adjusted to pick up Bergeron. Or at least get near him to stick-check him, foul him, or something to deny him from cleaning up a loose puck.
An Attention to Detail Matters
I will get out of the way first that goaltending miscues caused two of the eight goals allowed. Not that their save percentages would have been sterling otherwise or that the opposition would not have scored later on the play. However, Blackwood should have secured that puck when he went to grab it and Schneider should have given a soft one to Hayes.
However, five of the other six goals were more on the skaters. Those five involved an opposing player being open and ultimately punishing the Devils. Olofsson went around and then later through the Devils’ formation and no one adjusted so he had wide open shots to shoot and score from. That’s two goals. Lindbolm and Neal were free to screen the goalies; that resulted in two more goals. Bergeron came in from the slot, the one part of the ice penalty killing formations are designed to protect. And in contribution to their respective goals, Reinhart, Mittlestadt, and DeBrusk were able to get favorable positions.
There was no one pairing or defenseman or forward that failed constantly. The blame can be shared across the board. However, outside of Neal’s goal, the issue is not the wedge plus one system. Many teams run this system. They have been more successful on the PK. Even the Devils demonstrated that last season. What I kept seeing on these goals allowed was a lack of an attention to detail from the skaters. Something as simple as recognizing and communicating that someone is moving, someone is through the slot or behind you, and/or that someone is getting open. If the Devils are not doing this, then there is your major thing that the team needs to fix as soon as possible. If they are doing this on the ice, then they are not responding to it - which then becomes the issue to fix. They are both related to attention to detail. The Devils have not demonstrated this on the scoring plays reviewed. They pay way more attention to the one man who has the puck instead of the four players who do not.
At this level of hockey, that can make all of the difference in the world. To take a step back in Devils history, in the halcyon days of the mid to late 1990s, the Devils ran the neutral zone trap. After 1995, a lot of other teams did too. The Devils were still defensively stinger than most of the league. It was not just because they had legends on the blueline. It was because every line and every pairing knew the system cold, knew their role in the system, and focused on the details. That gave them an edge from all of the other teams that ran the 1-2-2 and expected that alone to make them better on defense.
Hockey is an inherently a chaotic sport and in a shorthanded situation it is tougher because you are down a man. I recognize that not everyone can be covered like they may be in 5-on-5 hockey. To that end, I recognize that penalty killers try to protect the most common zones in hockey where goals are scored. But the Devils are not paying enough attention to react to the other areas where they are being beaten. That is why Hischier was seen diving twice too late in the Buffalo game. That is why others are wide open in positions where they should not be at all. That is why players can either freely get in front of the goalies or get inside position on the defenseman, which is not favorable either. As much as the Devils have stuck to the wedge plus one, the system does allow adjustment in movement. Subban or Vatanen or Mueller or Severson could have dropped deeper to at least challenge a screener. The forward up in the wedge could have shifted over to the weak side provided no one was lurking in the slot. The plus one could have either been more aggressive to challenge a pass or dropped back as soon as he got word that someone is sneaking about. All together, there were a plenty of off the puck movements that ended up torching the Devils. That points to the details of the situation not being accounted for enough and that has been very costly. And I do mean costly as all but two of the PPGAs either opened the scoring for the opposition, increased the lead to two goals, or tied up the game.
What will it take for the PKers to pay more attention to players moving around or through them and have them react to the situation more? It is two things in my opinion.
The first is effort. That is on the players. With the exceptions of Bratt and Hayden, everyone mentioned in these eight goals against have killed a penalty before and have been in a defensive situation before. They need to put more effort than just standing in their formation and making a reaction late to a situation. This means calling out movements and screens, adjusting positions on the fly, and filling in new passing lanes.
The second is the common refrain from Devils fans all over the world since the end of regulation in the home opener: coaching. The issue is not so much the system or even the players being put out there. Again, John Hayden should not see a lot of shorthanded ice time but he has not seen a lot of it - he really is not the major issue here. But coaching is involved in terms of getting the players to exert more effort, to communicate more on the ice, and give the go-ahead to players adjust as the opposition makes their move.
I am hopeful that the goaltending mistakes will just be that: mistakes. They will be fine over time. The wedge plus one formation is a functional and can be effective. What is causing the Devils to be so appalling comes down to a lack of attention - to opposing players who do not have the puck, to opposing players shifting about, to the details. Should the Devils improve in those areas, then they should be able to perform better in shorthanded situations, kill more penalties, and give up fewer goals. It will not solve all of the problems of the 2019-20 Devils, but it can absolutely help. Right now, they need all of the help they can get.
This closer look was a deep dive into what has taken place on the penalty kill in the first five games this season. Hopefully, the Devils are so much better today against Florida such that there does not need to be a post-game addendum. Nevertheless, I would like to know your take about the penalty kill in the comments. What are the issues in your opinion and why? Do you think it will get better in time? If not, what do you think needs to change? Thank you for reading.