Among the many issues with the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils (and 2021 Devils) was the power play. Mark Recchi was the assistant coach in charge of a power play that could be best described as rather bad and statuesque. He was fired on May 4, 2022 and it was entirely deserved. On the first day of free agency, the Devils announced what would be his replacement: associate coach Andrew Brunette. Despite leading Florida to their best ever regular season record and their first playoff series win in decades, Brunette was let go. The Devils hired Brunette for a three-season contract. At the time, it was thought he could be a replacement-in-waiting for head coach Lindy Ruff. That may still happen after this season as Ruff will be out of contract. Until then, Brunette has been in charge of the power play. Now that we are halfway through this season, I have to ask the question from the headline: Is the New Jersey Devils power play better off now than last season at this time?
The short answer: Yes. Even if it does not feel that way and there is still plenty that can be improved.
Comparing Power Plays
As the 2022-23 Devils are 41 games through this season, it is only fair to compare the power play with where they were 41 games through last season. The difference in teams is stark. This season’s Devils are 26-12-3 and sitting in a playoff spot with a great chance to make it to the postseason. Last season’s Devils hit the halfway point with a record of 15-21-5 and no realistic chance of playing for anything that season. Which they did not. Where were their power plays at the time? As expected for the team that finished near the bottom, it was in a bad place. This season’s Devils, though, they have done more. But not so much more than it may seem. Even aside from the debacle in Raleigh on Tuesday night where they conceded two shorthanded goals and generated a shot hitting the post at most on their power plays.
On the surface, you can see improvement across the board. The current Devils have a better success rate, generated more power plays, had more power play time, scored more goals, and even conceded fewer shorthanded goals. Done and dusted, right?
However, I can understand a little disappointment that some of the improvements are not that large. The Devils’ power play is 3% more successful than where they were at the midpoint of last season. Plus, they are still in the bottom end of the NHL. A run of success could easily put them in the middle where 23.1% is the league median after the Devils’ 41st game. Still, a 22nd ranked power play is not a massive gain over what was a 24th ranked power play at the same point in the season. Further, giving up one fewer shorthanded goal is also not exactly progress worth shouting out.
There are some more significant gains here. Specifically, getting more opportunities. Among the issues with the Mark Recchi-run power play last season was that the Devils were not getting a lot of chances relative to the rest of the NHL to run it. 41 games into last season, only two Devils were in double-digits in terms of drawing calls: Jack Hughes (13) and Jesper Bratt (10). Between better performances in 5-on-5 and more Devils being available, the Devils have had more power play opportunities as well as five Devils in double-digits for penalties drawn: Jack Hughes (20!), Nico Hischier (17), Brendan Smith (15), Miles Wood (13), and Michael McLeod (11). Even if a power play is unsuccessful, forcing the opposition to play a limited lineup for several minutes and mostly defensively can be a plus. Furthermore, with more opportunities mean more opportunities to score and the Devils have done that with 7 more goals than last season. They are behind the league median by 4 right now, so 26 is not a terrible number even if it is ranked 21st in the NHL.
The real improvement is not so much in these numbers but in the on-ice rates generated by the power play units. They were terrible under Recchi last season. Under Brunette, they are much, much better except in one category.
For the uninitiated, CF/60 is Corsi For per 60 minutes (and all other F/60 is For per 60 minutes) and that counts how many shooting attempts the team is generating per 60 minutes. The Brunette-run power play is taking many more attempts. They are putting more shots on net. They are generating more scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances. The expected goals model at Natural Stat Trick, which is largely driven by shot location (read: scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances), has the Devils power play generating offense among the top 10 teams in the NHL. Their actual rate of scoring is far less than the model, but this season’s team is out-doing last season’s team at the midpoint of their respective seasons too. Not only this, but the Brunette-run power play ranks far, far better in almost all of these stats than they did under Recchi.
The only area where the Recchi-ran power play can easily claim some kind of superiority is in shooting percentage. The Devils were finishing more shots in 2021-22. A full percentage point is nothing to sneeze at. Had the 2022-23 Devils power play been shooting at just under 14% instead of just under 13%, then they would have two more goals. Depending on when those two would come in, that could make a difference in a game. Still, it is just a percentage point. Again, a hot run and that number goes up for the 2022-23 Devils. Which will make the Devils’ power play more obvious in its improvement from last season.
There is one aspect that has not changed much and that is in the Devils getting their shots blocked. I included FF/60, which is Fenwick For per 60 minutes, which is something I normally do not touch on. Fenwick refers to unblocked shots as Matt Fenwick made a persuasive argument years ago that blocked shots are ultimately neutral in the bigger scheme of things. I have added it here to show that while the Devils are generating more unblocked shots now than last season - which is good - they are getting stuffed at a higher rate too. 26.72 per 60 minutes this season compared with 21.87 per 60 last season. This points to an area of improvement.
Regardless, overall, the Devils power play in 2022-23 is better off than where they were at this time last season.
Why is the Devils Power Play Better Off?
We know the numbers are better. But why? A couple of possible reasons come to my mind:
#1: The Devils have been healthier in 2022-23 than in 2021-22. Midway through the NHL season in 2021-22, Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Dougie Hamilton missed several games. Miles Wood was essentially out for the season with just three appearances, so he was not even drawing penalties. This meant the leaders in power play ice time by halfway through the season included Damon Severson and Nathan Bastian with significant amounts going to Pavel Zacha, Tomas Tatar, a rookie Dawson Mercer, and Yegor Sharangovich. While Jack Hughes and Hischier were among the minutes leaders, they obviously could not play when they were out. This season, Hamilton, Hughes, and Hischier have been regulars for the season. That not only means the power play benefits from their talents, but it means players who are not really meant for a power play or a first power play unit has not had to play on it.
#2. More fortunate players. 41 games into last season and Jesper Bratt and Dougie Hamilton had zero goals. Only Hughes and Severson scored more than 2 PPGs by the halfway mark of last season. This season, Bratt is tied with Hischier with 6 PPGs and Hamilton has 3 PPGs. While Hughes has a lower rate of goals scored since he had 5 PPGs at this point of comparison, because others have finished more, he has more assists to show for his efforts. Despite the team shooting at a lower rate, there are fewer Devils being snake bitten on the power play this season compared with where they were last season.
#3. More movement, more freedom. The Mark Recchi-run power play was statuesque. In that there were multiple players just standing around in a 1-3-1 formation. This often led to two players out of five touching and moving the puck most of the time, either looking for a seam that often was not there or forcing a shot that was not going to go in the net - if it got to the net.
From my perspective, the biggest difference under Brunette is that power play features much more rotation and more Devils getting involved in the offensive zone. The set-up play is not just Hughes and Hamilton passing it off and looking for a cross-ice pass to Bratt. The bumper player, the center of the 1-3-1 is moving around at times and does see the puck. The net front player is moving about and sometimes switches off with the bumper player. If Jack Hughes sees a lane to drive through on breakouts, then he has the green light to go in and make something happen - which he can and has done. Even the back-pass is not always a drop pass to a skater. Simply by having more Devils involved with getting touches in 5-on-4 situations, more Devils are able to contribute in those situations. Those gains have led to more offense.
#4. More opportunities have helped a lot. This was covered earlier, but it is true. You cannot succeed on a power play without drawing a power play. The Devils’ style of play in 5-on-5 plus their successes have led to more opponents fouling all kinds of Devils. Hughes being The Big Deal and drawing calls is understandable. That Hischier has drawn that attention to speaks to how well he has been driving opponents to take penalties. That Brendan Smith is up there suggest he is more of a pest than he may be getting credit for. Ditto for McLeod. There will always be power play situations and nights where it just does not work. It happens to every team in the NHL, even Edmonton. Therefore, the Devils getting more opportunities gives them a chance to make it right more often. When it does, it can make a difference on the scoreboard.
What Can Be Better About the Devils Power Play?
A second unit that makes sense would be nice.
Most NHL teams load up their most offensive players on their primary power play unit. That unit typically plays most of the power play. However, having a competent secondary unit is useful. They may be able to chip in some offense and even some conversions when the first unit is having a tough time or needs a break. If and when injuries happen, a good second unit can provide a replacement for the first unit that may need it.
The New Jersey Devils power play primary unit has been Hamilton, Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, and some mixture of others. Nathan Bastian was getting into this group but when he got hurt, Tomas Tatar and Dawson Mercer have been tried out as the fifth man among others. The second unit has mostly been Damon Severson, Eric Haula, Miles Wood, and some rotation among Alexander Holtz, Fabian Zetterlund, Ondrej Palat, Tatar, and Mercer. With Palat back, he has re-joined the second unit. In the Carolina game, with Holtz scratched, Zetterlund drew in. The five-man group of Wood, Severson, Palat, Haula, and Zetterlund have combined for 20 goals total and the leading scorer, Wood, has not scored since December 13. Needless to say, this unit is no good at scoring. Further: Zetterlund’s lone PPG came in an overtime situation where he went in for Bratt, so he was not even with a secondary unit. So the second unit has only Erik Haula’s one and only PPG to claim along with a scramble in front put in by Jonas Siegenthaler during a blowout over Columbus. It has been Bad.
The easy answer is to switch out some players and at least give them a chance over a few weeks. Miles Wood does not bring anything to a power play with his skillset. He is not big. He is not good around the net. He is not that great as passing the puck. He is at his best when he skates into space. Which is why his lines usually play dump-and-chase when the other lines look to carry the puck in. Dumping-and-chasing is generally not a good idea for power play situations, so Wood winning a race to a puck is not something they would look to do. You cannot convince me that Yegor Sharangovich should get so little PP time when Wood is out there adding nothing to a power play for 55 minutes so far this season. I would make that swap immediately.
More changes would be needed. No, Sharangovich should not be screening the goaltender. I would move him to the wing where he can rip wrist shots as he wishes. Let Haula sit in front of the goalie (or better yet, be an option near the goalie) and maybe he gets lucky (somehow) and chips in a rebound instead. I would also swap out Zetterlund with Holtz provided the Devils coaching staff want to commit to giving the rookie a fair shake. No, his lack of production is not concerning when others on the team have lacked production for weeks and yet remain cemented in the lineup too. If Holtz is out, then fine; better Zetterlund than, say, Wood. A Severson-Sharangovich-Holtz-Palat-Haula group in a 1-3-1 is not a world beater but it is an upgrade on paper to what the Devils have been doing with their secondary unit.
Speaking of that secondary unit, they were burned for a shorthanded goal in the Carolina game. That was a perfect example of another aspect of the power play - for both units - that I think needs the improvement: focus on the puck.
First, the example. Faceoffs are like set pieces in soccer. Even if they do not go as expected, there is usually a plan for what the team should do. Severson starting off so back and Haula moving back from the hashmarks after the faceoff loss were avoidable errors that led to the SHGA and presumably made the coaching staff wince. I know I did. While that was one set of errors - and correctable ones at that - the Devils power play that night was undercut by bad entries into defenders and pucks turned over to the other team from mishandling, shots, and passes (Bratt was guilty of plenty of that in Raleigh). The common thread about the shorthanded goals against a goaltender have been either been turnovers to active penalty killers and defenders, if there are any, not stepping up when needed. What is a common cause for turnovers as well as not stepping up on defense? Focus on the puck. Or a lack thereof.
It also explains the rise in blocks against the Devils, too. I think the Devils are sometimes guilty of missing the tree right in front of them when looking at the forest. Yes, it may be a good time to shoot but not so much when the opposition penalty killer is right there for an easy denial by their stick, legs, or skates. This also, I think, explains how Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt go from being strong on the puck in 5-on-5 but prone to losing it in 5-on-4 situations. Throw in aggressive penalty killers and the turnovers mount, the zone entries get denied, and the frustration with the power play grows. Even though this season’s power play is objectively better than last season’s power play.
Fortunately, I think this too can be fixed. It will be more up to the players than Brunette to do that. He cannot control the puck. He can control what the players are doing with getting into the opposition zone and setting up, though. It would be worth going through recent games and identifying if there are any common issues when pucks are lost. There is a difference between someone being pressured into it than someone trying to make a pass or take a shot into a lane that is not open. Among other possibilities, of course.
I would also suggest to Brunette that, long term, he may want to get away from using the bottom one in his 1-3-1 as someone to stay in front of the goalie. This has been something the Devils have used Nathan Bastian for in the past and have tried to use others (Miles Wood) with little success. I do not think it has really helped out the Devils much.
Just look at the Devils’ power play when Nathan Bastian was healthy. It is not that Bastian has been bad in power play situations. On the contrary, his on-ice rates in power play situations are among the best on the Devils. I am not suggesting that he should not be on a power play. Putting him on a power play unit is probably a good idea. However, his presence in front of the net has not yielded a ton of goals. Bastian himself has zero PPGs and zero power play points. When Bastian is out on the power play, he has witnessed 6 goals for. Which is not bad. Especially if he set a screen on the goalie for a couple of them. Yet, Bastian was part of a Devils power play that converted 13 out of 66 opportunities before his injury. Or a success rate of 19.7%. Since Bastian has been hurt, the Devils have converted 13 out of 64 opportunities for a success rate of 20.3%. Which is about the same. This is all to say that Bastian has not been that big of a contributor on the Devils power play.
In theory, the idea of the down-low player in a 1-3-1 formation being in the goalies’ way makes some sense. Especially if the team is aiming to shoot from the points or from the circles above or behind the dots. In practice, it really has not helped the Devils much on their power plays. As the on-ice rates showed earlier, the 2022-23 Devils have been more successful at generating high danger chances and scoring chances than last season’s power play. When they are set-up (or if Hughes just breaks through the opposition), they are getting the puck into more dangerous locations to shoot more often than they did under Recchi. I do not think a player standing in front of the goalie adds much.
This is why I am encouraged when the Devils skaters are moving more on their power plays. The bottom player playing near the net makes him available for passes and close shots as well as moving in for a screen when the play goes out to distance. I think that may be a better way to go. And Bastian may benefit from it. It could lead to giving him more than just have zero goals, zero points, and four shots on net on power plays this season. Changing a whole formation or system at this point in the season is not feasible. Therefore, an adjustment such as having the bottom player be more available than just to be in the goalie’s way and hope he does not block the Devils’ own shots. I think Brunette can unlock more offensive opportunities from the power play unit through such an adjustment.
Lastly, the Devils just need to make adjustments to deal with aggressive penalty killers. That has been what oppositions have done to the Devils for most of this season as well as in the past two seasons under Recchi. When they force turnovers or deny a zone entry for the Devils, then they are emboldened to do more. Whatever ideas the Devils coaches have to beat aggressive forechecks may apply here.
All of this is to show that there is plenty of room for growth for the 2022-23 Devils’ power play. It does not change the fact that, yes, the 2022-23 Devils’ power play is better off now than where they were after 41 games of the 2021-22 campaign. Brunette is objectively an upgrade over Recchi when it comes to coaching the New Jersey power play.
Now that you read what I think of the Devils’ power play and how it is better than last season, I want to know what you think. Do you agree that it is better off now than where it was a season ago? What recommendations would you make for the Devils’ power play to be more successful? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ power play in the comments. Thank you for reading.