On the surface, it wouldn’t appear that the New Jersey Devils have a lot of areas left to improve. The team made huge strides one year ago and engineered one of the biggest one-season turnarounds in the history of the league. People are excited about the team and rightfully so.
With that said, one area where the Devils could stand to improve is on the power play. There’s also the matter of the penalty kill, which was a strength of the Devils last season. The Devils will be tasked with replacing several key contributors in that area after some turnover on the roster this offseason.
In Part 4 of the New Jersey Devils 2023-24 Season Preview, we’ll take a look at the special teams units, what they did well, what they didn’t do well, and if they still have the right personnel moving forward to execute to the level that they’re looking to execute at.
The Power Play
It would be misleading to suggest the Devils power play didn’t improve last season to some extent.
Mike laid out the numbers last year in his special teams preview of just how bad the Devils were in 2021-22, but I think its worth comparing those numbers to this past season to put things in the proper context. Let’s compare and contrast to this year’s numbers (courtesy of Natural Stat Trick).
After replacing Mark Recchi with Andrew Brunette on the coaching staff, the Devils made fairly significant improvements. While it seems like the personnel has frequently changed with the man advantage, one constant on PP1 was the combination of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Dougie Hamilton leading the way (in terms of time on ice per games played). All of those players were healthy throughout last season, so it would make sense that there was improvement on the power play as a result. The Devils even managed to cut down on the annoyingly high number of shorthanded goals they were surrendering in the 2021-22 season, which was arguably actively hurting the cause more than not scoring.
So why did it feel like the power play was still awful last year?
We all watch the games, so we do have a sense of what the Devils didn’t do well on the man advantage. We saw that the zone entries were sometimes stagnant and predictable, with the Devils occasionally spending the better part of the two minutes trying to gain the offensive zone and get set up. That’s on full display when the Devils get stood up at the blueline and the other team collects the loose puck and clears.
We’ve seen the Devils player deployment be heavy with left-handed shots due to the personnel they’ve had, and we’ve seen them lack the size where they can park a true net-front presence in front of the opposing goaltender for redirections and easy tap-in goals (something that the Rangers, for example, have done quite well with Chris Kreider the last few years). We can see that the team tends to overpass the puck in search for the “perfect” shot that never seems to come instead of firing pucks at the net and trying to create something amidst a sea of chaos. We can see that they operate on the perimeter, that some skaters are far too stationary which makes them easier to defend against, and that the puck movement isn’t quick enough. We have seen other teams be aggressive on the penalty kill because if they can force a turnover, they’ll probably catch a slow-footed Dougie Hamilton in a compromising position going the other way on an odd-man rush.
And yet, the Devils power play improved, which is likely a testament to the elite talent they have. Hamilton blasts a rocket from the point and it goes in. Jack Hughes, who might be one of the ten best players in the league, does Jack Hughes things. He connects with Jesper Bratt on a royal road pass for a goal or snipes the top corner and the Devils have a power play goal despite the first 90 seconds of the power play setting back hockey 50 years. The Devils might have simply “finished” better than they did the previous season, and some might argue that finishing is what ultimately matters. I don’t necessarily disagree with that. Real goals will always count more than “expected goals”. But with that said, there is something to be said about the process and whether that is good, or if the Devils are succeeding in spite of bad process.
That brings us to this season. Out is former assistant coach Andrew Brunette and in is former Canucks head coach Travis Green on the staff. John wrote about the power plays under Green when the Devils announced the hire. One of his takeaways at the time was that the Canucks might’ve been beneficiaries of hot shooting, but I’m more concerned with the choices when it comes to personnel and stylistic approach with this Devils squad.
With the preseason in the books now and a few practices under their belt under Green, the early results are promising. The Devils finished 8-21 on the power play this preseason, converting at 38%. Obviously this comes with the caveat of “Its preseason” and “its a small sample size”, but watching the games, the power play certainly feels different.
Part of that is the personnel they’ve used, as the Devils loaded up the top power play unit in the early portion of the preseason while the roster was split. Thanks to that split though, they may have stumbled into something. In the dress rehearsal game vs. the Rangers, the Devils effectively ran two power play units. The top unit of Jesper Bratt-Jack Hughes-Tyler Toffoli-Ondrej Palat-Luke Hughes scored almost immediately on their first opportunity with Bratt showing off his lethal shot off of a feed from Jack Hughes. The second unit of Timo Meier-Nico Hischier-Alexander Holtz-Dawson Mercer-Dougie Hamilton was able to score with Hischier connecting on a stretch pass to Meier, Meier going hard to the net, and a trailing Mercer right there to clean up the garbage. The Hughes unit followed that up later in the period with quick puck movement, a showcase of speed, and Jack Hughes picking a corner.
But there’s more to it than just scoring goals. You can see the puck movement with the Hughes unit, which is a far cry from last year when it seemed like the top unit couldn’t decide whether to get pucks on the net or set up Hamilton for a bomb from the point. You can see elite level skating from the Hughes unit. It’s not just the zone entries and how much more unpredictable they might be. It’s the actual player movement in the offensive zone and the players themselves being less stationary. That level of skating keeps the opposition playing on their heels. Juxtapose that with the second unit which is probably better suited to play a heavier style, but still has plenty of firepower on it, and you’re getting two distinct, different looks. Add in a little more simplification of the approach where you’re getting pucks on net, add in a little less overpassing to set up the “perfect” shot, and you have the makings of a unit that collectively could take a step forward this year. It’s a testament to the depth the Devils have assembled, to the point where its almost an embarrassment of riches.
It’s cliché to say “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I see little reason to mess with two units here that are capable of operating at a high level and have shown flashes throughout the preseason.
The Penalty Kill
The Devils had one of the top penalty kill units in the league last season, successfully killing off penalties at a rate of 82.6% (4th in the NHL). Stats once again courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
The Devils built upon the improvements they made last season on the penalty kill and improved in some metrics. They also managed to once again be one of the more disciplined teams in the NHL, which you truly love to see. Perhaps things will be better in that regard in 2023-24 now that a few players who were prone to taking ill-advised penalties are playing elsewhere or may have their roles diminished, although there might be a catch with that particular line of thinking.
If there’s a glaring concern that jumps right out, its that the Devils have a lot of minutes to replace on the penalty kill. Starting with the defensemen, the Devils have roughly 271 minutes of ice time to replace between Ryan Graves (187:34) and Damon Severson (83:33) departing. It wouldn’t be fair to expect John Marino or Jonas Siegenthaler to pick up too much more of the slack either since they’re already doing a lot of heavy lifting there, so that task will fall on the other Devils defensemen on the roster. It’s safe to assume Brendan Smith (95:37) will kill penalties when he plays, but he also might spend quite a bit of time in the penalty box and/or press box himself, so the brunt of this workload will likely fall upon some combination of Kevin Bahl (36:24), Colin Miller (34:34 with Dallas), and even Dougie Hamilton (14:07 last season, but he has played 108:25 on the kill for Carolina in 2019-20). If they’re up to the task, the Devils might be able to get by. If they’re not, and we’ve seen Brendan Smith and Colin Miller be so-so this preseason in general, the Devils may want to consider adding another defensive defenseman at the deadline to help Marino and Siegenthaler out.
As for forwards, the Devils leaned heavily on Nico Hischier (169:55), Erik Haula (155:12), Yegor Sharangovich (149:25), Dawson Mercer (106:46), Michael McLeod (94:22), Nathan Bastian (52:49), and Jesper Boqvist (32:58). Sharangovich and Boqvist are no longer with the team, so I would expect Tomas Nosek (168:09 last season in Boston) and potentially Curtis Lazar to have an expanded role on the penalty kill.
Going back to the Rangers dress rehearsal game, the ice time distributed among the skaters on the penalty kill went about as you’d expect.
It should be noted that Nathan Bastian, who has been part of the Devils penalty kill in the past, didn’t play in this game. Nico Hischier finishing 6th among Devils forwards in ice time caught my attention. A potential benefit of the Devils having so many forwards on the backend of the roster this year that they didn’t have last year (ie, replacing Miles Wood who couldn’t/didn’t kill penalties with Tomas Nosek) would be a little less ice time for Hischier on the kill, freeing him up to play those minutes at 5v5. We’ll see if that trend continues once we get in season, although that might be contingent upon whoever the Devils dress on any particular night. As for the defensemen, I think it went as expected with Smith in the lineup to soak up a lot of penalty kill time and Kevin Bahl taking on a bigger role.
Of course, the best way the Devils can cut down on power play goals allowed would be to not commit penalties, which is something they’ve done well the last few years. Defensemen will get beat from time to time and grab or hook someone to prevent a Grade A scoring chance....its just part of the game and those aren’t necessarily bad penalties to take given the context. Remaining disciplined will certainly go a long way towards success this season. It also might be another cliché, but it goes without saying that your goaltender needs to be your best penalty killer. Assuming Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid are close to the goaltenders we saw last year during the regular season, that will go a long way as well.
How do you think the special teams units will fare this season? Can the Devils take another step on the power play or will they be a frustrating watch again this season? Do the Devils have enough options on the penalty kill for that unit not to have a dropoff? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thanks for reading.