Last week, I discussed the outlook for the Devils’ penalty kill, and who specifically could see more involvement this year. Today, we will take a look at the powerplay unit(s) for this upcoming season, an area that has frustrated Devils fans for the past few years, and which coaching staff addition Adam Oates could not effectively fix. Last year, the Devils were a dreadful 28th on the powerplay, at a 14.4 percent clip. Obviously, changes are needed; however, the Devils’ top forwards need to step up themselves throughout this season if they want this rate to increase.
To make matters worse than I have already made them sound, Travis Zajac will be out of the lineup until at least mid-November. Zajac is the team’s number one center, and his role on the powerplay was very important. Last year, he was third (among players who played the majority of the season) in powerplay time-on-ice per game, with a 2:34 clip. Now, the Devils will look to replace him on their first unit. One possibility is that Patrik Elias and/or Dainius Zubrus could switch over to center, so that the team could avoid looking too far for a natural center to replace Zajac. However, if either (or both) struggle on faceoffs, and are unable to give the Devils enough puck control on their powerplay, this might not be an option.
In this scenario, the Devils will need others to step up. Jacob Josefson could be called upon to be a vital part of the team’s powerplay in the early stages of the season. For the Swede, to practice alongside one of these units could be very important, as he did not play with a man advantage all of last season. Another reasonable possibility is for David Steckel to play on the powerplay (probably on the latter unit). The advantage this provides is that Steckel is one of the best faceoff centers in the NHL; like I said, puck control is of the utmost importance, and for Steckel to be able to win draws could give the Devils a large boost. The problem with this, however, is that Steckel might be overworked if he joins the powerplay. We have already well documented how important the former Capital will be with Zajac out of the lineup, as he might be the most reliable penalty-killing forward the Devils have. He might also serve as a top-six forward early on; thus, it might be best not to have Steckel serve too many shifts on the powerplay.
On the bright side, the Devils should receive a huge boost from Zach Parise’s return this season. Parise was second on the team during the 2009-2010 season with nine powerplay goals, and played with the man advantage for an average of 3:06 per game. The Devils were 11th in the league that season with a 18.7% effectiveness rate on the powerplay; however, this was with everyone healthy, and if the team wants to return to a similar rate this season, they will have to receive production from others who might be new to ice-time with the man advantage.
The most important forward to the powerplay has to be Ilya Kovalchuk; this is evident through his 4:10 powerplay time-on-ice per game, a staggering rate, considering the next-highest skater (who played in more than 17 games; Parise and Taormina, thus, are not included) was Elias, at a 2:45 clip. Kovalchuk would often serve all two minutes of a man advantage, patrolling the blue line of the first unit, and blasting shots from the point. He would also take the puck up the ice on virtually every powerplay, bringing it into the zone and attempting to find an open teammate. Kovy’s experience on the powerplay cannot possibly be questioned, and he will need to step up once again for the Devils to have success with the man advantage.
With this being said, the question presents itself: should Kovalchuk and Parise be separated, or should they both play on the same unit. If an important situation presents itself late in the game, I am all in favor of them playing together on the powerplay to attempt to score a vital goal. However, in general, I am in favor of splitting up a team’s stars (especially if we are talking about two wings), so both powerplay units have a decent shot at scoring. I believe this is even more-so the route to take considering that Zajac is out of the lineup, and there is even less depth in the lineup for the start of the season.
Other forwards should be important to the powerplay units as well. Patrik Elias, who, as mentioned above, was second in powerplay time-on-ice per game last season, is going to be just as important to the team this year. Elias led the team in scoring in 2010-2011, and if he can have continued success, it may allow the Devils to feature Parise and Kovalchuk on the same unit, leaving Patty to lead the second one. Mattias Tedenby, who began to see much powerplay time last season, will also be important, and could potentially start the year on the team’s first unit with the man advantage. Finally, Nick Palmieri and David Clarkson should see ample time on either unit this season; Clarkson has had previous success crashing the net on the powerplay, but has struggled in this regard since his injury last season.
Of course, the defensemen are an important part of the powerplay as well; however, I have always been in favor of having four forwards on each unit, and one d-man who can keep the puck in the zone and has the ability to shoot from the point. If the Devils go in a similar direction (we cannot be sure what DeBoer is in favor of), then two or three defensemen should be chosen to be a part of these units. In the past, the team has struggled to find production from their blue line; this season, they will need to find the right men for these spots, and the next handful of weeks should go a long way in determining which defensemen play on the powerplay.
The defenseman who has generally handled the majority of powerplay duties of this group has been Andy Greene. Greene did struggle, however, throughout last year, with only four goals and 19 assists to his name (as well as a -23 rating). In the past, he has shown the ability to bring the puck up the ice, and provides a usually stable option on the blue line for either unit. Another possibility, if he begins the year in the NHL, is Adam Larsson. We all know Larsson has all the potential in the world to be an outstanding defenseman production-wise; however, we have to wonder if the 18-year-old is ready for this responsibility at the NHL level; if he shows the ability to be on a unit, however, he could provide a huge boost to the team’s powerplay. Henrik Tallinder has shown, at the least, that he is servicable on the powerplay, and if Larsson is not yet ready for the job, the former Sabre could be the second defenseman behind Greene.
Obviously, like it has been in the past, the powerplay is a huge question mark once again this season. We know that Parise is back, and could provide an enormous boost; we also know, however, that Zajac is out for the start of the season, and this could very much hurt the Devils’ powerplay. The coaching staff will have many decisions to make in terms of filling out two units, and could switch forwards and defensemen out, even as the season begins, until they find the right combinations. As of now, because of their struggles in the past, I would expect this team to be somewhere between 16-20th on the powerplay this year, a ranking that could potentially be much higher or lower than this. Adam Oates will need to show he can turn these units around, or his time in New Jersey may be limited.