A constant spot of contention for the last few season under Coach John Hynes has been the power play units of the New Jersey Devils. The issues that have arisen tend to vary by week and by season, but some of the more common concerns have been predictability, personnel issues and general ineffectiveness. However, it is worth looking at if the results and stats align with the perceptions of the fan base for this issue.
Power play coaching under John Hynes started with Geoff Ward before seeing former Albany/Binghamton Devils coach Rick Kowalsky take over as the assistant running the man advantage. With either coach at the helm, there was a familiar set up being employed: the drop back pass. While the speed of some players and the initial unpredictability of the concept helped the Devils with zone entry, it wasn’t long until opponents began to adjust to it. Even more maddening, after opposing teams made adjustments last season to combat this strategy, the Devils still continued to use it this season!
Fans began to get frustrated, especially once the injuries piled up, as not only was a predictable strategy being used, but also one that was ineffective without the right players (read: Taylor Hall) to maximize the potential reward. The good news here is that the Devils wound up eventually altering their rush strategy to seldom use the drop back pass. While it’s difficult to say if this has truly improved the PP (mainly due to the next point), it did at least shake up the stagnation and allow the Devils to gain the zone with more frequency.
The personnel decisions for the power play this season may be why they’re scoring at only a 17.6% clip (19th in the league at time of writing) as compared to 21.4% (tied for 8th in the NHL) from last season. While there’s certainly some variables due to additions and subtractions both during each season as well as from one season to the next, the biggest variable for this year was the injury bug. A number of high-profile Devils forwards went down this year including the above mentioned Hall who is still out. Kyle Palmieri, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, among others, have all missed at least a decent chunk of time, and not having your team’s high skilled forwards available hurts in any situation, let alone with a man advantage.
The bigger issue to me however was player choice; even once the injuries began to mount, it took the coaching staff way too long to get Blake Coleman on a PP unit. Oh you know, Blake Coleman, just the second leading goal scorer for this year’s Devils and one of only two Devils to break the 20 goal barrier. Additionally, while the Devils were hurting badly at points, why not try some of the younger players out on the man advantage? Drew Stafford is who Drew Stafford is at this point, but some of the younger guys are still unknowns at this level and should have been given some additional minutes to see if they can be contributors moving forward. It may not have made a noticeable difference, but in a season that has become about evaluation, it would have been a smarter decision.
The above factors led to the PP being a general mess for a while, and seeing some of the same issues from last year rear their ugly head again has had some fans desperate for a change. I’m not so sure that a change at this point would be for anything more than the sake of change; I would rather the Devils take one more year and see if the PP recovers with a healthy roster. While fans weren’t always happy with the “Ward PP” we need to remember that it was 8th in the league with proper, healthy personnel.
So to sum up the team’s PP, it hasn’t exactly been overwhelmingly positive this season, but the injury bug has certainly played a large role in the percentage drop. I would wager that with the removal of the drop pass, the PP isn’t actually as bad as it appears to be, but rather due to the amount of games our best forwards lost, it adversely affected the man advantage’s scoring percentage. I honestly hope the Devils keep the non-stagnant, non-drop pass PP for next year, as I think with a healthy Top 6 could make for a very effective special team.
Thank you as always for reading!