Pictured: Celebrating one of the ten power play goals scored by the New Jersey Devils this season. - Jim McIsaac
Eleven games and ten power play goals into the 2013 regular season, and there's evidence showing that the Devils' power play has improved to a degree from last season. However, there's more room for further improvement.
Power plays have been called more often in this season than last, as Derek Zona noted earlier this month at NHL Numbers, and the New Jersey Devils have been affected by both sides of the referee's whistle. Last week, I pointed how they're taking more penalties than they have in recent seasons. Today, I'd like to focus on the other side: the Devils' power play itself. Believe it or not, they've better at it to a degree compared to last season in their first eleven games.
In the last offseason, Adam Oates, who ran the Devils power play for two seasons, departed to Washington to become their new head coach and the Devils hired Matt Shaw in his place. I really liked the hire back in July given how the Sharks were the best in the league in generating shots in 5-on-4 situations for three seasons in a row. My hope is that he would get the Devils to shoot more on the power play. Shots are more sustainable than goals so improvements there should lead to a generally more effective man advantages. Near the end of the shortened training camp, those hopes resurfaced when Peter DeBoer stated - per Tom Gulitti - there has been a philosophical change for the power play; that it is a "shooting power play." That was back on January 18. Weeks and eleven games later, has that really been the case? Is there any reason to believe that Shaw has been better at coaching the power play than Oates?
Let's look at the basic numbers from NHL.com first. I've included both of Oates' seasons and the current season under Shaw. Again, there only have been 11 games played this season; this does not include last night's game against Pittsburgh. So I wouldn't expect the current numbers to last.
What has flown under the radar has been that the Devils have not given up a shorthanded goal this season. They gave up a lot of them last season and several in the season before that. The Devils have come close on a few occasions to give up that first shorty, but it hasn't happened yet. That's a positive in of itself. We see that the Devils have received more opportunities per game (PPO/GP) and that they've converted chances (PP%) at a better rate than the past two seasons. That's very good to see. However, opportunities are more the result of the other team fouls and the refs catching them and quite a few of those ten goals have come on fortunate occurrences. What about the shots? Is there improvement there as well?
According to Behind the Net, the Devils have improved in terms of shooting the puck more compared to last season. The 2013 Devils are not nearly at the level of the San Jose power plays he ran, but they aren't a hot mess either like, say, Winnipeg. Also, these numbers were also taken before last night's game against Pittsburgh.
It's worth noting that the Devils have been quite effective in two-man advantages this season. They actually lead the league with four goals in 5-on-3 situations. Since their awful-shooting 2010-11 season, they've been quite successful with two man advantages. It's something to remember the next time the Devils get one.
As far as 5-on-4 situations go, the Devils are around the league median in generating shots (note: SF/60 is shots for per 60 minutes). Not exactly the "shooting power play" I've hoped to see but they're ahead of last season's team. That's pretty good considering they've lost Zach Parise. They're not yet at the level of the power play in 2010-11, though.
Maybe this shouldn't be such a surprise given that the Devils haven't made too many changes from last year's power play set up. Personnel wise, the Devils are still running Ilya Kovalchuk all the time on power plays on one point, a defenseman on the other point, and three forwards down low. Of those three forwards, one stands in the slot with two operating from each sides, roaming as needed. Many of the shots set-up are coming from either Kovalchuk or the defenseman, who is either Zidlicky or Andy Greene. Either they're at the points or the upper half of the circles according to Greg's Super Shot Search. The breakout is still usually led by the point-men and the Devils just struggle at times to get into the zone. They're fine if they get enough possession to set up and continue to make good passes. It's just getting to that point that has been frustrating to watch at times, especially if they dump it in or misfire on a breakout pass.
The only real tactical change I've noticed in this year's power play has been the play of the point men themselves. Kovalchuk and the defender have been rotating at the point either with or without the puck. Here's an example of it in action, prior to Greene scoring in a 5-on-3 against Tampa Bay.
You can see how Kovalchuk carried it across and stayed on the left after Greene shifted over. With the additional man advantage, the passing lane was there for Greene to get in a bit closer than he usually would be and rifle one into the net. It's an example of the rotation's success.
Regarding the rotation in general, I believe the idea is to get mean the opposition can't just sit back and expect Kovalchuk to be there just for a blistering one-timer, a common play on the power play since he arrived. The opposition penalty killers have to respect the other man from distance. This also means that Kovalchuk isn't always there for that one-timer; it doesn't work so well at the left point since he's a right-handed shot. The other three forwards react accordingly to the flow the power play just like they have been.
I'm still on the fence of the effectiveness of this change. While the shots for per 60 rate has improved, I'm not too sure whether that has anything to do with it any more than an instruction of "shoot more." I still think that if DeBoer, Shaw, and the other coaches wants to see the power play shoot more often, then they need to get better at gaining the zone. Having most of the units just stand in the neutral zone and then break in together hasn't always been effective in either last or this season. The opposition defense is able to stand them up and unless the pass or carry-in is clean, the opposition can clear it out quickly. I think they need some new looks to get in and set-up; from there, they may find more opportunities to shoot or at least fewer power plays to squander.
With respect to converting those power plays, they have a fairly low shooting percentage (S%) relative to the rest of the league in 5-on-4 situations. That may improve over time, but we can't be certain about that. It's not like they haven't had breaks. Just off the top of my head, I can recall some rather fortunate events that led to some of the Devils' ten power play goals. David Clarkson leads the team with four power play goals which include a wraparound that went off a defender's skate and a deflection of a long shot by Marek Zidlicky. Steve Bernier's only power play goal is the result of a Greene shot deflecting right off Adam Henrique's stick almost right to him, catching Evgeni Nabokov unaware. Adam Henrique just recently got his first power play goal of the season and that came from Bobby Butler's shot hitting the post and going right to him for an easy score. They're all successes in their own right and it's evidence that the Devils haven't been snake-bitten despite a below-median shooting percentage in 5-on-4 situations. So It's still in their best interests to do what they can to generate more shots on net so they keep the opposition at bay longer and more often. When that happens, the bounces will continue to come.
By the numbers, there's some reason to believe that the power play has been improved to a degree under Shaw. No shorthanded goals, an improved shots for per 60 minutes rate in both 5-on-4 and 5-on-3 situations, and a higher conversion rate all speak to that. The numbers show that the Devils' power play has been decent at worst relative to the rest of the league. There's still room for improvement. The Devils still waste power plays at times and as ugly as that can be to witness, the fact that they keep getting more opportunities have helped them recover and perform better within the game (e.g. Saturday's game against Pittsburgh. It took three before the PP looked like one). Shaw hasn't changed too much from last season except for rotating the point men during the play. I think changes to their zone entry process would help; though better personnel and other tactical adjustments could help too. Still, the Devils have found success with their current power play. It's helped them win some games early this season, they've been held scoreless in three out of their first eleven games, and that cannot be ignored in any current look at the power play. That's not too bad for now.
What do you think of the Devils' power play so far this season? What do you think of what Matt Shaw has done? Do you want them to make other changes? If so, what would they be and why? Will the Devils make those changes or is what we're seeing now what we're going to get? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' power play in the comments. Thank you for reading.