On Wednesday night, the New Jersey Devils beat the Washington Capitals in their first preseason game of the season. The two teams agreed to hold a shootout after the game for practice purposes. The Devils won that when Alexander Holtz scored in the fourth round of shooting. While the result does not count, it was the first time the Devils won in a shootout against an opponent in any situation since February 16, 2020. Yes, over a season ago. And that win was just their fourth out of ten for that season. While that season ended early due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it was likely the Devils were set for their sixth losing record in shootouts for the season in their previous seven seasons. Last season’s 0-5 shootout record made it seven out of the last eight. Shootouts have become a dirty word for the New Jersey Devils for what seems like forever. The Devils have just been awful at them. And that may be the nicest way to describe it.
Why does this matter? Simple: shootout wins are worth points in the standings. While they are bad for tiebreakers, having the ability to pick up a point after regulation helps keep a team stay in the hunt. It helps morale that there is a win after 65 minutes instead of assuming a loss. Ahead of a 2021-22 season where I and many other People Who Matter hope the Devils are going to have a better season, this is one area that really could use a turnaround.
Unfortunately, the Devils are an example of the worst case scenario: shootout failures keeping a team out of the playoffs. The 2013-14 team was actually good (or at least not bad), but they were undercut by going 0-13 in the shootout that season. They missed the playoffs by six points. They did not need to be amazing. They just needed to go 6-7 in them. It may have not prevented the decline that followed that season, but one more playoff appearance before it would have been easier to deal ahead of the rebuild that actually happened. I do not know if the 2021-22 Devils will be on the playoff bubble and held back by shootouts. But I do know that a closer look into their futility may reveal some answers as to how it can get better. Or at least provide some perspective as to how bad it has truly been.
Has it Always Been This Bad?
Believe it or not, no. From when the shootout was introduced in the 2005-06 season until the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the Devils were one of the best teams in the shootout. Over that time frame, the Devils won 60.9% of their shootouts as they went 56-36. Only Colorado and Pittsburgh had a higher shootout winning percentage over those seasons. The Devils scored a collective 122 goals (tied for the most with LA) out of 303 shots for an outstanding 40.3% shooting percentage. Anything over 33% should be seen as good for a shootout. Breaking 40% is incredible. The team’s save percentage of 68.6% was the ninth best from 2005 to 2013. The Devils were a legitimately great shootout team.
Of course, the Devils were also a legitimately very good team in that time frame. They earned 60% of all points for the fifth best record from 2005 to 2013. It does not necessarily follow that a good team is good at shootouts. For example, the New York Islanders were one of the worst teams in that time frame but had the fifth-best shootout winning percentage. Still, a quick look at the successful Devils in the shootout shows a lot of names of players who were just great for the Devils for some or all of that time period.
For the goaltenders, you know who led the way: Martin Brodeur. With a 69.3% save percentage in 42 shootouts, Brodeur was quite good at them even as he advanced in age. Easily the best goaltender for the Devils in this era of the shootout. The rest of the field was not as good. Johan Hedberg was kind of solid; Kevin Weekes and Scott Clemmensen did not have a lot of them; and Cory Schnedier was, well, not good at them in eight tries. More on him later.
For the shooters, here’s a list for you of the Devils’ best by number of goals scored. It will keep going until the first Devil who did not have a shooting percentage above 33%.
- Zach Parise: 29-for-63, 46% shooting percentage
- Patrik Elias: 22-for-65, 33.9% shooting percentage
- Ilya Kovalchuk: 15-for-26, 57.7% shooting percentage
- Brian Gionta: 14-for-37, 37.8% shooting percentage
- Jamie Langenbrunner: 13-for-29, 44.8% shooting percentage
- Viktor Kozlov: 8-for-12, 66.7% shooting percentage
- Travis Zajac, 6-for-24, 25% shooting percentage
Before I get to Zajac, the Devils had some amazing shooters. Other than Kozlov, they all include the important forwards of this era. Zach Parise had his best seasons in his career in New Jersey and this was another area he was great in. Patrik Elias is the best Devils forward of all-time in my eyes and many others; he brought the goods in the shootout. Fans may have beefs with how Ilya Kovalchuk (after 2013) or Jamie Langenbrunner (during 2010-11) left the organization, but they were fantastic in the shootout. Brian Gionta continued to be a big producer in these situations before he moved on after 2008-09. And Kozlov, for all of his inconsistencies, was stupidly good in his shootout appearances in the 2005-06 season. Whether the player had fantastic hands, loads of dekes, or just a great ability to read and finish a situation, the Devils had plenty of skaters to get the job done in the shootout. And these were the main men. After Kozlov, the field scored a combined 25 goals with 8 scoring just one each (Boucher, Josefson, Brunner, Henrique, Arnott, Rolston, Shanahan, and Jagr).
I think you see the problem now. After the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the team was dramatically different. Brodeur would be gone after one more season. Parise, Kovalchuk, Langenbrunner, Gionta, and Kozlov were all gone. Elias remained and no one really filled in the gap. With lesser goaltending and even lesser shooting, the shootout would go from a team strength to a team weakness.
It Has Been Incredibly Awful Since 2013
I touched on this in yesterday’s division snapshot, which focused on the shootout for each team. Whereas the Devils were the third most successful team in the NHL in shootouts from 2005 to 2013, they were the least successful from 2013-14 to the 2021 season. Not the third least. Not the second least. The least. By a lot too. The Devils went 22-48 in shootouts for a winning percentage of just 31.4%. The second worst team in this time period by winning percentage was Philadelphia, who achieved a 37.2% success rate. The Devils were nearly a full 6% less successful than the second-worst team and the Second Rate Rivals.
Now, again, being bad at shootouts does not mean a team cannot succeed. Philly did make some playoffs between 2013-14 and 2021. The third least successful team was Boston, who has had some great seasons - one of the best overall - in this time period. But it really hurts the cause for when the team is trying to compete. And as the Devils entered one re-build and started another, it only added to the dulling pain of losing from not being good enough.
Back to the Devils, what was their issue? It was two-fold. They did not stop a lot of pucks. They did not score many goals. In a competition where it is all about stopping the other team and scoring goals against them, that is a terrible combination. Starting with the goaltenders. The team’s save percentage was 64.3%. That is not great and would have been the worst in the NHL if it was not for Our Hated Rivals as Henrik Lundqvist had a lot of difficulty at stopping pucks on breakaways. Still, the results from the Devils’ goaltenders were not helpful for the cause. Brodeur’s last season as a Devil yielded a 50% save percentage on shootouts; 8-for-16. Cory Schneider pulled himself out of the 50% range, but only to 63.8% which is not great. Keith Kinkaid and Mackenzie Blackwood have sported better save percentages, 68.9% and 67.8%, respectively. Those point to goaltending performances that can yield some shootout wins - provided they got the scoring to go with them. As Kinkaid went 7-7 and Blackwood went 6-8 in this timeframe, they did not always get it.
I regret to inform you that the shooters were far worse at being successful. As a team, the Devils scored just 61 goals out of 253 shots for a team shooting percentage of 24.1%. Only Boston shot worse than that since 2013-14. The turnover did not help. To show that, here is the list of the top-eight - seven to keep it even with the previous list, eight because of a tie at the end - shooters by goal scoring from 2013-14 to 2021:
- Jacob Josefson: 11-for-19, 57.9% shooting percentage
- Nikita Gusev: 7-for-12, 58.3% shooting percentage
- Michael Cammalleri: 5-for-14, 35.7% shooting percentage
- Drew Stafford, 5-for-13, 38.5% shooting percentage
- Kyle Palmieri: 4-for-22, 18.2% shooting percentage
- Patrik Elias: 3-for-15, 20% shooting percentage
- Taylor Hall: 3-for-16, 18.8% shooting percentage
- Jesper Bratt, 3-for-11, 27.3% shooting percentage
This is list is stunning to me. The Devils’ best four shootout scorers since 2013-14 has been an inconsistent, oft-injured middle to bottom six forward, a slow-ish winger who had a tough time acclimating to NHL hockey and played his way off the roster last season, a pretty good forward when healthy - which was not always, and a bottom-six forward who was good at this and just that. As good as Josefson, Gusev, Cammalleri, and Stafford were in this area of the game, they were not good enough or limited in other ways (read: injuries) to warrant more usage as a player. Also: those four are currently not with the team and Gusev and Stafford were not Devils for very long.
The Devils forwards that were very good for them in general turned out to be real bad in the shootout. Kyle Palmieri has been a top goal scorer for the Devils this era. But he often faltered in the shootout. Elias went from being one of the best shootout takers to declining as he career wound down. Taylor Hall has done amazing things as a Devil and won the Hart Trophy as the first one in franchise history. But he was far from a MVP in shootouts. Jesper Bratt is a good top-six winger and has one really slick shootout move - that he only hit three times out of eleven. You would have expected these four to do a lot better than combine for 13 goals over the last eight seasons given how much they scored in their seasons in New Jersey. But no.
And consider the players who did not make this list. Remember Jaromir Jagr’s successful stint in New Jersey? He went 1-for-8 in shootouts. The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, is so skilled he can score off a goalie’s helmet. Alas, he is 2-for-12 in shootouts so far in his young career. Nico Hischier established himself as a first line center as a rookie. He has yet to score in the shootout; he is 0-for-7. Pavel Zacha may have turned some corners, but he is 1-for-7 in the shootout. Adam Henrique is a playoff hero for the Devils and a near-zero in the shootout with a 1-for-12 run. The now-retired Travis Zajac played almost entirely for the Devils from 2013-14 to 2021 and did a lot of good, if unrecognized things. He did not score a shootout goal; he went 0-for-11. And players like Henrique, Zajac, Palmieri, etc. kept getting attempts because everyone else was unproven or someone the coaches did not even want to try to put out there. In retrospect, the coaches just should have done that.
A Quick Thought Experiment
This may be more of an opinion, but what has been worse for the Devils in shootouts since the 2013-14 season? Is it the goaltending or the shooting? The true answer is that both have been really bad. After all, the Devils finished 30th out of 31 as a team in both team stats. But I think the shooting is the bigger failure.
Let us pretend we can magically change the shootout results by making the Devils a league-median team in both goaltending and shooting in shootout situations. This means a team shooting percentage of 32.4% and a team save percentage of 69.2%. What would that mean for the Devils, assuming they would have faced/taken the same number of shots? In terms of goaltending, the Devils would have stopped 172 out of 249 shots for 77 goals against. That is an improvement of 12 fewer goals than the 89 they actually did give up since 2013-14. In terms of shooting, the Devils would have scored 81 goals out of 258 shots. An improvement of 20 goals over the 61 they actually did score since 2013-14. While the actual distribution would impact the results, it is clear to me that the Devils’ sub-standard shooting (as a team) cost them a lot more than their sub-standard goaltending (as a team) in shootouts. The Devils needed more from both, but if you had to pick one to improve/be sad about, then go with the shooting.
OK, It’s Been Atrocious. Can There Be No Shootouts?
No. Despite the number of impassioned posts, comments, Tweets, and laments from hockey purists, media pundits, and others, the shootout is not going anywhere.
However, could the Devils afford to get to the shootout less often? That is more plausible. Adding to the pain of losing so many shootouts is the fact that the Devils have been in a lot of them relative to the rest of the league. Since 2013-14, the Devils have played in 70 shootouts. Only three teams have played in more than them: the Isles (73), Flyers (78), and Panthers (79). The Devils can avoid some of this pain by finishing games in regulation or in overtime. Of course, that requires putting a better team together and the Devils have spent the better part of the last six years and not much to show for it. They should still do that and they are doing that. But it is much easier said than done.
However, the Devils cannot avoid the issue completely. I think this alone cannot be the answer because even the least frequent shootout team since 2013, Colorado, still had to do it 40 times. It is a thing that does happen. And Colorado made them count by winning 25 of those 40 shootouts. Rather than avoiding the problem, the Devils should try to address it somehow.
Reasons for Hope
I do have some good news. Two of Devils’ new additions should help the Devils out on the shooting end provided their past performances hold up. If Lindy Ruff and his staff are willing to give them a chance - and he should - then they can help a relatively bad shooting team in these situations.
The first is the team’s biggest signing from the Summer: Dougie Hamilton. Seriously. Believe it or not, Hamilton has been quite good in the shootout since 2013-14. He is 6-for-11. That is a high rate of success. Further, no Carolina Hurricane has scored more shootout goals than him in the last eight seasons. While that is also an indictment of the Canes, it backs up the idea that the Devils should go with the Dougie in the shootouts. As shootout wins directly add points in the standings, it would be another way Hamilton can provide value for his massive contract.
The second is the team’s biggest forward signing from the Summer: Tomas Tatar. Tatar has not been as incredible as Hamilton in the shootout. Still, his 9-for-29 results in shootouts since 2013 is quite solid even if it is a bit below the desired 33% mark. Tatar’s 31% shooting percentage would make him one of the best shootout takers on this roster given their history. It is another way he can contribute to the game.
That is pretty much it for the additions, though. Jonathan Bernier has a save percentage of 65.2% since 2013. That is better than what the Devils did as a team in that time frame. However, it is still not that good on its own. Ryan Graves has never taken a NHL shootout attempt in his career. Ditto Christian Jaros. Among the current players on PTO, Jimmy Vesey is 3-for-10 so that is something but that will not necessarily put him over the top to get a job. That is pretty much it: Mark Jankowski is a lifetime 0-for-2 and the other two never did it before.
But, hey, two players with some past success in the shootout is still an upgrade. If they can repeat some of what they did, then the Devils could get that shootout goal or two to win a couple for some extra points in the standings. Of course, this presumes Ruff will use them.
Free Your Mind, Coaches
While I do not know if it is proven, there appears to be something to the effect of an actual shootout talent. The soccer fans among the People Who Matter know what I am talking about. A player can score goals off set pieces, in the run of play, and in chaotic situations. But put them on the dot facing the goal and a goal becomes a lot less guaranteed. While a hockey shootout is not structured like a soccer penalty kill, the idea is the same. It is a breakaway that the goalie knows is a breakaway, the skater knows is a breakaway, and all eyes are on them. There is no surprise or scrambling. It comes down to whether the shooter can make the moves to open a hole on the goaltender and execute it and do so in a tight window while going forward. Likewise, the goaltender has to be aware of what the shooter could do and keep up with them. I think these talents are similar but not the same as to what we see in regulation or overtime hockey. I think this may explain why someone legitimately great in net like Henrik Lundqvist has been beaten so many times in shootouts; or why the top 10 goal scorers since 2013 are not the same as the top 10 shootout scorers since 2013.
However, I do not think all teams recognize that. The Devils have been guilty of putting someone out for repeated attempts based on their actual or perceived skill on the puck. Or putting out one of their best players thinking they can get it done. How else can one explain Kyle Palmieri getting 22 attempts despite scoring just four of them? Or Taylor Hall getting chances despite not being a great shootout taker? Or Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes despite minimal results from either so far? (Likewise, how else to explain Jacob Josefson and Drew Stafford being more adept at them than others?) With the goaltender, there is not much one can do. Taking a goalie out and putting someone in just for the shootout carries inherent risk. But the Devils’ coaching staff can choose the shooters and adjust for them as the games go on. So far, their previous thinking has limited the Devils.
If they are not going to pencil Hamilton and Tatar in as I think they should, then I would like to see this: Rather than stick with whoever is seen as the most skilled or who did well in a practice, Ruff and his staff should just try anyone who did well in the actual game against the goalie they will face in the shootout. There are plenty of guys who can be added to the group despite their pedigree, inexperience, or whatever. Yegor Sharangovich got one (1) attempt last season. He absolutely should get at least a couple of chances given his goal-scoring ways. I was pleased that Alexander Holtz got a shot in the preseason game against the Caps. He scored in the game, he played very well, and his shot is his best asset. Holtz made the most of his chance and should be considered for the future if/when he makes the New Jersey team. Dawson Mercer has thrilled the People Who Matter with some breakaways. If he makes it, then why not give him a go instead of hoping that this night is the night Jesper Bratt actually completes that one move he has. Even if someone unexpected has a great night or scores in a one-on-one or just has the goalie figured out, then just throw them out there.
Yes, this may mean seeing the likes of Miles Wood, Andreas Johnsson, or even a defenseman in shootouts. So what? The shootout choices of the past eight seasons have yielded the worst results in the league! The Devils literally have nothing to lose in these shootouts. Might as well give as many pepole a chance and reward those who succeed with more opportunities. That way, the Devils may actually win a shootout in a regular season game and identify some people who do have this apparent talent for shootouts.
For me personally, the Devils should default to (Player who did well), Hamilton, Tatar to start. We shall see if Ruff and his staff will be as open-minded about it. And if not, then pray that Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, and Zacha are able to actually score on their shots. The goaltender can do the very best, but you need a goal to win a shootout. The Devils really need to find their shooters. Fortunately, with preseason games allowing for post-game shootouts, the Devils (and others) will have some time to freely experiment.
So Will Shootouts Be Better for the Devils in 2021-22?
I hope so! But it is not at all a guarantee. Or even something I would expect. Will Hamilton and Tatar get fair shots at it? Will other Devils get opportunities to show whether they can be viable options in shootouts? Will luck and variation be on the Devils’ side? I do not know.
I do know that if the Devils can crawl their way to even close to winning 50% of their shootouts in this coming season, then it should be seen as a massive success. Winning even one would be a positive sign since they lost all five of their shootouts last season. Again, this is not going to be the way for the Devils to showcase that they are a re-built team and ready to contend. See Boston for how a team can be a force to be reckoned with despite a lot of failure in shootouts. Shootouts can absolutely help to stave off some extended winless runs, pick up some points to stay in or near the playoff bubble, and help fans realize that, yes, a shootout does not always need to be an expected loss for the Devils.
But it pretty much has been since 2013. I understand if you think nothing but bad things about shootouts. We can only hope for better shootouts tomorrow.
That all stated, what do you think? Are you surprised that it actually has been as bad as you may have though? What would you do about the shootout if you were coaching the Devils? And, no, not having shootouts is not an option. Please leave your answers and other thoughts (lamentations?) about shootouts in the comments. Thank you for reading.