The Devils Power Play: Force to be Reckoned With or Paper Tiger?

Jim McIsaac

The Devils currently have the 4th ranked power play in all the NHL. Are they a legitimitely dangerous force with the extra man advantage, or are they enjoying a run of good luck?

The Devils power play is currently one of only 9 power plays in the league that is converting at a rate of 20% or better. However, anyone who has watched the team play and seen the frequently disjointed nature of the unit would probably do a double take when first hearing the Devils power play is 4th in the league right now. When you peel back the onion, things are not so rosy, as is often the case.

Many of the Devils power plays this year feature a complete failure to get set up at all. So, how are they enjoying so much success? It almost seems like a sort of Jeckyll and Hyde scenario, because sometimes the goals flow like wine, and other times the result is straight up ugly. Well, for starters, the Devils have enjoyed a great run of success / luck ever since the calendar turned to 2014. They are, in fact, second in the league behind only Pittsburgh during this time period, and converting at nearly a 25% clip! Since the Olympic Break (not including last night), the team has scored 8 goals on 26 power play attempts, or a 30.8% success ratio. This is just a crazy conversion percentage, especially for a team that seems lost half the time. These cold moments on the power play seem to correlate very strongly with their inability to get effectively set up in the zone sometimes.

The Devils power play success this season has been fueled largely by a crazy shooting percentage. Their 16.7% shooting on the power play leads even the number 2 team by a full 1.5% (St Louis - 15.2%). Combine with this the fact that the Devils are 27/30 in PP shots for/ 60, and 30/30 in Shot Attempts (FF/ 60), the number #2 power play in the league since January 1st (and #4 overall) reeks of unsustainable success. I wanted to look a little deeper to see if, perhaps, since the power play has enjoyed increased success of late, maybe the rate stats of shots and shot attempts have improved as well, but are bogged down by poor results from early in the season. Below is a chart of the Devils power play totals and rate stats for the season, and also for the 2014 calendar year:

Power_play_season_vs_2014_calendar_year

As you can see here, the rate stats are nearly identical for the overall season at large and the extremely successful 2014 calendar year. There are slight improvements in the rates, but if you took the numbers from the left column and compared to the league, the rankings would be very similar. The only thing that has really improved is that the team's shooting percentage has actually increased to a crazy stupid number, 19.61%. So, for the last 2.5 months, the team is shooting at a percentage even more unsustainable. Again, not a great sign for repeatability of future success.

Initially, I suspected that the low amount of shots generated could be a problem relating to poor zone entries and perhaps not carrying the puck into the zone a lot. So, I went back and charted all the Devils power play zone entries for the 6 games post break, up to and including the Carolina game, but not Philadelphia. My findings surprised me. I'm not going to put a full chart of all the individual zone entries here in the article, but in the 5 games I looked at, they made 47 entries, 35 of them with control of the puck. Out of those 35 controlled entries, they generated or .428 shots per entry, and 23 unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick For or FF). That doesn't sound like a terrible ratio overall, but I have no idea what sort of numbers the most productive power plays generate. Maybe it's not very good. It sounds promising, anyway. The uncontrolled entries (12) produced very little.

Now, here is the Devils zone entry data for the 6 games from 2/27 - 3/8.

Pp_zone_entries

And here is the splits for Controlled vs Uncontrolled Entries:

Zone_entries_control_vs_uncontrol

My first inclination was to think the Devils are having problems with the power play due to not entering the zone enough with possession, but that does not seem to be the case. At least not recently, with 75% of the entries over this time coming with possession. What jumped out at me immediately in this very small sampling of games is how unproductive the Devils are off of uncontrolled entries. I wish I had a point of comparison to compare these entries too. Is .38 shots / entry good relative to the other teams, or is it not? If we could figure out where the Devils rank in shots and attempts generated per zone entry, we could figure out why their overall shot and attempt rates are so low. This could indicate that although the entries they make are productive enough, they are just not entering the zone cleanly enough times overall, and this would point to a problem in their neutral zone play. If we find out that the team is entering the zone at a rate that is league average or better, than this would indicate that the problem is more in the offensive zone play, and that each entry itself is not productive enough. For now, we will not know the answer to that question. Note: The Devils actually scored 8 power play goals, not 5 in the six games I tracked. The other 3 goals did not require a zone entry, because they involved an offensive zone faceoff win, and an immediate goal.

No doubt the power play is benefiting from some favorable luck, not just recently, but all season long, as the team has the top shooting percentage in the league, and is 29th / 30 in shot rate / 60. This leads me to believe the team is due for a fall. Team shooting percentage is not a sustainable skill from year to year, at even strength or on the power play. Just take a look at this chart from Shutdown Line of the last 5 teams to lead the league in power play conversions. Most shot around league average or below the next season. The most repeatable factor in having consistent success on the power play is by generating a lot of shots and shot attempts. The Devils so far this season have shot at 16.82% overall, and the team only averages 1.22 shots per power play. Using the data on Extra Skater, I calculated a league average shooting percentage for the power play to be around 12.5%. If the Devils were to start shooting at the league average for the rest of the year, rather than their inflated rate, their conversion percentage on the power play moving forward would be only 15.24%. This number would be good for 24th in the league right now, and is not a good conversion percentage. This is the danger of riding success based off of a high shooting percentage. I'm not even talking about a run of incredibly bad luck, or a dip to the bottom of the league. Merely a regression to league average, with the current shot and attempt rates remaining steady. I was hoping I could find somewhere in here that the Devils have improved their shot rate of late and the power play success may be sustainable. It looks like it's not. The only thing left to figure out is if they are entering the zone effectively enough times per power play, and if they are generating enough shots per entry. If that is the case, then the problem would seem to stem from poor neutral zone play and an inability to enter the zone effectively. Either way, and with or without Eric Gelinas in the lineup, there is a tremendous amount of luck driving the Devils power play success, and I just hope they can dance at the ball for the rest of the season before turning back into the pumpkin they resemble.

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