The Devils penalty kill was an area of constant frustration during the 2020-21 season. The unit ranked 31st (last) in the NHL with a kill rate of 71 percent.
So, this off-season, a lot of thought went into ways the club could improve.
"You go back to the video. Try to get some rest after many sleepless nights from last year," admitted assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, who oversees the unit. "It wasn't easy on anybody. A lot of guys and coaches take pride in it. When you look for answers you just go back to the basics. You assess every single little thing. Whether it's faceoffs, forecheck, in-zone structure."
It was an unfamiliar position for the Devils, who had ranked in the top 10 in the league over the preview three seasons (2019-20, 7th, 82.4%; 2018-19, 4th, 84.3%; 2017-18, 8th, 81.8%). Last season's failure can be blamed on several factors, including many novice killers, limited practice time and facing four of the best power plays all season long in their division.
Video: Penalty Kill Pride | PRACTICE REPORT
Usually club's work on 5-on-5 basics and add more specialty teams as training camp moves along. But the penalty kill has been an area of emphasis from the first day of camp.
"We've had success on the penalty kill. Last year was last year. It wasn't good at all," Nasreddine said. "We wanted to make sure we put in time in practice, put in some of the structure changes that we wanted to make. I think we can all say the penalty kill looks better so far in this training camp. We just have to keep building. We're far from where we want to be but I definitely think it's heading in the right direction."
Part of the early success could be attributed to the amount of reps in practice the players have received, as well as the talent acquired over the summer. Defensive stalwarts like Ryan Graves and Dougie Hamilton should only benefit the PK.
"I'm excited about new beginnings. We have new additions to our team," Nasreddine said. "Graves and Hamilton on D. I really like the size. I like their reach. They're really good players. For me, just to have those guys coming in and get tacked on with what we already have with (Damon Severson), PK (Subban) and (Ty Smith), it's very exciting for me and our group in general."
At forward, the coaches have liked what they've seen so far from Michael McLeod, Yegor Sharangovich and Jimmy Vesey. They're also giving players like Miles Wood, Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha and rookie Dawson Mercer looks.
"We've got some guys working hard to fit into their roles. It seems they have a pretty good grasp on it," head coach Lindy Ruff said. "As a group when you have those 6-10 guys killing on a regular basis, it becomes a competition. They like their responsibility, being able to go out there and help us get the kill."
Missing from those previously successful penalty kill units were the likes of Blake Coleman or Travis Zajac, longtime successful killers. The Devils are looking for the next crop.
"When he first came to us, he wasn't the Coleman that he is now," Nasreddine said. "We had to work with him. He took pride in it. He was committed. We'll have new guys that will have just as big of an impact.
"It's a new season. Who's the next Coleman? Who's the next Zajac? We have to make sure that as coaches we do our job and find the guys that want to do it, be committed and take pride in it."
Video: Alain Nasreddine | PRACTICE RAW 10.5.21