Devils Need to Find the Right Role for Simmonds

The New Jersey Devils don’t spend big in free agency, and this summer wasn’t any different. Their lone NHL signing was Wayne Simmonds, who agreed to a one-year deal worth $5 million. He’s coming off a down season, where he finished with 30 points in 79 games between the Nashville Predators and Philadelphia Flyers.

Nashville Predators Wayne Simmonds
Wayne Simmonds’ stint with the Nashville Predators did not go as planned (David Berding-USA TODAY Sports)

General manager Ray Shero is taking a chance on him and hoping he can bounce back. To do so, head coach John Hynes needs to find the right role for him. So how should he look to use him to get the most out of the 30-year-old right-winger?

Simmonds Not What He Once Was

His numbers have been in decline for some time. He had a career-high 60 points in 2015-16 but has seen a drop in each season since then. He particularly struggled after being traded to the Predators in February, where he had one goal in 17 games. Before that, he had 16 goals in 62 games, which comes out to a 21-goal pace over 82 games. He can still produce, but how so?

For starters, it’s likely not coming at five-on-five. He averaged 1.92 points per 60 minutes (P/60) in 2015-16, the best of his career. But that’s declined in each season since and bottomed out at 1.09 in 2018-19. He also hasn’t come close to cracking 1.50 P/60 since 2015-16, which is what you’d like from someone in a middle-six role.

Data from Natural Stat Trick

The lack of production at five-on-five coincides with the decline of his shot rates, too. In 2015-16, he had a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 53.1% and an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 51.81%. Since then, he has a CF% of 48.1% and xGF% of 47.76%.

His two-way play leaves a lot be desired as well. He has a negative impact on goals scored (Off_GF) as well as offensive shot attempts (Off_CF) and offensive expected goals (Off_xG). And the same can be said of his impact of defensive shot attempts and expected goals, too.

Wayne Simmonds' RAPM

If there’s one area where he still excels, it’s on the power play. That much is shown in the graph as he has a significant positive impact on shot attempts and expected goals. However, he still saw a decline in production, finishing with five power-play goals, his lowest total since 2012-13 when he had six. Time will tell if he can rebound on the man advantage because the Devils need him to produce there.

The Best Fit for Simmonds

His decline in production is legitimate, and it doesn’t make him a good candidate to play in the top six. The Devils have a need there, but they’d be better off acquiring someone in a trade or moving Jesper Bratt to right wing, where he’s played and had success before.

There’s a scenario where Simmonds could get a shot with first-overall pick Jack Hughes, but that could lead to some issues by having to stack the first line with Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri. It’d kill the team’s depth up front and would make for some questionable combos in their second through fourth lines.

Related: Devils Should Target Golden Knights’ Cap Problems

The best place for Simmonds is in the bottom-six. Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac have had plenty of success together the last two seasons, so it’d be a surprise to see them broken up, at least to start things out. The question is who will play alongside them, and that’s where Simmonds has a chance.

He’s not the greatest defensive forward. And with Zajac and Coleman slated for tough defensive minutes, that may be a problem. It’s possible those two could help make up for his struggles in his own end, but that’s a risky bet. Fortunately, the preseason is a good time to experiment, so he should get a shot alongside Coleman and Zajac because he can still handle third-line minutes.

Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers
Wayne Simmonds has never shied away from the physical side of the game. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The next option is to play him on the fourth line. That may seem like an odd choice considering he’s earning $5 million, but the team’s fourth line could be decent. Pavel Zacha produced at a 17-goal pace in 2018-19 and could settle in as their fourth-line center. Left-wing Miles Wood plays a similar style game to Simmonds, and he has some offensive upside, too. So pairing those three together has the potential to give the team a nice mix of scoring and physicality.

Will He Be Worth the One-Year Gamble?

The Devils aren’t getting 2015-16 Simmonds again. With that said, he has something left in the tank. His stint with the Predators was a disaster, but he was heading for 20-plus goals with the Flyers. He might not provide much at five-on-five anymore, but he will help on the power play.

Related: Devils Likely Not Done After Simmonds Signing

They also need someone who plays with a physical edge, especially with a few of the organization’s top prospects looking to break into the NHL. He will give them that, and if he can provide some offense in a bottom-six role, which is most suitable for him, then he’ll prove to be worth a roll of the dice.

* * *

Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey