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A Look at the Disastrous New Jersey Devils Penalty Kill

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The New Jersey Devils’ penalty kill so far in the 2021 season has been absolutely horrible. This post looks at exactly how bad it has been after the team’s first 13 games. It does not even know where to begin with making changes.

New Jersey Devils v Washington Capitals
Pictured: The aftermath of over 40% of the Devils’ penalty kills this season.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

I do not know what to tell you. It is obvious the New Jersey Devils’ penalty kill has been a disaster this season. It is not at all obvious as to how it can be salvaged into something resembling a decent unit.

In the New Jersey Devils’ 3-4 loss to the Washington Capitals yesterday afternoon, the Devils conceded three power play goals out of four shorthanded situations. The PK cost the Devils dearly in that game. It was the latest pain in a season-long source of pain. It has been so bad, that its awfulness needs to be highlighted.

It is mindboggling to me that it is this bad. The penalty kill was one of the few things from the 2019-20 campaign that was actually good. While some of the key personnel were no longer Devils, they brought back several regulars from the last season’s PK units last season, they brought back the same coach in Alain Nasreddine to run it, and they utilize the same system (the wedge-plus-one) that has yielded top-ten finishes in terms of penalty kill success in the last three seasons. (Eighth in 2017-18, fourth in 2018-19, seventh in 2019-20) In the penalty killing part of our 2021 season preview, I expected it to be a work-in-progress to account for the filling in open spots among the personnel and that it would not be a weakness. It not only has been a weakness in 2021, but the Devils have the worst penalty kill in the entire NHL. Yesterday’s loss was the latest example of their futility.

Normally, I like to look at the stats of a team, unit, or player(s) and figure out what has been going wrong and suggest what I think the Devils should do about it. However, this is a bit different. I do not know what to tell you on how to fix this. Instead, I will point out all of the facts and figures available about the penalty kill. Then, I want to know what you think the Devils should do. Who should be on the PK units. How should they be deployed. Keep in mind that Andy Greene and Blake Coleman are not coming off the bench, so they are not legitimate options. But I do want to know from you, the People Who Matter, what you think the Devils should do about their penalty kill, given their terrible results and stats in shorthanded situations.

Team Stats

According to NHL.com, the New Jersey Devils have the following team stats on their penalty kill. This is taken after Sunday’s loss to Washington, so some ranks may be off as other games from last night were concluded.

  • Penalty Kill Success Rate: 59.5% - 31st in NHL
  • Times Shorthanded: 42 - tied for 2nd fewest in the NHL with NY Islanders and Columbus.
  • Times Shorthanded per Game: 3.23 - 13th fewest in NHL
  • Shorthanded Ice Time per Game: 4:53 - 6th least in the NHL
  • Power Play Goals Allowed: 17 - tied for 2nd most in the NHL with St. Louis and Ottawa
  • Shorthanded Goals Scored: 1 - tied for 7th most in the NHL with 14 other teams

This is the surface level of the damage done by the penalty kill. Allowing 17 power play goals out of 42 shorthanded situaitons is simply indefensible. Making it worse is that the Devils have not been a particularly undisciplined team. They have been a bit better than the league median when it comes to shorthanded situations per game. While not having a shorthanded situation is the best possible penalty kill, it is not always possible in most games. The Devils can try to be a bit smarter here and there, but their issues on the penalty kill are really with what happens during the kill as opposed to having to make a kill at all.

For penalty killing stats at Natural Stat Trick, I tend to look at the against rates only. There really is no value to look at offensive stats for a primarily defensive situation like a penalty kill. Likewise, there is no value to look at the percentages. I have the notion that a good penalty kill should allow as low of rate of offense from the opposition as possible. The Devils are decidedly not doing that in 2021. Here are their against rate stats at Natural Stat Trick after Sunday’s loss at Washington:

  • Corsi (shot attempts) Against per 60 minutes: 109.06 - 4th highest in the NHL
  • Shots Against per 60 minutes: 74.01 - the highest in the NHL
  • Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 57.45 - the 2nd highest in the NHL
  • High Danger Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 28.24 - the highest in the NHL
  • Goals Against per 60 minutes: 16.55 - the highest in the NHL
  • Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes: 9.16 - the highest in the NHL
  • Team Save Percentage: 77.63% - the fewest in the NHL

The Devils have not just been unsuccessful, but they have been the worst at allowing opposing teams offense on their power plays. This is especially problematic since the Devils will face the same seven teams for the whole season. As of this writing, Washington, Buffalo, and Boston are in the top ten for power play success rate and the NY Islanders are above the league median while Philadelphia are just below it. It is a tough set of circumstances but the Devils need to figure it out. Right now, they have been giving up just about everything to the opposition from shooting attempts to high danger chances. They have conceded many more goals than what was expected by Natural Stat Trick’s model, which still had the Devils as the leakiest. The team stats further justify how abysmal the Devils’ penalty kill has been this season.

The Goaltenders

I do not believe the goaltenders have let the Devils down on the penalty kill. If anything, I think they have been victimized by the PK units. That stated, I do need to highlight their penalty killing save percentage from NHL.com for the sake of completion. For comparison’s sake, I have also listed their even strength save percentage with it.

  • Mackenzie Blackwood - 6 GP, 76.7% PK Sv%, 97.1% ES Sv%
  • Scott Wedgewood - 5 GP, 83.3% PK Sv%, 91.7% ES Sv%
  • Aaron Dell - 1 GP, 50% PK Sv%, 97.1% ES Sv%
  • Eric Comrie - 1 GP, 80% PK Sv%, 95.7 ES Sv%

If it was just all about goaltending, then we would expect to see the goaltenders have some ugly numbers in even strength situations. After all, poor netminding is poor regardless of the game situation. But all four goaltenders that have dressed for the Devils this season have been acceptable to downright fantastic in even strength situations. Blackwood, in particular, has been absolutely stunning outside of shorthanded situations. They have done their job very well as the Devils have managed to allow a mere 16 goals total at even strength. Which makes their 17 total allowed in shorthanded situations even more horrifying to think about. Combined with the team stats, it supports my thinking that the goaltenders are victims more than anything else.

I cannot be nearly as sympathetic for the skaters.

The Skaters

According to Natural Stat Trick, the Devils have had nineteen players play at least one second on the penalty kill and ten players who have played at least ten shorthanded minutes so far this season. In order of ice time, they are defenseman Ryan Murray, defenseman Damon Severson, forward Pavel Zacha, defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, defenseman P.K. Subban, center Travis Zajac, forward Yegor Sharangovich, right winger Kyle Palmieri, center Michael McLeod, and right winger Nathan Bastian. Two things come to mind with this group.

  1. Some of these players have been very good for the Devils in 5-on-5 hockey. Severson is arguably one of the best defensemen in the NHL in 5-on-5. Kulikov has been a revelation with New Jersey. Murray has been a solid add. The 2021 version of Subban is better than the 2019-20 version of Subban. Zajac was playing really well prior to entering the COVID-19 Protocol List. McLeod and Bastian have been lauded for their play with Miles Wood.
  2. Most of this group has plenty of experience on a penalty kill. Severson, Subban, Zajac, and Zacha were featured on last season’s successful PK units. Murray did really well with Columbus’ penalty kill when healthy. Kulikov did not perform as well, but he was a regular on a secondary unit in Winnipeg last season. This is a group that really is not entirely unfamiliar with being a penalty killer in the NHL.

While the Devils’ penalty kill did suffer without Greene and Coleman last season, it was not as bad as what the players have this season in terms of on-ice rates. According to Natural Stat Trick, 353 players have at least ten minutes of shorthanded ice time this season. Here is how the Devils’ ten players ranked among them. Any stat highlighted in red is in the bottom half of the NHL.

The top ten penalty killers on NJ by ice time and their on-ice rate stats with ranks out of 353 NHL players.
The top ten penalty killers on NJ by ice time and their on-ice rate stats with ranks out of 353 NHL players.
Natural Stat Trick as of February 21, 2021

That’s a lot of red. Some, like Sharangovich and Palmieri, have stats right near or at the bottom of all 353 players. No Devil has a single on-ice rate in the top 100 or even the top 150 in the NHL right now. Just about every one of these players have been witnessed the opposition just lighting them up. The only difference among them is that some have been lit up a lot and some have been lit up like few others in the entire NHL. It is jarring since, again like the goaltenders, these players have been nowhere this bad in 5-on-5 situations. It is a definitive disasterpiece.

It also means that there is no one Devil that has been especially poor that is bringing down a whole unit. Sure, some have been worse than others. However, the team’s PK situation is not going to get any better just by removing any of these ten players and replacing them with just anyone. It is not as simple as just keeping one or two people away from a penalty killing unit for a period of time.

The Faceoffs

The Devils have also been a terrible team when it comes to winning faceoffs this season. Their team winning percentage is dead last in the NHL at 41.7% after the game against Washington per NHL.com. Over the course of a whole season, faceoff winning percentage really does not align with success in other areas. Even now, the top five teams in faceoffs are, in order, Boston, Buffalo, Carolina, Detroit, and Toronto. That’s three really good teams and two really bad teams. Given that the Devils have managed to still be a positive CF% team and just below 50% xGF% and SF% team despite their faceoff woes speaks to their lack of importance in the bigger picture.

However, special teams are, well, special and being able to win that first faceoff can help a penalty kill get an early clearance and take 12 to 15 seconds off the penalty after. It can also prevent the opposition power play from making a quick play for a score - which was what exactly happened with the 17th Devils’ power play goal allowed and the eventual game winning goal yesterday. Unfortunately, the Devils’ faceoff woes on the PK have been real. The Devils are dead last in the NHL with a 34.9% faceoff winning percentage when shorthanded. They are not so deep in last place; a few successful nights will drag them up from 31st rather quickly.

So far this season, only three Devils have taken at least ten shorthanded draws per NHL.com: McLeod, Zajac, and Zacha. Each have winning percentages below 40%. All three can and have played center. The field has taken four or fewer draws so far this season, so it is not as if there is an apparent player who should step in for either of those three.

The sobering truth is that the league median winning percentage for shorthanded faceoffs is still around only 45%. So if you are expecting the Devils (or most teams) to win most of their shorthanded draws, then expect to be disappointed. Still, improvements at the faceoff dots could absolutely help the Devils’ cause on the penalty kill.

The System

Under the direction of Alain Nasreddine, the Devils have been using a wedge-plus-one penalty killing formation. This is a common system in the NHL. It is a formation that its use in New Jersey even predates the arrival of Nasreddine in 2015. As the 1-3-1 power play formation gained in popularity, this scheme has been devised to guard against it.

Generally, three players surround the slot in front of the crease with one player - usually one of the two forwards - apply pressure to the puck carrier. The “one” is live. The Devils tend rotate their forwards in pressure, for starters. Should a defenseman have to engage with an opposing player, then they become the plus one and the forwards are supposed to drop back to complete the wedge. Should the play head to the net, then the wedge collapses down low. It is devised to deny the most dangerous passing lanes that a 1-3-1 set-up would create and allow some measure of versatility for the penalty killers that a small or large box would not necessarily allow.

While it may vary from team to team, it does not appear the Devils have any special instructions for their personnel in the wedge plus one formation. If opportunities are there to breakout and attack, then they go and chase them. If not, they go for a clearance.

The team and player stats suggest strongly that this system is not working. Not even accounting for the fact that other teams do it to the Devils and have succeeded much more. Not even with the fact that the Devils have same assistant coach in charge of it as he was since 2015. Not even with the fact that it is not a system that requires a particular set of skills or quickness ability to make it work as the Devils’ past success with the system featured the not-at-all fast or offensively minded Ben Lovejoy or Andy Greene on defense. Or the particularly skilled Stephen Gionta, Brian Gibbons, or Kevin Rooney at forward. And, again, Zajac, Severson, Subban, Zacha, and even Palmieri all have considerable experience playing in this kind of penalty kill. Yet, it is not working.

What Do You Think?

I do not know what to tell you. New Jersey’s penalty kill units this season have been a tire fire stuffed in a dumpster that is floating down a flooded street. The stats show at the team and player level that the Devils have allowed a lot of offensive opportunities, shots, and scoring chances in addition to a lot of goals against. The common players on the 2021 penalty kill have several players with past PK experience either in New Jersey or with other teams in past years. The system the Devils run is not new to the organization or the NHL game. The Devils’ PK has been uniformly terrible. And I do not know even where to start with how to fix it.

This is where I turn to you, the People Who Matter. Now that you’ve read all of this and considered all of the facts and figures of the current disastrous state of the Devils’ penalty kill, I want to know what you would change for a future, hopefully better state. Do you change the players and give different players a shot? Do you opt for a new system, even without the practice time to make it work? Do you fire Nasreddine and hope a new assistant coach figures it out? Do you hope and pray the Devils can become the most disciplined team in the NHL and/or the goaltenders can bail them out for two minutes at a time? What would you do? Because I am at a loss for ideas to fix the Devils’ abysmal penalty kill. Please leave your ideas and suggestions in the comments. Thank you for reading.