The power play. It has been an issue for the New Jersey Devils in this season and for quite some time. The Devils have only had one season - the 2017-18 team - where their success rate was better than 20% since the salary cap was instituted in 2005. The Devils had only three seasons where it exceeded 19% in that same time frame and that was back from 2013 to 2015. While the Devils have had successful seasons prior to 2012 with a non-exceptional success rate on their power play, it is an area of current concern for this season as it currently sits just below 15% - a result of the Devils scoring 7 out of 47 chances so far this season.
However, the issues lie deeper than just the Devils not converting their power plays. A lot of the time, the Devils struggle to even attack despite a man advantage. There have been games this season where the Devils have been able to generate shots and chances quite well in even strength situations and completely lose the plot when they have an extra skater. It does not make sense. How does a team go from handling business in 5-on-5 hockey to looking impotent in 5-on-4 hockey?
And this is not something that is just apparent in stats. The power play this season does not garner any respect. It did not take long for the People Who Matter at the Rock to boo their power plays off the ice and, I assure you, the power play units earned their ire. When the Devils do draw a call or get a situation in a close game, any excitement among the People Who Matter is muted because there is little reason to expect the Devils to succeed. Those who lament that the Devils have to go on the power play at all have gone from writing or saying it tounge-in-cheek to being a bit more serious.
Even if you are satisfied with how the Devils have done this season, this is a problem. Only the most unrealistically optimistic among the People Who Matter would state that it is not a significant issue. Although your expectations for this season may differ from mine, the Devils can only help themselves by trying to address the issues with their power play. To that end, let us take a closer look at their struggles.
But First, Let’s Get Real About Power Plays & Recent Leading Teams
Power plays are a part of a team’s special teams because they are that different from a team normally does. Coaches will assign only certain players - typically, offensive-minded players - to power play units as the goal is to score before time runs out on the power play. Breakouts, entries, formations, and plays are defined, structured, and practiced more rigidly to try to take advantage of the team’s temporary man advantage. And opposing teams on the penalty kill take a similar approach from a defensive standpoint. Therefore, what works in 5-on-5 hockey tends to not work so well in these situations. Since they are different, they should be looked at differently than how we look at 5-on-5 hockey.
The biggest point to takeaway is that most power plays do not score goals. Sure, on a given night, a power play can go 2-for-2 or 3-for-4 on their way to a win. Over the course of multiple games, that high rate of success will drop. You can see this just by looking at the leading power play success rates (PP%) at NHL.com. From 2005 to 2021, the highest power play success rate for a season was put up by the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers. Their success rate was 29.6%; they scored 59 goals out of 200 chances in 71 games. Second best in that time frame was the highest rate in a full 82-game season courtesy of the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning. They scored 74 times out of 262 chances for a success rate of 28.2%. If a team converting just fewer than 3 out of 10 power plays is the best over the last 15+ seasons, then we need to accept that most power plays will not score.
However, most power plays do try to create offense. This is an important distinction. Goals are an output of offense. After all, you cannot score unless you shoot. Therefore, teams on a power play will generally create higher rates of shooting attempts, shots on net, and scoring chances than they would in even strength situations. Yes, they are not always going to shoot when the crowd yells “SHOOOOOOOOOOOT” and it is not always a good idea to do so. Teams will generally work the puck among their formation to look for a good opportunity to shoot that they may not get in even strength situations. Yet, it does happen and the rates show that. Going back to the 2019-20 Oilers, their 5-on-5 rate of shooting attempts (CF/60) was just below 52.6 per Natural Stat Trick. Their power play rate of shooting attempts was 95.5. That is a massive increase even if they are not just winging pucks from the net anytime that see it. Going back to the 2018-19 Lightning, we see the same thing. Their 5-on-5 rate of attempts was 58.75 CF/60 (and a top-ten rate in the NHL); and their power play rate of attempts was 90.79 CF/60 (and not a top-ten rate at all).
This is where we run into a bit of a conundrum. The 2019-20 Oilers were not a top team in terms of generating shots or shooting attempts on power play. They were around the league median in CF/60 and SF/60 in that season. The 2018-19 Lightning were below the league median in CF/60 and SF/60 as well. So how did they end up with the best power play success rates in the NHL in their seasons? Two reasons: shooting percentage and scoring chances.
In a sense, the first is not really controllable. The Oilers and Lightning were just hotter at getting pucks in the net. The 2019-20 Oilers had a team shooting percentage of 20.2%. The second best team that season, St. Louis, finished at 16.6% and the league median was just under 14% (13.95%). The 2018-19 Lightning finished 21.6% of their shots. The second best team that season, also St. Louis, had a Sh% of 18.8% and league median was around 13.5%. Those two teams were shooting the lights out in their respective seasons. If I knew what could make a power play convert at least 3 to 4 percentage points better than any other team in the league, then I would be with a NHL team (hopefully, NJ), working in complete silence as I give them the secrets. Alas, I do not know. Sorry, Devils.
But the second, scoring chances, are much more controllable. It falls in line with what teams try to do on power plays: create more dangerous shots. The 2019-20 Oilers absolutely did that. They led the NHL in scoring chance generation (58.77 SCF/60) and finished just under 27%, the highest rate in the NHL. Their high-danger scoring chance generation was also excellent at 23.8, the fifth best rate in the NHL that season. The 2018-19 Lightning finished 4th in the NHL in scoring chance generation (54.59 SCF/60) and finished just under 27% of those, the highest rate in the league. Sure, they were near the bottom for high-danger chance generation, but they were creating quite a bit of quality and making it count. For both teams, they may have not flooded the opposition with rubber, but when they did shoot, it was something to be really concerned about.
As a result of both, the 2018-19 Lightning and 2019-20 Oilers were among league leaders in expected goals and absolutely led the league in actual goals. This is a look at only two teams with power play success rates that beat everyone’s since 2005. However, it does point to the fact that a team can get away with being just decent at generating shots and shot attempts provided they are great at creating scoring chances and puck luck (read: Sh%) is on their side. With that, a team can be among league leaders on the power plays for a whole season. It is easier said than done, but it is still something to keep in mind. (And as you may guess, the Devils have been not all that good at generating shots or chances. More on that in a bit.)
We can still conclude that, at a minimum, a power play should be attacking the shorthanded team. They should seek to score and, if they do, the power play ends early and the team benefits. (This is also why some of the highest scoring power play teams do not dominate the rate stats across the board. You cannot generate a lot of shots if you score on your first or second one.) If not, at least the shorthanded team felt the pressure from the other team trying to score. I have written this out because I think it is important to understand these concepts as I go into the Devils’ issues. Especially as the issue with New Jersey is about creating a lot of offense and not a lot of goals.
What the Devils Try to Do on Their Power Plays
While the results are important - and not good - it is important to establish what the Devils currently are doing to create offense on their power plays. In my view, there are three components to a power play: the breakout, the set-up, and the formation.
The Devils’ breakout is a bit varied. As with a lot of teams, their breakouts start from their own end. However, there is a bit of freedom among the primary unit in terms of how they try to gain the offensive zone with the puck. Sometimes, the defenseman, Dougie Hamilton, will carry it up himself if he sees space to skate into. Other times, he will pass the puck up to the neutral zone to either side. Typically this is to a forward, such as Jesper Bratt or Pavel Zacha. Sometimes, this pass happens just after the puck carrier gets the puck across the blueline to put the Devils onside. Their second unit will tend to use a drop pass while the puck is skated out of their own end. The idea is to move the puck to another Devil in the neutral zone just after recognizing how the other team is set up to defend the breakout. The receiver of the drop pass can try to find the space to gain the zone and work from there.
The Devils’ set-up to get into their formation is also varied. It is dependent on where the puck is when the Devils get into the zone and where the opposition is. Plenty of times, you will see some kind of dump-in. This can be a reverse, where the puck is rimmed around the boards to the other side in the hopes that a Devil is open and the team can set-up there. It also allows for more time for the other skaters to get into the zone. This can also be a more shallow dump-in or even an attempt to chip the puck past a defender and beat them to the now-loose puck. Lastly, the Devil who gains the zone or gets the first pass in it may choose to do a drop pass to a trailing teammate, who then can move the puck around as the team gets into position.
That position would be the Devils’ formation, which is a 1-3-1. This was popularized by the Washington Capitals within the last 15 years. There is a reason why a lot of teams use it. It can work well. The formation has one player along the point for keep-ins and reads from blueline; one player in the middle of the zone in the slot to keep the penalty killers honest; one player at (or next) to the net; and two wingers. The formation allows for several different approaches. Want a defenseman to clap bombs into and through traffic with players present to clean up rebounds? This can do that. Want to set up a one-timer to someone with a killer shot? This can do that. Want to be patient and stretch out a penalty kill to open up seam passes to players in good locations? This can do that. Since so many teams utilize it, these options and other details can make a difference among power plays of different teams.
What the Devils try to do is typically move the puck along the perimeter. One of the wide players will direct plays from the half-wall and pass it back to the defenseman at the point. If the left wing is setting up, the right wing will move inside the circle for a potential one-timer opportunity. If a passing lane opens up to the man in the slot or at the crease, then they can try that.
As one final point, their personnel has changed quite a bit over the last two seasons due to availability and form. The primary unit typically has one defenseman (usually Dougie Hamilton this season) and four forwards. The secondary unit does have two defenseman, with one of them (usually Damon Severson) set up in a forward position.
What the Devils Have Actually Done in the Last Two Seasons
Mark Recchi has been an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils since Lindy Ruff was hired prior to the 2021 season. His main responsibility was to run the power play. Here is a quick snapshot of their results so far from NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick. (Note: NHL ranks are as of the morning of November 21. Not that the Devils would shoot up to a respectable one in most of these after a day of games anyway.)
This is not good. The 56-game 2021 season had its own challenges. The Devils were without Nico Hischier for much of it, could not practice much due to a tight schedule, and had to contend with the same seven teams all season long. Still, the power play was one of the worst in the NHL. They were near the bottom of the league at both scoring goals and creating offense. They generated a relatively low number of shooting attempts and shots. They generated a relatively low number of scoring chances, high-danger or otherwise. They were somewhat unlucky given the low shooting percentage; but the expected goals model at Natural Stat Trick had the Devils score a relatively low rate of power play goals. And the 2021 Devils did not even meet that mark.
This season is still fairly early. The 2021-22 Devils had some advantages on paper compared to last season. Devils do not have Jack Hughes and that hurts. They do have a healthy Hischier, Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, an emerging Dawson Mercer, and a currently hot-shooting Andreas Johnsson and Jesper Bratt. They have also had a favorable schedule so far with plenty of time for practices. Plus, they are not seeing the same seven opponents whom, in turn, could quickly understand the Devils’ power play.
It is true that there have been some gains over 2021’s power play futility. The Devils’ shooting percentage is more or less fine relative to the NHL. It is a bit below league median but not so below it to be a massive concern. They have not been bad at creating scoring chances; although their low high danger chance rate suggests that most of those scoring chances are shots from the circles - which is in line with how the Devils set-up shots in their 1-3-1. It is a plus that the Devils are beating the expected goals model at NST.
However, that is it in terms of good things. The Devils’ power play is still among the worst in the NHL when it comes to generating offense and converting opportunities. Despite the decent scoring chance rate, the Devils have one of the lowest shooting attempt, shot, and high-danger scoring chance rates in the league. The expected goals model at NST that the Devils are beating is the third worst mark in the NHL. Their actual goal scoring rate is still in the bottom-third of the NHL and it has totaled a whopping seven goals out of the 47 total the Devils scored this season. If this is improvement, then it is a marginal improvement.
It gets a little worse when you look at all seven goals scored. I will link the NHL.com videos of each one here.
Out of all seven goals, the Devils were set-up in a 1-3-1 for just four of them. Both power play goals against Florida were off the rush and not really in any identifiable formation. Dougie Hamilton literally gained the zone and sniped one past Alexandar Georgiev. Among the four where it appeared the Devils went into their formation, they broke away with it twice. The first PPG of the season saw the puck get loose due to a challenge by Severson as the back one, and Kuokkanen coming in from the half-wall on the left side to the slot to just fire a shot on net. The PPG by Zacha against Calgary saw four forwards converge to the net, including Zacha himself, so it is a bit iffy to say it was in formation. The remaining goals are the Hischier and Tatar PPGs, both generated by Hamilton missing the net on a shot. In Hischier’s case, the puck bounced off the endboards and to a fortunate spot for a score. In Tatar’s case, the puck hit off Tatar’s shin, bounced down off the ice, and up past the goaltender. Both hardly examples of well-executed puck movement that you would expect in a functional 1-3-1 formation. And two goals created from missed shots does not suggest that Hamilton missing the target is a good idea. Even if you disagree and those four should count, the larger point remains - the Devils’ intended formation for power plays has not been as productive as its meager totals would indicate.
In short, the Devils’ power play is not generating enough offense and not scoring enough goals to even be considered around the league median or average. Even if there are signs of improvement over 2021, it is still not good. It is lackluster at best. This leads to the following question: Why?
Why Are We Seeing These Results (or Lack Thereof) from the Devils?
It is very easy to say it is all Mark Recchi’s fault or that the players are not good enough or the Devils do not have the right players for this system. I think the causes for these poor results are more specific than that. Remember how I described the Devils’ power play system in three parts? Let us re-visit that.
The Breakout: The Devils’ breakout may seem to be good to some observers. The data is a bit old, but Bryce Salvador noted that the Devils were (and may still be?) leading the league this season in entering the offensive zone with the puck, citing a stat from Sport Logiq. This does match up from what I observe. However, the zone entry stat only counts how a team crosses the blueline. The Devils do consistently do this. It is what they do after that is when things fall apart. And sometimes that is a result of how they are breaking out. They may seek to gain the zone along one side, but if the opposition is “receiving” them to do so, then it is moot. Throw in some mistakes, and the anxiety over the breakout is real.
The Set-Up: From my observation, this is often where the Devils’ power play fails. As much as they can cross the blueline, there have been seemingly countless times where they are unable to stay in the zone for long. Opposition penalty kills know full well that they can challenge the Devils along the sides for puck battles. If the Devils try to dump the puck in or attempt a reverse, they can force a puck battle on the opposite side. Similar to what we see at even strength, a penalty killer will be more central as a potential outlet and there is your clearance, zone exit, stop, or whatever you want to call it. Further, if the Devils are even able to keep the puck after that initial entry, pressuring the puck carrier or the point man may yield an exit and a potential shorthanded offensive opportunity. The Devils are reliant on the perimeter to get set-up on the power play, which is directly a result of how they break out and try to gain the zone. So while the Devils may be great at gaining the zone, it is a struggle to stay there.
The Formation: Staying in the zone is multiplied by how they actually do in formation. On other teams, you see players in motion in a 1-3-1 set-up. You see players shift, rotate with teammates, and move just to give whoever has the puck more options for a pass. The Devils really do not do this. You may see the wingers drop back to help the point man and you may see some short movements to follow the play. But the Devils basically stick one player in the middle and one player around the net, and they barely touch the puck unless the play goes there. The point man and the two wingers are the ones who touch the puck the most and most of the puck movement is among them. This means the Devils effectively turn a 5-on-4 into a 3-on-4. And opposition penalty killers know they can be aggressive to those three to force the Devils to breakout again at worst and generate a shorthanded offensive opportunity at best. Even when the Devils are able to maintain possession, the shots are typically from the circles (there’s your SCF depending on where in the circle it is) or from distance (which is not a scoring chance at all).
Please notice in that in the previous three paragraphs, I have not mentioned any specific players. Because these are all systemic issues. Yes, Ty Smith has had a rough season so far and someone needs to tell him it is OK to not do a back pass or drop pass on a breakout if there is an opposition forechecker in the area. Yes, other Devils have wilted despite some hot results at even strength. Yes, the Devils do not have Jack Hughes at the moment. But focusing on the individual players, in my opinion, overshadows the systemic problems. Individual efforts or talents are not likely to turn all of this around to make it work.
To summarize, the Devils can gain the zone but do not stay there often. Sometimes this is a result of their breakout, sometimes this is due to the emphasis on dumping or reversing the puck. When they do stay in the offensive zone, the Devils’ approach to using the 1-3-1 minimizes their man advantage. Combined with any execution errors, and it is easy to see why opposition penalty kills look very similar against the Devils. It is a relatively easy power play to defend against. And based on the results in their on-ice rates and low amount of goals scored, the Devils’ power play is not good at all.
What Can the Devils Do to Make The Power Play Better This Season?
It is tempting to just write: Mark Recchi put these tactics in place, these tactics are objectively not good, and so Recchi needs to go. I certainly would not complain with a coaching change. I think it is more accurate that Recchi and the coaching staff either need to make changes or get replaced by someone who will make changes.
And, no, calling someone up from Utica is not it. That is essentially why Alexander Holtz was called up. The 19-year old rookie’s presence was not able to overcome the Devils’ systemic issues with their power play. This should surprise no one. No, there needs to be a harder look at how the Devils do business with their man advantages. I think there are four main points to keep in mind.
The first point is to believe that they can make changes. I understand why the NHL is a “copycat” league when it comes to strategies. When the strategies work, it makes sense to use them. But, again, the details in how the strategy is implemented can make a huge difference. The Devils coaches and players need to recognize they have a problem, they need to make changes, and, most of all, have the faith that they can do so in the middle of a season. If they do not think they can be better than this, then they simply will not. They have to avoid the trap of “this is how we have done it” and somehow magically make it work. Magic is a card game and cannot help in hockey.
The second point is to re-think how the Devils get into their formation. Again, this is the part of the most pain with the power play. Both from a fan and a performance standpoint. It does not mean anything to gain the zone with the puck if the puck carrier is going to fling it away shortly thereafter. The Devils can address this in multiple ways. They can allow the initial puck carrier on breakouts to choose to gain the zone themselves if it is there more often; like Hamilton did for his goal. They can even have the breakout They can have a teammate stay more central so the man on the wall is not forced to chip-and-chase the puck or force a reverse. They can even choose to leave the offensive zone and re-set similar to how they do in overtime - something the Devils have done really well at. It needs new ideas and ideas where the Devils are not putting the puck up for grabs with an opposition that only needs to launch it beyond the blueline. If they can get into their 1-3-1 formation more often, then their power play can be able to generate more offense and, ultimately, more goals.
The third point is to utilize their man advantage with their formation. If the Devils want to stay in a 1-3-1, then fine, but they need to adjust how it is employed so that more players could be involved. When they are kept to the perimeter, two forwards are not involved. Whether that is Hischier, Mercer, Johnsson, Tatar, or anyone else, I can guarantee they are not going to help on the power play if they are not going to even see the puck in the offensive zone. This will mean the coaches may need assess what every member of the power play units can do and structure the power play to get them involved. This is not 2015-16 where the team is bereft of skill, speed, and offensive talent. Even with Hughes out with an injury, the Devils have four defensemen who have skills for a power play and more than six forwards with offensive skillsets. The Devils coaches need to use the puzzle pieces they have and not the puzzle pieces they think they have. If this means moving the net-front man to behind the net to be a distributor like the point man is, then try it. If this means having the three middle players rotate, then try it. If this means using two defensemen and both at the point, then try it. What the Devils have been doing is not working. They can only help themselves by adjusting their power play formation in 5-on-4 situations to actually make it a 5-on-4 situation in the offensive zone.
The fourth step is to be patient, yet active, with changes. The last thing I want to see is the Devils try something new for a game and then get away from it if it is not immediately successful. I understand a wholesale system change in the middle of the season is much easier said than done. I understand that while the Devils are practicing more, it is not an infinite amount and the team has other issues to address other than their power play. I understand that fans, the People Who Matter, are fickle and will turn on players for the most minute of sins or achievements. The reality is success is not going to come overnight. And even if it does get better faster than expected, it is critical that the Devils staff monitors the power play performances to see whether they are on the right track and then adjust accordingly. Settling for something that works may ultimately return them to where they are now. You can bet that opponents will adjust to what the Devils do, after all.
I will credit the Devils for at least being willing to put different players on power play units. Per the Devils’ ice time, it is not just Hamilton and Severson involved as defenders. The forwards are not just carbon copies of the top two lines. Calling up Holtz and sticking him on the power play, while not a cure for what is ailing this power play, shows some willingness to consider others. But, again, the issue is more with the X’s and the O’s instead of the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s. And if Recchi and the coaching staff are not willing to make changes with the tactics, then moving on from Recchi should be seriously considered. I would offer the staff the chance to make changes first.
One Last Question: Why the Power Play? Why Now?
Why focus on the power play instead of other issues with the team?
First: the lack of offense generated on power plays undercuts the overall effort of a game. Even if it is only two minutes, it is two minutes where the other team should be feeling the pressure. It is something that the Devils can build on if they are having a stretch of play at 5-on-5 where they are struggling to attack. Again, they do not have to necessarily score, but when the power play units, comprised of the Devils’ best offensive players, are held to next-to-nothing on offense, then the opposition is embolded by that.
Second: the lack of a functional power play opens the opposition up to take liberties from the team. No one in the NHL is threatened by someone like Mason Geertsen. But when teams play the Oilers or the Capitals or the Blues, there is an emphasis to not take fouls against them. Why? Because they will make them pay. They will make the game harder on the goaltender and the defensive effort. They risk losing the game. The opposite is true. If a team knows the Devils’ power play is not going to threaten them to score, then what is going to keep the opposition from fouling them? Without punishment,
Third: look at the games where the Devils did not convert a power play. Sure, they won some of them, but they were mostly close too. The current power play and their lack of offense is holding the team back. Imagine if the Devils were able to get a power play conversion here and there in those games. Maybe they would have avoided going to overtime with Chicago, Buffalo, Los Angeles, and San Jose. Maybe the games against Boston, the second one with Florida, and Columbus would have went more favorably if the Devils’ power play got even just one conversion. As much as some may be pleased with the team’s record considering where they have been the last three seasons, a functional power play could help this team achieve greater heights.
Fourth: a more effective power play will allow the Devils players and coaches to focus on their other issues. Sometimes the best way to address multiple problems is to focus on one or two to make them better and so attention can move onto the next thing.
I encourage the Devils to address these issues much sooner rather than later. The season schedule is only going to get more congested in the coming weeks. When Jack Hughes returns, it is best that he returns to a Devils team he can help support instead of needing to elevate right away. It will help the Devils’ overall goal of having a better season than the last one. And, most selfishly, it can be something we, the People Who Matter, can start looking forward to instead of dreading when the Devils get a 5-on-4 in a game.
I know I went over a lot. But the power play issues with the Devils this season is not specific to this season or new. I felt it was important to take a step back and look at what to expect on power plays as a whole and explain at least where I am coming from before listing the stats, the goals scored, and other observations about it. Again, the teams with the highest power play rates since 2005 have not been shot machines, but they have been fantastic at creating scoring chances as well as finishing them. The Devils are not even close to the league median in terms of generating offense or scoring goals. A fraction of their seven power play goals this season were not even from their intended 1-3-1 formation. The power play is holding the team back. It needs to be changed.
However, if Recchi and the staff are willing to make legitimate changes to how the team gets set up on a power play and how they use their formation to actually involve a man advantage, then they can turn the power play around and at least make it less of a detriment. This where I stand on the power play 16 games into this season and after 56 games of last season with Recchi in charge. If Recchi can or does not seek to make changes, then someone else needs to be brought in to do it.
Now that you know where I stand on it and why, I want to know what you think of the power play. What changes would you make? Would you want to see the Devils use a different formation than 1-3-1? Do you have any ideas on how the Devils can get set-up into their formation more often? Or make their breakouts keep getting them zone entries but with a better chance of staying in the zone? Do you think Recchi the right person in charge to make these changes? Please leave your answers and other thoughts and complaints about the power play in the comments. Thank you for reading.