Devils’ Simmonds Ready to Breakout

The New Jersey Devils had plenty of weaknesses last season, one of which was not having a player who could score and provide a physical edge. General manager Ray Shero addressed that this summer by signing Wayne Simmonds to a one-year deal as an unrestricted free agent. Simmonds, who spent last season between the Philadelphia Flyers and Nashville Predators, finished with 17 goals and 30 points across 79 games. 

Wayne Simmonds
Wayne Simmonds is looking to rebound after a rough stint with the Nashville Predators (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, file)

Those were his lowest totals since 2010-11, when he was with the Los Angeles Kings, so the Devils were taking a gamble that he’d bounce back for 2019-20. In eight games, he has just one assist and no goals, but it isn’t for the lack of chances. If he continues playing the way he has to start the new campaign, he should be in line for a flurry of goals. 

Luck Not on Simmonds’ Side

How Simmonds would perform after a tough 2018-19 was a big question mark heading into the new season. He’s a physical player, and at 31 years old, a forward with his style of play usually doesn’t age well in his 30s. Having one point in eight games may make it seem like he isn’t playing well, but that isn’t the case here, as his on-ice stats at five-on-five are among the Devils’ best:

  • Corsi for (CF%): 52.6%
  • Scoring chances for (SCF%): 53.03%
  • High-danger chances for (HDCF%): 56.52%
  • Expected goals (xGF%): 56.11% 

For context’s sake, Simmonds’ on-ice stats haven’t been above 50% across the board since 2015-16, so the strong start is promising. But it isn’t just his on-ice stats that have impressed, either, as he’s also producing at an individual level.

Through the first eight games, Simmonds has 19 shots on goal at five-on-five, tying him with Taylor Hall for most on the team. He has the third most shot attempts (25) and fourth-most scoring chances (12). His individual xG of 1.39 is second on the team, which means he should have at least one goal at five-on-five, given the shots and chances he’s creating. 

Related: Devils Need to Find the Right Role for Simmonds

One of Simmonds’ strengths is his ability to get dirty goals on the power play. He may not be creating shots at the same level while up a man, but he leads the team with five high-danger chances and has an individual xG of an even one. Combine that with his five-on-five xG, and he should have a couple of goals by now.

Wayne Simmonds New Jersey Devils
Wayne Simmonds has been the victim of bad luck to start 2019-20 (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

So why hasn’t Simmonds been able to buy one? Well, luck hasn’t exactly been on his side. He has no goals on 24 shots on goal. He’s a 12.9% shooter for his career, and given the volume of shots and chances he’s creating, he’s due for some positive regression that leads to a puck or two finding the back of the net.  

Simmonds’ Chemistry With Coleman, Zajac

The best way to get the most out of a player is to find the right linemates for him, and that’s the dilemma the Devils were facing when they signed Simmonds. A spot on the top line didn’t seem like a realistic fit, given his struggles last season. It also wasn’t likely he’d end up on the fourth line since the Devils are paying him $5 million.

That meant he was heading for a place on the second or third lines. Head coach John Hynes could’ve tried him out with Jack Hughes, the first overall pick at this past June’s Entry Draft, but the two have barely played together. The forwards Simmonds has had the most success with, to this point, are Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac. 

Coleman and Zajac have played quite a bit together over the last two-plus seasons, and have formed great chemistry. Throwing in a new player like Simmonds, who has no history with them, could have thrown things off, but that hasn’t been an issue through eight games. Here’s what their on-ice stats look like as a line:

  • CF%: 58.49% 
  • SCF%: 56.62%
  • HDCF%: 55.56%
  • xGF%: 64.62%

They’ve only played 35 minutes together, so this is quite the small sample size. But it’s easy to see why Hynes hasn’t broken up this trio as he continues to look for the right fits elsewhere. They only have one goal to show for their efforts, but the team’s shooting percentage is just 4.76% when they’re on the ice. So a little puck luck may be coming their way, especially if Simmonds keeps generating the shots and chances he is. 

Wayne Simmonds New Jersey Devils
Wayne Simmonds, along with Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac, have formed an effective third line (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A big reason for this line’s impressive numbers has been their ability to defend. They’re allowing an average of 36.73 shot attempts against per 60 minutes and have an xG against per 60 minutes of 1.27. That’ll likely come back down to Earth as the sample size increases. With that said, Coleman and Zajac are two of the Devils’ best defensive forwards, so maintaining a strong defensive presence shouldn’t be an issue. 

Positive Early Returns

The Devils took a chance on Simmonds in the hopes he’d be able to bounce back for them, and he bet on himself a bit, too. Even though he hasn’t scored a goal yet, his overall play has been encouraging. He has some of the best on-ice rates at five-on-five of the Devils’ forwards, which was far from a given considering his last few seasons. And him having a positive impact on defense is a pleasant surprise as well.

Related: Top 15 NHL Power Forwards

There’s also the chemistry he’s formed with Coleman and Zajac. Every team needs a line that can shut down the opposition while chipping in on offense. Once they start scoring some goals, specifically from Simmonds, they’ll be more of a consistent threat to their opponents. And that’s something the Devils were hoping Simmonds would provide as they look to make a return to the playoffs. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick