How important are special teams to an NHL team’s success? Well, based on numerous analytics and statistics, very. According to StatMuse, eight out of the ten top penalty killing teams were in the playoffs. Furthermore, nine out of the league’s top ten power plays made the playoffs. Special teams may be a small timeframe of hockey games, but the impact that the power play and penalty kill have can make or break a team.
The New Jersey Devils’ power play was one of the league’s worst. During the previous offseason, the Devils hired head coach Lindy Ruff and assistant coach Mark Recchi. Recchi was brought in to help run the special teams, but it was an unsuccessful first year for the new assistant coach. However, despite the abysmal power play, New Jersey’s penalty kill was even worse. The one good thing about the special team woes in the past season is that the 2021-22 season special teams will have a substantial amount of room for improvement.
With the Devils’ offseason additions and another year of experience for the young players, it is next to impossible for the team to do worse on special teams. Therefore, a complete turnaround on special teams will be the key to success in the 2021-22 season.
Looking Back At The 2020-21 Special Teams
Though the power play was the better part of New Jersey’s special teams, it was nowhere near good enough to bring success. The power play was the fourth-worst in the league, with a 14.2% power-play percentage (PP%). According to Dobber’s Frozen Tools, the Devils only scored 22 goals out of 154 power-play opportunities. In comparison, the best power play in the league, the Edmonton Oilers, scored 48 goals out of 177 power-play opportunities to operate at a 27.1 PP%.
The personnel on the power play usually consisted of Jack Hughes, Kyle Palmieri, Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, and Yegor Sharangovich. On the defensive side, Ty Smith, P.K. Subban, Damon Severson, and Ryan Murray were commonly used. Zacha led the team in power-play points with 11, and Bratt followed closely with eight. The power play’s issues stemmed from poor execution and experience. Even though there was a decent group of offensive talent on the power play, the production was never there, and the group did not click.
Despite the disaster that the 2020-21 power play was, the penalty kill was significantly worse. In fact, it was historically bad. New Jersey’s penalty kill was the sixth-worst penalty kill in the league’s 104-year history. Moreover, it boasted the worst penalty kill percentage (PK%) in the last 44 seasons. While down a man, the Devils’ were able to kill off a penalty only 70.9% of the time, which ranked dead last in the league. Due to the horrid special team, the personnel was changed frequently. The few staples of the penalty kill were Travis Zajac, Palmieri, Michael McLeod, Murray, and Severson. With the departure of Zajac and Palmieri, there was little experience for the penalty kill units.
The trends of a top penalty kill align with the experience of a team. Throughout the league, the oldest teams have a higher PK%. The Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, and New York Islanders were amongst the top five teams in PK% and highest average age. Experience is a vital piece to a successful NHL team. With New Jersey being among the youngest group in the league, the penalty kill had little experience. However, offseason additions have added an extra 1,000 games played to the Devils’ roster.
What The OffSeason Additions Will Bring To Special Teams
The 2021 offseason has brought new players to the Devils that is building anticipation for the season. The Devils signed an extremely capable backup in Jonathan Bernier, veteran winger Tomas Tatar, and the biggest free agent available, Dougie Hamilton. Furthermore, they added Ryan Graves in a trade early in the offseason. Every addition will fill a hole for the Devils.
The most impactful addition will be defenseman Hamilton. He was highly sought after by multiple NHL teams. The reason being, he is a stellar offensive defenseman who is also great with the puck in his own end. New Jersey will have the luxury of putting him on the power play and penalty kill. Automatically, this added piece will post the team’s special teams by a large margin. In 607 NHL games, Hamilton has totaled 28 power-play goals and 76 power-play assists.
His contributions to the power play will be more impactful than the penalty kill. However, he is an elite talent that could be used on the penalty kill, which is something the Devils have not had. In the 2019-20 season, the Carolina Hurricanes used him on the penalty kill, and he was able to thrive in the position. His positioning improved dramatically, making him a staple on the penalty kill. A major downside to his game is that he often takes bad penalties. Despite this, Hamilton alone could boost the Devils’ power play, and penalty kill, significantly.
New Jersey will have a luxury on the power play with the amount of offensive-minded defensemen on the team. However, it is almost a guarantee that Hamilton will be the most prominent addition to the power play.
Another piece added to the Devils’ backend was defenseman Graves. In Colorado, he was often next to stud defenseman Cale Makar. He averaged 19:03 of ice time and was a top-four defender for the Avalanche. In New Jersey, he will get a larger role and be a staple on the penalty kill. General manager Tom Fitzgerald mentioned that Graves was a player he was looking at for almost two years. With Colorado not having enough room to protect the 26-year-old defender, it was the perfect opportunity for the Devils to acquire him.
His game is more defensive-minded than most of the defensemen on the Devils. He was not used on the power play in Colorado due to his style of play. However, he was a staple on their penalty kill and accumulated a lot of minutes shorthanded due to Colorado being the fifth most penalized team during the season. The added experience on the penalty kill is much needed for the Devils and will make the group increasingly better as the season goes on.
Continuing on with added experience, Tatar brings a resumé with over 600 games played. He spent six years with Detroit Red Wings, one season with Vegas, three seasons with Montreal, and will now be in New Jersey for at least two years. Tatar will be a veteran piece that the Devils desperately needed to help shape their young core and add experience. Furthermore, he has piled up impressive numbers through 11 NHL seasons. He has scored 176 goals and 201 assists for a total of 377 points. 92 of his points have come from the power play. His impact will be brought on the power play for the Devils as he has minimal penalty killing experience. However, due to the team’s extremely young roster, it would not be surprising to see Tatar on the penalty kill due to his experience and good defensive game.
Working alongside Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier could influence Tatar’s game in a drastic way. Furthermore, it is likely a combination of those players would be on the power play together. Finishing and experience are attributes that Tatar brings to the Devils, making their power play destined to improve.
To lock in added experience, the Devils also signed Bernier to be a 1-2 punch with Mackenzie Blackwood. He has played 394 NHL games with the Los Angeles Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs, Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche, and Red Wings. Logging 21,594 minutes played in the NHL is no easy feat. For New Jersey, he will bring the benefit of knowing the type of goaltending you are getting. He is an extremely reliable 1A/1B goalie who can push Blackwood. Furthermore, he will be able to be a mentor for him and make sure that he will be rested enough throughout the season. In the previous year, he was played more than wanted due to unreliable and inconsistent backups for the Devils. Now, Bernier will bring what is needed for the young goalie and the organization.
In regards to the Devils’ special team, Bernier’s greatest asset is his experience. He has been behind many penalty kills and power plays throughout his career and knows how to help in every situation. Whether it is making a big save on a penalty kill or passing the puck to a defender on the power play, Bernier has been in all of these scenarios. This will also translate to Blackwood’s game and learning from the veteran’s experience. One thing that cannot be rushed or recreated in the NHL is experience and the four players bring a plethora of experience to the Devils’ power play and penalty kill.
As the Devils’ faithful continue to look forward to the upcoming season, they can expect to see a drastically improved penalty kill and power play. Assistant coaches Alain Nasreddine and Mark Recchi will be given the tools to have successful special teams. The next step is to find the correct group of players that will click, but it is bound to be significantly improved in the very near future.
Erica Rosenbaum is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers. She is currently attending Rutgers University and pursuing a Sports Management degree. She has run a Devils Instagram page since 2016 and previously wrote for AllNySports.