I do not think anyone expected the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils to take a page out of the books of their far more successful teams of past decades but they have done so in a way. The team has been one of the dullest from a shot-perspective as per Sean Tierney. The Devils’ aim so far is to allow as few shots and chances as possible while also generating almost as few shots and chances as they allow. This is a general strategy that can work if the team is finishing the relatively few plays they create and the goaltenders play well. The 2019-20 Devils are heading into tonight’s game with a 7-9-4 record with 50 goals scored and 71 allowed. Clearly, the general strategy has not worked. The finishing and the saves are not there. Today, I want to go into more depth into both the finishing and the saves. There is a specific kind of shot that the Devils are struggling with at both ends of the rink related to danger.
Now, before we get into it, let us define danger first. I am us-
???: Not so fast! I have returned! You have kept the people away from me for too long, Fischer!
Uh...what? Wait. That voice. That earthy tone. Don’t tell me you are...?
Yam: I am! I am THE YAM FROM THE RE-DRAFT POST BACK FROM 2016! I won that post by the way. Dougie Hamilton makes me the winner. Don’t click the link, people, just trust me. I won.
No, you didn’t and no, he alone doesn’t. Why are you here?
Yam: Because you need someone like me to force you to walk through your thinking. You and your per-60 minute rate stats and words and blah blah blah. I am a yam. I am uniquely qualified for you to slow it down and break down your thinking for a change. Plus, this is an old blogging gimmick you haven’t used in a while and if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Should I even try to get rid of you? Ignore you? Prepare you as a side for a delicious meal?
Yam: I may be delicious but you have a topic to get into. Something about this team with its talent is not scoring goals or making stops and that’s why they stink. And something about danger. What do you mean danger? I know P.K. Subban can clap it but its not like explosions go off from them.
Yeah, that is not the danger I am talking about although I would not want to be in front of a Subban slapshot for a block. I am using the definition of danger from Natural Stat Trick. At Natural Stat Trick, they use the NHL play by play log and metadata to calculate how many scoring chances a team generates as well as low, medium, and high danger chances. The high danger chances are in their game reports but the team stats do include the other two. The glossary at Natural Stat Trick defines these levels by-
Yam: Who do you think I am? I am a yam. I do not do glossaries. I do not click links. Can you summarize it for me?
Fine. As per their glossary, they use shot location to give every shot attempt a value of 1, 2, or 3. A shot attempt in the slot and at the crease is a 3. A shot attempt in the high slot or the inside of the circles is a 2. A shot attempt from anywhere else in the offensive zone is a 1. If the shot is blocked, the initial value is reduced by 1. If the shot attempt is off a rebound or on a rush play, then 1 is added to its initial value. If the final value of the shot attempt is 2 or more, then it is a scoring chance.
A low danger shot attempt is any shot attempt that is valued at 1 or less. A medium danger shot is any shot attempt with a value of 2. A high danger shot is any shot attempt with a value of 3 or more.
Yam: That’s it? What about if the shooter is open or the goalie is out of position or if there is a screen or the defenseman is not paying attention to his man or a whole bunch of things in hockey that I see lead to goals? How is danger impacted there?
It’s not. It is solely based on the available shot location data and some other assumptions made about how rushes and rebounds are identified in the data. If/when player tracking is available, then those other real factors can be factored into it.
Yam: That makes it imperfect! Why should we care about it?
The same way we should care about a yam even if one has more eyes than the other or if it is not as clearly shaped. Instead of just going, “Yep, there are not a lot of goals out of all of these shots,” we can at least better highlight something about the shots. In the Devils’ case, there is a specific kind of danger that has been a prob-
Yam: Whatever. I’ll have you know I’m a perfect yam. The most delicious and well-respected kind of yam. Anyway, I’m sure you have some data for this.
Yes, I pulled data from November 20 from Natural Stat Trick for a count of all of the Devils’ shots, shots by each level of danger, scoring chances by each level of danger, and shooting percentage by danger. I split it up between 5-on-5 situations and all situations. I also included the team’s rank at the time of that evening, but I would not sweat over whether the Devils moved up or down a few spots since then. The ranks are included just to provide a sense of whether the Devils are high or low with respect to the other 30 NHL teams in the stat. I used raw counts because I am interested in presenting what the Devils have done on the ice instead of the rate of what they have done. Starting with the Devils’ shooti-
Yam: Wait. Since this is a gimmick, I want to pull a MGoBlog and do something I always wanted to do.
I didn’t know you went to Michigan, yam.
Yam: I didn’t. But I respect them. A lot more than your crummy alma mater of Rutgers.
I’ll have you know Rutgers is a wrestling school. Anyway, get on with it.
Yam: The Devils are...near the bottom in both 5-on-5 and all situations. That seems bad.
Not seems. It is bad. Actually bad. The Devils actually have a decent shooting percentage overall when it comes to all shots and scoring chances in 5-on-5 hockey. They have a good one for high danger chances in 5-on-5 and one above league median in high danger chances in all situations. Their big issue is that they really, really do not generate a lot. They are near the bottom of the league in shots and chances in all levels of danger and in both 5-on-5 and all situation hockey. The shooting percentage and scoring chance shooting percentage in all situations is also low and as the team’s lack of recent scoring continues, the 5-on-5 percentages may fall with it.
Yam: Easy with the italics, blogger man. You said there was a real problem here. I see one big one with shots. Is that it?
The overall problem of not generating a lot of shots and chances is very real. It is why I keep harping on the Devils’ offense not being effective. But there is another real problem here. In terms of danger, the most damaging of the three are the medium danger shots. Again, those are the attempts that are in the traditional scoring chance area that is not the slot or the crease. Or shots in the slot or crease that are blocked - which obviously are not shots or goals.
Yam: Medium? Why?
Look at the shooting percentages and goals for the other two danger types. Roughly half of the Devils’ shots are low danger shots. You know, shots from the point and a lot of what Miles Wood throws up. The Devils have only scored six times from those shots, but that is line with most of the league. A shooting percentage of 3.11% is right by the league median in 5-on-5. It is worse in all situations hockey but at the same time, you do not want to settle for long shots or easy angles for the goalie on the power play or in shorthanded tries. I am not concerned about the low danger shots.
As much as fans have lamented a lack of glorious close shots going in - especially those by Hall as of late - the Devils have actually been decent to finishing those high danger shots. They were in the top ten in 5-on-5 high danger shots and above league median in all situations. While 28 high-danger goals is low for all situations, 21 in 5-on-5 hockey is close to the median. The issue there is that the Devils are not generating enough chances to capitalize on their not-bad shooting percentages. My concern is whether the Devils can work the puck in enough or get enough plays off correctly to create more of those slot and crease attempts. The finishing there, over this whole season, is not the issue.
The medium danger shots stick out like a really sore thumb. Just 9 goals in 5-on-5 hockey from those shots. Just 14 in all situations hockey from those shots. They happen at least a little more frequently than high-danger shots and the Devils have not put in nearly enough of them. They are near the bottom in both goals and shooting percentage for medium shots. This is where the team is really lacking in finish. It has cost them in games, particularly when the opposition has been quite good about protecting the slot and their own crease. It is even more stark when you consider what the team has all-
Yam: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The Devils are real bad at finishing these “medium danger” shots on top of not creating enough shots at all. I get it. Can we blame someone for this? I want to blame Taylor Hall. He has blown so many chances in the last two weeks. He only has two goals. He wants out. He has to go. Hall says he has to do better and he dang well better because this yam is not going to put up with this nonsense anymore!
I can understand and agree with the arguments about moving him. CJ made a good one about it on Wednesday. However, if you want to blame Hall, then you’re being too narrow.
Yam: I am a yam! I don’t do narrow!
What I mean is that there is more to blame than just Hall for these numbers. The chart is for team stats. Hall is indeed the team’s leader in shots in 5-on-5 and all situation hockey. However, Hall alone is not the only cold one with 2 goals out of 71 shots. According to Natural Stat Trick, Subban is second on the team in shots with 52 - only 2 have went in and one of those was an empty netter. Wayne Simmonds is 4-for-51 with three of those coming on a power play so he’s 1-for-35 in 5-on-5 hockey. Nico Hischier is similarly lacking with just three goals out of 36 shots. Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood each have only two goals out of 27 and 33 shots respectively. That is six of the team’s most prolific shooters in all situations and they are currently scoring on less than 10% of their shots so far this season.
And among the four that are not, they have benefited from some breaks here and there. Such as Nikita Gusev getting a free turnover from some Blueshirt breaking his stick and being alone with a goalie. Such as Blake Coleman ringing a shot off that goalie’s helmet and having the puck bounce down and go through his legs. Each has five goals and at least one came on a play that is highly unlikely to repeat. That suggests the team’s shooting woes may be a little worse than what it seems.
So you can blame Hall. I would just blame a lot of other Devils for being so cold at shooting the puck too.
Yam: Whatever, I’m a yam, I’ll blame who I want. Like Cory Schneider. He has killed this team. He was so bad. I yelped a little when he was placed on waivers. You mentioned saves. Tell me the Devils were bad because of him. Chart me!
I’m going to “chart you” with the team stats first to make another point.
As suggested in the first paragraph, the 2019-20 Devils have really clamped down on their opponents from lighting up the shot count. Sure, there have been some nights where they did so but it has not been frequent throughout their 20-game season so far. Overall, the Devils are among the best in the league in terms of allowing shots in general, allowing scoring chances in general, allowing medium danger shots, and allowing high-danger shots and chances. They are also at or above the league median for shots and chances against that are low-danger too.
However, do note that even being the stingiest team in, say, high-danger chances means the team is allowing an average of 8.7 high danger chances per game. Being the best means the Devils are allowing fewer chances than everyone else, not that the chances do not happen at all or that they are rare. Also, the danger of a shot or a chance does not consider whether a Devil turned the puck over, a Devil is in the right position to make a play, a Devil is caught not paying attention or paying attention too late, and any other error you can think of. It is about where the shot was taken and whether it was blocked, off a rebound, or off a rush. That all stated, they are much better than the majority of the league in this regard.
So in terms of goals against, the Devils are indeed one of the worst teams in the NHL in that regard. Combined with such few shots allowed, the team’s save percentages are also among the worst in the NHL across the board. While they have not allowed a large number of high-danger goals, their few high danger chances allow yield save percentages well below of a more desirable 81-82% mark. The Devils goalies end up in the bottom third of the league for low danger goals. While allowing 7 in 5-on-5 and 12 in all situations is not terrible, it does not reflect well on the goalies. Then there’s the medium-danger shots.
Yam: Oh, no. You’re about to type that the medium-danger shots against are a problem too.
Yes. The Devils were right near the bottom in both 5-on-5 and all situational hockey in medium danger save percentage. This has yielded 21 goals against in 5-on-5 and 26 goals against in all situations. Recall that the Devils have scored only 9 and 14 off of their medium-danger shots. While the Devils have been close to even in terms of taking as many medium-danger shots and chances as they have allowed, the goal differential has been very negative for New Jersey. This is a big area of concern.
Yam: Why don’t the Devils protect those zones?
They theoretically do. Their tendency on defense is to collapse skaters around the slot. This allows the opposition a lot of space by the blueline to retrieve clearing attempts and be an option for players along the perimeter. This should, in theory, take care of most of the real estate that makes up the medium-danger shooting area.
The execution of the defense is where things go awry. As a Devil may engage the puck carrier, space tends to open up in these spots. And the his teammates may head towards one side - not worrying about space opening up on their blind side. Should the Devils over-commit to one side or have all five skaters focus on the puck, then an opposing player can find the weak spot in the coverage and if they receive the pass, have a chance to score. Especially on their blind side. Because of the collapsing and what passing lane may be there, it is not often going to be at the crease or the slot. It will be in the insides of the circles and the high slot. The 2019-20 Devils have been burnt by this coverage or lack thereof many times and way more often than they do it to their opponents.
Yam: But the goalie just has to make a save sometimes. And that blasted Schneider has not made any. Thank goodness for Mackenzie Blackwood. He will right these wrongs.
Yam, Schneider only played in six games this season and Blackwood has been in the other fourteen. Schneider’s influence on the team’s save percentage was definitely negative, but its impact will decrease over time. It definitely will now that he is in Binghamton. But it is not going to be all good for the Devils in the crease with Blackwood as the #1. At least not with respect to this kind of danger.
Yam: What? Don’t tell me that Blackwood has been awful against medium danger shots or something?
I will not tell you. I will show you with this chart.
You are correct in your assertion that Schneider has been really bad this season. Really, really, really, really bad. His waiving was earned. You are also correct to be thankful for Blackwood Three of his last five performances were really good and the Devils need him to be that kind of goaltender more often. For the season, he is around the league median in goalies when it comes to stopping low-danger and high-danger shots. You would want him to be better than that but it is a big step up from Schneider.
Lastly, you are correct that Blackwood has been really bad on medium-danger shots. His save percentages in both 5-on-5 and all situation play for those shots are almost as bad as Schneider’s. They are way below the league median. Both goalies contributed to the Devils’ near-bottom-of-the-league save percentage on those kind of shots. Both goalies are big reasons why they have been out-scored 9-21 in 5-on-5 hockey on those kinds of shots and 14-26 in all situations on those kind of shots. Blackwood may help bring the Devils back up on low and high danger shots. This, of course, presumes that Louis Domingue will also be competent and not be bad. (This is not a guarantee.) But as long as Blackwood is getting beaten on nearly 15% of all medium-danger shots against, the Devils are going to continue to struggle to a degree in the net. Combined with their lack of offense and distinct lack of finish on medium-danger shots, the team is going to continue to struggle period.
Yam: I don’t like any of this. Can’t we just fire the coach and hope that fixes everything?
Maybe. But I think this is something that requires some special attention in practice and video sessions. For the goaltending, Blackwood is certainly young enough to learn from his errors and make adjustments to his game. I would not be surprised if there are some other patterns to the medium-danger shots he is allowing such as where they are shot at or how he is set for the shot. It is odd to me that he can stop pucks at around a league median rate on the low and high danger shots but medium danger shots have been problematic. There is likely something there. The coaches can try to help Blackwood out by trying to “open up” the collapse a bit to account for those medium areas. This may risk more high danger shots but given that Blackwood has been OK at stopping those and the Devils have already shown to be relatively great at preventing them, I think they can afford the risk.
For the shooting, this is tougher. If I knew of a way for, say, Hall to start scoring goals, then I would be an employee of the Devils as shooter whisperer bound by so many NDAs that I could only share my hockey thoughts with inanimate, non-talking vegetables like yams.
Yam: I can talk!
That is not the point. Let us take a different approach.
Surely, Hall, Subban, Simmonds, Hischier, etc. cannot be cold forever. That their shooting just has to turn around at some point. Given their history in the NHL, no matter how long or short it may be, I think it is reasonable to think this. However, that does play into the gambler’s fallacy. Just because the Devils are failing to convert on a lot of their shots now does not mean they will not fail less in the future. To that end, I would focus on the larger issue of so few shots and chances being created. You cannot score without shooting so it seems logical for the Devils to at least shoot more.
However, the team needs to be somewhat judicious about it. Taking a whole lot more shots from forty to sixty feet away is not going to help. Finding ways to generate those shots in more advantageous areas might. This could involve having only two forwards go behind the net to battle for a puck instead of three. That third forward can try to be available as an option in those areas instead of a man at the point. Similarly, the team could stand to be more aggressive in their own end at the opposition pointmen to force more counter-attacks and rushes that usually are dangerous shots. Even convincing the players to fake less and shoot more may even provide gains. The coaches may not be able to sit a player down and say, “Hey, Taylor, do X, Y, and Z and you’ll start scoring at a 40-goal pace again.” They may be able to look at how the team performs and identify ways to have them break the puck out of their zone more effectively, defend their zone more effectively, and protect the neutral zone more effectively. Basically, how they perform in general could be better as more success at zone exits or board battles or even simply passing the puck can lead to more offensive opportunities - which is what this team really needs as a whole for them to score more.
On November 14 at The Athletic ($), Corey Masisak pondered the question of whether the Devils could stand to be more aggressive on offense. As usual, it was a good column and noted it that the proverbial grass may not be greener on the more aggressive side. At this point, I think it may be worth trying. Can a new head coach do all of that and/or come up with a more aggressive approach for the Devils if John Hynes cannot? Possibly. But that depends a lot. Such as who it is, what their system is, who is on the coach’s staff, and whether or not the players can go along with it in full in the rest of the season - assuming John Hynes is fired at all. But there are things the coaches can look at that could lead to more shots and chances, which could possibly, maybe, hopefully, I wish lead to more goals by the Devils.
Yam: Bo-ring. I wanted a more interesting answer. I’m just about done here.
I never said the answers are interesting. And the issues I raise may seem specific but that’s how analysis goes sometimes. There is more to it than just “Devils don’t shoot enough and don’t make enough saves.” The medium-danger shots and chances at both sides are a real problem. Even if the Devils are about even in terms of how many they give up and make, the goals and percentages are definitely not in the Devils’ favor. And making Blackwood the #1 and rolling a die on Domingue alone may not fix that aspect any more than Hall scoring more goals will make the other Devils score more goals.
Yam: Well, you’re welcome that I came back to add some creativity and questions to this topic. I have one more thing for you.
Yam: A message from a man named Sherman. He’s on his way and wants to let you know about some kids named Alexis and Quinton or something. I didn’t catch their last names or why he was so excited about them. Whatever. I’m going to go somewhere where I can be better appreciated, perhaps by a side of ham or pork or pernil.
Oh, no. No no no no no. Keep your message. I am not dealing with that man until 2020.
Yam aside, I hope you somewhat enjoyed this look at the Devils’ shots, chances, and percentages by the three levels of danger as defined by Natural Stat Trick. What would you attribute the failings at medium-danger shots and saves to? What would you do if you were the coach and you wanted this team to improve at making more shots and chances? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this post in the comments. Thank you for reading.