So far, the offseason has been busy for the New Jersey Devils. They turned their first round pick into a starting goalie in Cory Schneider; they retained Patrik Elias, Marek Zidlicky, and Dainius Zubrus; and they signed Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder, and Rostislav Olesz on July 5. On that very same day, David Clarkson inked a big deal with Toronto that they possibly can't regret. After a few re-signings and hiring Mike Foligno as an assistant coach, the Devils just recently signed Jaromir Jagr. Oh, and some guy named Ilya Kovalchuk "retired" to go play for SKA St. Petersburg. It's a lot to take in but let's start with an area that fans have brought up here and there with these signings: the power play.
By the numbers, the New Jersey Devils weren't so impressive on the power play. In their favor, the team did finish third in the NHL in power play opportunities and they had the tenth highest shots for per 60 minute rate in 5-on-4 situations. However, they only scored 28 power play goals and their shooting percentage in 5-on-4 situations was the sixth lowest in the league. The Devils finished just in the bottom third in success rate at 15.9%. They had their moments, but they often frustrated with their inconsistency in just getting in the zone and setting up. It's an area the Devils should try to improve in the coming season.
What makes it stand out more are the departures of Kovalchuk and Clarkson. Both played on the first unit, and Kovalchuk often played with the second unit too. That's a lot minutes to make up. Plus, both were rather active in trying to put rubber on net in 5-on-4 situations. I understand the hope that Ryder, Jagr, and Clowe can fill in. Therefore, let's try to put some numbers to it. Let's see how much Kovalchuk and Clarkson did for the Devils in the last two seasons - a full 2011-12 season and a shortened 2013 season - and compare it to the incoming players. Fortunately, Hockey Analysis has individual shooting attempts (iCorsi) plus point totals and shooting percentages for 5-on-4 situations. It's not all power play situations, but given how uncommon 5-on-3 and 4-on-3 situations are, I think it's safe to use this institutional data as if they were representative of their power play data. Here is Hockey Analysis' data that I pulled from the 2011-12 season, which is from all forwards that played at least 100 minutes of 5-on-4 hockey:
It should be said that team is definitely going to be a confounding factor. Here's the team stats from NHL.com for power plays in that season. Clowe played on a San Jose team that shot the puck at a higher rate than any other team in the league in 5-on-4 situations and was quite productive. That surely helped him get in positions to succeed since everyone was all about generating attempts. Jagr played on a Philadelphia team that was strong on the power play. So Jagr had help to make things happen either by getting the puck to shoot or getting the puck to others. Ryder played on the least successful power play in the league in Dallas. Remarkably, Ryder had the best shooting percentage among the threesome. A bright spot among a lack of lit lamps. All three were pretty good at attempting to shoot the puck, as indicated by their iCorsi and iCorsi/60 values. These numbers suggest to me that played an active role on the power play.
However, look at the two Devils, specifically Kovalchuk. Only one man out-shot and out-attempted Kovalchuk in 5-on-4 situations in 2011-12 and that was Evgeni Malkin. A majority of his attempts didn't get on net, but his rates were so high that he ended up being so prolific anyhow from the point. Granted, the Devils' main strategy on the power play was to get it to Kovalchuk at the point for him to bomb it. Well, they did it a lot and Kovalchuk didn't disappoint from a big-picture standpoint. Clarkson didn't get nearly as many attempts but most of them were on target and he put up a decent points per 60 rate. He wasn't just a body on the power play, he just wasn't the featured player and the numbers reflect that to a degree. On other point, Kovalchuk's 23 5-on-4 points actually ranked in the top ten among forwards, but his rate is so low since Kovalchuk played so many minutes on otherwise unsuccessful power plays. Such is the folly of playing such a massive role on a team's power play.
While that's from the most recent 82-game season, here's the data from the shortened 2013 season I pulled from Hockey Analysis. Notice what's so different about Kovalchuk's numbers.
One goal! It's easy to look at that and think, "Well, I guess that hole left by #17 isn't so large after alll." However, that would be foolish. Kovalchuk only dipped slightly in his rate of shooting attempts and still was among league leaders. His shooting percentage just went right down the toilet. While shots from the point aren't really high percentage plays, going from a bit above 11% down to a bit above 2% is just heinous luck. As a result, he wasn't so productive and since much of the Devils power play leaned on Kovalchuk firing away, so did the team's. Put it this way, if it wasn't so bad, the two Devils are only a few goals behind the three new signings. Clarkson got more involved at shooting; I'm sure Kovalchuk's time out due to injury led to more involvement. He did improve at getting more pucks on net, but it was a goal or nothing from him. Between the two, that's plenty of attempts to make up among ice time.
As for the new guys, well, let's start at the bottom. Clowe didn't even make the 100 minute mark in 5-on-4 situations. He averaged over two minutes per game on the power play; maybe he just didn't get enough games? Either way, he wasn't all that effective. His shooting percentage didn't sag, but his decent rate of attempts just plummeted. Throw in the fact he went from the high-shooting, strong power play of San Jose to the low-shooting and not-so-strong power play of New York and it didn't look good for him last season. On the flip side, Ryder was extremely effective both in Dallas and Montreal. Only seven forwards in the league put up more points in 5-on-4 situations, his shooting percentage remained super-good, and he upped the numbers he took per 60 minutes. You can't ask for much better than that. Even Dallas got better on the PP (despite low shooting). Jagr fell somewhere in between both. His shooting in general got cold in Boston and he didn't score a single power play goal for them. He did have a decent rate of attempts, though it fell a bit from the last full season. Interestingly, he got the vast majority of his attempts on net. They mostly didn't go in.
In taking both seasons together, it becomes clear that it's going to take a very different game plan for the New Jersey Devils. That may be obvious. Without Kovalchuk, who else is really going to sit at the left point in a roaming type role to bomb shots whenever open? But under that game plan, Kovalchuk was quite prolific at getting those shots off and got plenty of shots on net as needed. Had he stayed, his low shooting percentage in 2013 should lead one to possibly expect some kind of a glorious rebound. And even with that plan, Clarkson (and the other Devils) weren't exactly just extras on the set in terms of making things happen. He had a decent rate in 2011-12 and it jumped up in 2013. That will have to replaced.
The good news is that two of them should help out on paper. Even though they each played for better power plays at one point or another, the individual numbers of Ryder and Jagr in 5-on-4 play are encouraging. Ryder should be expected to be the biggest help. Ryder had a great rate of attempts in 2013 but the 2011-12 season makes me think that may not last. Still, he managed to be quite productive with his shots. I don't expect him to shoot over 20% for a third straight season, but I do think should get plenty of opportunities to produce. The points will come, provided the attempts are on net. Jagr had a decent rate in both seasons and put up decent numbers. His stick going cold hampered his numbers in Boston, but as long as he's firing about 19-21 attempts per 60 minutes, he should be fine. Jagr knows he's an offensive player and his knowledge won't fade as a season goes on. What's disappointing is that Clowe really doesn't come out good in this. While he had a strong point-per-60 minute rate and a decent rate of attempts, his effectiveness fell out last year. It could be a bad season, but it also could mean he may not be able to help out all that much. Still, two out of three isn't bad and both could fill in at least part of the power play hole Kovalchuk and Clarkson left behind.
Ultimately, I can't ignore the confounding factor of coaching. We know Kovalchuk is an all-world shooter and we know Clarkson never saw a shooting opportunity he didn't like. However, a big reason why Kovalchuk got as many shots and attempts as he did came from the Devils' power play strategy. He was the target man and the team gave him the looks to shoot. Clarkson would be down low in front and jam at pucks as needed so he wouldn't be out of the picture entirely. Jagr, Ryder, and even Clowe were used in various ways with their teams that could greatly effect how they performed in the last two seasons on the power play. The numbers suggest Ryder and Jagr will help the most right away. But if the coaches come up with a formation that features Clowe for some reason, it's not impossible to think he'll make leaps and bounds over his poor-looking 2013 numbers. It seems like a cop out, but it's the reality of the situation. We shall see what happens in training camp. Until then, the title question can't be fully answered. By the numbers, Ryder and Jagr can but not so much from Clowe; but it'll fall upon whether the coaches put them in spots where they can be effective.
What do you think? Can Ryder, Jagr, and Clowe really help the Devils power play? Can they fill in the gap left behind by Kovalchuk and Clarkson? How would you want to see three used on the power play in 2013-14? Do you have confidence that the coaches will use all three effectively? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the new signings and the power play in the comments. Thank you for reading.