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How Can the New Jersey Devils Place their New Pieces to Solve their Power Play Puzzle

The New Jersey Devils acquired three players that could really help their power play that struggles last season: Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, and Wayne Simmonds. This post discusses how the Devils can utilize them and other ideas for a better power play in 2019-20.

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Chicago Blackhawks v Nashville Predators
P.K. Subban fires a shot - something the Devils power play can use.

Barring another major move, the three major names of the 2019 offseason for the New Jersey Devils are Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, and Wayne Simmonds. Hughes was the first overall draft pick of the 2019 NHL Draft. Subban was acquired in a blockbuster deal on the second day of the draft. Simmonds was the first and only (so far) NHL player signed in free agency by the Devils this Summer. All three are reasons for Devils fans all over the world to be excited and hopeful for a better Devils season in 2019-20. In order to make it happen, the Devils coaching staff will need to figure how to utilize them to maximize what they can do on the ice and minimize whatever issues they may have. Especially on the power play.

The man advantage is where these three players could really thrive. Hughes’ vision, puck handling, and offensive mindset are all three great and desirable traits for any forward playing on a power play. Subban has been one of the more productive defensemen on power plays in the entire NHL over the last five seasons, just a point shy of the top-ten. Simmonds’ bread and butter in this league has been standing at the goal line next to the crease and pivoting between being a passing option, wrap-around shooting option, a puck/rebound-collecting option, and a goalie-screening option. And he has been very productive from that area with 53 goals, 36 assists, and 275 shots on power plays over the last five seasons. At a minimum, I would expect the Devils to give loads of ice time on power plays to Subban and Simmonds with Hughes receiving time as it is available.

However, the coaches would be ill-advised to just give shifts to these three players and hope it works out. As with any player, they will need to be put into the right positions to succeed and given a strategy where they can contribute. How the coaches will add Subban, Simmonds, and Hughes to two units that already include Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Will Butcher, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Travis Zajac, Sami Vatanen, Damon Severson, and Pavel Zacha. The Devils have plenty of puzzle pieces. The coaches need to put them together in order to solve their power play puzzle.

Previous State, or The Devils’ Power Play was Puzzling

Let’s take a step back first. The Devils’ power play last season was absolutely a puzzle. The many injuries at forward in the second half of last season certainly did not help. Even before the injuries, they were still plagued by what I’ve come to call “feast or famine” advantages. The Devils would either apply good pressure, have a couple of good shifts in the other team’s end, and possibly score - or they would effectively waste most of their two minutes.

Like most teams in the league, the Devils have utilized a 1-3-1 formation. There would be one skater in the back, usually a defenseman like Will Butcher or Sami Vatanen, to stand in the center point and shift over as needed. There would be one skater to plant themselves in front of the net; this was someone like Brian Boyle or Miles Wood. The man in the middle of the zone acted as a “bumper,” basically an option for passes or to take up space in the slot to keep the penalty kill honest. Travis Zajac fit into this spot on one unit and Nico Hischier has been there on a second unit. On the right side, Taylor Hall or Marcus Johansson or Jesper Bratt would play off the half-wall and work with the back one - Butcher or Vatanen - to direct the play. On the left side, Kyle Palmieri or Damon Severson would wait for a one-timer or shooting opportunity when set-up. Injuries forced a lot of necessary and non-ideal changes to the personnel, but they largely stayed in a 1-3-1 concept all season long. And I also mean stay in a literal sense because once they were set up, they stayed in it - there was little to no on-ice player rotation in their power plays last season.

They also tried to carry the puck in to a trailing skater on their breakout. Meaning, one player skates it up ice and then makes a drop pass to a Devil behind them who will try to carry it in or, if it is not available, dump it in hard around the corners towards a Devil on that side of the zone. The Devils went away from the drop pass as other teams clearly scouted it and there more instances of a forechecker would try to pick it off. Which I supported because the drop pass was often too deep and even with a successful zone entry with puck possession, that took more time off the clock that was necessary.

The results of all of this was a 17.7% success rate (45 for 254) on the power play. That was the 21st most successful rate in the NHL last season. That does not seem too terrible until you dig in a little deeper at Natural Stat Trick. The Devils’ power play shot pucks at a rate of 48.02 per 60 minutes, which ranked 26th in the NHL. The power play attempted shots at a rate of 88.79 per 60 minutes, which was the 24th highest in the NHL. The man advantage generated a scoring chance rate of 42.96 per 60 minutes, which was the 29th best in the NHL last season. Their high danger chance rate of 17.79 per 60 minutes rated better as it was the 24th highest rate in the NHL. While they scored a little bit ahead of expected goals model (44.47 xGF), their rate of expected goals was just 6.08 - the 25th highest rate in the NHL. In conclusion, the Devils definitely had one of the weaker power plays in the NHL when it came to generating offense and actually scoring goals. Yes, this was undercut by injuries; but it points to real issues with how the man advantage was constructed.

So does how much the Devils gave up on the power play. The team allowed 10 shorthanded goals last season; only five teams allowed more. Going back to Natural Stat Trick, the Devils gave up 99 shorthanded shots - the second most in the NHL last season. Their expected goals against was 8.89. Not only did opponents beat that mark, but that xGA value was the third highest in the league. It was not uncommon in Devils games for a block, a bad pass, or even a bad bounce to give opposing penalty killers a chance to counter-attack. While ten goals over an 82-game season does not seem like a lot, it did contribute to at least a couple of the many losses that the Devils took last season.

The main conclusion is that despite having talented players when healthy, the Devils’ power play left something to be desired. While the most successful power plays are fortunate to convert over 25%, the on-ice shooting rates really point to how well a team does on a man advantage when it comes to creating offense. I expect offense to be created when the Devils are up a man. Compared to the rest of the league, the Devils struggled in that regard.

Potential Ideas with the Current 1-3-1 Formation

A more threatening, functional power play will more likely yield a more successful one and that will help the Devils out over a season. With Subban, Simmonds, and Hughes now in the organization, I am excited to see how they will fit on a power play. I have thoughts on how the Devils coaching staff could do that while also utilizing players who were on last season’s squad. I want to go over what they could if the coaches want to keep their 1-3-1 formation.

For both units, I would keep the breakout as simple as possible. No long back-passes to the Devils’ zone. No 3-4 touches before the puck crosses the blueline. I think simple, steady, and with control should be the primary goals of their entries. I would only encourage dump-ins if there are no other options. Depending on how much time is left on the power play, I would rather have the puck carrier retreat and try again than just fire the puck in and hope a Devil recovers it and/or wins a battle to gain possession. It’s a power play, there is less of a need to give up puck control to try to advance their position.

As far as the units themselves, here is what I am thinking:

Primary Unit: P.K Subban (1) - Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri (3) - Wayne Simmonds (1)

The primary unit simply has Subban replacing Butcher as the lone defenseman in the formation and Simmonds taking the spot that Boyle/Wood’s spot had. I would keep Palmieri and Hall on the wings. Hall is the team’s top playmaker and can be trusted to distribute from the half-wall again. Palmieri is the team’s top shooter; he had an astounding shooting rate above 20 per 60 minutes that no other Devil with regular PP time even touched as per Natural Stat Trick. I would keep Zajac in the middle because he is still the team’s top faceoff taker and he is comfortable with the role. He will not necessarily see the puck or be a primary option but he is aware enough of where he needs to be to strike as needed.

With this unit, I would make sure Simmonds is set up on the goalie and that Hall is able to pass the puck to his forehand. This way Hall has more options to pass the puck and Simmonds is able to do more than just be a body in front. This will force the opposition to respect Simmonds and stretch out the units more - which can open up more passing lanes. Further, with Subban in the back, there’s another shooting option as Subban can rip long shots as well as direct pucks around. With Palmieri on the opposite wing, the Devils can still try to set him up for a one-timer above the dot that has yielded success in the past.

Secondary Unit: Will Butcher (1) - Jack Hughes, Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt (3) - Nico Hischier (1)

With Subban taking the primary unit’s slot for a defenseman, Butcher will take the secondary unit’s slot. He will likely do the same things and I would trust him to be more of the distributor until Hughes is up to speed. I would slot Hughes at wing in a similar role to Hall as to utilize his ability to read the situation and make plays accordingly. I would have Bratt at right wing, something he has been used to for the better part of the last two seasons. With Palmieri and Simmonds on the first unit, Bratt would be the next best RW available. I would also have Zacha in the middle. The larger Zacha can physically handle a busier area in the zone while still being present to chip in shots as needed. He is also pretty good as a faceoff taker based on last season, which is another reason why to include him and use him at center. Nico Hischier would be down low. It is not the best fit for him, but he has consistently shown no fear in high-traffic situations and he is more than willing to get literally in the middle of bodies to make plays. Rather than having Wood or someone else with size to stand in front of the goalie, I would utilize Hischier to play near the crease so he has some more freedom to dart in and out of traffic as needed. Similar to how Simmonds would be used.

It is definitely a young, skill-based unit. However, four of the five listed did feature on the Devils power play in the past. The only new guy here would be Hughes and he has played on man advantage situations throughout his youth career. Keeping the same unit and a similar structure has an additional advantage. Should someone or someones on the primary unit not be available (e.g. injury, penalty), or need a rest after a shift, then there can be a one-for-one switch from the secondary unit to the primary unit. The formation and tactics can still stay the same; the only adjustment would be with personnel - something that may go away in a little bit of time.

However, I wonder if there could be further improvements. When I typed out that primary unit, it looked good to me on the screen and in my mind. The secondary unit seems to be more of a square with rounded corners trying to be placed in a round hole. Hischier can absolutely contribute on offense in 5-on-5, but trying to find a spot for him, Zacha, Bratt, and Hughes is tough. Additionally, Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen are nowhere to be found in these proposed units. Both defensemen have strong offensive skills and the power play is one notable area where they can contribute. And not necessarily as defensemen, as Severson was often set up as a winger like Palmieri on the secondary unit. Severson absolutely contributed given his 12 power play points lagged only behind Palmieri and Butcher last season. To go from that to nothing at all seems a bit wasteful.

This led me to think - what if the Devils did not use a 1-3-1 formation?

Potentially New Ideas: 2-1-2 and Rotation

Part of the reason why the 1-3-1 took off is because Washington has been so successful with it and it frees up the need to have the traditional three-forward, two-defensemen on the ice. The latter part is freeing for many teams. With a 1-3-1, you really only need to use one defenseman. The other four players can be forwards and in forward positions. In umbrella or plain positional formations, having a fourth forward means relegating them to a point. Why settle for two players firing away from 50 to 60 feet away when you can stretch out a penalty kill and have players fire shots from a more favorable distance? Why try to have three to five defensemen available for power plays? Of course, with the proliferation of the 1-3-1 throughout the league, penalty killers are ready for it and have been more willing to attack it. Just as the Devils use the popular 1-3-1 on their power plays, they also use a wedge-plus-one for their penalty kill, something else many teams have picked up. So why not get away from it and do something else?

With Subban in the fold, the defense has four players who have the offensive talents and the mobility needed to play on a power play: Subban, Butcher, Severson, and Vatanen. Should Ty Smith make the roster in the Fall, he may turn out to be someone who can fit on a power play. Unlike most teams, the Devils have defensemen to use. Similarly, as good as Simmonds is on the power play, he is at his best around the net and not in front of it. The Devils do not really have any players who are good at setting screens anyway, so why stick to that? And why keep creative players like Hall, Hischier, Zacha, and (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt) Hughes to set positions? The Devils can afford to be more creative; they have the personnel to do so.

My idea is inspired by the Power Play chapter in Ryan Stimson’s (you may remember him, he used to be here) Tape to Space: Redefining Modern Hockey Tactics. He is big on the idea of teams rotating players to make life more difficult for penalty killers and to give players more opportunities for looks at goal or passing lanes to keep plays alive. From it, he has suggested designs on how a 1-3-1 can turn into a 2-1-2. It is this style that I think the Devils coaching staff may want to at least consider given who is on the roster.

The 2-1-2 formation still has a “bumper” in the middle, but the bottom two would be two players down low by the goal line and near the net. The back two would have each point with freedom as needed to move up. This kind of formation would allow the Devils to use all their blueliners that are capable for offensive situations. It would also benefit Subban and Severson greatly as both have demonstrated that they can distribute and pass the puck well. Plus, with two players closer to the blueline, that could help cut back on the Devils’ power play giving up opportunities. The two players down low can still work with the players up high and flash out wide as needed. Hall can still help direct the play but he would not be tied to the halfwall and he would be closer to the goal to start. This also would fit into the skillset that Simmonds already has. The “bumper” player does not necessarily need to be on an island, it could allow for someone like Hischier to have more space. He is comfortable in traffic as it is and if the penalty kill formation spreads out to account for the formation, then he could involved more as an option. Someone like Zajac or Zacha can also benefit similarly. There are multiple ways this can be used and it can force the opposition to do more than just have three players sit around the slot in a wedge.

One issue I have with the formation is that it opens up the wings. In effect, if the PK gets a stop, then they have space to work out of to create a clearance. However, it may be preferable to have it there than to challenge one man at the blueline on an odd man rush or a counter-attacking going away. The separation between the top two and bottom two may make it more challenging to send passes as the penalty killers can just wait for interceptions. But a team can get around that by having more motion from the players. They may be set up from opposite ends of the zone, but they can move in or out as the play requires it. The Devils could mitigate this and, again, they have the players to do it as Hall, Subban, Butcher, Severson, Hischier, Simmonds and (to a lesser extent) Bratt have been very good on the puck in terms of handling it and making reads.

They can also mitigate it by not just sticking to the 2-1-2 or any formation. I think given the personnel, the Devils should really take further pages from Stimson’s book and incorporate a power play based on rotating players. This is not to say they are free to roam wherever, but players can move when others do to create a different formation. What this means is that they can start in a 1-3-1 but shift as needed. If the penalty killers are set in a wedge plus one, they can move to a 2-1-2 or a traditional “umbrella” to take advantage of the space they are allowing. If it is clear that the opposition is targeting a certain player to deny the supply of passes (e.g. Hall), then Hall being able to get away from a set area gives him more of a chance to get away from the pressure and get the job done while making it harder on the defense. If a player is having a tough game, instead of subbing them out, they can just be shifted to a different spot. If a goalie is having a great game going post-to-post and denying shots to his right, then Palmieri could be rotated from an off-wing position to his actual wing and he may find success on the left side. The overall benefit is that it can make the Devils’ power play much harder to defend against while creating the possibility for more offense. In 5-on-5 play, you see something like this regularly - it could very well help in 5-on-4 or 5-on-3 play. Better that instead of having five guys stand in set positions.

And the Devils have the players to do this. All of the players I have mentioned except for maybe Simmonds are pretty mobile players. And if Simmonds is fully recovered, he can easily keep up as he did with Philly in past seasons. Given how great Hall, Hischier, Bratt, and potentially Hughes are in motion on and off the puck, this thinking takes more advantage of their skillsets. Subban, Severson, Butcher, and Vatanen are able to jump up on plays and contribute something valuable; they can fit in on this. I really think this is possible.

Rotating players around makes the power play much more complex. It will be more complex to pick up as the coaches will need to make it clear who is supposed to go where. They will need to identify who can go to different spots and still be able to contribute with what they do well. I expect it will take more time for players to get it; and I think this is something the Devils will either need to commit to all the way or otherwise. But once they have this understanding, the Devils can show different looks and create more opportunities. Rather than having five guys set in a 1-3-1 when they do get set up and hope the players make the plays work, movement around the zone off the puck can be the key for getting the Devils power play out of the doldrums they sometimes find themselves in.

Final Thoughts & Your Take

I want to discuss these ideas because I really do think the Devils have the opportunity to improve their power play. I do think they can do more than just put Subban, Simmonds, and Hughes on the ice and they can just “make it work.” There is a lot of preparation that goes into special teams. In order to improve upon last season’s lackluster power play and maximize what these three players can do with the other Devils, they should be open to additional ideas and concepts to make it happen. They can stick to what they have been doing and incorporate personnel slightly differently and still find success. But I think the coaches should at least be open to other formations like a 2-1-2 or incorporate something a more complex like player rotation to add another layer to their man advantages.

Will it solve all of their issues from last season? No. There are plenty of areas that will also need improvement, but that does not mean this should be ignored. All of the issues need to be addressed in some way to make the playoffs a reality again. An improved power play will make a difference in getting a few more wins, keeping the opposition honest for their fouls, and getting more production out of players that should be producing offense. It can help them be more competitive - which should be the driving goal as the 2019-20 season approaches. With the additions of Hughes, Subban, and Simmonds, I do think the Devils have enough pieces to put a very good power play (in theory) together. Will the coaching staff solve the puzzle in 2019-20? We shall see.

These are my thoughts on what the Devils should do with their power play now that they have Hughes, Simmonds, and Subban. What would you do with them? Who and where do you think the Devils should set up their players? Would you keep the same 1-3-1 set-up or would you change it? If you would change it, what would you change the power play to? Will the Devils have a better power play in 2019-20 than they did in 2018-19, injuries from last season aside? Please let me know your answers and what you think about the Devils power play in the comments. Thank you for reading.