Note: This was written before the news that the Devils had a gazillion players added to the COVID-19 list and would suspend play for at least the next week. It doesn’t impact the conclusions of the article in anyway, but I just did want to end the figurative room of this article without saying “yes, I’m aware of the elephant”
Lindy Ruff took over a team that had traded not just old vets that were in their twilight like Andy Greene, but also pillars on the back end of their prime like Taylor Hall. He inherited almost nothing but expiring contracts, REALLY young pillars (Hischier, Bratt, Hughes, Blackwood), a depleted version of an already-league-worst blueline, and a boatload of unproven prospects.
But as a result of the overhaul, he noticed this team had something that a lot of other teams didn’t — speed up and down the lineup. The teams biggest weakness, the defense, was still filled with good skaters. The forwards were raw, but young and fast. So what did Ruff do? He took off their saddles and let them run wild.
In my piece last week about Kulikov, I mentioned the trademark component of Ruff’s scheme here in NJ which was the 4-man rush. The reason he’s able to get away with this is because of the speed of the lineup. We get an extra skater prodding for weak points on the opposing blueline, but between the 4 of them, (the D and 3 Fs) ONE of them will be in a position and have enough speed to backcheck if the puck starts to head the other way. Tapping into the speed of this team is the kind of philosophy that can make opponents feel as if they are always outmanned at 5v5 because, in a very real sense, they are.
To paraphrase from Glengarry Glen Ross, the mantra of this Devils team is ABT — Always Be ... There. By allowing his speedy youngsters to zip around the ice an outnumber the opposition at the point of attack at all times, Ruff can get a seemingly shallow talent pool of players to haunt their opponents. This is why you are seeing surprisingly effective performances from players like Severson, Hughes, Bratt, Sharangovich, and McLeod. And perhaps no one on the team exemplifies this shift in philosophy better than Miles Wood.
Previously memetically referred to as Luis Mendoza, Miles Wood has finally found a home for his wreckless style in Ruff’s system. Miles Wood is able to go from out-of-position to in-position in the DZ, or from in-position in the DZ to an unchallenged breakaway in the blink of an eye. His speed went from a crutch that made him think he could get away with doing nothing well, to an asset that makes him able to do two things at once. He will wear opposition down with this amazingly simple mission of simply always being there. We have a team of youngsters, so we turned the game into pond hockey. And so far, this season, the most common consequence of Wood & Co bugging the other team’s players has generally forced them to make mistakes and cough up the puck. And if we have the puck enough, good things will happen.
This is almost the exact opposite of previous coach, John Hynes’s mentality. He also aimed to take advantage of the team’s speed, but he did it by spacing out the play, particularly in the OZ where he instructed his players to enter the zone and immediately look for the cross ice pass (essentially abolishing the “cycle” in the process). As a result of this home run seeking, the Devils often had among the lowest possession rates, in the NHL but did typically manage to overachieve that ratio in terms of danger. Look at the change in NHL rank for the Devils under Hynes’s regime vs. Ruff’s
Ruff’s Devils are not choosy at all. They are firing away relentlessly. In particular, they view any possession, no matter how benign, as an opportunity to create havoc. As such, this is especially easy to see in the usage of the blueliners. Look at the amount of shots per 60 produced by Devils defenders in the analytics era.
This the shot-happiest defense we’ve had in a long time. The benefit of this tactic is not that the shots themselves are dangerous (they’re not), but that they induce mayhem in the offensive zone. When mayhem starts, the advantage from our speed is amplified. And that’s where Wood comes in. Guys like Subban and Severson fire away from the point, so that players like Wood can chase, deflect, or clean up the garbage in front of the net. But Wood is not only adept at cleaning up the mayhem, he’s great at creating it as well. In the graph below from Moneypuck, you can see Severson and Subban generate a ton of chances off rebounds, but Wood generates even more. In fact he trails only Palmieri in xGs created from rebounds and as you might guess, he’s in a league of his own in xGs accumulated off rebounds.
Miles Wood is leading the way on a brand of 5v5 hockey that has made the Devils an absolute nuisance. So far this season, no team is generating more xGs off rebounds in the entire NHL than the Devils. And, while they are generating a lot of rebounds, the xGs from the rebounds are even more than you’d expect.
This is a good example of Ruff noticing that his team is uniquely able to take advantage of an event (rebounds) and so he designs a scheme with the intention of maximizing the occurrence of that event. On the whole, the Devils are generating 31% of their xGs off rebounds — the highest such percentage in the NHL and almost double league average (18%).
And, while I dwell on the offense, it’s perhaps even MORE noteworthy what the Devils have done to their defense. This possession game has made it really difficult for opponents to generate sustained pressure in the Devils zone. Despite losing, it seems, every faceoff, the Devils frequently manage to get the puck back with a league-leading 7.24 takeaways per 60. This isn’t without it’s drawbacks — the wide-open game has caused the 6th highest xG rate against despite being above-average in shot suppression. And, most relevant to this piece, Miles Wood leads the way here with among the lowest shot rates against on the team despite the highest defensive zone usage.
Miles Wood is the manifestation of Ruff’s vision for this team. Out-hustle, out-skate, and out-man the opposition at every important spot on the ice. Perhaps it should not surprise us then that, when Palmieri hit the COVID list, the next man up to get the letter on his chest wasn’t the 2nd leading scorer from last year (Gusev), or the future of the team (Hughes), or the player with the most minutes in red (Zacha), but Luis Mendoza himself. And he answered exactly how a captain does, by leading by example.