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New Jersey Devils 2021 Season Preview Part 4: The Power Play

The 2021 New Jersey Devils are expected to be a work in progress and the power play is no different. This post previewing the power play ahead of the 2021 season goes over what went right in 2019-20, what did not, and what to expect about the players coming into the team.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils
Kyle Palmieri: Power player and The Pride of the Montvale, New Jersey.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A typically “good” power play for a team means they are converting about or better than just 1 out of 5 power plays on average. This means most power plays do not end with goals. However, a functional power play can still keep a team’s offense going even when they are not scoring and effectively apply more pressure on an opponent and force them to use (and tire out) certain players more than others. It can even make opponents think twice about making certain moves that risk penalties unless they want to risk being punished on the scoreboard. When they do score, it can help make a difference in a close game or extend a lead to make games less close. A team cannot live and die on its power play alone. But a successful one compared to their peers in the league can absolutely help.

Will the New Jersey Devils have such a power play? What would an improved power play look like for this team? With a new coaching staff and some gaps to fill in from last year’s units, it remains to be seen. But as with a lot of the aspects of the New Jersey Devils for this 2021 season, any improvement will be welcomed. In order to know what that may be, we need to review the power play from the 2019-20 season.

The 2019-20 Devils Power Play Team Stats

The 2019-20 Devils power play typically ran a 1-3-1 formation. Often, it had a defenseman at the blueline (the first 1), three players spread out from the dots across the slot, and one player in front of the goaltender (the latter 1). Think of a plus sign and that is how it looked. The man in the slot was meant to draw attention from the penalty kill or quickly react to plays as needed. The man in front was meant to get in the goalie’s way and support up close. Much of the work was carried out by the defenseman at the blueline and one of the players set up in the circles to the half-wall. If the play went to the right, then the player in the left circle would try to set up around the dot for a one-timer or just a shot. And vice versa for the left. This is a fairly common formation and approach on power plays in the NHL and the Devils have run it for years now.

Believe it or not, the New Jersey Devils did not have a bad set of power play results last season. It felt that way a lot of the times in games because A) the Devils had a lot of power plays that they did not score on and B) the team tended to be “feast or famine” on their man advantages. If the Devils were able to establish possession early and get some good looks on net early on, then it could be quite good. If the Devils lost possession early on and the opposition penalty kill denied them on a zone entry, then the team often struggled to get set-up for the better part of a two-minute man advantage. I may be exaggurating that, but that is my memory of the Devils’ power plays from the 2019-20 season. The stats - which you should trust a lot more than my memory - show a team that was not in the bottom ten in the league on the power play but has a lot of room for improvement.

Devils team power play stats in 2019-20. Green means top 10 in NHL, red means bottom 10 in NHL
Devils team power play stats in 2019-20. Green means top 10 in NHL, red means bottom 10 in NHL
First five stats are from; last seven are from Natural Stat Trick

The Devils were really good at drawing calls last season and getting power plays. Only two teams had more man advantages in both the number of power plays taken and the number of power plays per game. They were also good at generating shots, which is kind of a double-edged sword on power plays. While generating shots is a good thing on a power play, it can also be a result of not scoring on them. After all, a power play goal ends a power play. A high shooting rate is not always going to be associated with a highly successful power play. Given that the Devils were below the league median in the rate of shot attempts, scoring chances, and goals scored, their higher number of shots (and expected goals rate) does not really suggest that the team’s process was at least doing well at creating opportunities to score. They just did not score as much as they could have.

That last statement is well supported by the team’s shooting percentage. The Devils had the league’s ninth lowest shooting percentage on power plays last season. Combined with how many power plays they did have and their expected goals rate, it would be fair to think the Devils should have converted more man advantages than they did. In other words, the Devils failed to make the most of their opportunities. Which is a deflating feeling for a fan to witness, especially in a close game where a PPG can really make a difference.

Adding to the feeling of deflation was how much the Devils gave up on their power plays. The Devils allowed ten shorthanded goals, a figure only bested by two teams last season. Over a 70 game season, giving up ten goals does not seem like a lot. But allowing a shorthanded goal - particularly a non-empty net goal - is often a failure of the power play. A shot block or a give away or a missed pass that springs the penalty kill into rushing forward is at least partially on the power players themselves. And just as a PPG can help open up a closed game, a SHGA can do the same kind of damage.

Again, the Devils did not have a bad power play. They finished just outside of the bottom ten in the league in overall success rate, shot attempts rate (CF/60), scoring chance rate (SCF/60), and goals rate (GF/60). Even the shooting percentage is not among the very worst in the NHL. And there were some legitimate positives in terms of getting power plays and the shots they were taking could have yielded a few more goals as suggested by the expected goal model (xGF/60). Yet, this is not a good or even an average power play performance either. There is room for growth.

The 2019-20 Devils Power Play Player Stats - Production

There is also some room for new players to appear. With the Taylor Hall being traded in December 2019 and later deals that saw Wayne Simmonds, Blake Coleman, and Sami Vatanen (who was injured prior to it), there were plenty of Devils who got power play ice time last season. Let us look at the production and on-ice rates of the Devils who played at least a somewhat regular role at times on the power play last season.

First, here is the list of all of the Devils who had at least one power play point last season and Miles Wood.

2019-20 Devils power play scoring stats
2019-20 Devils power play scoring stats
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Yes, Miles Wood played nearly 54 minutes on the power play last season and somehow did not get even a single point. Even Mirco Mueller, who cameoed for a grand total of about six minutes, picked up an assist.

Starting from the top, the Pride of Montvale, New Jersey was the main man on the Devils’ power play last season. Kyle Palmieri played the most minutes, took the most shooting attempts and shots, had the most scoring chances, and scored the most goals. One of the few common plays the Devils have run on the power play would be to set up Palmieri at the left circle with a cross-slot pass for a one-timer. Hall often did this and when it connected, it worked wonderfully. The problem is that Hall was dealt and making a cross-slot pass is very difficult. Between one of your own players in the slot due to the formation and penalty kill formations designed to be around the slot, getting one across required flinging passes through tight windows of space. But it was one of the few plays the Devils did run and it yielded some success. It made Palmieri a productive power player last season.

What is a bit more concerning are some of the results below Palmieri. Wayne Simmonds was brought in part to help out on the power play. The Devils opted to not have him play as a pivot next to the crease like he has done throughout his career, for some reason. He could have had more than he did. There was never a set spot for Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes, which limited their contributions as well. While Nikita Gusev did well to put up 15 power play points, it is notable that he took almost as many shots as Palmieri did - and scored about half of his goals as well. And seeing Will Butcher with one assist to show for 72 minutes of work is shocking given how he put up 20 assists in his rookie season. Only Miles Wood managed to disappoint more from a production standpoint. A standpoint that saw a decline as the trade of Hall and the later trade of Simmonds and Vatanen did send away a chunk of the Devils’ power play points.

Also concerning from last season was the production of defensemen Sami Vatanen and P.K. Subban. They both took a lot of attempts despite their ice time and they had three goals between them. That they took so many attempts meant that when they had their time on the power play, they took the initiative to shoot. Remember that the defenseman in a 1-3-1 is shooting from the point. Due to their distance and how hard it is to get them through to the net (Only 30 of Subban’s 56 attempts were on net; 30 out 60 for Vatanen) and those shots are typically low percentage ones, those are not really ideal ones to take in 5-on-5 much less in a man advantage situation. I understand they both have booming slapshots but what good is a booming slapshot if it is not on target? Damon Severson is a kind of an exception to this because he was often placed where Palmieri would be on power plays. Which in of itself is odd. If the plan was to set him up like Palmieri (and it was), then why not put Vatanen or Subban there given their stronger shots? Who knows.

The 2019-20 Devils Power Play Player Stats - Drawn Calls

The Devils’ power play production was carried by Kyle Palmieri and had nothing to contribute from Miles Wood. But Wood can claim that he did contribute by giving the Devils plenty of power plays. He led the team in drawn penalties in 2019-20.

Penalties taken and drawn in all situations by the 2019-20 Devils
Penalties taken and drawn in all situations by the 2019-20 Devils
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Remember that the Devils had the third most power play situations last season with 234. Wood contributed 30 of those, which is a large amount. Per Natural Stat Trick, only eight players drew more calls than Wood in the entire NHL. That is actually a valuable contribution in that sense. Also valuable in this sense are Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Both did not take many penalties and drew plenty of fouls. Those three players alone accounted for 29% of all of the Devils’ man advantages last season.

As impressive as those three were in this respect, getting to 234 man advantages really was a team effort. Nine other players drew at least 10 penalties and pre-trade Hall and Jesper Bratt each came close with nine. It was not always positive for some players. Blake Coleman, Wayne Simmonds, John Hayden, and especially P.K. Subban took many more calls than they drew. But they at least drew the ire or the contact or the mistake of their opponent to get the Devils up a man. And that helps. With a number of those players (Hall, Coleman, Simmonds, Kevin Rooney, and Hayden) no longer with the Devils, it remains to be seen whether the incoming Devils will replace this aspect of the power play.

The 2019-20 Devils Power Play Player Stats - On-Ice Rates

As stated at the beginning of this post, a good power play is not going to score most of the time. However, there is value in a team’s power play generating offense to at least apply pressure on the opposition, create opportunities, and force the other team to use certain players more than other. To that end, the player’s on-ice rates in power play situations can show how the Devils’ power play performed when they were there.

Since special teams are more limited in terms of minutes, I focused on all of the Devils who played at least 25 minutes on the power play last season and pulled their stats. I also added some colors to provide some context based on Natural Stat Trick’s rankings. 395 players in the NHL played at least 25 power play minutes last season. Any rate in the top 100 is colored in green and any rate from 300 to 395 is colored in red. That provides some more context in terms of what should be seen as good or bad.

The 2019-20 Devils power play on-ice rate stats
The 2019-20 Devils power play on-ice rate stats
Ice time from; on-ice rate data from Natural Stat Trick

Surprising to me, the Devils had some players who at least witnessed a legitimately good power play. Kyle Palmieri showing all high rates is excellent and somewhat expected. I would hope the team’s leading power play scorer would at least be present for a Devils power play playing well. The bigger surprise is Sami Vatanen. He eventually took over the defenseman spot originally commanded by Subban on the first unit. Despite my misgivings about his shooting (both do it too much), I cannot say he was making the power play worse. If anything, he probably helped it a lot more than he may get credit for. I was also surprised to see Nico Hischier and Blake Coleman rate as well as they did in terms of on-ice rates. Hischier because I still do not know where he should fit in a 1-3-1 formation. Sticking him in front of the net or in the “bumper” in the middle of the formation is a waste of his talents as he is at his best with the puck on his stick. Does this mean he should be the set-up man for Palmieri? Maybe? Coleman having positive rates in his more limited usage was a pleasant one and shows that, yes, the Pickle Maverick really was a good thing. Lastly, Damon Severson actually rated fairly well despite lining up as a forward for a good chunk of those 137 or so minutes of power play time.

However, this chart also shows some of the flaws that led to the team having those less-than-impressive team stats. Subban only ranked in the bottom 95 for goals for per 60 minutes, but he was not far from that grouping in the other stats. His demotion from the power play was definitely with cause. Simmonds, who was brought in part to give the Devils power play strength down low, was anything but a strength on the ice given these rates. But those two were better than plenty of other Devils that either made the Devils power play less effective or at least (at best?) witnessed one. The offensive rates of shot attempts and scoring chances dropped off a cliff when Jesper Bratt or Miles Wood were involved. Pavel Zacha’s skill set may work for a power play in theory, but the power play over performed (read: his GF/60 was much higher than his xGF/60) despite a unit that struggled to generate dangerous shots when he was present. The on-ice rates cratered across the board for Jesper Boqvist’s limited time on the power play. The worst of the bunch was Butcher. It is astonishing that he was the sole defenseman on the first power play unit three seasons ago as a rookie. I do not think he forgot how to pass, but the Devils’ offense was far less effective when he was present. Hence, his time was cut short as well. Whether it was due to being on a rotating group on the second unit or poor performances or both, it was just bad.

Essentially, this yields the inconsistent power play that the Devils had last season. For all of the offense that happened with Palmieri, Vatanen, Hischier, and Hall; the team’s offense took hits when others were involved. And after Hall was traded, that meant someone else had to get a chance and they were likely worse for it. Someone is hurt? Then someone worse has to be on a power play unit. After Simmonds, Vatanen, and Coleman were moved, the depth really strained.

The big X-factor in all of this is Rick Kowalsky. He was the assistant coach that was in charge of the team’s power play. I do have to apologize to Geoff Ward as Kowalsky’s power plays were as frustrating to watch as Ward’s was at several times. I will also point out that the stats show that Kowalsky’s tactics did yield were not as bad as it seemed. And it is not like he dealt Hall or made the other trades or wanted the Devils to fall flat on their face as a team and have nothing to play for by December 31, 2019. However, he was not retained after Lindy Ruff was brought aboard to be the team’s head coach. Even Devils ownership mentioned that Alain Nasreddine’s penalty kill was important to bring back. Nothing of the sort was mentioned for Kowalsky’s power plays. That says it all. Management wanted a change and they will presumably get one. Coaching matters to special teams, so it will be a bit of an eye-opener as to whether the X’s and O’s were more at fault for some of the poorer performances than the Jesper’s and the Will’s. If so, then we could see Subban, Gusev, and others accomplish much more than they did last season.

Power Play Stats & Thoughts of Incoming Devils for the 2021 Season

The New Jersey Devils acquired three skaters that will play in New Jersey provided that they are healthy. Technically, they acquired four but the fourth was Sami Vatanen earlier this week. Since he was a Devil last season, he is not new to the franchise. The other three are: forward Andreas Johnsson, defenseman Ryan Murray, and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov. How did each do on their team’s respective power plays last season? Here are their scoring stats and on-ice rates (colors are the same as above; green for a top 100 rate, red for a bottom 95 rate):

2019-20 power play scoring stats of incoming Devils
2019-20 power play scoring stats of incoming Devils
Data from Natural Stat Trick
2019-20 power play on-ice rate stats for incoming Devils
2019-20 power play on-ice rate stats for incoming Devils
Ice time from; on-ice rate data from Natural Stat Trick

Clearly, there is only one real option for the power play out of the new-to-the-franchise Devils and that is Andreas Johnsson. Ryan Murray did see limited action when he was able to play for Columbus. To the surprise of no one, the non-offensive defenseman did not make Columbus’ power play better when he was active. Dmitry Kulikov received rare appearances at best and he proved the Jets right for that. Neither Murray or Kulikov should be regulars on a power play unit.

Johnsson’s production was a modest four power play goals with 14 shots on net. His on-ice rates were great. Since he averaged about two minutes of power play time per game, it was not like he was benefited (or victimized) by a small amount of ice time. However, Johnsson’s great on-ice rates should come with this knowledge as well. Johnsson’s most common teammates on the power play in Toronto last season were Auston Matthews, Morgan Reilly, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander per Natural Stat Trick. It would be really hard to not have great on-ice rates with offensive players of that caliber. I do not think Johnsson drove the power play in Toronto last season. That being stated, he is a far better option on paper to try out first ahead of a number of returning Devil forwards who had terrible power play numbers (e.g. Wood, Zacha, Boqvist).

A Guess at the Power Play for the 2021 Devils

I understand this is a post meant to preview the power play for the season. However, the power play has not really been publicly emphasized in training camp so far. They have practiced it. But definitely not with the full team given that Nico Hischier remains out injured and Vatanen is not with the team yet after being signed. (Jesper Bratt remains unsigned, but given his power play stats last season, I am not confident he should be a on a power play unit now.) From what I could find so far (a set of tweets from Amanda Stein on January 4), they did practice once with this:

First unit: Zacha-Hughes-Palmieri-Gusev, Subban

Second unit: Merkley-Boqvist-Wood, Butcher-Severson.

The first unit suggests a 1-3-1 formation. As the Devils have multiple defensemen who could fit on a power play in theory, I am not surprised there is unit with two defensemen. I also would not be surprised if one of the two was playing like a forward in their session to make that a 1-3-1 formation as well. I doubt the Devils would have one unit play one way and the second unit play a different style. I also doubt if these are actual units in mind. However, that was on January 4. Much could have changed. Their scrimmages have the team split up, so I do not believe these units could even get some action together. As far as I can recall, they were not doing power plays in the scrimmages until the recent one on Friday. And Zacha and Wood were inactive on Friday too, so they could not even do these even if they could.

That all said, I could see the team start with a unit of Hischier, Hughes, Palmieri, Gusev, and Subban. It would at least put all of the team’s top offensive players together. The first unit typically sees the most ice time on a power play, so stacking that unit with talent makes sense. I struggle to think what the plays would be since Palmieri needs to be fed to shoot and score; Hughes, Hischier, and Gusev are better on the puck than off of it; and Subban loves to take shots and do that easily-recognized fake shot before passing it.

The second unit could be a group of left-overs who may have something. Andreas Johnsson could be in this group and I would totally prefer trying him out than Wood or Boqvist. Per Stein’s tweets, he was practicing on a penalty kill - which I have doubts about happening that I will go over in tomorrow’s part of the season preview. Yegor Sharangovich has had a hot stick through camp; I could see him being on a power play unit. Should Nick Merkley start in NJ, I am not sure he can be a strong down-low presence given his size. Maybe he plays bigger than his 5’10” frame? The defensemen is going to be an issue since Vatanen was signed, I would think he should get a shot but I can understand the Devils wanting to see if Butcher can bounce back on the power play before taking him off of it again. The second unit will not look pretty on paper and perhaps not on the ice. But that is the state of the team’s depth if they go this way.

Unfortunately, this season is going to be extra challenging for special teams. The compressed schedule means that there will be even fewer practices to work on this (and everything else). Without a preseason, teams will be coming in cold and there could be a large number of minor injuries which could challenge the depth of a power play. That would be bad for the Devils - who are currently without Hischier and Vatanen has not yet arrived. And I still could not tell you what Recchi is or is not doing differently than Kowalsky so far. Ultimately, with the young Devils roster, the coaches are just going to have to experiment on the fly. So with all that said, here is my guesses for the power play units for 2021:

  • Both units will run a 1-3-1. They will probably use two defensemen on the second unit, lining one up in a forward position. This means seven forwards and three defensemen.
  • Four of the forwards will definitely include Kyle Palmieri, Jack Hughes, Nikita Gusev, and Nico Hischier. They should definitely be involved.
  • The other three will be a toss up of Johnsson, Boqvist, Sharangovich, Merkley, Wood, Zajac, Zacha, Bastian, and Wood. This will be dependent on who actually makes the team. Johnsson should get a shot. I could live with Zajac as the center as he could handle the “bumper” role as he did in the past. I could also live with Boqvist if he legitimately showed improvement in camp; Zacha, Sharangovich, or Bastian other wise. I do not want to see Wood on a power play at all (or Bratt whenever he is signed); he should focus on drawing them. I am prepared to be the most wrong on this part of the guess.
  • Two of three defensemen to start will include Subban and Severson. Severson iss worth it based on last season. Subban, less so, but to get the most out of what he can provide offensively, he needs to be on a power play unit.
  • The third defenseman to start will likely be Butcher. Vatanen should be involved over Butcher based on last season. But as Vatanen is not in camp yet and Butcher has been, so he will likely get an opportunity first. But if he (or the other two defenders) falter, Vatanen comes right in and the defensemen gets re-organized like it did in 2019-20. If the pressure is on anyone, it is Butcher.
  • The unit with Palmieri will still try to focus on feeding him one-timers. It may be a known play, but it is a play that has yielded results. I expect Palmieri to continue to be a leader in production and on-ice rates on the power play in 2021.
  • I also expect a lot of changes to the units during the season for the reasons mentioned above plus performance-based reasons. With fewer chances to practice, the experiments will just have to be tried out in games.
  • Less of a guess and more of a hope: A 5-on-3 formation without sticking two Devils on the goal line where they cannot shoot the puck on net. All that did was turn a lot of 5-on-3s into 3-on-3s in front of the net. I hope Recchi does not employ the ‘M.’

Let us go back to the initial questions in this post: Will the New Jersey Devils have a good power play? What would an improved power play look like for this team? I cannot answer the first one now. In theory, they have a lot of pieces to put one together. I cannot tell you whether Recchi and the other coaches are doing so that I think it will work. I cannot tell you whether the players will make it more offensive either. I can tell you that it is possible. But I also thought it was going to be a possible strength last season and it kind of was not.

I can answer the second question. Improvement for the power play would be a Devils team that ranks closer to the league median in success rate and other offensive stats. Improvement for the power play would be a Devils team that does not concede 10 shorthanded goals - something Recchi and others need to consider before coming up with something offensively aggressive. Improvement for the power play would be through finishing more shots, which may come from just having the defensemen distribute more and shoot less. Improvement for the power play could come from figuring out where Hischier and Hughes belong on a power play; they have the skills, but what should their roles be? Improvement for the power play would come from other players who did not perform well on the New Jersey power play last season or at all, and showing that they are capable. Finding out how much Johnsson can help would be a plus. Finding out whether Merkley, Sharangovich, or Bastian among others can help would be a plus. Finding out whether Boqvist, Zacha, or (maybe) Bratt has improved enough to be a power play asset would also be a plus. Finding anybody other than Palmieri, Gusev, Hischier, and Hughes to be someone that the coaches can confidently put on a power play would be an improvement and possibly a long-term one. That is what improvement could look like for this coming season. Again, this does not necessarily mean they will be good. Getting to league median is a step up, after all.

My view of the Devils is that they are still a work in progress ahead of the 2021 season. This absolutely includes the power play. Presuming the Devils’ discipline from last season carries over, they may have a lot of chances in games to work on it.

Your Take

Now that you read through a lot about what the power play did last season, who is coming in and what they did on the power play, and what are possible options and guesses for the power play for this coming season, I want to know what you think. Who would you want to see on the power play? What impact do you think Mark Recchi will have on the power play? Will the 2021 Devils have a better power play than the 2019-20 power play? Please let me know your answers and other power play-related thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.

Tomorrow, the season preview series continues with the other special team: penalty killing.