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Outside the Box Thinking: Applying the 6Ms for the New Jersey Devils Penalty Kill

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One of the common tools in investigating problems in many industries is the 6Ms. By categorizing potential causes for a problem, one can efficiently identify what needs further investigation. In this post, I show how it can be used for the New Jersey Devils’ penalty kill.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils
Replace Nasreddine and it’ll get better? Right? Well, let us think this through (also it isn’t happening yet).
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2021 New Jersey Devils were bad. Really bad. They finished 29th out of 31 teams in a 56-game season. They were not only swept in the Week of Hate but in all eight games against Washington. They managed a winning record only against Boston, somehow. The New Jersey Devils have not been good for a while as they have made just one playoff appearance since 2012. There is a growing desire to see the Devils actually be good. As you would expect, the Devils have lots of issues and problems to solve. We hope that they can fix them.

Generally, the answer to fixing a lot of problems in sports is to change personnel. Get new players. Get new coaches. Get new scouts. Get new people in management. Changing the people is a constant in the NHL. The 2021-22 Devils roster will look notably different from the 2021 roster and we are not even close to a preseason game, much less a regular season one. This has some merit. However, a lot of times the changes end there. Given that the Devils have had a lot of personnel changes over the past decade, there needs to be more to it than just get new people every time something is not going well.

To that end, I want to go outside of the box of hockey and pull something from the box of process-based businesses. A technique used to organize and generate ideas to identify and eventually solve problems. For those in the manufacturing, business, and quality worlds, you know it immediately from the headline: The 6M Method.

The 6Ms (or 3 Ms, 2 Es, and a P)

In most processes that have a problem, causes or areas of weakness can be divided up among six different categories. Even just by organizing potential causes of a problem this way can help generate ideas and narrow the focus on how to solve the issue. The 6Ms stand for the following:

  • Method
  • Material
  • Measurement
  • Man (or Personnel)
  • Machine (or Equipment)
  • Mother Nature (or Environment)

The general way to use these six categories is to define the issue, brainstorm ideas of what could be causing the issue or leading to the issue having an impact by each category, investigate those ideas as to whether they are true to retain them or reject them if they are not as important, and then identify the main causes among those retained.

You may see this used in conjunction with a fishbone or Ishikawa diagram, which just graphically represents this. You can simply make a list or a chart to keep track of what ideas come out of it. The power of this strategy is really in its flexibility. Being able to group the different potential causes for a problem really does help in focusing an investigation, which is always important with limited time and other resources to investigate. You can - and should - use this approach with people familiar with the problem and people who are not. You would be surprised how often a non-expert brings up a question or a point that subject matter experts do not consider. You can apply this approach to all kinds of problems, and even problems within problems (e.g. you are investigating one issue and you come across another one). While I know it best from a manufacturing or management point of view, it can be utilized in all kinds of areas both professionally and personally (if you are willing to be that organized about addressing an issue).

We all know of at least one professional organization and it is the one that matters at this site: The New Jersey Devils. We know the team had a lot of issues. Let us see how a 6M method could be used to help improve the team as an example.

Defining the Problem

Admitting that there is a problem is the first step to solving it. The second, and perhaps more critical, step is to define it. Whether it is in hockey or in business, how we state the problem makes a huge difference as to whether we can try to solve it. The New Jersey Devils finished 29th out of 31 teams last season. Again, they have a lot of issues. To come up with solutions, a little time needs to be spent to consider this.

We do not want to be so broad that trying to address it is too overwhelming. Just stating: “The Devils finished 29th out of 31 teams last season; why?” is totally valid in a conversation. It is not helpful for those who want to try to fix a problem. In this case, the “Why” can be answered in so many different ways that we cannot really state which is more critical than others.

We do not want to be so vague that we cannot define whether we succeeded down the line. Stating: “The Devils were really bad last season; what can they do to be better?” is a valid argument and feeling to have. But unless we are ready to define or defend what is “better,” this is not helpful. I do not think the Devils finishing 27th in 2021-22 would count as “better” even if it is technically true.

We do want a problem statement to be narrow enough to focus on an issue or a specific problem with a specific sign of success. We do need to be careful not to be too narrow or specific. For this example and post, I will use the penalty kill as a focus. I need to make sure I am not too descriptive that it only focuses on the horrid fact that it had a 62.3% success rate by the end of February 2021. While true, it is too focused on a particular aspect of an issue that could lead us down a not-so-productive path.

Lastly, the wording matters. A problem statement about the penalty kill. There is a difference between a problem statement of “The Devils’ penalty kill success rate fell from a top-ten rate in 2019-20 to dead last in 2021. Why?”, a statement of “The Devils’ penalty kill success rate was the worst in the league last season. What can be done to improve it?”, and a statement of “What can the Devils do to avoid being last in penalty kill success rate?” The three statements point to the same area - the penalty kill - but how they are framed as problems lends itself to different approaches. The first one may focus on differences between the two seasons whereas the second and third ones may focus on making improvements. That third statement implies that having the next-to-last PK success rate in the league is a solution; something the second statement may not agree with if that happens. I know I would not.

If there is nothing else in this post that you learn, then I want you take this away from it: How you define a problem is very important in terms of how you are going to think about it, find out its causes, and establish its corrections.

Brainstorming

In a sense, I wish this was something the Devils did after last season concluded. At least before Tom Fitzgerald made some player transactions to bring in Ryan Graves and Dougie Hamilton while also losing Nathan Bastian to the expansion draft. Already we have an action taken for an issue where is not yet decided that the players were a problem. I will not disagree that the players on the units had a hand in last year’s shorthanded debacle. But this strategy tends to be part of a larger problem solving approach. One where you do not put in solutions until you dig a bit deeper into the problem.

Since my main concern with the Devils’ penalty kill from last season was how bad it was, I do want to see it be better. I liked the second statement as an example problem statement, so we will go with that. The Devils’ penalty kill success rate was the worst in the league last season. What can be done to improve it?

Now, we brainstorm ideas. No matter how strong or silly they may seem, we want to record it all and then start addressing each until we find some potential causes of our problem statement. Typically, this is in a meeting with involving people heavily involved with it and others who may be more tangential but could have an idea. I would think this would be something to involve the coach involved on the PK (Alain Nasreddine) at a minimum. I would recommend including a player involved on the PK, an analyst, another coach, and someone in the organization that is not directly involved as an outsider perspective. For this example, I will just have to do it all and you can pretend it came from others. While my initial reaction was just to blame it all on Nasreddine, I came up with the following:

  • Method - The PK units’ general tactic, the formation of the players used on the PK unit, post-faceoff tactics
  • Material (I’m interpreting this as time and money here) - Lack of resources from management, lack of time to practice, lack of time to review video
  • Measurement - How we define “success” on a penalty kill.
  • Man (or Personnel) - Players chosen for the penalty kill, the goaltenders, the coach in charge of the PK, players who take penalties
  • Machine (or Equipment) - The length of the sticks used by penalty killers.
  • Mother Nature (or Environment) - The ice conditions, home vs. road, the truncated 2021 NHL season

Some of these are definitely a bit out of the ordinary. Again, that is the point. By considering unlikely causes, we may stumble upon an idea or two that experienced people may not have considered. And we can rule out a couple right away. Which is the next step.

Preliminary Considerations for Investigations

The ice conditions is not likely a cause because they would impact the opposition. If the ice is bad for the Devils at the Rock, then how are opponents lighting them up? It either negatively impacts both teams or it does not. Given that the Devils were really successful on the penalty kill in 2019-20, it is not likely unless the ice conditions were very different in 2021. Plus, the Devils’ road PK was an abysmal with a success rate of 68.8% last season. It was worse than a 72.3% success rate at home. That does not suggest the Devils having further issues on their home rink. So we can rule those two out.

One “environmental” issue may be more legitimate and may be worth retaining: the nature of last season itself. Not only did the Devils have limited time for practice and review, but they played just seven teams over 56 games. Only Philly and the Isles (oh, and New Jersey) finished below the league median in power play success rate; the rest of the division converted over 20% of their man advantages in 2021. Yes, even Buffalo. And the Isles and Flyers were not that far from 20% themselves. The upcoming 82-game schedule with games against the rest of the league plus fewer games against PP powerhouses like Washington and Pittsburgh were last season may help the Devils be more successful on their penalty kills. I listed this one under Environment as it was defined by the league as opposed to a result of their actions. Again, the main benefit of the 6Ms is that it is a flexible strategy for looking into problems.

As for the length of the sticks, there is a rule in the NHL Rulebook that mandates a maximum stick length (end of shaft to heel of blade) of 63 inches unless the player is over 6’6”. This is defined in Rule 10.1. It may be worth asking the players whether they would want to extend their stick length. However, I can understand that players may want to stick with what they are comfortable with instead of going with a longer stick. Or using specific sticks for penalty killing that are at the max length - which would also incur an additional cost and another ball for the equipment staff to juggle at games. Ultimately, this may not be worth pursuing. But I certainly did not even think to think about until I used this approach.

However, I would definitely pursue the idea under Measurement. We use a binary definition of success for the penalty kill. Did the Devils concede a goal or not? That is important. It may better serve the Devils if they tracked (or better utilize if they do) other pieces of data that may be relevant to how the penalty kill performs. If Mackenzie Blackwood stands on his head and stops 7 shots on a penalty kill, then we call the PK a success - despite the four skaters getting wrecked to the point where they allowed 7 shots. I would inquire whether it would at least be possible to include in internal metrics how many zone exits the Devils get, how they achieve those zone exits (carried out versus launching the puck across the rink), how many zone entries can they deny, and how many shooting attempts does the opposition get after each entry.

I would even mull over whether to separate power play goals against right off defensive zone faceoffs; situations where the PK unit really cannot do much after losing the draw. That would least separate out what the units could have had control over from the failures where they were essentially sitting ducks. Again, the Devils may have something like this already. Then the question would more about how they are used.

The other ideas are more common ones I see brought up when it comes to special teams issues. The Personnel section is full of those. Again, I do not disagree that the players used on last season’s units had a role in their awfulness. The question I would raise is whether it is a case of not having enough of the right players or having enough of the right players but for a different tactic. Given that Tom Fitzgerald was very active in bringing in players for this coming season, we can acknowledge that this is a potential cause - and not much can be expected to be done about it now. Seriously, the free agent market is slim right now.

I would also raise the question of Alain Nasreddine still being in charge of seeing a team who has been rather successful on the PK under him not only yield the lowest PK success rate in the league, but by a large margin. But, again, the decision has already been made about him returning. So it may be something we can identify as a cause or a contributing factor to the problem; but not much is expected to be done about it now. I would hope if the PK falls flat on their face again, then Fitzgerald does not wait until May 2022 to make a change.

And as much as I think Mackenzie Blackwood and the goalies got a raw deal last season, Mike’s post from this past Friday does have some validity. To tie it into this investigation, the question to ask is: How many of those PPGAs are on the goaltenders? If it turns about to be a significant number, then we have ourselves another cause of the issue (and Mike’s post is stronger for it). This can be reviewed further through video.

Of course, what about the players who are taking the calls? I did look into that yesterday. The Devils, as a team, were net positive in terms of drawing calls versus taking them. Most of the taken calls were by Michael McLeod, Miles Wood (who was a net positive), and defensemen. While that may not be a problem as a team, it may be worth looking further into the types of calls and why they are taking them. The goal would not be to not take any penalties - that would be unrealistic -but at least having the penalty killers taking a couple fewer calls can help out.

This is a good segue into “Method,” which would be the area that I would probably demand the most out of. The biggest question I have is why the Devils changed from a wedge-plus-one formation to a passive diamond for 2021. This ties into the Personnel question: Is it a case of not having players to do a wedge-plus-one? Is this something that was instructed by Lindy Ruff when he came in as head coach? Should the Devils go back to what worked in past seasons? I am inclined to say yes, but I would love to know the reasoning behind the change first. As a more out-of-the-box idea, I would also question whether the PK units need to have two forwards and two defensemen in a 4-on-5 situation. We have seen power plays with four or even five forwards. Why not a penalty kill with three defensemen and a center? This may be ill advised for fatigue purposes, especially if a defenseman who is a regular on the PK is in the box. But it would be a good time to ask as anything. Likewise, I would question if the Devils need to adjust their tactics after defensive zone faceoffs. You commonly see teams load up the slot to at least make shots to the net harder to get through should they lose the draw cleanly. Is this something the Devils should try to do more? Do less so the goalie is not screened out? Something different? Given that the players are pretty much set for 2020-21, most of the changes could be made to how they play. Of all six areas, I think this is the area that needs the most attention and consideration.

To round this out, let us consider “Material,” which is basically resources other than players and coaches. In other words, time and money. A lack of money on the team can certainly be ruled out given that the Devils signed Dougie Hamilton, signed Jonathan Bernier, signed Tomas Tatar, and traded for Ryan Graves. The team literally committed a combined $70+ in salaries in those three signings alone. Money is not an issue. Time, however, was in 2021. In addition to a truncated season, the season schedule was loaded with games. Four games in seven nights were common, especially after the Devils had to reschedule games after a COVID-19 outbreak. This meant fewer opportunities for practices, both on and off the ice. Sessions that could have helped the Devils institute their new PK formation. Sessions that could have helped some players recognize some issues in shorthanded situations and maybe correct them earlier. The penalty kill did get better as the season went on, so that implies that experience helped everyone get better. The Devils should be able to have more practices and video sessions in the 2021-22 season. Will it make a difference? There is only one way to find out, but I cannot foresee how it could make things worse.

Final Thoughts

After those preliminary discussions, those ideas still retained would be the ones to dig in deeper for in terms of determining whether they are valid causes for our problem and, if so, how much of a cause would they be. Rather than just going with a first reaction to the problem of a really poor PK (usually, blame the players or blame the coach), we have acknowledged it is a more complex issue with multiple contributing factors. We have not absolved the players or the coach, but we do recognize there is more to look into that could help make the Devils’ PK better for this coming season.

This is why I think this 6M strategy makes sense to utilize with a pro hockey organization. Time is limited enough with games, practices, and other team activities. While doing this may mean a little more time up front, it leads to more efficient investigations. With just thinking about each of the ideas for just a few minutes each and talking (or, in my case, writing) it through, we can narrow down the areas that need our attention to address this problem. Some of them are things we would have known because they are common complaints: the players, the coach in charge, and the challenges of last season’s schedule like a lack of practice time. Some of them are not as obvious: such as how we define success on a PK or why they changed to a passive diamond. The really obvious point is that a lot of different areas were considered and will be looked into to address the issue. That is something that upper management (Fitzgerald) or ownership can appreciate instead of just a cliche statement of “The PK was bad because we weren’t good enough.”

I do admit that this example was very limited. I pretty much did it all from the perspective of a fan. I am not in the room. I cannot tell you what has or has not been discussed or decided. I only know what I see on the ice and in the publicly-available numbers. But the 6M strategy can really yield a lot more if it was done with a larger group within the team including people close to the PK (e.g. Nasreddine, a player) and those outside of it (e.g. an analyst), then even more ideas could have been generated and further discussion could identify either more causes or more reasons to reject certain ideas (e.g. Nasreddine may not be keen on blaming himself, but that is understandable). If you lament a lack of input from people already in too deep into the game, then this is a way to get others involved while still harnessing the experiences from those involved in the game.

And, again, the power of 6M is its flexibility. It can be used to look into other areas the Devils stunk at last season, such as the power play. Or a line. Or even a player’s performance. Or a certain trait (or lack there of) of the team. Or even in other departments like analytics or scouting. Even if an area is doing well, improvement is always possible and utilizing the 6M strategy can even help identify what those improvements can be. Just because something is framed as a problem statement can be

Jack Han’s prologue to his upcoming Hockey Tactics 2021 book highlights the point how a young coach should seek to break the mold instead of just following whatever was done. This could be a tool to do just that. It works in many other businesses. I know this personally as do thousands of others in the world. Why not hockey?

I would love to be told that teams already do something like this. I have my doubts. Hence, I call this 6M strategy out of the box thinking. Please let me know how you would use it if you were involved with the Devils. What specific problem do you think the team has that could be addressed by this? Thank you for reading and please spare me the snarky “This surely is the offseason” comments - I know. It’s been the offseason since May.