Devils Must Fix Broken Power Play

A good power play goes a long way in the NHL. But it’s something the New Jersey Devils lacked this season as they converted on 17.7% of their opportunities, ranked 21st in the league. Injuries played a role in their woes, as Taylor Hall missed all but 33 games of the season, Jesper Bratt missed 31, and Nico Hischier missed 13. It doesn’t help when your top scorers miss that much time, but that’s not the main reason for their struggles.

Taylor Hall #9, New Jersey Devils
The Devils need Taylor Hall at full health to start next season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Devils did not generate enough quality looks while up a man, and it’s a trend that dates back to the beginning of head coach John Hynes’ tenure. Adding Jack Hughes (or Kaapo Kakko) in the Entry Draft will help, as will getting back a healthy Hall. But their power play won’t improve if Hynes doesn’t make any adjustments, and here’s why.

Devils’ Shot & Chance Rates Among League’s Worst

There was some reason to be optimistic about the Devils’ power play this season. Rick Kowalsky, who had spent the last eight seasons as the head coach of their AHL affiliate, was promoted to Hynes’ staff to take over for Geoff Ward. Ward had spent the previous three seasons in charge of their power play but left to become an assistant to Bill Peters with the Calgary Flames.

Related: Jack Hughes — 2019 NHL Draft Prospect Profile

The hope was Kowalsky could bring a new look and some better results, but that’s not how things turned out. Here’s how the Devils’ Corsi for per 60 minutes (CF/60), scoring chances for per 60 minutes (SCF/60), high-danger chances for per 60 minutes (HDCF/60), and their expected goals for per 60 minutes (xGF/60) ranked in the NHL this season:

  • CF/60: 88.79 (seventh-worst)
  • SCF/60: 42.96 (third-worst)
  • HDCF/60: 17.79 (eighth-worst)
  • xGF/60: 6.08 (seventh-worst)

It might be easy to fault Kowalsky, but those shot and chances rates are not much better than they were under Ward. Here’s where those same stats ranked over Ward’s tenure (2015-18):

  • CF/60: 89.2 (third-worst)
  • SCF/60: 7.18 (third-worst)
  • HDCF/60: 17.51 (sixth-worst)
  • xGF/60: 6.08 (sixth-worst)

Those are more or less the same as Kowalsky’s results. When at the bottom of the league for four straight seasons, I think that speaks to more of a systemic issue and doesn’t put 100% of the blame on either assistant. So if you’re thinking firing Kowalsky is the solution, I have my doubts it solves all their problems.

Rick Kowalsky
Rick Kowalsky didn’t improve the power play, but it’s hard to fault him 100% (Photo Credit: New Jersey Devils/Patrick Dodson)

I think four seasons of poor results make change pretty obvious, but what kind of change is needed? The Devils have employed the commonly used 1-3-1 power play formation under Hynes, and there isn’t any indication that’ll change soon, but a different look could be beneficial.

Ryan Stimson wrote about why teams should adopt a behind-the-net formation at The Coaches Site. In short, he concludes it creates new looks and more variety, and it forces penalty killers to defend the entire offensive zone since things develop below the goal line (from ‘A Behind-the-Net Power Play Formation Driven by Analytics,’ The Coaches Site – 5/20/18). It’s a fresh look that could give the Devils some new life.

An Active Offseason, Getting Healthy Will Help

When a team finishes 31-41-10 and earns the first pick in the draft, you might imagine their roster will look quite different the following season. The Devils need to add more talent this summer, and it starts with drafting Hughes or Kakko with the first pick. Either one will be in the NHL next season and should become an immediate threat on the power play.

The Devils also have five more picks between the second and third rounds, including three in the second. General manager Ray Shero has used draft picks as trade bait in the past as he did to acquire Marcus Johansson and Kyle Palmieri. If he can add another scoring threat through a trade, it’ll be another boost to the power play.

Related: Devils Need to Lock Butcher Up Long-Term

Outside of their draft capital, the Devils will have over $30 million in salary cap space. Shero won’t spend to the cap, but there are some free agents who can help their power play. Left-winger Anders Lee has 24 power play goals over the last two seasons, ranked 11th in the NHL. You might not think of Micheal Ferland as a power play threat, but he’s averaged 2.55 goals per 60 minutes on the man advantage over the last two seasons. That’s ahead of names like Phil Kessel, Mark Scheifele, and Taylor Hall.

Ray Shero
GM Ray Shero needs to have an active offseason to help improve the Devils. (Photo Credit: New Jersey Devils/Patrick Dodson)

On top of any signings or trades Shero makes, getting healthy will also make a significant difference. We know how much Hall means to this team at all strengths, and not having him on the power play hurts that much more. It’ll also help to have Bratt and Hischier at full strength once next season begins. They’re two of the Devils’ biggest offensive threats on the current roster, so they’ll help provide a much-needed lift.

Getting to full strength can’t hurt, nor can adding more talent, but it won’t matter if Hynes doesn’t make adjustments to get a more effective power play. Changing formations may help, but if he wants to keep the 1-3-1 setup, he has to find a way to generate more shots and quality chances. Ranking among the bottom 10 of the league four seasons in a row won’t cut it. And if that continues for a fifth year, their power play will continue having a tough time getting off the ground.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick