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Devils Poised to Dominate Run of Play in 2021-22

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With additions of Graves, Tatar, and Hamilton; the Devils project to rise from average to elite in tilting the ice at 5-on-5 play.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Carolina Hurricanes - Game Five Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

Last year, at the start of the season, we got a hint of what the Lindy Ruff Devils aspire to be. They want to fire pucks at the net from all angles and use their youth, speed, and tenacity to pounce on the opportunities created by that chaos. This piece that I wrote at the beginning of the season explained that schematic identity through the lens of the player that most embodied it — Miles Wood (who would go on to have a career season, by the way).

This new Devils team however, would run into a COVID-shaped wall. Not only did they lose the momentum from some early success during the 2-week pause, but the super-condensed schedule cost them much-needed practice time in the new system, and much-needed rest time for the physically demanding approach.

Before that interruption, the Devils were one of the strongest 5v5 teams in the NHL. Their goaltending took them into the top 5 in goal differential, but the more encouraging long-term news was that they were also top 10 in shot share and their expected goal share was above average as well.

Their prolific possession game wouldn’t last the year, but; with a full offseason under Ruff, a full season of experience for the youngsters, and a full season of chemistry for some forward lines; it’s fair to wonder just how good the Devils could be in 5-on-5 situations given their new additions.

It can be difficult to determine the impact a single player will have in a new situation with a new role, but methods like RAPM aim to isolate a player’s impact independent of their teammates and usage. According to that model, this how much each of the Devils big 3 offseason additions added to their teams’ shot differential last season.

Data via Evolving-Hockey

Dougie Hamilton impacted his team’s shot differential more than any defender in the league other than fellow Norris vote-getter, Florida’s Mackenzie Weegar; and more than any skater in the NHL other than Weegar and someone named Connor McDavid who, I’m told, plays in the NHL.

While Hamilton was the biggest add, he was by no means the only substantial acquisition in terms of shot share. Ryan Graves and Tatar both finished top-30 for the position as well, which means that the Devils added 3 separate skaters that could all legitimately lay claim to being a #1 player at their position for an NHL team in terms of how they impact run of play.

Furthermore, the wingers and defencemen that these players are replacing on the Devils roster are nowhere near that status. They ranged from inconsistent (Palmieri, Kulikov, Murray, Butcher) to downright bad (Merkley, Carrick, Tennyson).

As an exercise, I built a lineup that removes players no longer under contract, adds in these sexy acquisitions, and adjusts other roster players TOI subjectively based on how much I think they’ll be used (ex: Sharangovich up, Subban down, etc.) . After doing so the Devils go from a functionally average team in shot differential, to an elite one — battling with 4 other teams (all playoff squads) for a spot in the top 3.

Data via Evolving-Hockey. Note: this is not team RAPMs, it’s sums of player RAPMs.

These are last year’s stats, but, with a young team, time should only help the Devils, if anything. They likely only project to be notably worse in shot differential than the Avalanche and Hurricanes. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that just a few years after adding Matt Cane and Tyler Dellow to the staff, the Devils are following in the footsteps of two other franchises that have hired public analytics contributors to key positions (Eric Tulsky in Carolina, Dawson Sprigings in Colorado), and going all-in on the value and reliability of the NHL’s elite 5v5 ice-tilters.

The Devils enter 2022 with a salient and convincing pitch for the postseason. We will out-hustle, out-work, and out-shoot our opponents. And if all else fails, our goalies will bail us out. If last year was dipping our toes in, this year is a full-on cannonball. The future of the Devils is here. And, for a nice change, it should be very fun to watch.

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Personal Note:

This will be my last post as a regular contributor at All About the Jersey. This past June marked 7 years since I was brought on staff along with Alex, Gerard, and Brian; and, while I’ve loved every minute of it, the schedule in my personal life has dictated that it is time to move on. I want to thank all of you who have read my work over the last 7 seasons. It has never escaped me how fortunate I am to not only participate in, but actively produce content for the best Devils community in the world. And, while I’m no longer going to be plaguing the front page of this blog with gratuitously provocative headlines, you can be sure that I’ll still be mixing it up in comments sections and on Twitter as I resume my work as — what I’ve always considered to be my primary job description at AAtJ — a diehard New Jersey Devils fan.

Thank you all for 7 great years, and Let’s Go Devils!