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Special Teams GF vs xGF : Devils enjoyed strong PK numbers, but no luck on the PP

Today, I take a small dive into special teams from last year. The Devils were excellent on the PK but quite poor on the PP, and their actual GF numbers as compared to their xGF numbers only exacerbate this.

St Louis Blues v New Jersey Devils Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

When All About the Jersey begins its season preview for your New Jersey Devils in a month or so, my job will be to analyze the team’s Special Teams. Having been doing these for half a decade now, this is still the first time I will be delving into this area of the Devils, and I am excited to check it out. Therefore, today I decided to base my post around this notion.

As you have certainly read and just know by being a fan, last season, the Devils were pretty poor on the power play, but were exceptional on the penalty kill. Their power play percentage, 17.7%, ranked 21st in the league, but their penalty kill percentage, 84.3%, was fourth, and less than one percent from being tops in the league. This trend is not entirely uncommon in terms of Devils history. For example, when they won the Cup back in 2003, they were dead last in power play percentage at 11.9%, but were first in penalty kill percentage at 87.9%. When they made the Cup Finals again in 2012, they were only 14th on the power play at 17.2%, but were again tops on the PK at 89.6%. Having a top notch penalty kill has been an indicator of many Devils teams over the past couple of decades, while their power play has fluctuated all over the place, even reaching 1st in the league in 2001.

When looking to this upcoming season, however, obviously the starting point to focus on is what happened last season, as many returning players will once again form the PP and PK units. What I noticed when doing an initial dive into the stats from last season is that these players’ GF%, both on the power play and penalty kill, showed a variance from their xGF% that formed somewhat of a trend away from the mean in both directions. Check out what I mean in these charts here, with numbers courtesy of Natural Stat Trick. First we have the power play, where again actual results were not spectacular, but xGF% for most of the skaters who played at least 75 PP minutes were higher than their actual GF%.

So as you can see, those with the most power play minutes, by a long shot, all had negative differentials when it came to actual goals for versus expected goals for. Kyle Palmieri, who played thirty more PP minutes than the next forward, had over an 11% differential between goals for and what would’ve been expected with him out there. 73% actual vs. 84% expected is a noticeable difference considering he was out there for 243 minutes. Boyle and Johansson, both no longer with the team but who had solid minutes with the team before leaving, were also in double digit negatives.

The first player with a positive differential, Sami Vatanen, was 8th on the team in power play ice time. He was very much positive, but with only 113 PP minutes, does not do enough to make up for all of the negative differentials from those who had over 200 power play minutes. Overall, while the Devils were bad on the PP, their expected goals for from the top PP players indicates that they could have been slightly better. Not good, but perhaps not as bad. Maybe a few extra goals for, and/or one or two less shorthanded goals against.

Of course, when we look at the PK now, you will see the reverse of this trend, where a good penalty kill was further buffeted by better percentages than the expected numbers would say. Again, this is from Natural Stat Trick, and shows all players with 75+ PK minutes.

Again, this team’s PK from last year was very, very good. However, you can see that it gained some extra benefit from having GF percentages better than their expected averages. Andy Greene, who was on the PK seemingly all the time, almost 120 more minutes than the next player, was +4.69% as compared to his xGF%. That percentage was similar going all the way down to, once again, Sami Vatanen, who bucks the trend with a sharply negative differential. He was lucky on the PP and unlucky on the PK, while those above him in minutes played on both special teams seem to be the other way around.

What does it mean for both squads this upcoming season? If anything, it might mean a slight move toward the middle of the pack. That would work in the benefit of the power play and to the detriment of the penalty kill. These wouldn’t be serious moves, but perhaps a couple more goals scored on the PP and a couple more given up on the PK, etc. That might not happen at all, the trend of performing better than expected on the kill and worse than expected with the man advantage could continue. Considering how inept and lost the team looked at times with an extra skater last year does not give me too much confidence. However, a healthy Taylor Hall and the addition of Wayne Simmonds to work the paint could pay off there.

It will be interesting to check these trends after a good sample size of games this upcoming season and see what is happening. For now, however, this is a nice little dip into the special teams from the Devils last year and how they performed relative to what analytics would’ve expected of them, at least in terms of goals for. What do you think about these numbers? Do you think the Devils can continue to perform better than expected on the PK this upcoming season? Do you think the PP is in a situation to improve, or are you still skeptical given what you saw for stretches of the season last year? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.