The New Jersey Devils came into Friday night's game against the Chicago Blackhawks with the league's best power play. They have scored on more than 30 percent of power plays. There is no denying that's great. The Devils are unstoppable on the power play. Well, at least, that's the way it appears on the outside.
This is what happens when you have Jack Hughes, Luke Hughes, Dougie Hamilton (prior to his injury), Luke Hughes, Timo Meier (again, before the injury), Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, Tyler Toffoli, and Dawson Mercer available for both units. All eight of these players have between three and six PP goals.
In reality, the Devils power play is bad. Stats be darned, this PP hasn't come through in the clutch in months. There are a few reasons for this.
Lack of Opportunities
Before we get into the power play itself, the Devils haven't been getting power plays since it became national news just how good this PP is. We've warned about this happening. When a power play becomes too good, and the referees get wind of it, the power play opportunities magically dry up. The whistles tend to be swallowed when these dynamic power plays hit the ice.
Through the first 14 games of the season, the Devils averaged 5.57 power play minutes per game. They turned that into 22 goals. Twenty-two goals in 12 games is absolutely insane, and it skewed the Devil's power play numbers. More on that in a moment.
In the last 23 games, the Devils have had 95 penalty minutes. That includes around 11 minutes on Friday night. That's 4.13 penalty minutes per game. That's close to an entire power play missing per game. This isn't that different of a team. They are still skating through defenses. Jack Hughes is as dynamic as ever. Nico Hischier still takes unnecessary shots that come with no calls. They should be drawing penalties, but they just aren't.
That brings us to the other reason the Devils power play isn't nearly as effective as it was earlier in the season. They seem to have changed their philosophy, and it's impacting their results.
Lack of Results
Remember those 22 goals the Devils had in their first 14 games? In the 23 games since then, they have 12 goals. That's very bad comparitively. That's right back in the middle of the pack. From December 7th to December 27th, the power play had two goals.
It's looked better as of late, with two PP goals against Ottawa, one against Boston, and one against the Capitals on Wednesday night, but the showing on Friday night showed the very intense issues still facing this unit. The Devils power play went 0-6. There were so many opportunities, but they couldn't capitalize. It was only made worse by the fact the Blackhawks scored a shorthanded goal. A terrible one at that.
The lackluster power play almost lost the Devils the game on Friday night. It wouldn't be the first loss the PP has cost them. Of course, goaltending and defensive mistakes would be much higher on the list, but the power play is hurting the offense as a whole.
The Devils were at their best when they had two great power-play units. Maybe with Dougie Hamilton on the shelf, the Devils don't feel as comfortable with that second unit. Unlike last season, when the Devils felt just as comfortable with Damon Severson and later Luke Hughes on the second unit, now they're forced to drop from Luke Hughes to Simon Nemec. They are both dynamic, but Hughes is so much better offensively. Hamilton was even better at the PP than Hughes, so that second unit deserves a little more love.
Yet, the second unit at this point is Nemec, Mercer, Erik Haula, Alex Holtz, and Nate Bastian. While Holtz leads the team in 5v5 goals, that is a serious drop off from the first unit. When Meier returns, he usually spends time with that unit, but he's needed a little help offensively this season. That unit desperately needs a creator.
Mercer is doing his best, but its offensive upside is limited. There's a simple fix here, and power-play coach Travis Green needs to make a bold move to accomplish his goal of creating a top power-play unit again. He needs to separate Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt. They do almost the same exact thing on the power play. While their games are different at 5v5, with the man advantage, they both work as creators who will take a shot if it is there. With Hughes taking the majority of the time with the puck on his stick, it's kind of a waste to have Bratt on that unit.
When Bastian took a penalty on Friday, the Devils replaced him with Michael McLeod, who scored his 10th goal on Friday. It makes sense for Green and Lindy Ruff to make that change permanent. McLeod has earned more offensive opportunities, and he can win faceoffs better than literally anyone. Power play is a possession game, and it starts with the faceoff.
Even with Hamilton on the shelf, the Devils have the talent to have a top-five power play. They just need to make it consistent. The best thing to happen to them is probably falling out of that top PP spot. It might get them more opportunities, and hopefully, a few small changes will lead to more goals.