Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Preseason Issue #1: Offense
Let me tell you about anemic. Rather, let's go to the numbers and see if it bears out. The New Jersey Devils scored a grand total of 216 goals last season, an average of 2.51 goals per game. All the teams that had a fewer goals scored total did not make the playoffs (St. Louis, Philadelphia, Columbus, Chicago, and Edmonton); the Devils' scoring average ranked 27th in the league. While it wasn't by much, the Canucks put up more production than the Devils last season. The Canucks (29.3 per game) also had a higher average number of shots per game than the Devils (28.7 per game). The Devils' power play overall was more efficient than Vancouver's (17.7% against 17.2%). However, anyone who's witnessed the Devils' power plays this past season. knows that sometimes the man advantage is an advantage, an ineffectual event in the game, or a disadvantage for the Devils. It's clear that Vancouver has performed better than the Devils on offense last year, even if it wasn't by much. It's also clear that the Devils have had problems on offense all last season. This alone makes it the most important issue to address.
The first line - Elias-Gomez-Gionta - was inconsistent all season and largely stayed together because the second line was so much more productive (a back-handed compliment for this team) with 71 goals total from Parise, Travis Zajac (17 G, 25 A), and Jamie Langenbrunner (23 G, 37 A). If nothing changes, this unit will have to continue to produce if not improve it - and while I can see Parise and Langenbrunner doing it, the sophmore jinx may bite Zajac hard after a solid rookie season. While it's nice to see Jay Pandolfo with 13 goals - incredibly, surprisingly nice - it's not so nice to see that he's scored more than John Madden last season. That's the forwards. On defense, it's even bleaker with all defensemen combining for 18 goals. And the guy who scored 8 of those just signed with Detroit.
The first thing that I would suggest to the new head coach of the Devils, Brent Sutter, is to get this team to shoot more. In my opinion this is the biggest factor, as I have seen the Devils go through power plays and extended puck possession without taking a shot. In many games, I feel the Devils as a whole were passing too much looking for the mythical perfect shot while passing up decent scoring chances - something that plagued the Elias-Gomez-Gionta unit, I think, more than anyone. Take more shots from the point, from the faceoff circles, in the slot, and in other places in between. Some of those less than ideal shooting opportunities may lead to goals. Yes, they were not as poor in shooting as they were in scoring - but the team clearly needs to take more chances putting the puck on net. The goals are not going to come from just more accurate shots - but a lot more shots in general from all players. The blueline may put up more than 18 goals just by taking more shots at the point - or even have more assists from more re-directions and tips leading to goals. Given the Devils' historical emphasis on forcing turnovers on defense, the team could be better in having those chances lead to better scoring chances which will likely lead to more goals. How much the team will be encouraged to shoot will be a factor in addressing this issue.
The second factor for the offensive issue will be Dainius Zubrus. The big right wing will likely play center again, likely between Patrik Elias (no, I'm not a proponent of having Elias play center like he did in 2002) and Brian Gionta. Again, the most productive line last season was Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner. Short of a drastic change in chemistry or any injuries that line should not be broken up. This puts the effectiveness of Zubrus on the spot. If he meshes well with Elias and Gionta, it will give the line a literally bigger target who can clog the slot with Gionta and allow Elias to use his playmaking skills to full effect. The result would yield two legitimate scoring lines, hopefully leading to increased offensive production. If he doesn't, well, I don't want to worry about that yet - but I think it's safe to say it would not be pretty. Even so, Zubrus' size is one of his advantages and I think Sutter should utilize that size with great effect for screens and play along the boards in addition to his current skills with the puck - providing he doesn't become Lithuania's answer to Viktor Kozlov, it should work.
The third factor is something Sutter may not have any control over - not that he can have much over chemistry between Zubrus, Elias, and Gionta - and that is Elias and Gionta themselves. They both have had disappointing seasons in terms of production, especially so since they were so awesome together (with Gomez) in the 2005-2006 season. If the Devils are going to increase their scoring, those two will need to step up their games and their production along with it. Elias is the team's most talented forward and Gionta is one of their best goal scorers. While we know Elias can bounce back from sub par seasons, Gionta is more of a question mark. Hopefully, 2005-2006 will not be an aberration in Gionta's career. How can they step it up, I do not know. Maybe it's a change in how they practice, how they prepare, how they work with each other, how their mindset is set, or something else. But something will need to change for the benefit of the Devils as a whole.
These three factors are the most major in what would affect the offense and what would need to be addressed for the Devils to score more goals. There are others. How Sutter will set up the power play units and their general style will definitely be key. Paul Martin becoming the de factor number one defenseman begs the question whether he can handle all the defensive responsibilities while providing offense from the point. His career stats aren't inducing a lot of confidence, so it will remain to be seen to see how offensively effective he will be as the top two-way defenseman on the team (no, it's not Andy Greene). All the same, the major point is that the Devils need to improve their offensive production - score more goals. Not just to continue being perennial Stanley Cup contenders or give opposing teams more to worry about when the Devils come up on their schedule (though those are two very compelling reasons from my point of view). They should improve their offense if only to not have to rely on Martin Brodeur being absolutely amazing every night for a second straight season.