Between the blue lines: Devils, Saad and the Pens’ power play

Each week, Sam Hitchcock takes a look around the NHL. Follow him @intellighockey and visit his site intelligenthockey.com

The same but different

In some respects, these are the same low-scoring Devils the NHL has known for the past twenty years. When they are leading or the score is tied, they are perfectly content to sit back and wait for opportunities. They also still do wacky things, like starting goaltender Cory Schneider every single game this season.

But in other ways these Devils are different. In the last five seasons, they have finished first or second in shots against in the NHL. This season they are 19th. They were a top five team in Fenwick Close in 2012-13 and 2013-14; this season they are tied for 16th. The last time the Devils scored more than three goals was October 11th, the second game of the season. In the last thirteen games, New Jersey has scored three goals or less. The Devils are controlling possession less, allowing more shots, and continuing to produce inadequate offense.

New Jersey’s weaknesses are exacerbated by a roster of primary players who are injury prone and whose value and production are not commensurate with their cap hit. The team combines a lack of young, dynamic talent due to horrendous drafting with extremely old, talented players who are finally showing their age, and a very young defensive group. On top of this, goalie Schneider, who the Devils traded a top-ten pick to acquire, has an unimpressive .901 save percentage.

The Devils are a painfully slow team bereft of the skill and quickness to create off the rush. They have to scratch and claw and cycle off the forecheck to manufacture any offense. Their lack of young difference-makers puts unfair pressure on the defense because the offense does not possess the ability to apply any considerable stress on the opposing defense.

In fact, considering their lack of NHL exposure, the inexperienced Devils blueliners have actually played well – most notably Damon Severson, albeit he is paired with No. 1 defenseman Andy Greene. They are still susceptible to rookie mistakes, but the team’s veteran defensive pair has been unexceptional. The Bryce Salvador-Marek Zidlicky pairing, which is a combined age of 75, has not been especially good, and allowed consecutive goals to Boston last night that lost the game for the Devils.

It is hard to envision this team not finishing among the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. But if New Jersey’s graybeards can stay healthy and not wear down, and the defensive group and goaltending can experience an uptick in performance, it is conceivable this team will avoid a top ten pick in the upcoming NHL Draft – which would be a nightmare.

For an organization so conspicuously lacking in young, dynamic, game-breaking talent – ESPN Insider’s Future Power Rankings slotted the Devils lastin the league – it is imperative that they recognize, and change, the present franchise trajectory. The Devils should consider selling off all of their players over 25 who have a movable contract, and tanking in order to land a franchise-altering player. And unlike in 1984, when New Jersey was in the NHL’s basement and narrowly missed on Mario Lemieux, whom they coveted, the Devils would have a chance at two generational players in next summer’s draft.

Can these Red Wings avoid a first-round exit?

The Detroit Red Wings have gotten off to a fine start, and are poised to extend their playoff streak to 24 consecutive seasons, barring health issues (which can be a problem for the Red Wings.)

This team looks similar to last season. Detroit wanted to see that Gustav Nyquist was not just a good player riding an unsustainable shooting percentage, and he has demonstrated his authenticity as he has been electrifying in his offensive zone incursions. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are still incredible when they play, and Niklas Kronwall remains the pillar of the defense. Statistically, Detroit has made slight improvements.

The Red Wings controlled 51.5 of the even-strength shot attempts last season, which they have bumped up to a commanding 53.7 percent after the first 15 games. They were 9th in Fenwick Close last season, and this season they are 9th again, although they upped their percentage by 1.1. Last season, the Red Wings were not in the top five in goals for, goals against, 5 on 5 scoring, shots for, and shots against, but this campaign they are fourth in shots against. So this iteration of Detroit might be marginally better.

But is this enough? The Red Wings lost in the first round last season. Their best players were not completely healthy and they had an extremely tough first-round playoff series against Boston and lost in five games. And one of the reasons they drew Boston was because they barely made the playoffs. Even if things break right this season, will that be enough to vault this team from playoff bound to Cup contender? And if they do receive the blessings of good health and better match-ups, but still do not advance deep into the playoffs, could this mean that much-heralded coach Mike Babcock will elect to leave?

If Zetterberg and Datsyuk cannot stay healthy, and Detroit makes an early exit, that might be the harsh reality of a team with aging superstars who have logged a lot of miles. And if Detroit can stay healthy and unleash their full complement, but still loses early, why would Babcock want to stay if he wants to win other Cups? Would he want to stay through the inevitable transition period? Detroit has a terrific organizational method for developing players, but if Babcock cannot win with this team, it certainly seems conceivable he could move to a situation with a title window that is more wide open.

Derick Brassard is worth the money.

The New York Rangers paid Derick Brassard this summer for an awesome 2013-14 season as the New York Rangers’ third-line center. When they handed him top-two center money and healthy term, this was met with a healthy dose of skepticism given his age (27), his career production or lack thereof, and his role on the team. But Brassard has shown he was worth the risk and the promotion: He has delivered five goals and seven assists, brandishes a 52.6 Corsi for, and is arguably the team’s best passer. On a shift-to-shift basis, he has made an impact, and that has come against onerous competition and difficult zone starts. His 54.3 faceoff win percentage has been a positive as well.

Brassard is easy to love for his versatility: He is a threat off the rush and on the forecheck, and his decision-making is strong in all three zones. When Derek Stepan returns, Brassard will likely move to a No. 2 center role; but he is very capable there, and has the skills protecting the puck and distributing to allow his linemates to flourish.

Brandon Saad’s redemption is coming.

Saad has a miserable Corsi, and his two goals and eight assists on the season have been okay, but not the breakout everyone was expecting. Saad has seen some tough competition, but as one of the Blackhawks’ best two-way forwards, one would expect him to be delivering stronger scoring despite the tough opponents.

Well fear not, because that time is coming. Recently, Saad is powering the puck through gaps with impressive ferocity and creating offense out of nothing. Like Brassard, he is versatile: He can assail opposing puck carriers and force takeaways, but still be a demon in transition.

His measly 5.7 shooting percentage will swing upward as he has had dreadful puck luck of late. Saad’s strength on the puck and ability to change direction on a dime allow him to make plays when the sequence should have ended. As a playmaker and top-notch puck-handler, the key is to precipitate scoring chances. Saad is doing that. When it rains it pours; the heavy precipitation is coming.

Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins’ power play

The Penguins’ power play is converting at a ridiculous 37.5 percent success rate, and Malkin’s early season success as the left-handed shot from the point is inextricably linked to it. All of the Penguins skaters are benefiting from the firepower intrinsic to their power play, but Malkin has leaned on it to an impressive extent.

Malkin has six goals and 11 assists on the season, and five of those goals and six of his helpers have come with the man advantage. Sidney Crosby leads the league with 12 power-play points, but that accounts for only 50 percent of his regular season points. Net-front presence Patric Hornqvist has 10 power-play points, which equates to 55 percent of his total 18 points. For Malkin, 64.7 percent of his points are coming when the Penguins are a man up. Malkin is one of the best forwards in the game and is very capable of dominating at even strength, but he has been hamstrung by his 8.14 shooting percentage. That should change but he needs to shoot more.

 

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