The New Jersey Devils have won three games in a row and have points in four straight games sitting in the first wild card spot. It is still early and things can change, but the Devils are playing with a purpose this season. New Jersey is on a mission to make life difficult for teams in a tough Metro Division. And one way for the New Jersey Devils to continue to rack up wins and points is good special teams play.
With the new rules in place for the regular season, and the Devils finally playing Fast, Attacking, and Supportive hockey under head coach Lindy Ruff, it is showing on the ice as they are drawing more penalties. However, in years past the Devils would not be able to capitalize on those situations. Many felt it would be best just to decline the penalty. And the early season results were showing that.
The Devils special teams picked up where they left off last season. New Jersey ranked 28th in power-play percentage conversion at 14.2 percent. The penalty kill was not much better at it was ranked 31st at 71 percent conversion. Things needed to improve heading into this season for the Devils. Entering Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers, the Devils conversion rate was 9.7 percent on the power play. Which was third-worst in the league. The penalty kill was not much better ranking near the bottom of the league as well.
Some of the issues had to do with personnel. Other issues dealt with the coaches on the staff. Mark Recchi was in charge of the power play and Alain Nasreddine was in charge of the penalty kill. There was talk if things did not change, that changes on the coaching staff had to happen. Now granted the Devils were missing Jack Hughes and Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton returned Thursday night against the New York Islanders. But still, something was not clicking.
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However, something changed this week as the New Jersey Devils special teams started slowly to improve. Granted two games is a small sample size, but it is a start. Personnel changes played a role improved special teams. The Devils recalled Jesper Boqvist and Tyce Thompson from the Utica Comets sending Marian Studenic and Frederik Gauthier to the AHL. Studenic and Gauthier were two of the Devils main penalty killers. So what does Lindy Ruff do, he inserts Janne Kuokkanen who has some familiarity being in this role.
“It’s been a new process for me. Last year, I was in every PK meeting and trying to learn,” Kuokkanen said. “I’m a guy that wants to play PK. It’s a huge step for me in my career to be able to play PK.”
Ruff move pays off right away. Kuokkanen opened the scoring tallying the Devils second shorthanded goal of the season. The pressure Kuokkanen and the rest of the penalty killers put on the Islanders power play caused a turnover which led to a scoring chance and a goal. New Jersey’s penalty kill has now killed off eight straight penalties after giving up a power-play goal in San Jose. While the Devils penalty kill is still 24th in the league it is improving.
Not only is the penalty kill improving but so is the power play. Prior to the Florida game, the Devils were 0 for 18 in the previous five games. Now the Devils have scored three power-play goals in the past two games on six attempts. That is a receipt for success. Winning the special teams battle is important for every, but especially the New Jersey Devils. In the past two games, special teams have been a huge factor in the outcome of the games.
“One of the things that helped us out today too was the special teams. For sure, it felt good to get some power-play goals,” captain Nico Hischier said Tuesday night after the Panthers game. “I feel like everyone was relieved, and it gives us confidence. Even the PK was really good so that obviously helps.”
The Devils have double the production of the power play from a year ago and through the start of this season. While they sit 23rd in the league at a 16.2 percent conversion rate, the fact they are able to set up and score goals goes a long way in winning games. Obviously, some things need more improvement, but the fact that Dougie Hamilton is back along with the addition of Alexander Holtz, the New Jersey Devils special teams are looking much better.
The Devils have a tough stretch ahead against some very good power play teams, let’s see if they can continue the upward trajectory.
The New Jersey Devils special teams is an area of weakness, but over the past two games, the Devils have shown it can be a strength.