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New Jersey Devils 2021-22 Season Preview Part 4: The Special Teams

In our continuing preview of the New Jersey Devils’ upcoming season, today I take a look at all of the special teams.

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Welcome to part 4 of All About the Jersey’s season preview of your New Jersey Devils! Today, we are going to dive into one area where the Devils really, really struggled last season: the special teams. Remember when this team was consistently good on the penalty kill, but the power play was hit or miss, usually miss? Yeah, I guess that’s still true with the power play, as it was mostly a miss last season. The penalty kill, however, was even worse, and it created a situation where if New Jersey was not playing at 5 on 5, things were most likely not going their way, regardless of who had the man advantage. They will need to improve on that this year, especially from the goaltending position, if they want to compete in the Metro.

Power Play - What Happened Last Season

The power play for the Devils was not good, to say the least. In fact, when you dig into numbers, it turns out it was as bad as it has been in quite some time. New Jersey ranked 28th in the league in PP% this past season; the last time they ranked that low in the league was all the way back in 2010-11, the year before the team’s last trip to the Cup Finals. That year, they sported a PP% of 14.4. Last year, they managed to lower the bar even further, and ended the year at 14.2%.

For some specifics on that atrocious percentage, digging into a variety of numbers, check out the following chart. Data comes from either NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick.

So, let’s try to start with whatever positives we can find. Despite not scoring much at all, the Devils managed basically league average power play time on ice per game, averaging 4 minutes and 47 seconds per game, good for 16th in the league. They were drawing their fair share of penalties. Also, they had pretty good power play possession, with a PP CF% ranking 11th in the league at 87.65%. This was mostly thanks to a dominant Corsi Against per 60, sitting 4th in the league at 11.27. The Devils were excellent at not allowing many shot attempts against while on the power play, which means they mostly minimized their bad mistakes in coughing up the puck.

Beyond that, however, that chart really showcases an inept power play. Across 60 minutes of power play time, the Devils had an xGF of 5.33, good for only 27th in the NHL. This is partly thanks to an equally poor CF/60 of 80.03, good for 28th. Then, if you want to dive into that further, the Devils were awful at producing high danger attempts and goals. They had the 29th ranked HDCF/60 at 13.04 attempts, and the 29th ranked HDGF% at only 75%. When they did manage to shoot, they also clearly did not get great shots off, as their shooting percentage while on the power play was at 11.34%, ranked 27th. And Devils goaltending, specifically Blackwood, was poor at preventing shorthanded goals against, allowing 5 goals despite the team having such a strong Corsi Against in this setting. The team’s PP save percentage was bad, sitting at 87.8%, 27th in the NHL. This all led to the Devils being one of only 3 teams to have a power play PDO under 1.00.

Now, highlighting team stats on the power play only provides half of the information. Who were the actual players out there on the ice, and what did they produce specifically? Check out the chart below to look at all players who played at least 50 minutes of power play ice time. There were 12 of them in total. Players in italics are no longer on the team, and stats come from the same links as above.

So the only player on that list who is not coming back this season is Kyle Palmieri. Given how poorly the power play went last year, I’m not entirely sure if that is a good thing, but there are positives here. The best player out there for the Devils on the power play was almost undoubtedly Nico, who tied for second most on the team in PP goals, and led the team in PP CF/60, xGF/60, and HDCF/60. And that was despite only playing a little over 60 minutes on the power play thanks to being injured. If he gets in a full season this year, he could drastically improve this team’s power play production just by being out there for longer. The man is a wizard.

Beyond him, I think you have to like that Jack Hughes was given the most minutes on the power play. The coaching staff trusted him to be out there, and it had to be a great learning experience. He also produced solid numbers when compared to the rest of the team, with 7 points, and he was the second best in CF/60, xGF/60 and HDCF/60, behind only Nico. If you expect improvement from him this year, a reasonable assumption, then he could become very good in this setting.

Outside of those two, I think Pavel Zacha deserves highlighting. His 5 goals topped the team, as did his 11 points overall. It wasn’t very close. He was also first in shots, third in CF/60 and second in HDGF/60, doing well to get in the slot and in front of the net. If he can maintain the strong growth he showcased last year, he will contribute again this year.

Beyond those three, it isn’t much to look at. You have to hope that Ty Smith learns from last year and gets better; he could be a quality quarterback of the second PP unit one day assuming Dougie Hamilton takes the first PP. You also might want to see Yegor Sharangovitch out there taking more shots. The Devils did not score much on the power play, and having a shooter like him on the ice for more than 54 minutes could be helpful. I also would love to see more out of Andreas Johnsson, or perhaps even better, I would love to see him not get power play minutes anymore, either one. He was certainly an anchor for this unit last year and his performance dictates others should get more opportunities instead.

Power Play - Preview

I sort of touched on this year a little bit in analyzing last year’s numbers, but this year, you just have to hope for any improvement at all back towards league average. And actually, I think there is a good possibility of that happening. There are a few reasons why the power play unit should be improved over last season. First, simply enough, is regression. It is difficult to be that bad year after year. The Devils were not an average PP unit, and really it would be nice to classify them as a below average unit. They were bad. Next season, just based on pure numbers and regressing towards the mean, you would expect to see some improvement. For example, the year prior, 2019-20, they had the 21st ranked power play, with a 18% PP conversion rate. It would not be unreasonable to expect a return to something around that for this year simply by expecting a regression towards the mean.

However, there are other, more tangible reasons to think improvement is in the works as well. The biggest reason would be an infusion of talent. The Devils lost Palmieri, a good power play scorer, but they have added Dougie Hamilton and Tomas Tatar. Hamilton especially should be a huge boon to the power play. Hamilton is an offensive-minded blueliner who knows how to work a power play from the point and generate opportunities on net. Give him space and the puck on his stick and good things should happen for the Devils when they have the man advantage. Then, you have Tatar, who can hopefully help to fill the role that Palms provided. This team needs someone who is unafraid to shoot often, and Tatar is that kind of character.

Beyond them, and as I alluded to above, this unit should improve by also getting Nico for a full season. He was excellent on the PP last year, and if he plays even close to a full season, his production will boost this unit by a good margin. Then, if you add in improvement from young players, especially Hughes and Smith, and you have to believe that improvement is likely.

All in all, I wouldn’t expect this unit to all of a sudden be top 10 in power play goal production. However, I think it is very reasonable to expect improved production. It would not be crazy to see this unit end closer to middle of the league, and it is definitely reasonable to expect them to end outside of the bottom 10 teams. Of course, however, it isn’t a certainty that they will improve that much. If they remain near the bottom of the league in CF/60 on the power play, then their opportunities will remain limited to score goals, but we have to hope that this improves with better players on the ice. They will need to improve their CF/60 this year, and definitely their goaltending, but I’ll discuss that more in the PK section coming up.

Penalty Kill - What Happened Last Season

Last year, the power play really set a low bar in terms of production, but shockingly enough, the penalty kill was worse. This is not something that is usually the case with the Devils, who generally have a decent penalty kill regardless of how the power play does. But last year, thanks really to some garbage goaltending, the PK sank the Devils night in and night out. Check out the team chart, once again from the same links as above.

Again, I will start with whatever positives we can find. And when you look at that chart, there are almost none. The best news is that the Devils were not shorthanded very much when compared to the league. Their time on ice shorthanded per game averaged at 4:22, which was 4th best. This was thanks to taking an average of only 2.64 penalties per game, 6th best. The Devils were also not too bad when it came to preventing attempts against. Their CA/60 was 15th in the league, basically league average.

Beyond that, there really isn’t anything good to talk about. They let up lots of shots despite being ok in CA/60, they let up a boat load of high danger attempts, they were expected to give up 7.51 goals per 60 PK minutes, a terrible number, and they really weren’t any good at producing shorthanded attempts on net. All of these helped create the poor unit you saw on the ice.

However, none of those really compared to how bad the goaltending was, at least in my opinion. Blackwood specifically was horrible when not at even strength, and it really sunk the team. Blackwood ranked 39 among 42 qualifying goaltenders who played at least 100 PK minutes in save percentage at 0.825, and he had a GSAA/60 of -2.14, good for 38th in the same list. His xGA/60 on the PK was 7.42 goals, truly a bad number when you consider that the top of the list, Alex Nedeljkovic, was at 4.79, almost 3 goals less per 60 PK minutes. There is no way to spin a positive light on how Blackwood played on the PK, and it was the leading cause of the team’s poor PK performance.

However, let’s check out the chart of skaters on the PK, ignoring Blackwood for now. Again, still getting these numbers from the same links as above, NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick. Italicized players are no longer on the team.

Unlike with the power play, there will be a lot of turnover on the PK this upcoming season. Of the 10 players who played at least 50 PK minutes for NJ last season, a whole half of them are no longer on the team. And among those, you had some quality performers. Dmitry Kulikov had a resurgence last season, and his play on the PK was part of that, sporting the 2nd best HDCA/60 and xGA/60 among NJ defensemen, and averaging 2:31 of PK time per game, behind only Sami Vatanen. He didn’t have dominant numbers, but he was fairly solid. Same can be said of Ryan Murray, who had the best xGA/60 among defensemen on the PK.

However, the players who remain could help to lead this unit back to better play next year, especially where the forwards are concerned. Sharangovitch was excellent in CA/60, allowing under 90 attempts per 60 minutes. And McLeod had the 2nd best xGA/60 overall. Keeping them will be beneficial moving forward, especially since they are both also young and could improve.

However, this was a bad unit remember, so overall this isn’t great. Having a few players with a CA/60 over 100 is very poor, and this is especially alarming coming from Pavel Zacha, someone who has made a living early in his career being a defensive forward. Travis Zajac was also not his normal self defensively, with especially bad PK numbers before he was dealt to Long Island. And the top minutes getter on the PK, Damon Severson, posted some real mediocre numbers, with a CA/60 near 100 and a HDGA/60 near 9. Those won’t work on the PK from someone who played over 2 minutes of PK time per game.

Penalty Kill - Preview

This season, I think improvement on the PK mostly comes down to goaltending. However, let’s discuss the skaters first. With such turnover among penalty killing skaters, it will be interesting to see how the new unit performs. Out are Kulikov, Murray, Zajac, Vatanen, and Bastian. They will need to be replaced, or others will need to step up with more minutes. On the forward side, I think that comes down to the duo of McLeod and Zacha. McLeod established himself as a solid defensive forward and PK guy last season, and despite Zacha’s subpar PK numbers last season, we know he can play the PK well as a defensive forward, and with his newfound offensive game, he would be a candidate to swipe some shorthanded goals.

On the defensive side, last season Hamilton played just under 80 minutes on the PK for Carolina. It isn’t his forte like the PP is, but he can definitely see some second unit time on the kill this year and hold his own. You also have names like Jonas Siegenthaler or Ryan Graves, either or both of whom could end up seeing valuable PK minutes if they perform well enough. The Devils will definitely need someone to step up; at this point, the only returners who played 50+ penalty kill minutes are Severson and Subban. Others will need to fill the gaps.

However, while those additions will matter, and how they play affects the PK in a big way, if the goaltending doesn’t improve on the penalty kill this year, it really won’t matter too much. Blackwood specifically needs to get a lot better in this setting. A team cannot have their 1A goaltender ranked 39th among 42 goalies in penalty kill save percentage and expect to have a quality PK%. It just cannot happen. Is some of that on the skaters in front of him preventing quality, high danger opportunities? Absolutely. However, you can’t place all of the blame there, or even most of it. Scott Wedgewood, who we all know is nowhere near a #1 goaltender in the NHL, had a better PK save percentage than Blackwood did. That says all you need to know.

Now, this year, things should improve on the PK goaltending front simply if Jonathan Bernier gets more starts. In just over 100 minutes on the kill last year, Bernier had a 0.868 save percentage, which was 43 points better than Blackwood. Across an entire season, that will add up to less goals against, improving this team’s PK% by a good margin. Now, 0.868 isn’t some amazing save percentage by any means, but it is way more competent than 0.825. Bernier ranked 18th on that list of 42 goaltenders in PK sv%, as opposed to Blackwood’s 39th. The difference is pretty stark.

So overall, you have to like this unit to improve at least somewhat, simply by the addition of Bernier and hopefully seeing some improvement from Blackwood. He set a really low bar for himself, so that could definitely happen. But with such turnover among skaters, this is a unit in flux, and it will be interesting to see how much they can improve on last season’s atrocious PK unit.

Overtime and Shootout

Now, mostly we think of special teams as just the power play and the penalty kill, and indeed that is the large majority of it in terms of time on ice. However, with the 3 on 3 overtime and the shootout, these are not normal circumstances, and thus fall under special teams. However, there isn’t as much of a reason to analyze performance from last year and use it to predict this year, simply because in these circumstances, random chance and luck play a much larger factor. With the overtime being sudden death, the goals that are scored can go either way most times, and a flip of the coin usually determines who gets the fast break that leads to the goal.

The shootout is the same way, and articles have been written about how it is really just a game of pure random chance every time we see a shootout. Remember the Devils being terrible in the shootout all those years ago and missing the playoffs because of it? Mostly just really, really bad luck. Whenever you see a shootout, feel free to enjoy it and do your thing, but across a full season, if the Devils go luck neutral here and end up around .500, you can’t really complain.

Conclusion

So ends our special teams preview for the 2021-22 season! The Devils really struggled last season on special teams, both with the power play and penalty kill. The fact that the power play was ranked 28th, yet was better than the penalty kill, says it all. This is an area that absolutely must improve if the Devils are to improve overall as a team. Too many games were lost last season simply when playing outside of even strength, and that is unacceptable.

The good news, however, is that the bar was set so low that improvement is almost impossible to avoid. Any improvement from Blackwood on the penalty kill will see immediate improvement on that front, and with new offensive talent infused into this roster, the power play has a great shot of getting better as well. If, at the end of this upcoming season, the Devils are nearing league average on both the PP and PK, that will be a major improvement on the special teams front that will lead to many more points in the standings from last year.

When looking at individual players, the most important player to hone in on is undoubtedly Mackenzie Blackwood. He has been a really good goalie at 5 on 5 play, but has been very poor on special teams. If he can improve, especially on the PK, it will go a long way. In terms of skaters, I am very excited to see how Dougie Hamilton fits into this PP unit and what he can do to produce points there. I also really want to see what Nico Hischier can do now across an entire season on the power play. And if someone like Alexander Holtz or Dawson Mercer manages to crack this lineup, that will be really exciting to see.

Your Take

What do you think about the New Jersey Devils’ special teams this upcoming season? Given how bad they were last year, what do you think about potential improvement? Who do you think needs to improve the most? Who are you most excited to watch this season on the power play or penalty kill? What would you consider as successful this year for the special teams? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading!