Devils in the Details

Analysis

The 2015/16 New Jersey Devils: By The Numbers

The 2015/16 season was full of great highs and dire lows for Devils fans. Ultimately the team ended up outside of the playoffs, but the Devils showed great promise at times throughout the year. 

By examining the underlying numbers produced by the team, we can begin to understand why the Devils fell short of playoff position, identify areas of both strength and weakness, and begin to understand the strategy behind the team's moves so far in the NHL offseason.

The Record

The Devils went 38-36-08 en route to a 19th place (11th worst) finish. They finished 7th in the Metropolitan Division, ultimately falling 12 points out of the final wild card spot. While the draft lottery did not benefit the Devils, they were not pushed back and began the 2016 NHL Entry Draft with the 11th overall pick. 

Goal Scoring

These numbers illustrate what most Devils fans know - that scoring is still a problem. The scoring data place the Devils in a wide range of ranks when compared to the league:

  • GF/PG: 2.22 - 30th
  • PP%: 19.9 - 9th

A high powerplay efficiency, but a low goals-for value, points to even strength scoring as a large need to address moving forward. Despite finishing last in goals, the Devils featured two 30-goal scorers for the first time since the 2011/12 season, when three players reached that milestone: Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and David Clarkson. 

Henrique and Palmieri accounted for essentially a third of all goals last season, with Palmieri making good use of his powerplay time. However Henriques shooting percentage of 20.1 is far above his career average of 15.7, meaning that we should expect a regression of some sort. Palmieri's shooting percentage is much closer to his career average, meaning that his output should be more sustainable over the long-term. In Palmieri, Shero seems to have identified a player with great offensive potential that found themselves buried on another team's depth chart. With more minutes to play, and a stable spot on the powerplay, Palmieri has developed into a legitimate offensive threat. 

We can see that as Palmieri's ice time has increased, his points per game (P/GP) has actually increased. This speaks to the narrative of Palmieri simply needing an opportunity to play bigger minutes in order to perform at a high level. This increased production came without a significant increase in shooting percentage (1%), and without an increased dependancy on powerplay deployment. His 2014/15 seasons saw him score ~38% of his points on the powerplay, compared to ~40% in 2015/16. We can also see that his points per 60 minutes (P/60) saw a slight increase, while adjusting to a top 6 role, and the responsibility that demands.

The Palmieiri acquisition was one of Shero's most efficient moves during the 2015 offseason.

If we look at our top scorers by category, we can see that much of our scoring flowed through both Henrique and Palmieri:

  • Goals: Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri (30)
  • Assists: Travis Zajac (28)
  • Points: Kyle Palmieri (57)
  • Powerplay Goals: Kyle Palmieri (11)
  • Points per Game: Mike Cammalleri (0.90)*
  • Short Handed Goals: Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac (2)

*Pavel Zacha scored two assists in his NHL debut and lone game this season, giving him a PPG of 2.00. While promising, the sample size excludes it from this discussion. For what it's worth, Zacha's performance makes him the all-time leader in P/PG.

Goaltending

New Jersey had strong showings from its goalies this season. While Kinkaid ultimately struggled as Schneider's injury continued, we saw a promising start to Wedgewood's NHL career. Devils fans should be cautiously optimistic for the future of the Devils in net, with prospects Ken Appleby and Mackenzie Blackwood still developing in the ECHL and OHL, respectively. 

Schneider had another elite season, cementing his place amongst the league's top goaltenders. However, his 2015/16 performance was not enough to earn a Vezina finalist nomination, the trophy awarded to the year's best goalie. Here are his rankings compared to goalies with at least 25 games played:

  • GAA: 2.15 (4th)
  • SV%: .924 (T-5th)
  • SO: 4 (T-8th)
  • W: 27 (T-13th)

The disparity between his top-5 individual stats and his lower rankings for wins points to the common narrative of Schneider carrying a team with low offensive output. Wins are the goalie statistic most dependant on team play. 

Possession and Team Play

Some notes on technical jargon:

  • SAT%: Also called Corsi, measures shot attempts directed towards an opponent versus shot attempts directed by the opponent. An SAT% above 50 denotes that your team is directing more shots to the opponents net than the opponent is directing towards you.
  • USAT%: Also called Fenwick, similar to Corsi except the measurement only includes unblocked shot attempts.
  • Close: A modifier that only includes measurements taken when games are tied or within one goal. 
  • ZS%: measures the amount of faceoffs in each team's zone. A ZS% above 50 shows that your team in taking faceoffs in the opponent's zone more often than they are taking in their own zone.
  • SPSv%: Also called PDO, often used as a meaure of 'luck'. It combines team save and shooting percentages. This metric trends towards 1000, meaning that teams showing a SPSv% above 1000 are receiving a higher than normal amount of 'luck', either relying on abnormal and/or unsustainable shooting or save percentages. Think Colorado during Patrick Roy's first year. Teams above 1000 tend to regress in following years, and teams below tend to improve.

Looking at some of these stats we can see that the Devils rank last or near-last in most possession categories:

  • SAT%: 46.15 (29th) Only 46.15 percent of shot attempts were from Devils players
  • SAT% Close: 46.94 (27th) Marginal improvement when games are close
  • USAT%: 46.95 (26th) 
  • USAT% Close: 48.29 (23rd) Higher level of improvement in unblocked attempts in close games
  • ZS%: 45.74 (30th) Shows play often ends in the defensive zone, as New Jersey has trouble controlling play
  • 5on5 S%: 7.2 (19th) Closer to league average shooting percentage
  • 5on5 Sv%: .924 (18th)
  • SPSv: 997 (17th) 

Opposing teams direct more shots towards the Devils than they direct towards their opponents, both unblocked or otherwise. What is encouraging is that in close situations their possession metrics are better, although the difference may not prove significant. 

We can see how this impacts the flow of the game by looking at zone starts, or ZS%. While the correlation isn't perfect, we can see that opposing teams are getting the chance to make more shot attempts than the Devils, and play is starting more often in the Devils defensive zone. This means that in order for New Jersey's offensive players to get shots on net, they are having to win more defensive zone faceoffs and try to successfully break the puck out. Compared to a team with a ZS% above 50, the Devils have to take defensive zone faceoffs more often, forcing offensive players to focus on defensive play in high-danger situations. Even if the Devils had the same amount of shots as other teams, which they don't, their players are working harder to get them.

The Devils SPSv is below 1000, meaning that if anything the team should see some small statistical improvement in shooting and save percentages next season as they move towards the mean. 

Here we can see that the Devils took 3.46 minor penalties per 60 minutes of play, good enough for 15th in the league. In comparison, they drew 3.23 minor penalties per 60 minutes, which places them 12th. This shows that the Devils are not suffering from discipline problems, or unfair (comparatively) judgement from the referees. Despite this, the Devils again finish worst in the league for both shots and missed shots:

  • Shots: 2004 (30th)
  • Missed Shots: 778 (30th)

Returning to the Devil's 9th ranked powerplay, an abysmally low number of shots again confirms to 5 on 5 play as the team's greatest need. The team's shooting percentage only ranks them 19th in the league, meaning that if they can increase both shooting percentage and the raw amount of shot attempts, they could see a significant increase in both scoring and in the standings. 

Here we can see the Devils' workhorses - the players most often trusted to play with the hardest deployments. Beginning with Adam Larsson, these players started overwhelmingly more in their own defensive zone. These are the players trusted to make smart defensive plays. Players with a high ZS% are often either rookies being sheltered to allow them to adjust to the pace of NHL, or powerplay specialists or one-dimensional scorers.

The team's deployment of Adam Larsson and Andy Greene in the 2015/16 season was tough enough to place them at 1st and 2nd for lowest ZS% for defensemen with 25 games played across the league. No defensive pair played tougher minutes.

Conclusions

It should be no surprise that the Devils' numbers support the common narrative of a team with struggling offense being carried by strong defensive play and goaltending. Given that the Devils received an average amount of penalties both for and against, and the team benefits from a top-10 powerplay, the problem is limited to mostly 5 on 5 play. Despite finishing only 12 points out of the final wildcard spot in the east, the Devils ranked 30th or near 30th in too many categories for them to realistically contend:

  • Goals for per game: 30th
  • SAT%: 29th
  • USAT%: 26th
  • ZS%: 30th
  • Shots: 30th
  • Missed Shots: 30th

Both conventional and more advanced statistics point to goaltending as the cause for the Devils relative success last season. The Devils do not possess the puck more than other teams. They do not have an obviously low team shooting percentage to blame. They receive an average amount of both penalties and powerplays. Short of encouraging diving to take advantage of their healthy powerplay, improvement for the Devils starts at driving possession and taking more shot attempts at 5 on 5. 

While Palmieri established himself as a bonafide 30 goal scorer with a healthy shooting percentage, watch for Henrique to begin to regress back into the 20's as his shooting percentage returns to a more sustainable number, and as he is given more offensive players who can finish scoring chances. 

Devils fans should be encouraged that GM Ray Shero has already taken great strides to address 5 on 5 scoring. The Taylor Hall - Adam Larsson trade is a clear move in this direction, as Taylor Hall is has been one of the most prolific scorers at 5 on 5 in the past few seasons.

While the loss of Adam Larsson is significant, especially considering the team's heavy reliance on him and Andy Greene in the defensive zone, this trade addresses the single greatest team need, and shows the Shero is willing to trade from a position of strength in order to address a dire need.  

The 2015/16 season gave many New Jersey fans a false sense of hope, with late season playoff contention and stellar goaltending showing the NHL that there is something to this Devils team. However the team's success does not hold up to scrutiny, with the team placing last or near-last in many 5 on 5 offensive or possession stats. However the future looks bright, with management already making impactful moves to address this need without mortgaging the future. Pavel Zacha, Mackenzie Blackwood, Steve Santini, and Michael McLeod make up the best prospect pool New Jersey has seen in several years. Along with a healthy selection of first to third round picks from 2016-2018, New Jersey has managed to retool and attempt to negate their biggest weakness without gambling away too many valuable assets. While the results of the Hall-Larsson trade will not fully be seen for some time, fans should be cautiously optimistic at Shero's asset management, even in a time of large-scale organizational change. 

AnalysisDuncan Field