The New Jersey Devils have Dougie Hamilton. As Mike wrote on Friday, he has been quite good. He also has been quite active whenever he is on the ice. He plays a ton of minutes, in all situations, and frequently shoots the puck. He even took 15 shooting attempts in his dominant performance against Philadelphia last night. So does the rest of the defense. Even more than the rest of the league. This is a good time as any to go through how the Devils attack in 5-on-5, which explains why Hamilton and other Devils defensemen fire the puck as much as they do. (Given the state of the power play, 5-on-5 offense is even more critical than ever for the Devils.)
Devils Defensemen Shoot A Lot
On Thanksgiving (after the Minnesota game, before the last two), JFresh - an analytics guy on Twitter - used Top Down Hockey’s dataset to note which teams have their defensemen shoot the puck the most in 5-on-5 hockey, the most common situation in a game. The New Jersey Devils were just behind the Las Vegas Golden Knights with the second highest percentage in the league with 40.7% of their shots coming from their blueline.
For example, which teams so far have relied the most on defencemen to take the shots at 5v5?— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) November 26, 2021
The Leafs are in line with where they were last season - that is, their defencemen shoot less than any other team. https://t.co/3Bp0a9WE2c pic.twitter.com/R8bFhwmba9
This makes sense to those who have either looked at the Devils’ individual 5-on-5 stats at Natural Stat Trick or even just saw a Devils game. The defensemen shoot the puck a lot in most games. Dougie Hamilton leads the team with 84 shot attempts and 48 shots on net, which was driven by last night’s 10-shot performance to go past Jesper Bratt in that latter stat. Not only that, but among all skaters in the NHL with 100 minutes played in 5-on-5 hockey, Hamilton has the 16th highest shot attempt rate at 18.39 per hour among all players and the highest among all defensemen. Keep in mind that Hamilton missed three games this season, which only adds to the massiveness of those numbers. This man shoots. It is not just Dougie blasting away, though. P.K. Subban has 67 attempts of his own, second most on the team. Ryan Graves has 62 of his own and was in third before Bratt and Dawson Mercer edged him out last night. Damon Severson is sixth on the team with 53 attempts, Jonas Siegenthaler is right behind him with 52, and Ty Smith - even with missed games and scratches - has 44 attempts. Smith in his 13 games and recent scratching has fired one more puck than both Pavel Zacha and Nico Hischier in 5-on-5 play. This is a team that has its defensemen shoot the puck a lot. It is a trait of the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils.
This is also not always an amazing of a trait for a team. Natural Stat Trick has an expected goals model to value how a shot attempt from a player is going to go in the net. And it sums up all of a player’s shot attempts to come up with an individual expected goals value (ixG) Basically, it is driven by shot location. Most defensemen are shooting from the points at the back of the offensive zone. As a result, their ixG values are fairly low. Hamilton’s night against Philly bumped it up from 1.6 to 2.71. The remainder ranges from 1.51 (Severson) to 0.87 (Smith). In contrast, Zacha’s ixG is 2.79 and Bratt leads the team at 3.49. While the model can and has been beaten (Hamilton has five 5-on-5 goals), it does at least gives us an idea of whether the Devils are taking shots that we can expect to be goals. For the defensemen, it is not many.
This begs a larger question: Why? Why do the Devils have their defensemen fire away so much in 5-on-5 hockey? The answer: How they attack on offense.
Low to High in the Offensive Zone: What It Is and Its Flaw
In a phrase, the Devils employ a low-to-high approach in even strength hockey. Generally, the plan is to get the puck in deep into the offensive zone. Multiple players - usually forwards - will work down low (below the goal line) to get the puck, retain possession, and look for an option. Because the opposition will follow the play down low, this creates space higher in the zone at the points. Should the Devils win the puck or have it, they will often look to pass the puck to the men at the points. As much as Lindy Ruff has allowed defensemen to activate and join the attack, usually a defenseman is there. Since the puck has been moved out high, the player at the point usually has space, especially if the opposition sends multiple people down low or collapses in their zone. The players up high then have the option to fire a long shot, move the puck to the other point-man, or possess the puck looking for a better lane to attack. As the point-man gets the puck, the players down low will move to either create more traffic, be an option down in the corner or in the circles, or move out elsewhere to support.
There are more nuances to this kind of attack, but a lot of what the Devils try to do on offense in 5-on-5 hockey can be summarized in this way. It does not matter if this is Nico Hischier’s line, Dawson Mercer’s line, or Michael McLeod’s line. Essentially, this approach results in the puck on the stick of the defensemen. Since they are getting the puck often and they already have a green light from the coaches to jump up on offense as they see fit (which Hamilton did incredibly last night), they also have a green light to have a go and fire the puck. As a result, Hamilton, Subban, and non-offensive defenseman Ryan Graves have over 60 shot attempts in fewer than 20 games this season, and the other regular defensemen have over 40 attempts as well.
There is a key flaw in this kind of approach. These shots from distance are not likely to go in the net. Or even to the net. Even if the man at the point has no one surrounding them within 20 feet, that does not mean he has a clear shot at the net. And if he does, NHL goaltenders are generally good enough to stop those 45 to 60 foot shots they can see clearly. If the opposition is collapsing and/or the Devils decide to join in to create more traffic, then the goaltender may not see the long shot. That creates a new problem: the man at the point may not see it either. It only takes one block, tip, or touch to keep a blast from the point into just a shooting attempt - and not a shot on net. And shots not on net do not go into the net. This is why these kinds of shots tend to get low expected goals values. It is also why I lament seeing the Devils settle for these shots sometimes in games. The forwards may work hard, take hits, and battle to win the puck over a five to fifteen second period only to create a shot that is not even likely to get to the goalie much less get past him. Sure, once in a while the puck will find its way through bodies or force a rebound, but that happens so infrequently that it certainly is an inefficient way to attack. (And it certainly does not please the fans yelling “SHOOOOOOOOT” when the man at the point actually listens and does shoot.)
Let us quantify this flaw. As a result of reality of long distance shots not being valuable, Hamilton’s 84 shooting attempts have combined for an expected goal value of less than three goals. Since he put 48 of those attempts on frame, only above half of those attempts could have led to something and none of the ones from distance really did. If this is the case for Dougie Hamilton, legitimate top-tier defenseman; then it applies to the other Devils defensemen.
Hamilton does have five goals in 5-on-5 hockey this season. None of them were from the points. Not at all. Let us review: Hamilton’s goal 17 seconds into the first game of the season was from the high slot. Against Columbus, Hamilton scored from the top of the left circle. That goal showed Hamilton activating and also a successful example of the working down low from Hischier and Zacha. Against the Islanders, you can see Hamilton fire from the point, move into the space in the circle as play continued, and then actually score from there. Against Florida (the loss, not the win), Hamilton also activated and scored from just below the left dot. Last night against Philadelphia, he re-directed a pass from Andreas Johnsson from the slot for the goal. Hamilton’s ixG for those five shots was not five, but it was higher than if he just sailed pucks from 50 to 60 feet away from the point and hoped for the best. Hamilton moved into closer into open spaces and better positions to shoot; he was rewarded for it. This is a function of what Ruff does want from the defensemen; to activate when the opportunity is there. The issue is, again, the low-to-high system generally as them at the points where they are open for shots; and when they decide to shoot, those shots are not particularly dangerous.
But There is Quality in the Devils’ Attack Despite a Low-to-High Offense
However, the Devils are not devoid of danger in 5-on-5 play. Not at all. Before the crummy performance in Nashville last Friday, JFresh also noted the Devils actually are one of the best teams in creating shot quality per attempt.
Which teams generate the highest quality per 5v5 shot attempt?— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) November 26, 2021
The average shot the Leafs take is more dangerous than any other team in the league; at the other end, the Sabres, Coyotes, and Bruins are kept more to the outside. pic.twitter.com/FqO55HuNvl
Again, this matches up with the 5-on-5 team rate stats at Natural Stat Trick. The Devils rank among the best teams in the league when it comes to creating scoring chances (a bit over 30 per 60 minutes) and high-danger scoring chances (a bit over 12 per 60 minutes). The Devils’ expected goals for rate is 2.47 prior to Saturday’s games, which is a top-ten rate in the NHL. While the Devils only have 38 goals in 5-on-5 play after last night, that is more of a function of the team shooting 7.76% on their shots - which is around the league median thanks to last night’s result.
This is a team that does create good shooting opportunities even with a system that emphasizes moving pucks from in deep where they cannot shoot the puck to high in the zone where they can shoot it but it is not that great of a shot. How does this make sense? The Devils defensemen fire a lot of pucks and mostly from not very dangerous locations. What is happening? Are the long shots creating better ones down low? Occasionally, but the real answer is in how the Devils seek to create plays off the puck and off the rush.
Like a lot of teams, the Devils do employ some kind of 1-2-2 forecheck. However, the Devils defensemen and forwards have been particularly aggressive in the neutral zone. Especially when the other team is having issues handling the puck that night. Forwards will swarm to create turnovers. This alone can create chances, such when Andreas Johnsson swooped in on a mis-play by the Flyers that led to Bratt’s go-ahead goal last night. Defensemen like Hamilton or Graves will step up at the blueline to deny a zone entry or force a dump-in to win the puck. If the Devils are able to get a fairly quick stop and there is space, they will make a quick zone exit pass to a teammate and hope to create a rush play. And, sometimes, even a breakaway - as seen in this absolute dime of a pass from P.K. Subban to Jimmy Vesey for a score in Tampa Bay or Johnsson turning a turnover by Nashville to spring Tomas Tatar for a breakaway goal. These plays create high-quality scoring opportunities and the Devils seek to create at least a couple of these per game. When teams talk about the Devils, they do mention how they can be a fast team. This is where their speed can cause problems for the opposition. It is not just in how fast they skate, but how fast they play.
Additionally, the Devils do have some smart players to know when to take advantage of when an opportunity presents itself. For example, take Zacha’s goal against Minnesota. Tatar got the puck in deep. Hischier ultimately won the puck. But instead of firing it back to the point, he made Dmitry Kulikov look bad in turning on him, bought himself a little space, and saw Zacha open in a closer, far better shooting position. Pass, shot, score. For another recent example, Nashville got caught with three players down low only for Jesper Bratt to knock it free towards an uncovered Dawson Mercer. Mercer was in a good spot but opted to pass to Johnsson at the left post for a goal. These are the kinds of reads that helps diversify the Devils’ offense in 5-on-5 as well as create scoring opportunities - and in this case actual goals.
Ultimately, this is how the Devils are able to create a high rate of scoring chances. It is not so much from what they do when they gain the offensive zone and set up at even strength. It comes from catching the other team out-numbered and/or out of sorts and taking advantage. Now that the Devils have multiple players with varying skills and speeds, they can create these rush plays more often to punish the opposition.
A Suggestion to Help the 5-on-5 Offense to Threaten Even More
If I have a criticism for the Devils’ 5-on-5 offense, it is that they really should be looking for more plays like those two goals. OK, the opposition is not going to lose the puck 1-on-3 very often. What I mean is this: If they can win pucks beneath the goal line with one or two forwards more often, then the remaining forwards can work to make themselves open for a closer option. This would at least force the opposition to respect the Devils deeper in the zone instead of preparing to block out a long range shot by collapsing or, worse, blocking it higher up in the zone to create a potentially dangerous counter-attack. Even without Jack Hughes, the Devils have the forwards with the skillset and shiftiness to mix it up and create something closer to the net out of the deep end of the offensive zone.
That kind of offense is termed “behind the net,” by ex-ILWT writer Ryan Stimson. It is a bit dated, but he showed statistically and tactically how a team that creates from behind the net instead of going low-to-high. It is not so much to get literally behind the net and do a Wayne Gretzky impersonation to find the play. (Which is not a terrible idea, I mean, copy the Great One if you can). It is to have someone below the goal line be available to make the play and instead of looking to send the puck back to the higher end of the zone, the puck carrier surveys their options and makes a decision. This could be to come out of the corner and wheel around for a shot. It can be to find a teammate similar to how Hischier found Zacha in the Minnesota game. It has its uses. And that is something I would like to see more from the Devils this season.
I understand implementing a new system of playing is difficult during the season, and the on-ice rates suggest the Devils really should not change a whole lot of what they are doing in 5-on-5. I get that. I do not want a whole new system for even strength play. (The power play, on the other hand...). However, when teams like Nashville shut down the low-to-high approaches and deny the attempts to rush up ice, this could be a good thing to have in the proverbial toolbox. After all, Nashville kept the Devils to fewer than 10 shots on net in the first two periods and just two in the first period alone. The Devils “compete level” was awful that night, but John Hynes knew how to shut down tactics he was familiar with and so Nashville did. To that end, I think the Devils forwards can look to work pucks behind the net and out a bit more often in games.
There are pluses to adding this wrinkle to their game plan more often. It can force the opposition defense to respect the Devils’ attack more when they do gain the zone traditionally and work it in deep. It can open up a team that is tending to collapse by forcing defenders to move away from the slot. It can force a team sending a forward to defend the pointman to drop him back to support on defense - re-opening up the defender for a low-to-high approach. Most of all, it can create more scoring chance opportunities within the zone out of possessions. This can help the Devils’ offense in 5-on-5 be more than reliant on a mix of long shots with little chance of going in and high-quality plays from odd man rushes, breakaways, or poaching turnovers from the opposition.
Again, I am not stating the Devils absolutely, positively need to do this to be a better team, or that this will somehow turn their team shooting percentage up and make more goals. The Devils are doing a lot of things right in their attack. This would be good to have on hand when their general way to attack is not working out in a game.
Conclusions & Your Take
Let me summarize what was written. It is true that Dougie Hamilton shoots the puck a lot. It is true that Devils defensemen shoot the puck a lot. This is a result of how the Devils generally attack in the offensive zone, which is known as low-to-high. While it creates a lot of shots when it works and could create rebounds or deflections in theory, the long distance shots themselves are not valuable shots. And they have not been for the Devils this season. To that point, Hamilton’s four goals in 5-on-5 hockey were not from the points at all - he activated into space and fired a shot at a closer distance to the net than the point.
However, the Devils’ low-to-high approach is not resulting in a team not creating a lot of dangerous scoring chances. Their rate of creating scoring chances is quite high relative to the rest of the league. This is mostly from how the Devils try to create plays off the rush when they win pucks quickly on defense and/or force turnovers in the neutral zone. Throw in defensemen capable of completing stretch passes, and there is the quality.
The Devils could diversify their 5-on-5 offense by seeking to play out from behind the net more often than they do. They already have forwards used to going deep for pucks. They have forwards who are skilled, quick, smart, or all three things to take advantage of things down low. Rather than frequently passing pucks out from down low to the point, these mix ups can force the opposition to respect the Devils’ offense more and create more dangerous shots than a shot from the point would be. This would be good to utilize when the Devils have games like their recent loss in Nashville where the opposition held them to fewer than 10 shots in the first two periods by shutting down their usual methods of attack in 5-on-5.
The systems implemented by Lindy Ruff and his staff explain why the Devils play the way they do. Sure, any tactic needs players who are both good and fit the roles in the gameplan. But how the Devils are organized by the coaches and what the coaches tell them explains what we see on the ice in games and in the numbers from those games. That is why Hamilton and the other Devils defensemen shoot the puck so much. And also why the Devils actually do create quite a bit of good shots amid those longer low-value shots.
What do you think of this assessment of how the Devils attack in 5-on-5? Is there something I missed, got wrong, or left out? Do you think the Devils’ method could stand to add some additional wrinkles to make it more dangerous? Or do you think the underlying on-ice rates mean the Devils should keep doing what they are doing, even if it means letting the defensemen fire away? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ offense in 5-on-5 and their systems in the comments. Thank you for reading.