Examining Miles Wood’s Encouraging Start to the 2021 New Jersey Devils Season

The 2021 season is still very young for the National Hockey League. The New Jersey Devils, not expected to make any particular noise, has done fairly well all things considered. They opened up with earning three points out of four out of potential East Division favorite Boston and beating Our Hated Rivals in regulation. It took until the fourth game of the season before they suffered a regulation loss. They rebounded after that loss by shutting out the Islanders 2-0. Considering the team is still without Nico Hischier (injury), Jesper Bratt (visa – now in Coronavirus protocol), Sami Vatanen (visa), and prior to the loss against the Islanders, Mackenzie Blackwood (Coronavirus protocol), going 3-1-1 to start is a pleasant surprise. One of the reasons why it is so pleasant is because of left winger Miles Wood.

A Bit of Background of Miles Wood

This is Miles Wood’s fifth season in the NHL. In the previous four seasons, Wood has demonstrated himself to be a double-edged sword of a player. At his best, Wood is very fast in a straight line with the puck and in puck pursuit on offense. That speed can create one-on-ones with the goaltender. His rambunctious style draws penalties and he shows a willingness to shoot the puck. As he has been in the league, his willingness to backcheck has picked up a bit. At his worst, Wood is not nearly as fast off the puck, he does not apply the kind of pressure on defense he does on offense, his shoot-from-anywhere mentality means he takes a lot of low-percentage shots, he often does not finish those one-on-ones with goaltenders, and he takes quite a few calls due to his rambunctious style. This means the results he has provided to the Devils has been mixed at best. This also means the first few games of this season helps make Wood stand out even more.

What’s Good with Wood So Far

One of the reasons why Wood has been a stand out early on is his production. He is tied for the Devils lead in goals with three and he is only behind Jack Hughes and Ty Smith in points. Wood’s three goals have been valuable too. The first one was the first of the Devils’ whole season and tied up the game 1-1 in the third period against Boston. The second one opened the scoring in the second game against Boston. The third one was the Devils’ first power play goal of the season and it stood up as the eventual game winning goal against Our Hated Rivals. Wood’s one assist set up Travis Zajac’s goal, which came within the first minute against Our Hated Rivals. Putting up four points in three games will get anyone noticed. (Aside: He also set the screen on Jack Hughes’ power play goal against the Isles last night, so his non-point work is noticeable too.)

However, the Devils have been doing rather well in the run of play when Wood has been on the ice. After yesterday’s game against the Islanders, here are Wood’s 5-on-5 on-ice rate percentages at Natural Stat Trick:

  • CF%: 55.08% (2nd to Zajac, 56.48%)
  • SF%: 54.29% (2nd to Zajac, 54.88%)
  • xGF%: 61.33% (2nd to Kulikov, 62.46%)
  • SCF%: 53.70% (3rd to Severson, 54.17%, and Kulikov, 56%)
  • HDCF%: 59.26% (1st on team)
  • GF%: 100% (1st on team, tied with Palmieri, Kulikov, Merkley, and Tennyson)

What this all means is that when Wood is on the ice, the Devils are controlling most of the play in 5-on-5 and out-scoring their opposition in 5-on-5. This is not all due to Wood himself. He has been playing with Travis Zajac, who has been very good to start this season. Mackenzie Blackwood was superb in his first three games. It has helped that Wood often had either the pairing of Ryan Murray and P.K. Subban behind him or the pairing of Dmitry Kulikov and Damon Severson. However, the Corsi, shot, scoring chance, and expected goal percentages are not this high for Wood if Wood himself was not contributing outside of the scoresheet. One of the benefits of using CF% or xGF% is that it shows up well for players who win puck battles, make successful transitions on offense and defense, and keep the opposition at bay. As well as Zajac has been doing, one player alone cannot put up team-leading numbers in 5-on-5 play. Wood, at a minimum, has been very helpful. While it has been only four games old, this is far superior to Wood’s best on-ice percentages in his career (2017-18, also the season where he scored 16 5-on-5 goals). It is quite good.

It is also worth noting who Wood has put these numbers up against. As CJ pointed last week, the Zajac line – Zajac, Wood, and Jesper Boqvist – drew Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand in the two games against Boston. Bergeron and Marchand are two-thirds of one of the most dominant first lines in recent memory. That is a tough match-up. Yet, in each game, the Devils were winning the matchup decisively when Wood saw either of those two in Game #1 and #2. That helped the Devils stay in those games against Boston and came out of each with results. Against Our Hated Rivals, Wood was one of the few Devils to not get dominated by Filip Chytil’s line, they crushed New York’s fourth line, and came out ahead against the likes of Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. The first game against the Islanders was disappointing, but there was some success in Wood’s common matchups against Andy Greene and Noah Dobson. Last night’s game against the Isles in Newark saw Wood’s most common matchup in 5-on-5 be the top line of Mat Barzal, Anders Lee, and Jordan Eberle. The Devils just about matched them attempt for attempt in 5-on-5 when Wood and those three were on the ice. The larger point is that it Wood (and Zajac) were not sheltered and kept to playing only against the opposition’s bottom six. There were real on-ice successes or non-losses against some difficult-on-paper match-ups when a defensively-questionable Wood was on the ice. That speaks to how well Wood has been doing outside of the boxscore.

What further adds to the goodness is the fact that head coach Lindy Ruff’s systems require the wingers to take more responsibility off the puck. As defensemen have been given the green light to “activate” and jump up on the offensive zone, a winger often has to drop back just to cover themselves. In the defensive zone, wingers need to drop deeper in their own end and be more aware of opposing players – especially when defensemen swarm opposing players along the boards. Wood has never been a particularly good or even decent player in his own zone. In theory, asking him to do even more off the puck would be a bad idea. But the 5-on-5 numbers show that it has been working. The on-ice against rate stats when Wood is on the ice are among the lowest on the team, joining Zajac. It is not so much that the Devils are playing and winning a super high-event game when #44 is on the ice. The team has played very well in both ends with Wood. At a minimum, he is not dragging anything down. This implies good discipline in the run of play.

Speaking of discipline, Wood has been on good behavior. Wood took two completely avoidable and ill-advised goaltender interference penalties in the first game against Boston. Those have been the only times Wood has put his team in a shorthanded situation. In the second game, he got into a fight with a Bruin and that was the last time he was in the box. The two road games against the two New York teams saw Wood not commit a foul (or get caught). This is another positive because Wood has a tendency to get into the penalty box fairly regularly. While this does draw calls from other teams, it does get him – and by extension, the Devils – into trouble. The Devils’ PK woes have been real early on in this season. One of the more frequently penalized Devils is doing his part by not adding to those woes by taking calls since the first game.

Lastly, Wood is standing out because the others in a similar position have not. While Wood is 25, he is effectively a veteran among wingers on the Devils as this is his fifth NHL season. Without Jesper Bratt, the only other experienced NHLers at left and right wing on the roster have been Kyle Palmieri, Nikita Gusev, and Andreas Johnsson. Those three have been very bad in the team’s first four games. Johnsson was benched in the third period of the Rangers game and he saw a demotion to the fourth line for yesterday’s game against the Islanders. Gusev was also benched in the third period of the Rangers game and has looked lost. Palmieri has been so off the page, I question if he is in another book entirely. All three performed better last night, but overall, they have left a lot to be desired on the ice. Maybe it is just me, but their struggles helps make Wood’s early successes stick out more.

It may have been just five games and it may not last, but that I can name multiple positives about Wood’s start to this season is very encouraging.

What I Am At Least a Bit Concerned About Wood’s Start

While it is encouraging, I am not concerned about at least some of this falling apart as the season wears on. This praise is based on five games so far. The 2021 season may have been shortened to 56 games, but there is a lot of hockey left to be played. This could go poorly for Wood as much as it could continue fairly well.

A closer look at the production itself shows a very fortunate winger. Wood’s breakaway goal was great. However, knowing he has failed to finish those plays in the past (and one attempt earlier that game led to a goaltender interference penalty) makes one wonder how often he can do it again. The other two goals were fortunate bounces. Wood’s second goal was a tip-in on a Ty Smith shot. Players do practice deflections but good luck trying to replicate that in a game situation. Wood’s third goal was even more fortunate; he touched off a brilliant pass by Hughes that went in off his skate. That is even harder, if not impossible, to repeat for future games. The good news is that Wood is shooting the puck quite a bit. He is second only to Gusev with 15 shots on net in the team’s first five games. I am just pointing out his success rate on goals has been boosted by some beneficial touches.

Furthermore, while Wood’s 5-on-5 on-ice stats are great, there are still signs of Wood’s defensive issues manifesting themselves. Per Dr. Micah Blake McCurdy’s Hockeyviz, Wood’s isolated impact shows a lot of red around the net and in the slot – which is not good. This was taken prior to yesterday’s game against the Isles.

Miles Wood isolated impact for 1-24-2021 prior to the Isles game.

Miles Wood isolated impact for 1-24-2021 prior to the Isles game.
Hockeyviz (Dr. Micah Blake McCurdy)

If it was not for the goaltenders playing so well, perhaps it could have cost the Devils in the tight four games I am praising Wood’s performance is in I do think Dr. McCurdy’s Magnus model for isolating player impact may be over-rating the issues as the team has not conceded a lot of scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances with Wood on the ice. And I would like to think the Isles game last night would lighten those dark red areas by the Devils’ net in the bottom half. It is still something to watch for as the season progresses.

Likewise, I am concerned about whether the coaching staff will keep Wood in a position he has been succeeding at so far. While Wood and Zajac have been playing very well in 5-on-5, plenty of other Devils are not. Lindy Ruff may need to mix up the lines just to help out others from getting beaten on. Already, the Zajac line was adjusted prior to yesterday’s game as Janne Kuokkanen replaced Boqvist on the right side to allow for a Nick Merkley call up. That worked quite well against the Isles against a tough matchup against Barzal’s line. There could be other changes that could impact Wood’s current roster situation, especially if Gusev, Palmieri, and/or Johnsson continue to struggle. In addition, Hischier’s and Bratt’s impending arrival will force other changes in the lineup. Taking Wood away from Zajac could lead to poorer results for either, which could mean the Devils go from three underperforming veteran wingers to four. If it were me, I change nothing about Wood and Zajac. But it is not my call. It is not an issue now, but it could be something that is done later on – which could lead to a bit of a decline for Wood.

Furthermore, I do not think three, four, or five games really undoes a player’s style that has been established for three or four seasons. Wood is bound to take some penalties. His style means he will likely take calls that would be avoidable for most players. When things are not going well, he could revert to spraying pucks towards the net regardless of location. Or he could struggle to keep up with Ruff’s changes off the puck and go back to being inactive in his own zone. Struggles and bad nights will happen to everyone. I question whether some of those could send Wood back to what he has been instead of the net-positive player he has been in the first four games of this season.

Concluding Thoughts & Your Take

It is possible that Wood is turning a corner now that he has been in the NHL for four seasons and has a new head coach with a new staff telling him things he may not have heard in the past four seasons. But I do not think a dramatic change has taken place.

All the same, this is not to say that I think Wood is doomed to be the mixed-bag-of-results winger that he has been for most of his career. I think Wood’s good start could be facilitated to make him more of a net positive based on adjustments from what he has done in the past. And I will gladly accept a good start to the season from Wood in any case. Especially as Palmieri, Gusev, and Johnsson have been non-factors at best in those same games. I hope it continues. Or at least it does not revert in the opposite direction where you are left wondering whether he is worth keeping around. That last point is crucial. While the GM was the assistant GM of past years, veterans like Wood effectively have to prove they are worth keeping around for the future in a season like this one. So far, so good on that front.

Regardless of how last night went, I am pleased to see this start from Wood. I am encouraged that he can build on this on his way to having a good season. Now I want to know what you think of Miles Wood so far this season. Are you also encouraged by the good start that he has been having? What would you do to keep the good times going for Miles Wood? Do you think this will last throughout 2021? Please leave yours and other thoughts about Wood in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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