The 2010-11 New Jersey Devils Power Play: Just Hot in December

One of the glaring and more frustrating problems with the New Jersey Devils this season is their power play.   As if it wasn't enough that this team struggles to score goals in general, the power play has ranged to the occasionally good to so bad that one wonders that what they watched was an utter waste of two minutes.  Currently, the Devils have one of the lowest power play conversion rates in the league at 14.8%.   They have scored only 33 power play goals out of 222 opportunities.  This is particularly frustrating when the Devils are in a close game and they get a man advantage to at least apply some pressure, much less score a goal, and they don't do it.

Like most problems, it's not a simple one.  Earlier this month, I noted that the Devils are still terrible relative to the rest of the league at getting power play situations.  This affects the power play overall in that it's difficult to make the most out of opportunities if you aren't able to get them in the first place.  If the idea is to get more power play goals, then getting more power plays and figuring the law of averages breaks in New Jersey's favor is a good way to go.

Today, I want to provide some perspective to the problem.  I went to the game-by-game stat summaries at NHL.com to get a breakdown when the Devils scored power play goals, how many opportunities they had, and compare it with the total number of goals scored.  I organized it by month and have the chart after the jump.  One of the more intriguing findings that while the Devils got hot in December on the power play, it was a rather inconsequential hot streak.  Fans shouldn't be wishing for December 2010 again.

The 2010-11 New Jersey Devils Power Play by Month

At first glance, one may conclude that one thing former head coach John MacLean can feel good about is that the power play was more successful under him than Jacques Lemaire.  When MacLean was the head coach, the Devils converted 17 out of 104 opportunities -  a success rate of 16.3%.  Since his firing, the Devils power play has converted 16 out of 118 opportunities - a success rate of 13.5%.  So clearly, the power play got worse since Lemaire was brought in as the interim head coach.

Not so fast.   Let's look at a chart of how often the Devils converted on power plays by month.

Devils_pp_by_month_3-28-2011

Just based on goals scored alone, the Devils' offense has improved under Lemaire.  This isn't news. The team's shooting percentage has risen in the last three months, current slump not included in the linked post.  As long as the Devils don't get shut out on Wednesday, they'll at least tie the best month for scoring during MacLean's tenure.

What is news is that December really sticks out like a sore thumb here.   The Devils hit season highs in not just power play goals, but in opportunities as well. It's not even close. A success rate over 20%, power play goals represent over half of total goals scored, and   Even with a game remaining in this month, short of the Islanders losing their cool (again), December will likely remain as the team's best month.  

Yet, that it was so, so, so unsuccessful in October and November puts lie to any thought MacLean and the coaching staff really knows better than Lemaire and the coaching staff when it comes to the power play.  Given that both have been responsible for less than 82 games, this suggests that MacLean's really just the beneficiary of being around during a hot streak in terms of getting power plays and getting power play goals.    Just like March's decent percentage is boosted by a 3-for-6 performance against Atlanta.  Take that away and it's 4-for-33 in March, which is a more sobering 12.12%.

Interestingly enough, look at the goals scored in January and February.  While the power play crashed back to the abyss, the team scored more goals.  Not coincidentally, they started winning more games.  I'm not saying the Devils don't need a successful power play to succeed.  Just that it would really help them out to make some games easier at best and bail them out or keep the game close at worst. 

Let's take a closer look at December, since it does stick out among all of the other months this season.

The December 2010 Hot Streak

The Devils managed to have a power-play-goal-per-game streak for eight games in December 2010.   In those eight games, the team drew 30 opportunities and scored on 10 of them - converting twice in two of those eight games.   Here's a quick summary of the streak.

Devils_pp_december_streak

First and foremost, as nice as they scored those power play goals, they didn't win many of those games. In fact, based on the score, the power play was only a factor in keeping the Devils in the game in the first three games.  The latter five were all consolation goals with the exception of that solitary win against Phoenix.  The power play goal scored was the team's third goal that evening.

When I say the power play hot streak was inconsequential, this is what I'm referring to.  The goals often didn't matter for New Jersey in the latter five-eighths of this streak.  Ultimately, as good as it was for the Devils to get a power play goal or two in the first three games in this streak, they got beat elsewhere. They didn't build on the goals.  They came the closest on December 10 at Ottawa to having it as a driver for a comeback; but it was only a small victory.  In most of the other seven games, the power play really didn't lead to additional scoring.  We may recall this streak fondly, but the reality is that the Devils went 1-7-0 in spite of their consistent PP success.

Second, notice the distance of the power play goals.  I am assuming the scorer was accurate in noting how far away from the goal the shot was taken here.  The faceoff dots in the zone are 20 feet from the goal line, as mandated by the NHL rule book. Slap shots make up half of the PPGs (3 by Ilya Kovalchuk) and all five of them were from beyond the dots.  In fact, only two power play goals can be said to be taken from close range - and one was a tip-in on a long shot.

This is important to note for two reasons. The first is that is that it justified the strategy to shoot from the perimeter at the time. The Devils were running an umbrella back then with a point-man at the center with two shooters on each side. The second is that the Devils were quite fortunate to score that way in successive games.  Even on a one-timer, when it comes to shots from distance, there are more variables at play with respect to just hitting the net (angle, traffic, a penalty killer in the shooter's grill, etc.).  It's not an easy shot to hit the net, much less get it into the net.

I believe it eventually led to the Devils' downfall on their power play. Anyone scouting the Devils' power play just had to pressure the perimeter players to either get a block on a shot, knock the puck away, or force the shooter to pass up the shot.  With only a few attacking bodies down low, the defensemen on a PK and the goalie can better control rebounds and clean up loose pucks.  Ultimately, I think other teams figured out how successful it was to apply pressure high that it not only force the Devils to go to a different scheme (two shooters on the point, playmaker on a sideboard), but to give the power play fits in just setting up on offense.

Don't Wish for December

This may require further investigation, but I think this question suffices in the meantime.  If what the Devils were doing in December in these eight games was so successful, then how come they haven not gone back to it in the last three months?  Just look at the first chart, the power play could certainly be more successful. That we have not seen the umbrella since provides doubt as to whether it was that good of a formation.

I believe what happened in these eight games was a hot streak and nothing more. Just like the Devils were hot against Atlanta in going 3-for-6.  One night where things just fell into place a few times and that was that.  No disrespect intended to either, but I doubt  Adam Oates and/or John MacLean took over two months to figure out what would work and have it be so successful that the Devils haven't tried as much since Lemaire took over.  I also doubt Oates and/or Lemaire is so stubborn to not try something new despite what the power play hasn't been doing much of in the last three months.  (Not to mention that I don't see either putting personal pride before winning hockey games).

It appears to me that things just fell into place for NJ over two weeks instead of any actual systemic improvement on the power play.  That's all.   Hoping the team just gets hot is understandable, but it'll just put the Devils back where they were after a short while.

Furthermore, even a consistently scoring power play doesn't always make up for deficiencies elsewhere.  When the Devils were at their best on the power play this season, they lost 7 of those 8 games.  Scoring goals then was still a gigantic challenge, with 20 total goals scored in the entire month.  It was only when the team picked up their scoring at even strength and reduced their goals allowed did they start winning games.   The power play does remain a problem, though.   If the Devils had a more successful power play, they would have won more of those games decisively and possibly cut down on the few losses they have incurred in the second half of the season.

However, the Devils really did not have a better power play under John MacLean (nor do I think the problem was his alone); a hot streak for 8 games in December only made it seem that way.   Let's not be nostalgic for those days.  The reality is that the power play has been bad all season long.  Instead with this perspective in mind, let's focus on what have been problems all season long beyond just not scoring goals. and offer some suggestions   We'll discuss that tomorrow.  Please feel free to add your comments on what the Devils should do or additional questions about the power play in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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