If you watch hockey, then it is not long before you hear the phrase “keeping it to the outside.” That is, the team is (or is not) keeping the puck away from the critical areas of their zone. Offenses work to generate shots and attempts that in locations like the slot or at the crease. Defenses work to keep the offenses from doing that. In general, it is desirable for teams to limit their actions to long shots from the point or shots from the outside half of the faceoffs circles (the part between the dot and the boards). It can be used to justify a team’s defensive performance - or criticize it if they falter.
Statistically, the New Jersey Devils are one of the best teams in the NHL in terms of high-danger attempts and shots. High-danger refers to the value of those attempts and shots. Natural Stat Trick has an explanation of what this means. Typically, unblocked shots attempted in the slot or at the crease get this designation. It also includes shots that are considered off the rush or off rebounds taken just outside of those areas of the ice too. But for the most part, when I hear “keeping it to the outside,” this what I understand it to be. I think most fans would agree. This begs a question, though. Given how the Devils’ season has been, then so what if they’re keeping it to the outside?
The short answer: The goaltending has not been good enough; and the Devils have not been nearly as stingy with the less dangerous shots attempts. Those being designated as medium-danger (the high slot, the inside halves of the circles down to the crease) and low-danger (everything else). The longer answer has the evidence to support such a statement.
Fortunately, this evidence is easily available. Natural Stat Trick keeps track of all of these shots, attempts, goals, and save percentages by all three levels of danger. If you do not immediately see it on the team stats page or a player stats page, click on that “Show/Hide Columns” button and you can see and select the stats by danger. Provided that we assume that shot location data recorded by team scorers in the metadata of the NHL Play-By-Play logs is accurate, of course.
So let’s get into it. All data is from Natural Stat Trick as of February 8, 2019. I pulled five-on-five (the most common situation in hockey) and all situation hockey. For the sake of perspective, I’ve included the Devils’ rank in each stat out of 31 teams as well as the stat for the team ranked in 15th place. High ranks have a green background and low ranks have a light red background. Except for the save percentages, all of the stats are against the Devils so lower is better.
The 2018-19 Devils So Far - All Dangers
Overall, the New Jersey Devils have not been a particularly good team when it comes to preventing attempts (Corsi Against or CA) and shots against (SA). And they have been even worse when it comes to goals against (GA). That It does not appear like a lot to have 16 or 17 more goals allowed than a team around the league median, but this is a sport where a goal or two can make a difference. It does partially explain why the Devils are where they are in the standings.
Of course, check out that save percentage. It has been bad as a team in both 5-on-5 and all situation play. Even though what the Devils have allowed this season rates decently in the league, the team has bled a relatively large amount of goals. In other words: Not enough saves.
Knowing that, let’s get into the low danger shots.
The 2018-19 Devils So Far - Low Danger
It is easy to look at the numbers and rates of shots and attempts allowed and figure that it is OK. While I can agree that I’d rather have the opposition settle for a 60-footer that threatens nobody than a giving up a shot in the slot, the Devils have been allowing too much. Even if the attempts and shots are from less threatening areas in the Devils’ zone, that’s time and possession by the opposition. And as we have seen many times this season, the Devils risk giving up more dangerous attempts and shots as they’ve been pinned back. While the shots do not frequently become goals, they do keep the Devils from doing good hockey things like obtain puck possession, achieve zone exits, and go forward themselves.
Anyway, while they do not often become goals, opponents have been firing away a lot on New Jersey. Worse, goals are not so infrequent from them. Those 23 five-on-five goals that were from low danger shots represent about 19% of all five-on-five goals allowed. Those 38 all situation low danger goals represent about 21% of all goals allowed this season. That’s not nothing. The save percentage reflects this. For example, a team save percentage of 95-96% in 5-on-5 is not really laudable when the league median is a bit more than 97%. Since Keith Kinkaid has played in 37 of these 53 games and Cory Schneider was bad on epic levels save for the February 7 game against the Isles, I would fault them the most. To think, how bad would it be if Mackenzie Blackwood did not show up and impress this season?
This kind of danger represents the worst of both worlds: the Devils allow a lot of these shots and attempts and the goalies have done a relatively poor job at stopping them.
The 2018-19 Devils So Far - Medium Danger
These are shots and attempts that are in the scoring chance zone, the home plate if you will. While they are not from the slot or at the crease, I struggle to say allowing attempts here is the same as keeping them outside. They’re not far away from the middle of the zone and they’re not at bad angles. They are close enough for a one-timer or a really quick release can definitely torch a goalie. Despite the “medium” in medium danger, would not discount them. They’re usually scoring chances.
Again, the Devils have done a relatively poor job at limiting these kinds of shots. Their five-on-five numbers rank a bit better than their all situation numbers, which makes me think about what the penalty kill has accomplished. There are potential gains to be made here to, well, keep it more to the outside. There is good news: the goaltending has not been awful on these shots. The Devils’ goaltenders have been fairly decent at stopping these shots. It is not so much that Keith Kinkaid or Mackenzie Blackwood or Cory Schneider has excellent numbers for medium danger shots. It is more that no one has been abysmal on these kinds of shots. Per Natural Stat Trick, Kinkaid is at 91.7%, Blackwood is at 92.3%, and Schneider is at 88.9%. Schneider could still do better, but his has been nowhere near low enough to kneecap the team’s stats to the bottom three teams. Kinkaid and Blackwood are not excellent but nowhere near bad.
This is a positive, of sorts. Yes, the Devils’ defensive efforts still need to be better to cut down on these kinds of shots. Medium danger shots should not be discounted given how frequently they are in good locations to shoot the puck. The Devils’ goaltenders have not been an issue for these shots.
The 2018-19 Devils So Far - High Danger
The Devils’ prowess at high danger attempts and high danger shots has been ongoing for a number of seasons. It has been getting worse over the last four seasons, but New Jersey still ranks as one of the best in the NHL for these types of shots in both 5-on-5 and all situation hockey. That is great. I can agree with a belief that this is intentional to a degree. Whether it is a good plan, well, look at these results, the other stats in this post, and the team’s record of 20-25-8 as of February 8, and so I have some doubts.
In any case, the Devils have done an excellent job relative to the rest of the league in terms of limiting shots from the slot and at the crease. They have still been blown up here. Granted, just about every team does. Other than Boston, every team in the NHL has allowed at least 50 high-danger goals this season in 5-on-5 play. The 66 goals the Devils allowed from high danger shots represent 55% of all goals allowed this season. That’s a majority. It’s better for the Devils all situations. They beat the league median and that ranks tenth best in the NHL. Even then, those 86 all situation high-danger goals represent 48.5% of all goals allowed by New Jersey this season - which is a plurality. While the margins from the median do not seem large, this is a competitive league where saving a goal here and there can make a difference.
Despite the Devils skaters doing their job as a whole with respect to high danger shots, the goaltenders have not followed along with the excellence. While save percentages for high danger shots are much lower than they are for low and medium danger shots, the Devils have been near the bottom as a team. They’re not near 80%. Schneider has been horrendous, that Islanders game brought him up to breaking 70% this season. Kinkaid is at the other end of the 70s at 79.6%, which is better than Schneider and still not good. As with the low danger shots, imagine how bad this would be without Blackwood getting into some games and performing really well. Not that an 82.6% percentage is amazing but it is a far cry better than the other two goalies.
So what if the Devils keep the puck to the outside? The goalies have been particularly bad at stopping the high danger ones, the low danger ones, and the skaters have been allowing a lot of low and medium danger attempts and shots all season. Even though the Devils skaters have a relative-to-the-league low number of high danger attempts, there have not been enough saves.
While the data probably did not tell you anything you did not already know, I think it does demonstrate with evidence some of what the Devils need to make improvements for next season and beyond. The goaltending absolutely has to be better and general manager Ray Shero may need to make a bold decision to address it. Mike wrote about that in detail on Friday, so check that out for that. It is a priority. As for the defense, playing defense goes beyond that high danger area. Having the opposition bomb away low and medium danger shots could and have been costly. This suggests to me that the forwards as well as the defensemen need to get to the next level when defending. This means making clearances and zone exits (ideally with possession), winning battles when the play is pushed to the outside, and avoiding the temptation to just stay in a spot and watch the puck instead of looking who could enter the circles, the high slot, and that spot between the crease and the bottoms of each circles. If nothing else, more successes at getting stops will give the Devils more opportunities to go and attack.
Now that you know how I see, I want to know what you think. What do you make of what the Devils have allowed so far this season (except for this past weekend) broken up by low, medium, and high danger shots? Why do you think the goalies have been better with medium danger shots as opposed to low and high danger shots? Would you like to see the same data but for the offense? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about low, medium, and high danger attempts in the comments. Thank you for reading.