The New Jersey Devils: An Analytics Take

Look, I get it.  Not everyone is ready to embrace analytics in making their lineup decision.  But, when you start the season like the New Jersey Devils have, and you make a coaching change before game 30, you have officially reached the point of “seeing what sticks.”  There’s going to be no shortage of armchair GM opinions and commentators offering up fixes, so here’s my contribution to that noise.

The Hypothesis: The New Jersey Devil’s forward line with Jack Hughes should be:
LW: Blake Coleman
C: Jack Hughes
RW: Nikita Gusev

The New Jersey Devils are an analytical disaster with the exception of about 2 players.  Nikita Gusev and Blake Coleman are not exactly tearing up the league, but they are the only Devils players with a Game Score per 60 above 2.00 at 5 on 5.  For the majority of this discussion I’m going to focus solely on analytics as they pertain to 5 on 5 play.

(Game Score explanation for those uninitiated)

The Game score ranking of Devils centers (at 5 on 5) looks like this:
Nico Hischier: 1.66
Jack Hughes: 1.41
Travis Zajac: 1.00
Pavel Zacha: 0.55 (sheesh)
Kevin Rooney: -0.19 (WOWBAD)

Where am I going with this?
Travis Zajac should not be centering Coleman and Gusev.  It should be Hughes.

“Well yeah but that’s just Game Score and that’s not even a real stat and you’re a hack and you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Lets look at some of the other analytics here.
A short version of the explanation of Corsi is that it’s a metric that divides the scoring chances for a team while a player is on the ice, by the total number of scoring chances that occurred while that player is on the ice.  50% means a player breaks even.  The Devils are a TERRIBLE possession/corsi team.  To that end there are only 2 players on the roster with (5on5) corsi’s above 50%.  They are Kyle Palmieri and Jack Hughes.

You can dig through all the Devils analytics available on Corsica Hockey and you will find a trend.  In more than a few individual metrics, Jack Hughes is as good or better than Travis Zajac.

But we can’t just run off with our analytics in hand shouting from the rooftops that we have the answer.  What about the eye test?

Watching the Devils,  some of their best scoring opportunities are coming when Coleman and Gusev are on the ice.  Travis Zajac is still a good 2 way center and is very valuable to the Devils in a bottom 6 type role and as a penalty killer.  The issue here becomes, Coleman – Zajac – Gusev are deployed in more of a 3rd line role, when the wingers on this line are 2 of the only people who have been able to produce points for the woeful Devils at 5 on 5.  I imagine that production is a reason that the Devils coaching staff has been unwilling to tamper with this line.  Jack Hughes is offensively talented in ways the Travis Zajac is not.  Jack Hughes is a top tier talent in terms of offensive creativity.  The idea of keeping him with the forwards who have been the Devils best point producers for 3 years (Hall and Palmieri) certainly would seem to make a lot of sense.  You’re putting players with a history of production around a young, talented center in the hopes they can get going with each other.  Also, Hischier has been out with illness and Hughes is the best option with him out.   A lot of Hall and Palmieri’s production comes from the power play.  If you isolate all their scoring to just 5 on 5 game state, an interesting picture emerges.  When Hischier comes back, he should go back to centering Hall and Palmieri, while Hughes is moved to line with Gusev and Coleman.

Over the last 3 seasons, only 8 Devils forwards have played more than 1500 minutes of 5on5 ice time.  These are: Nico Hischier, Taylor Hall, Blake Coleman, Miles Wood, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha.  Remembering that this year has Taylor Hall’s MVP season in the mix, his individual expected goals for per 60 minutes, at 5on5, was 1.01.  Blake Coleman, whom does not have an MVP season, is in second place among these 8 forwards and has an individual expected goals for of 0.9.  For context Nico Hischier is at 0.85 in third.  Coleman’s numbers through many 5 on 5 analytics are in the top 3 or top 4 among these 8 forwards.  The data of the last 3 years says that Blake Coleman is one of the top 3 wingers for the Devils, and he might even be the 2nd best wing the Devils have.

Blake Coleman’s production at 5 on 5 would suggest that he could/should be a top 6 wing on his team.  His production this year has continued to be strong with line mate Nikita Gusev.  Travis Zajac, however, is not a top 2 center on Devils, in terms of 5 on 5 production.  The other side of the coin here, is that Hall and Palmieri have seen their best production with Hischier as their center.  The Hall trade could really shake things up for the Devils, but before they move ahead with that, I think they need to give themselves an idea of who else on this team can produce points for them.  They can start this process by putting a more offensively gifted center (Jack Hughes) with Coleman and Gusev.

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