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New Jersey Devils 2019-20 Season Preview Part IV: The Special Teams

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Today we enter the fourth day of All About the Jersey’s Season Preview! We will be bringing you two posts today. The first one will touch on what happens on the ice when the teams are not at equal strength. Last year was a year of opposites on special teams for NJ, with a subpar power play, but a truly exceptional penalty kill. Come check out the numbers from last year and what we can possibly look forward to for this season.

New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils
Just a couple of guys who played major roles on special teams last season.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Today’s continuing coverage of the season preview for your New Jersey Devils has us delving into an area of extremes: the special teams. I say extremes because last season, there really was no middle ground for this club. They were either really good, or pretty much not so good at all. The positive area, of course, was in the historically stronger of the disciplines for this organization, while the area they struggled in has been more the area of concern most often. This season, if they can repeat what we saw last season out of the penalty kill, and even improve just somewhat on the power play, the Devils could end up having one of the stronger special teams in the league. But ignore all of that when it comes to overtime and the shootout; that’s basically all a game of luck (although don’t tell that to the 2013-14 Devils).

Power Play - What Happened Last Season

Since I tend to be a pessimistic kind of guy, let’s start with the area of need from last season, the power play. Offense as a whole has tended to be the area of needed growth on this team over the last half decade plus, and last season that boiled over into the power play, where it seemed to me at times there were whole power plays, two minutes at a time, where you would just see nothing happen at all. My friends in a group text would send out that they wanted to decline the penalty, because the team was playing well at 5 on 5 and we knew that this power play would just kill that momentum. And since nothing was going to happen anyway, just let him stay on the ice.

Now of course, there is some exaggeration there. I’m making it sound like the Devils were the 31st ranked PP unit in the league last season. They actually were decently better than that, sitting at 21st in the NHL with a conversion rate of 17.7%. The worst team on that front was Nashville, who rocked a 12.9% success rate. So in terms of the pure bottom of the barrel of the league, New Jersey was slightly above that. However, overall between the two areas of special teams, this is where the growth needs to occur this season.

However, enough of me complaining. Here are the numbers on the power play unit for New Jersey last season, thanks to Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com:

I know that is a boat load of stats, and it is easy to just glide over and not really read them, so let me highlight some of what I found to be interesting. In the overwhelming majority of the stats, the Devils finished somewhere in the 20s in the league, and in some cases, toward the bottom of the 20s. Crazy enough, when you look at the Corsi and Shot numbers, they were actually worse at giving up attempts and shots against than at generating attempts for. The Devils gave up 18 and a half Corsi attempts against and 13 and a half shot attempts against per 60 minutes while on the man advantage, and those numbers were good for 29th and 27th in the league, respectively.

Now, that is not to say that they were good at generating attempts for, and the overall numbers look bad simply because of that. No, they were bad at generating attempts for too, ranking 24th at Corsi attempts for, and 26th at shot attempts for. They were equally as bad at generating those attempts at high danger too, landing 24th in the league with only 17.79 high danger attempts per 60, turning those into only 1.78 high danger goals per 60, 26th in the NHL.

So, you see all of those numbers, and those ranks going from 24th-29th, and you wonder, how did they end up 21st in the league in power play percentage? What bumped them up? Well, there’s a couple of things. The biggest reason was pure volume. The Devils were excellent at drawing penalties last year, generating 254 power play opportunities, good for 7th in the league. They also had the 4th most PP minutes too, although you can look at that negatively too if you wish. They had the 7th most power plays, but the 4th most PP minutes. That says too many of those power plays went the full two minutes, and not enough ended early on goals for.

The other stat that boosted the overall PP percentage was the team’s shot percentage on the man advantage, which sat at 12.82%, about average for the league last year. That isn’t anything spectacular or crazy lucky either, as the team’s PDO essentially showed a luck neutral PP, but it did help to generate more goals than might have otherwise gone in given their poor advanced stats.

Next, check out individual stats from last year’s power play. I only included players with at least 50 power play minutes, as larger sample sizes give us better indicators here. There were still 14 skaters to reach the 50 minute threshold. Again, thanks to Natural Stat Trick here, and I apologize for the sheer size of this chart.

So, again like with the last one, let me point out what I found interesting. The obvious takeaway is that once Taylor Hall went down with injury, Kyle Palmieri took over the power play offense almost single handedly. Nico Hischier was a quality distributor, and Will Butcher had a load of PP assists, but it was Palms who made the difference. He led the team in PP ice time, had the most goals by a very significant margin, and his underlying numbers were among the best on the team despite the very high number of PP minutes he had. While the whole unit was not too good, it was definitely not Kyle’s fault. The team will once again need him to be dominant this upcoming season.

The other really interesting stat line I took away from there comes from the usual PK stalwart, Blake Coleman. Look at his underlying numbers. His xGF/60, HDCF/60, and HDGF/60 were the best on the team, and specifically the high danger numbers were far and away the best. He received less than a minute of power play time per game, but some of the advanced metrics suggest he was a quality contributor in the small time he had. And given his strong play during the preseason this year, perhaps he has earned himself some added time on the power play this season, perhaps on the second unit?

The opposite of Coleman would be Miles Wood. His underlying numbers suggest he should not be getting more PP time, if any at all. Except for HDGF/60, all of his underlying numbers are the worst on the team, and really by a lot. His Corsi For per 60 was really quite poor given the man advantage, sitting at only 60.13. He only had 76 minutes of power play time last year, but I would definitely look to get that down to 0 this year unless he has managed to drastically improve his game on the power play.

Power Play - Preview

While the overall team numbers on the power play were not too good last year, you have to like the odds of seeing increased production this year around. The main reason for this is the addition of new players. This offseason, on paper, was a very good one for the red and black, and this is especially true for the power play. The first boost will be the return of a healthy Taylor Hall. His numbers last year, from the chart above, were very good. He might have only had one goal, but he produced 11 assists in the 33 games he played, which was good for second on the team. His presence alone will be a huge boost to the first power play unit.

From outside the team, the addition of Wayne Simmonds will also be positive. Simmonds has literally made millions of dollars to post up in front of the net and wreak havoc there, thus generating better chances and more goals. He himself has scored many power play goals in his career, usually topping 10 goals per year on the PP. He might have had a down year last year, and might be aging, but you have to like him on the top power play unit doing his thing, opening up shooting lanes for Hall, Palmieri, Butcher, Hischier, or whoever else gets top power play minutes.

You also have to think that Jack Hughes will receive large amounts of power play time this year as well. Perhaps he plays on one unit while Hischier plays on the other, as I could see them both having similar roles as distributors, perhaps that fourth forward to set others up for quality chances. Hughes was the ultimate distributor for the USNTDP, and if he can help create more high quality chances on the power play for the Devils, the unit will have to improve this year. And let’s also not forget about Nikita Gusev. Will he be given significant PP minutes in his first year in the NHL? How will he perform there? According to KHL stats, he had 6 power play goals in the KHL playoffs alone last season, proving that he can be a real contributor there, especially in high-stress games.

Finally, on the blue line, the addition of PK Subban will also be a boon. PK had 10 points on the power play last season for Nashville in a little over 160 minutes in what was overall a down year for the defender. With New Jersey not really having an offensive force on the blue line outside of Will Butcher and maybe Severson, adding PK gives the team a second power play quarterback for the second power play unit. It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff decides to deal with that, if they move Butcher to the second unit and plug Subban into the top unit, but either way the power play as a whole should benefit here.

No matter what happens there, the outlook has to look fairly good heading into the season. WIth strong new additions, and the return of Hall, the talent is there to do much better than 21st in the league. I mean, just look at the names here:

Forwards: Hall, Palmieri, Hischier, Hughes, Simmonds, Gusev, Zajac, Coleman (Bratt, Boqvist?)

Defense: Subban, Butcher, Severson, Vatanen

With that lineup going out there for two minutes at a time, you have to like the odds of more goals being scored and more productivity coming out of the New Jersey Devils power play this season. They might not be a top unit this year, but could you see that group producing better than half the teams in the NHL? I easily could.

Penalty Kill - What Happened Last Season

While the power play left a lot to be desired last season, the penalty kill for the Devils was one of the best in the entire league. The Devils rocked an 84.3% denial rate on the penalty kill, good for fourth in the league, and were less than 1% from being tops in the NHL. They were also one of only eight teams in the league to have double digit shorthanded goals, managing 10 of them. While we really want to see the Devils improve on their power play abilities this season, for the penalty kill, it won’t be about improving so much as maintaining. Despite having the sixth most times shorthanded last year, the unit allowed only 40 goals, tied for third best in the league. Had the team been more responsible and taken less penalties, it would have been even better.

Similar to the chart above, here is the chart of team stats for the penalty kill:

Man, you compare those ranks with the chart from the power play, and wow, what a different story this tells huh? They are in the top 10 in the league in almost all of those categories. FIrst, let’s start with the couple areas that need improvement. The biggest happens to be not on the PK specifically, but by taking so many penalties. The Devils took 255 penalties, 6th most in the NHL last year, and that led to having to kill over 446 minutes of penalties. That is not good.

Other than that, however? All pretty much excellent. First in the league in preventing high danger chances against. Second in preventing high danger goals against. First in shots against. Third in Corsi against. Tied for third in expected goals against. And of course, 10 goals shorthanded just to sweeten things a little bit. They had an incredible year. Even their PK save percentage was in the top half of the league. You honestly cannot ask for too much more from a PK unit than what you see here.

So, who was creating all this goodness? Let’s get to the individual player chart. Again, this only includes players with at least 50 minutes played on the penalty kill. The exception here, however, is Nico Hischier, who played 44 minutes of PK time only, but I wanted to add him in anyway.

In my opinion, two particular players need highlighting for the absolute work they did on the penalty kill. The first is obviously Andy Greene. The man had over 118 more minutes than the next guy on the list, Zajac. In fact, he had more PK minutes last season than anyone in the entire NHL. He was thrown out there for over 4 minutes per game shorthanded, playing against the opponents’ first and second units regularly. And given how well the Devils PK performed overall, and how big of a part Greene played in it, you just have to tip you hat to the captain.

The other is Pavel Zacha, who unless he all of a sudden breaks out, will always struggle to gain positive footing because it was the draft pick the Devils should have spent on Mathew Barzal. But while he may struggle to produce points at even strength, or break through onto the power play, the man is an absolute penalty kill wizard. This discipline alone will keep him in the NHL for a quality career, if not at the high flying level of perhaps others who have gone 6th overall. His Corsi against is best on the squad, expected goals against is best on the squad, and he allowed less than one high danger goal against per 60 minutes of PK time, which is nuts. His CA/60 was 6th best in the entire NHL for players with at least 100 PK minutes, his high danger goals against per 60 was 7th, and his xGA/60 and HDCA/60 were both tops in the league last year for any man with at least 100 PK minutes. The man is pure gold on the penalty kill, and coming from a forward, really is the burgeoning star of this group. If there was an NHL award looking solely at the penalty kill and nothing else, he could win it.

Also, I want to give a quick shout out to Travis Zajac as well. The man simply does it all. 217 minutes on the penalty kill, 2nd most on the team, to go along with 213 minutes on the power play, third on the team. That might change this year if Hughes takes over his power play minutes, but you can most likely expect him to see big PK minutes again this year, and might still get some time on the power play too. He is a team leader in many ways, and it shows here.

Finally, a quick look at shorthanded offense shows Coleman to be the main attacker with 25 shots, while Zacha had 16 and Greene managed 12. Coleman turned those 25 shots into 3 goals, and had 2 more assists to boot. He justified being given heavy PK minutes even if his underlying numbers are high, and you can bet to see him out there again this year.

Penalty Kill - Preview

In my mind, I see no reason why this unit will not be dominant again this year. The one major concern that would derail that notion has to be the age and heavy usage of the captain. He will turn 37 by the end of the month. It has to be unreasonable to expect him to play 4 PK minutes a game again, and I would think diminishing returns would be expected there if that were the case. So we will most likely need to see improved and expanded roles from other defensemen. With Ben Lovejoy gone as well and his 192 PK minutes from last year, that will need to be true anyway. Severson will almost undoubtedly need to see an expanded role and play well within it. He should easily jump over 2 PK minutes per game, if not higher.

The other options are a larger role for Vatanen, who had a little under 100 minutes last year, and the newly acquired Subban, who had around 100 minutes as well for Nashville last year. No one person will probably take up all that slack, and you can still expect Greene to most likely lead the defense corps in PK minutes this season, but I think we have to see that 335:28 time on ice fall this year. Hopefully they can get it to around 250-275 minutes, a way more reasonable expectation.

The real area of strength, however, should still remain that way. The forwards on this unit should continue to see heavy minutes and there is no reason they shouldn’t dominate. Again, Zacha is one of the best shorthanded forwards in the NHL, and should see way more than the 132 minutes he got last season. Giving him more minutes here should only help to improve the unit. Coleman should also continue to see over 2 and a half minutes per game, with this ability to create takeaways and generate shorthanded offense. It might be unreasonable to expect 10 shorthanded goals again this year, but they should get their fair share of chances.

Finally, we cannot ignore the goaltending on the penalty kill. As a team, combining Mackenzie Blackwood and Cory Schneider, they ranked 11th in the league in save percentage on the kill. That was not incredibly lucky or unlucky, and if Blackwood shows the improvement that we are all desperately hoping he can show, that number could actually improve this year. Better goaltending would only improve an already stellar penalty kill, and could lead to giving up less than 40 goals this season, which would be an excellent target.

Overtime and Shootout

While it is a worthwhile endeavor to look at what happened last season with respect to the power play and penalty kill, and see who is performing well there, who is returning, and who is gone, it is less so with overtime and the shootout. Here, luck plays a huge role in yearly outcomes, and discerning what is skill and what is luck becomes significantly harder. All the way back in 2010, Arctic Ice Hockey wrote a great post on how the shootout is essentially a crapshoot. It behooves teams to play their best shootout specialists, and goaltending matters and all that, but after five years of data, it was near impossible to discern what was skill and what was pure chance. So while the Devils went 3-4 last year in the shootout, really anything is possible this season. As long as they don’t go winless and it costs them a wild card berth, like what happened with the 2013-14 Devils who went 0-13, just enjoy the spectacle when it comes about.

Overtime, with a somewhat new 3-3 format, also brings with it a strong luck component. I could not find a similar article to the one there that used data over time to show shootouts to be heavily luck-driven, but with it being sudden death, a lot rides on puck luck in the overtime format. A bounce here or there can determine a lot of these games, and to separate skill from luck in many cases is tough. You have to like the talent the Devils can throw out there in 3v3 settings, with Hall, Hischier, Hughes, Palmieri, Subban, Butcher, Gusev, etc. But to specifically predict strong results is tough when luck plays such a strong factor in a short, 5 minute, sudden death, 3 on 3 setting. Just like with the shootout, just watch it and enjoy the ride.

Conclusion

There you have it folks. Last year, we saw a Devils team throw out an exceptional penalty killing squad, one of the best in the league, but struggle with potting goals on the power play. This year, the goal will be to maintain shorthanded dominance while improving on the power play. And honestly, not just as a fan but trying to look at it as objectively as possible, it seems like a reasonable expectation. The new additions that will be there on the power play, from Subban to Simmonds, Gusev, Hughes, and a healthy Hall, should propel it above where it was last year. And with the penalty kill, the same major players are returning. As long as they don’t rely on the aging Greene as heavily as last year, and another defender can pick up some of those minutes, look for another top 10 PK unit, perhaps the top 5, especially if Zacha is given more minutes. If they can pair that with even a middle of the pack power play, that would be a quality improvement on special teams, and could lead to at least a few extra points in the final standings. And those points, as we know, can make all the difference in the world for a playoff bubble team, which the Devils might be this year.

Enough of me, however. What do you think about the special teams for this coming season? Do you expect improvement on the power play? If so, what new face do you think will have the biggest impact? Will it be a free agent signing like Subban or Simmonds, or the #1 pick in Hughes, or simply the return of a healthy Hall? Do you expect the penalty kill to be similarly dominant this season? What do you think about Zacha on this team, given his pure excellent on the penalty kill? Does it keep him here long term? What are your overall expectations for the special teams? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for checking out our continuing season preview for the New Jersey Devils! Check back later today for another preview post, this time on the coaching staff and management.