On top of several players to re-sign, new players to consider, and the NHL Entry Draft coming in a month, the New Jersey Devils now has an assistant coaching spot to fill. Tom Gulitti reported on Wednesday at Fire & Ice that Lou stated that one of the assistant coaches on the New Jersey Devils would likely be leaving the organization to take their first head coaching position. Lou turned out to be right. It was reported earlier this afternoon by Jim Leitner of TH Sports that Matt Shaw has been hired by the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League as their head coach and general manager. Over at Fire & Ice, Gulitti confirmed the news from the Devils side.
It's confirmed that Shaw is gone, but will he be missed? Shaw was brought in last summer as an assistant coach to run the power play. He was the replacement for Adam Oates, who took on the head coaching job at Washington. I was excited about the hire since the San Jose power play wasn't just productive, but very prolific. Here's what I wrote about Shaw last July:
I don't expect the Devils power play to become the best in the league overnight. As good as the Devils players may be, the Sharks weren't lacking for talent. Still, I do expect Shaw to have the PP units generate more offense and hopefully be more consistent in entering the zone. I really, really, really like that he was acquired due to his work in San Jose. I'll even be more pleased if he can help the team on that half of special teams.
Well, I sort of got what I wanted. The Devils did improve in SF/60 in 5-on-4 situations between 2013 and 2011-12 according to Behind the Net. Their rate jumped from a 23rd ranked 45.2 SF/60 in 2011-12 to a 10th best 48.5 SF/60 in this past season. Considering the Devils were without key power player Ilya Kovalchuk for a portion of 2013, that's actually a good jump in shooting rates.
However, that's as far as the praise really goes. With a success rate of 15.9%, the 21st best this season and a drop from a not-bad 17.2% in 2011-12, it's hard to say that Shaw really was successful in New Jersey. In Shaw's defense, poor puck luck undercut the power play similarly to the rest of their game. The numbers at Behind the Net reveals that their 5-on-4 shooting percentage was above league average in 2011-12 at 12.3%. It was only 10.8% in 2013. Big surprise: a team that wasn't shooting anywhere close to average in 5-on-5 play also wasn't close to shooting at the league average in 5-on-4 play. Without goals, power plays go longer and therefore the opportunity for shots increase. While power plays do try to set up shots, I don't think it's completely Shaw's fault the pucks got in the new at a lesser rate.
That said, the team absolutely struggled at times just gaining the zone and their success heavily relied on the first unit. It wasn't the worst ever power play unit - the 2002-03 team set that particular standard for futility - but it wasn't uncommon to see the team get dumb like firing in hard dumps from the neutral zone, settle for only point shots, or failing to shoot with lanes. Marek Zidlicky and Kovalchuk made a lot of that power play go but take Zidlicky off for the second unit and it was a hodge-podge at times. Don't even get me started on how they did without Kovalchuk at all while he was injured. It was amazing - and not in a good way - to see players with otherwise good shots literally pass them up. The same way it was seeing David Clarkson, one of the league's most prolific shooters, just park himself in front of the net. Yes, he can handle the tough stuff and jam pucks in but one would think that a guy whose game is "put it on frame whenever possible" should see the puck regularly on a power play. They didn't really try that. In short, the power play left a lot to be desired.
I am reminded of the phrase, "It's not just the X's and the O's so much as it is the Jimmies and the Joes." Oates left New Jersey to Washington, implemented a new system in the 1-3-1, and saw it work to great success thanks to having the right personnel who can run it. Alexander Ovechkin certainly got hot, but leading the league in 5-on-4 goals with 41 in 48 games suggests it was a team effort. The San Jose power play without Shaw was still potent. They finished 2013 with a success rate over 20% and still led the league in SF/60 in 5-on-4 play at 58.1. They weren't as dominant as they were under Shaw but you can't do better than first. That doesn't happen if the team doesn't have the personnel to succeed.
Ultimately, Shaw as a power play coach will not likely be missed by most fans and I can understand that. Yet, the Devils' power play isn't going to improve just by getting a different coach. OK, the shooting percentage may bounce back up and that will make it look a little better. However, for more significant improvement, more significant changes must be considered. Lou and the other coaches need to identify what players can do what in a man advantage situation. From there, the system should be developed to put more players in a position to succeed. It can't just be "feed the puck to Kovalchuk for the shot" or have only three out of five players constantly move the puck around before finding a seem. It may take a more aggressive mentality or even different players along with a new guy to develop said system. The Devils will likely get another assistant head coach to replace Shaw but the biggest improvements to their power play could truly be found with acquiring new assets.
All the same, I'm glad the Devils did give Shaw a shot and I'm glad that Shaw was able to get a brand new opportunity out of it. He's been an assistant for a very long time so this really is a big step for him. If he does well at the USHL level, then who knows, maybe he moves up the proverbial ladder in the future. Given that it's a junior league, his work will get noticed. I wish Shaw the very best of luck at Dubuque and I thank him for his short tenure in New Jersey.