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New Jersey Devils 2022-23 Season Preview Part 4: The Special Teams

The Devils had a season of mixed results on special teams in 2021-22 with a decent, goalie-hamstrung performance on the penalty kill and an unmitigated disaster on the power play. With new assistants in charge at both ends and some new faces on the ice, the Devils will be hoping to see special teams improvement this season, particularly on the power play.

NHL: MAR 26 Devils at Capitals Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As we continue the Devils season preview here at All About the Jersey, we turn our attention today to the special teams, which should be one of the areas where a shakeup in the coaching staff this offseason should be felt the most. The Devils season in 2021-22 had a lot of things go wrong to take them from modest expectations to dismal results. Among those things that went wrong were the special teams, most notably the power play, which was one of the key factors (along with the goaltending) that dragged a team with pretty decent looking 5v5 numbers into the league’s basement. Heading into 2022-23, the Devils will hope that new faces running the power play and penalty kill will help the Devils stabilize their play on special teams and propel the team upward in the standings.

What Happened Last Season - Power Play

My assessment of the New Jersey Devils power play during the 2022-23 season is as follows: Woof. The power play last season was a major detriment to the Devils’ ambitions, frequently stifling momentum the team would build at even strength and ending up, by some metrics, as the least effective unit in the entire league. The Devils weren’t just inept at generating offense (and they very much were that), they were frequently ending their power plays worse off on the scoreboard than they started. It was bad enough that fans would actively groan at the thought of the Devils drawing a penalty for much of the season.

Here are the Devils’ rate stats for their power play in 2021-22, via Natural Stat Trick:

  • CF/60: 85.71 (29th)
  • SF/60: 42.93 (32nd)
  • xGF/60: 5.65 (30th)
  • GF/60: 5.72 (26th)
  • HDCF/60: 15.9 (31st)

Those numbers are very bad, but they don’t even capture the full agony of watching the Devils power play. To get that full picture, you need to add these few kickers:

  • xGA/60: 1.27 (29th)
  • GA/60: 2.23 (32nd)
  • xGF%: 81.59% (32nd)
  • GF%: 72.0% (32nd)

No one was more likely to end a power play worse off than they started than the Devils last season. The GA/60 number in particular far outpaces anyone else in the league in rate of shorthanded goals yielded. At one point in the middle of the season, I believe the Devils were on track to be the worst power play in net performance in the post-lockout era, though a (relative) uptick in offensive finishing toward the end of the season prevented that label from landing on them.

That the Devils managed to craft a power play this cover-your-eyes bad with the types of skilled players they had available to them is a testament to how broken the system felt last season. The architect of that power play was Mark Recchi, who in his second season with the Devils became the main pariah of the team’s coaching staff. You would expect that a unit that featured players like Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Dougie Hamilton would be fun to watch and create major headaches for opponents. They were very much not fun to watch and the only people they created headaches for were Devils fans (and perhaps the Devils themselves).

So, what was so bad about the Devils power play, despite seeming to have the personnel to have, at worst, a reasonably effective unit? It was a power play that appeared to be designed to sling passes around the perimeter of the offensive zone until they turned the puck over or somebody got frustrated and just blasted a low-percentage shot from the point. It’s rare that you can diagnose exactly the problem with a power play by looking at a single heat map, but this one comes close to doing it:

The Devils shot from the point and nowhere else, resulting in a xGF rate 23% below league average
NJ Power Play Heat Map, 2021-22

The Devils were a black hole in the high danger areas and had little threat of the type of one-timer generation from the circles that might help offset that. No, this was a power play that would pass and probe and nibble at the edges until someone finally got fed up and just took a slapper from above the circles. It was not effective, as you might imagine.

What Happened Last Season - Penalty Kill

The penalty kill had some moments of frustration last season and ultimately had middling results, but it was a far cry from the ineptitude that the power play showed. This was not a sure thing, though. The Devils had their worst year of penalty killing in a very long time in the abbreviated 2020-21 season, finishing dead last in the league in goals allowed per 60, and earning that distinction with the league’s 30th worst expected goals against rate. They were able to turn it around in 2021-22, though, compiling a top-ten expected goals against rate, and a slightly-above-average goals against rate. Here were the rate stats of note for the penalty kill, again pulled from Natural Stat Trick:

  • CA/60: 79.48 (3rd)
  • SA/60: 45.79 (2nd)
  • xGA/60: 6.42 (7th)
  • GA/60: 7.26 (14th)
  • HDCA: 18.31 (7th)

The Devils were a team hamstrung by poor goaltending in the 2021-22 season, and the penalty kill was certainly not exempt from that. The Devils were one of the very best shot-suppressing teams in the league on the penalty kill and they were quite good at suppressing chances as well. This didn’t translate to top tier results, though, as the Devils yielded goals at a rate right near the league median. The Devils, unsurprisingly perhaps, had the third-worst penalty kill save percentage in the league. On the power play, it can be tough to evaluate the performance of goalies, and anecdotally the Devils yielded their share of backdoor tap-ins, but given the overall performance of the goalies, its probably fair to say they were a driver of the divide between the expected and actual results on the kill. Still, even with the goaltending hindrance, the unit turned in a respectable performance, particularly compared to their counterparts on the power play.

suppression at the net front and the circles, leading to an xGA rate 13% below average
NJ Penalty Kill Heat Map, 2021-22

The Devils did well near the net front and in the circles. You see some weakness at the “backdoor” spots, which was evident from viewing, plus a soft spot in the high slot, but overall this was a solid unit doing a good job of keeping opponents at bay. Even with a terrible save percentage, they had above-average results. Alain Nasreddine, as in years past, was the main party overseeing this penalty kill, one that was generally pretty good, with 2020-21 being a major exception, while he was here. The Devils will have a new face heading up the penalty kill in 2022-23 for the first time since 2015, as Nasreddine headed out the door with Recchi after the end of last season.

What to Expect - Power Play

I would expect — and hope — the Devils will have a substantially new approach to the power play in 2022-23. New assistant coach Andrew Brunette arrived from Florida, where he oversaw the league’s best offense as head coach and had the 6th best power play in goal scoring in 2021-22. The Panthers’ xGF numbers on the power play were about average, but the results were there, and they gave up a lot fewer shorthanded goals for good measure. As for personnel, the Devils will be returning a lot of the faces that showed up on last year’s power play, for better or worse. Of the 12 names who played over 50 minutes on the power play, only two won’t be on the opening night roster: Ty Smith and Andreas Johnsson. That those two were arguably the lowest-performing players on the power play, combining for just five points — one goal (by Johnsson) and four assists (by Smith) — it isn’t likely to have much of an impact on this unit’s ceiling.

The key players for the Devils penalty kill will be clear from the outset of the season: the Devils will need production from Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Dougie Hamilton to power this unit. The former two will be looking to build on productive seasons on the power play in 2021, with Bratt leading the team in PP points (18) and Hughes leading the team in goals (7). Hughes, perhaps expectedly, led the team in scoring rate, plus he also led in primary points despite missing a significant chunk of the season. Hughes is the kind of dynamic player that he could still produce in a dead-end unit like the Devils’ 2021-22 power play, but hopefully with a revamped strategy, his scoring can flourish even more, powering the team to positive results with the man advantage.

The Devils will be looking for some bounce-backs as well, most notably from Dougie Hamilton, who was a powerhouse on the power play in much of his time in Carolina but could only muster eight points on the season. The expected goal numbers show that the unit was improved with Hamilton on the ice, particularly early in the season before he picked up his jaw injury, but he will be hoping to step it up significantly this season. Another player who quietly undershot expectations last season was Yegor Sharangovich, whose wicked release would seem to make him a valuable asset on the power play. It didn’t go that way for Yegor, as he put up only two goals and two assists in 90+ minutes of ice time on the year, so the Devils will be looking for more out of him, particularly in the goal-scoring department with the man advantage. Dawson Mercer had a nice rookie year for himself, but the power play was a place where he lacked production as well.

One potential x-factor for the power play comes in the form of a rookie, with Alexander Holtz stepping into the fray for the Devils as another player with a reputation for strong finishing. Holtz led Utica in goals last season, putting up 26 in 52 games, with seven of those coming on the power play. If Holtz can carve out a spot for himself on this team and in Brunette’s new scheme, it could make a big difference for the Devils on the man-advantage. With him and Yegor serving as trigger men, the power play has theoretical finishing fire power to go along with high end playmakers like Bratt and Hughes, plus solid power play quarterbacks on the blueline in Hamilton and Damon Severson, who was quietly second in both goals and assists per 60 last season.

What to Expect - Penalty Kill

The penalty kill’s path forward is a bit more difficult to predict, given they unit will have a new coach for the first time in seven seasons. Unlike the power play, there is not a “nowhere to go but up” feel for this unit, because it was already pretty decent last year. New coach Ryan McGill, who arrives from Las Vegas after five seasons in the desert as part of the Golden Knights staff, will be tasked with maintaining a tradition of strong penalty killing that stretches back decades in New Jersey. The outlier terrible 2020-21 season is one of the only truly bad penalty kills the Devils have produced in recent memory, with most seasons dating back to the start of the analytics era in 2007 having the Devils top ten in xGA rate, GA rate, or both.

Assuming McGill had primary responsibility for the power play in Vegas since he arrived, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. A rundown of Vegas’ season rankings in GA and xGA is as follows (via Natural Stat Trick):

  • 2017-18: 5th in xGA/60, 9th in GA/60
  • 2018-19: 10th in xGA/60, 10th in GA/60
  • 2019-20: 22nd in xGA/60, 26th in GA/60
  • 2020-21: 10th in xGA/60, 1st in GA/60
  • 2021-22: 20th in xGA/60, 21st in GA/60

That’s a solid enough track record, especially as he was part of the staff that generated the most successful expansion team in the sport’s history. But there are also some years where the results have lagged a bit. Vegas has been a team in flux since their inception, so the ebb and flow of these numbers is understandable, but he’ll come to New Jersey with people hoping he can carry on the Devils’ tradition of suppressing expected goals while also narrowing the recent chasm between their expected results and the actual ones.

As for personnel, the Devils will, as with the power play, be returning many of the same faces from last season’s unit, though there will be a bigger chunk of last season’s unit turning for the penalty kill. Of the nine players with 50+ minutes for last year’s penatly kill unit, three are no longer with the team as PK Subban retired, Janne Kuokkanen was bought out, and Jimmy Vesey left as a free agent. With that in mind, the Devils will have to plug some holes, though those three were all outside the top four in ice time. If Mike McLeod makes the roster it will likely be in part for his contributions on the penalty kill, though if he is left off then another Devil will have to step in to 150+ minutes of penalty kill time he had.

Some of the new additions to the Devils could see some big minutes on the penalty kill, most notably John Marino, who has seen big minutes in those situations his three seasons in the league, including almost 200 minutes last season. Marino has looked as advertised as a steady presence along the blue line, playing well this preseason. Rookie Kevin Bahl, who had himself a very strong preseason to make the roster, seems likely to see some significant minutes on the kill if he sticks around. Add in top defensive d-man Siegenthaler and also Severson on the blue line, and the Devils appear to have a solid group to kill penalties on defense.

Forward will be a little more up in the air, especially depending on if McLeod sticks around, but I would say the Devils have enough capable defensive forwards to pick up the slack if he does not. I am also partial to the idea of including some skilled forwards on the kill to create counter-attacking opportunities off of opponent turnovers. Of note is that Ryan McGill’s former team in Vegas was third in the league in shorthanded goals scored over the past three seasons, so the hope is that dynamic will make its way to New Jersey with him (though the Devils were a respectable 12th in that category).

The major x-factor for the kill, though, is obviously the goaltending. The goaltending tanked the Devils’ results in all phases of the game last season and the hope, with VItek Vanecek now in the fold to share the net with MacKenzie Blackwood. If the Devils get a solid season in net, that risking tide will lift all boats, including on special teams.

Your Take

What are you thinking we will see from the Devils’ special this season? Will the power play rebound from the disaster it was last year? Can the penalty kill perform under a new coach and will the goaltending be NHL quality this time around? Sound off with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.