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Can the Devils Improve Their Powerplay with Less Talent?

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The Devils PP was supposed to be amazing and it wasn’t. It improved as the year went on though. Should we be optimistic?

New Jersey Devils v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images

The Devils scored 6.32 goals per hour on the powerplay last season which was good for 21st in the NHL. That might not look like a red flag because the team was so bad all season, but we were supposed to be pretty great in that situation this season. In fact, some idiots were talking about how the Devils PP1 unit was slated to be one of the best in the NHL this year...

Now, I was coming at this from an analytical angle, sure. But I feel like I was justified in my optimism here. This PP was queued up to have Taylor Hall QBing a unit that had Ovechkin-lite (Palmieri) in the opposite wing, one of the best-shooting defenders in the NHL (Subban) at the point, a net-mouth finisher of some repute (Simmonds), and an efficient Faceoff winner and PP centreman in the “bump” (Zajac). This wasn’t just a blind “these guys have good Corsi” assessment — they all fit in the right places.

So what the bloody hell happened?

First, let’s check out the deployment. It’s really hard to demonstrate via visualization exactly what the decisions were on who to play. But here’s two examples. Below are two graphs depicting the same thing — rolling average of percent of available powerplay time on ice — but separated for visual purposes.

data from NST

And this is the same data, but shown in stacks much like those on Hockeyviz.com

Let’s point out a few obvious things from these two graphs first. Of course, the players that were traded (Hall, Simmonds, Coleman, Vatanen) eventually drop out of the picture. Severson and Zacha saw their roles gradually increase over the course of the season. Subban, Bratt, Hughes, and Zajac were demoted during the early struggles, but returned after the trades. And Will Butcher was given a shot mid-year when the more talented skaters were not performing.

So with all that noise, what actually ended up happening? Did we every start scoring? The answer is actually, yes.

The Devils powerplay, interestingly, started to figure things out right around when they trade many of their most common PP players. It looks like right around game 40 or so was where things started to take off for the PP unit. Let’s look at who had the biggest differentials in ice time usage during that time.

Hilariously, the bottom 3 players on this list were all members of that all-star PP1 unit I was touting pre-season. But to be honest, 30 seconds a game isn’t a huge difference so other than the traded guys, the notable trends were that Wood, Severson, and Zacha had more time and Butcher and Palmieri had less time.

We’re using a small sample here and an unreliable statistic (goals) so it’s not worth putting too much in this, but I do think it’s interesting that some of our best players were not on the ice for the most. For instance, it seems like Zacha and Wood did very well after their promotion. And, in fact, if we look at the impact that each player had on the Powerplay goals and chances, the Devils have only 7 players that were significant positive contributors in both. This is them listed in order of impact in goal scoring (according to RAPM)— Kyle Palmieri, Miles Wood, Jack Hughes, Nikita Gusev, Taylor Hall, Sami Vatanen, Damon Severson. I think the big thing I’d want to take away from this is that, we still have a potentially highly effective powerplay unit (in fact, the most effective one we had last year) still on the team!

And if we look, according to LeftWingLock, our two most common PP units down the stretch of last season included a lot of these players.

The titular concern of the piece is if we can improve out powerplay with less talent. The answer is ... I don’t know.

Sorry, I know it sounds like I’ve been building to a point here, but the fact is that if we look around the league at the best powerplays (Toronto, Tampa, Washington, etc.) they all have supremely talented players. It doesn’t seem likely we’ll have the same ceiling as we did last year and it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll be one of the better teams in the NHL. But, given how we finished last season, is it possible that we could improve on that performance? Yes that seems very possible.

Next question: Is Lindy Ruff the coach to get us there? Assistant coach Mark Recchi is a bit of an unknown — the Penguins were one of the best PPs in the NHL in his first two seasons with the team, but were below average last year which is a tough bean to sell for a team with their talent. Ruff has been a coach for a long time, though. So what does his PP history look like? Err....

*Sings* “Hello darkness, my old friend...”

Summary

The Devils went into last season with one of the best potential PP units in the NHL. Really bad shooting luck from guys like Hall and Subban tanked early performance and contributed to the Devils spiral. When the deadline deals happened, the deployment changed and a few effective players like Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha were revealed. Add them to dynamic PP players like Hughes, Gusev, and Palmieri and we could produce a good pair of units under the right coaching. With Recchi’s limited sample and Ruff’s bad history, it’s not clear that that’s what we’ll be getting.

What are your thoughts? What went wrong in the PP last season and can we fix it? Do you think that there is enough talent on the team to produce consistently dangerous opportunites? Do you think there’s enough finishing talent to make the most of those chances?

Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below.