The New Jersey Devils are off to a solid start to the 2021-22 NHL campaign. They enter tonight’s tilt against the Los Angeles Kings with a 4-3-1 record, and have mostly done so without Jack Hughes, who’s out for about the next month with a dislocated shoulder. Their five-on-five play has been strong. And though their penalty kill percentage is still at the bottom of the league, it’s allowed fewer shots and chances than it did a season ago. Where they’re still having problems is on the power play, and those struggles are nothing new.
The Devils’ power play was a detriment last season, and it continues to be one early in 2021-22. Their power play numbers have even worsened compared to 2020-21. This is Mark Recchi’s second season overseeing the team’s power play, so there aren’t any excuses for that kind of dropoff. Things need to change soon, because if they don’t, the Devils will lose winnable games much like they did a season ago.
It’s 2020-21 All Over for Devils Power Play
The Devils’ power play in 2020-21 was nothing short of a disaster. They finished converting on only 14.2 percent of their chances, ranked 27th in the NHL. Their shot and chance rates per 60 minutes were also among the league’s bottom-feeders. Their Corsi per 60 minutes (CF/60) ranked fifth worst, while their expected goals per 60 minutes (xGF/60) ranked fourth worst.
So far, their 2021-22 rates aren’t much better. In fact, they’ve even dipped from a season ago despite having Dougie Hamilton on their roster. Their CF/60 of 66.2 is the worst in the league, while their xGF/60 of 4.62 is the third-worst. Here’s how the Devils’ CF/60, SF/60 and xGF/60 compare to a season ago. (SF/60 stands for shots on goal per 60 minutes):
Everything from last season has trended downward in 2021-22. This is probably an unfair comparison because the Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Drasaitl on their power play, but their top-ranked power play is averaging a CF/60 of 153.15 and xGF/60 of 15.76. The Devils obviously don’t have that kind of talent on their power play, but they’re not devoid of talent, either.
Sure, the Devils have been without Hughes for all but four periods of the season. But there are larger systemic issues at hand. The most pressing problem is their puck movement is not fast enough in the offensive zone. There’s too much standing around and holding on to the puck, which is why their shot and chance rates are among the bottom three in the league. They can’t generate enough quality chances, partly because there are no shooting lanes, either.
You’d think a power play with Hamilton on it would help the Devils improve in those areas. He was one of the best power-play quarterbacks in the league in his three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, but his numbers have fallen to some career lows. His CF/60 on the power play this season is 77.8, the lowest of his career. Meanwhile, his xGF/60 of 6.42 is the second-lowest. Considering he’s never posted such numbers, that’d seem to indicate problems with the system and not the player.
Devils Have to Make Changes
Recchi hasn’t done much to dispel any power play concerns from last season. But making an assistant coaching change in the middle of the season very rarely happens. Plain and simple, he and head coach Lindy Ruff will have to make some changes and hope they find something that works for the better.
The first move they’ve decided to make is calling up Alex Holtz from the Utica Comets (AHL), where he totaled five goals in four games. Holtz has something the Devils don’t have on their roster: a lethal shot. It’s a difference-maker, and it could have a significant impact for the Devils’ power play if they can get him the puck in prime shooting positions. He did show that ability during the preseason, so it makes sense to test it out again.
At least for tonight’s game against the Kings, Holtz will find himself on the Devils’ first power-play unit. And he’ll have quite a few shooters alongside him:
Once Hamilton returns from an injury, he’ll occupy Subban’s spot quarterbacking the first unit. If Holtz shows an ability to consistently generate chances without Hamilton, then the idea of playing those two together is a no-brainer.
However, I’m not sure how much one player can change the Devils’ power play for the better. Hamilton was supposed to be that guy, but that hadn’t been the case before he got injured in Tuesday night’s loss to the Anaheim Ducks. Not having Hughes doesn’t help, either, but how much of a difference would he be making right now given the rates at which the Devils are generating shots and chances?
The Devils’ power-play woes are about more than one or two players underperforming. The system is the main problem. That was the case during the COVID-stricken 2020-21 season, where the Devils barely had practice time due to a condensed schedule. But limited practice time is not an excuse anymore.
I’m in no way an expert in hockey systems, so I can’t tell you what the Devils need to change. But it’s clear something needs to change. Calling up Holtz to try and give them a spark is a good start. But being last in CF/60 and third to last in xGF/60 won’t lead to many goals, even with a shooter like Holtz in the fold. If that continues to be an issue, the same problems that have plagued the Devils’ power play in the calendar year 2021 will continue to haunt them when they need it most.
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Advanced stats from Evolving-Hockey
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017