Correcting Thoughts about the New Jersey Devils' 5-on-5 Play in the 2010 Playoffs

After the New Jersey Devils' loss after Game 5, I wrote the following among a long list of faults about the Devils' performance throughout the majority of their short first round series to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Flyers' kept the Devils offense largely on the perimeter tonight, as they had done in 3 out of the 4 previous games.  Where were the adjustments to get space in the slot and in the circles?

Let me point out that the stats don't support what I said here, that the Devils were kept on the perimeter in 4 out of the 5 Devils games.  This is a post that explains how I was wrong to say this.

When I was planning to write the post about the Devils' scoring and shooting percentage, I found some very interesting information about the Devils' shooting percentage between the playoffs and the regular season at the Behind the Net blog.  I highlighted it in the scoring and shooting percentage post; but I'll summarize it here.   Basically, the Devils shot worse than expected based on where they shot the puck in the playoffs in both even strength and power play situations.  The Devils weren't so much being shut out of having good positions to shoot, but rather they couldn't convert for a variety of reasons (e.g. a big stop, a botched shot, bad luck, etc., etc.)

I'm not saying that the Flyers defense wasn't effective, it was. I don't think what I saw in those 5 games was misleading.  But perhaps confirmation bias was allowing me to only remember shooting attempts by New Jersey going awry via block, miss, or right into Brian Boucher's logo.  Reading that made me start wondering about what other thoughts I had about the Devils' playoff performance that doesn't hold water compared to the recorded stats.

Seeing this little chart about the Washington Capitals' shot distance, effectively proving that shot distance wasn't Washington's problem, inspired me to look at the shot distance by the notable (defined by ice time) New Jersey Devils in that series.  Fortunately, Behind the Net does record average shot distance for 5-on-5 situations from the regular season and playoffs.

And that's how I'm coming to the conclusion that thinking the Flyers defense just held the Devils outside was wrong. However, this does provide more evidence that the Flyers truly owned the Devils in even strength hockey.

I've compiled the 5-on-5 goals, shots on goal (SOG), shots per 60 minutes (SOG/60), and average shooting distance from Behind the Net into this useful chart.  If you'd like the full size chart, please click here.

    Devils_shot_distance_2009-10_comparison_chart_medium

I've highlighted Devils who have had their shooting distance get closer to the net in green, farther away in red.  Nearly all the top forwards were able to get their even strength shots closer to the net on average, only Ilya Kovalchuk saw his average distance increase.  

The defensemen took longer shots, but that doesn't surprise me too much since they were usually at the point.  It does speak to their lack of shooting from pinching in, though. Not that they shot much anyway in 5-on-5 hockey, I mean, Colin White's sole shot was his one goal in Game 2. Only Martin Skoula of all defensemen saw his average shot distance reduced drastically in the post-season.  However, he only took 2 even strength shots, so it's not as if Skoula really broke out.

What I found that was great was that there's some statistical basis for Dainius Zubrus being a beast in the 2010 playoffs for the Devils.  He took more even strength shots than any other Devil, he was one of the few to score an even strength goal,and he managed to get even closer to the net with his shots more than his regular season average shot distance.  This was true for most of the forwards; but Zubrus led the way in the regular season and post season among regular Devils who averaged at least 10 minutes of even strength ice time per game.

As an aside, does one need to have a low of average shooting distance as possible to be effective? I don't think so, it depends on the skill set of the player and where he plays on his team.  Alex Ovechkin led in even strength goals, but his average shot distance was 35.3 feet.  Why? Because he can bomb the puck from anywhere, so his shot distance will average out higher.  Incidentally, the lowest average shot distance at even strength in the NHL by a player who's played at least 30 games and averages 10 minutes of ice time per game was Marian Gaborik with 22.6 feet. While he was great (26 goals); again, the five guys ahead of him in even strength goal scoring all have varying average shot distances at least 29 feet, more in the middle of the pack of the league or worse.   It's generally good to have a lower average shot distance; but it's not a prerequisite for scoring a lot provided it's not something very high like 40 feet or more - something you'd see from a defenseman.

Let's go back to New Jersey.  What I found that was terrible was the severe lack of even strength shots by the Devils.  OK, I know 5 playoff games is a small population size; but Zach Parise goes 82 games averaging 3.25 even strength shots per game and he gets held down to only 2.2.  Zajac and Kovalchuk didn't even get to 10, they definitely struggled.  The only forwards who came close to being consistent were Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner and even they saw decreases. As an aside, I'm sort of gobsmacked that Langenbrunner has as many even strength shots as Elias and Kovalchuk.

The only Devil to see his even strength shots per game go up in the playoffs? Zubrus.  Again, he was a beast and it showed in his performances.   It's generally desirable to take more shots up close, and most of the forwards did get closer on their shots.  But as we saw it doesn't mean a whole lot without results.  Here, it's clear they struggled to get shots on net, much less goals (4), at 5-on-5 hockey.

By the way, how much 5-on-5 hockey was played in the first round between the Devils and the Flyers? Quite a bit, actually.  All times are from the game summaries at NHL.com.

5 v 5 TOI % of Game
Game 1 44:44 74.56%
Game 2 42:07 70.19%
Game 3 41:49 65.77%
Game 4 35:54 59.83%
Game 5 37:21 62.25%

 

Yes, Games 2 through 5 all featured several penalties but the majority of the game was still at 5-on-5. Special teams are definitely important, I'm not discounting that.  However, it's generally not a good sign at all if you're being beaten on 5-on-5.  While the Devils forwards mostly got a lower shot distance, all that shows is that the Flyers weren't as effective as keeping them at bay on the outside as I thought.  All of this is more evidence that the Flyers really contained the Devils in 5-on-5 hockey.  Since that was 60-70% of each game, doing just that was a huge part of their success - just getting New Jersey's way in their own end exacerbated by the Devils' own rotten luck when it came to actual shooting (the lower shooting percentages).

So what should be the big takeaway from all of this?  Well, since Jacques Lemaire retired, it's not as if the coach can go tell all of the Devils about this big difference.  Moreover, it's not as if shooting percentage is something that could be worked on.   I would hope someone passes this along to the players to really start getting a grasp on what really didn't go right in that series rather than rely on other assertions that may not be what they really are.

I'll concede that there may be other explanations for the numbers being what they are.  However, the average shot distance getting shorter for the forwards - the primary shooters for the Devils in this case - says that the Flyers really didn't keep the Devils on the outside as much as I thought they did.  Only the Devils not named Zubrus saw their shooting rate - both shooting percentage and shots on goal per game - reduce in the playoffs.  That really undercuts the improvement in average shooting distance; and ultimately provides further proof that the Devils offense helped create New Jersey's early playoff exit.

Did all of this change your outlook on that playoff series?   Did it confirm what you already felt?   Is there something I'm missing?  Do you have a better opinion of Dainius Zubrus now? Let me know what you think of all of this in the comments.

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