Thursday, November 15, 2007


This Team Doesn't Suck, Only For Now

Patricia at 2 Man Advantage makes the bold argument that the Devils suck - that the team works hard but they don't have the talent. It's not a terrible argument - after 18 games the Devils sit 11th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 7-9-2. They have only scored 42 goals, with a mere 11 coming on the power-play. The Devils have conceded 52 goals, a whopping 20 goals coming from the penalty kill getting burned. Are they doing well? Of course not. I definitely don't want to argue that the Devils are playing well because that would be an outright lie.

I would like to argue against Patricia's key argument:

It’s not lack of effort. No, not at all. This team tries. Certainly tries hard. Maybe not for, well, a full 60 minutes a night, but they damn well do the best they can out there.

Problem is, there’s not much talent.

I’d love to sit here and proclaim Red ‘n Black to be the little engine that could, but I’d be lying. And I don’t like lying.

Now, I would agree that the team doesn't try hard every night for a full game. But it's because of that inconsistent effort, the Devils tend to falter. Consider last night's game, the Devils had a fairly good first period and had good stretches in the third period - but it was their total lack of effort at both ends of the rink in the second period that doomed him. Look at these other posts I had on previous Devils losses. For example, the 2-1 loss to the Islanders last Saturday, the 5-0 rout by the Pittsburgh Penguins last week, the Prudential Center opening night loss to the Senators, and the season opening loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. I made these posts shortly after those games, so I remembered them well at the time of writing and the lack of effort and focus at times (or periods) was definitely apparent and a cause for the loss. All games where the Devils did not respond to the other team's adjustments and let the other team control the game for a period or more at a time. The consistent effort isn't there. The team does not work hard enough.

The sad thing is that the team is definitely good enough to win games. Talented enough to be a Stanley Cup contender, perhaps not; but definitely better than their record shows. This is the same team that piled it on against Tampa Bay 6-1, they dominated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1, and held strong in wins over Toronto and Pittsburgh (which was on Monday). They can win games. They can beat good teams. They have enough talent to do that.

The team does have talent at forward with Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Jamie Langenbrunner up on the top two lines. Rookies David Clarkson and Rod Pelley are proving to be assets to the team. Dainius Zubrus and Aaron Asham are fitting in; and Jay Pandolfo and John Madden are doing all right so far. The defense is definitely lacking in talent due to it's inexperience; but it's not any worse than, say, Pittsburgh's or Philadelphia's and it'll improve when Colin White returns. And the team has one of the best goaltenders in NHL in Martin Brodeur and a very good back-up goalie in Kevin Weekes. Is it a loaded roster, no; but it's not devoid of talent either. The problem seems to be that the talent doesn't have the associated effort and focus necessary to win games on a consistent basis. Sometimes it's there and so the Devils look good in a win and I'm willing to say that they're "back," and then the next night, the Devils play poorly in a bad loss and everyone's miserable about the team. Therefore, I can't agree with Patricia's argument.

I also can't agree with Patricia's statement that Elias is an unneeded component. So his production is inconsistent - so is everyone else's on the team. Yes, he gets paid the big bucks and yes, I think he can do better; but I can say that about almost everyone else on the roster. Elias alone raising his game isn't going to help them win games, it's only going to happen when the other players do so as well every night. This is an issue of motivation; and I seriously question how the players motivate themselves and how Brent Sutter gets the team ready. I do not know what goes on this locker room, so I can't go into more details.

Here's where I can, though. The team can simply be more effective by being calmer on the ice. Yes, calmer. On penalty kills, the defenders seem too passive because they are too nervous to make a move. On the power play, the Devils normally don't do what needs to be done to set up a shot (e.g. dumping it in the corner right to the other team, etc.). On even strength, the Devils make passes that go astray or to the wrong team; and should they make their passes, the shots taken tend to hit traffic instead of hitting the net.

If the Devils want to improve their control of the game, they need to take their time a bit more in their decision-making on passing and shooting. On offense and on the power play, they need to simplify their passes and shots in their attack. Cross-ice passes and long passes can be effective if they hit their target; but if they tend to not hit their target, it's a wasted opportunity. For a team that isn't scoring consistently, the team can not afford to waste opportunities. In addition to trying to muscle players off the boards, why not enter the slot and do the same - getting and putting home rebounds? They don't need to be one-timers across the crease all the time. And when the Devils are doing that, the shot doesn't need to come from the point - and if it does, the point-man should take it without an opposing player being right in front. The passing doesn't have to be a home-run shot, short and steady passes can work just as well at the right time. Just simple hockey. The same follows on defense, standing to wait for the opponent to make a move all the time is just asking to be rolled over. Getting in front of a pass or a shot is a risk that needs to be taken sometimes - and that can't be done if the defender is too worried about being beaten while making a move.

By trying to play less fancy hockey and calmer, the Devils can retain possession of the puck more often. And when you possess the puck, there's a good chance you're possessing the game. If the Devils can control what's going on, they'll have improved incentive to stay motivated and work to win the game. These are small adjustments that I think the Devils can make in games and work in practice that the Devils can do to improve how they play.

But ultimately, the team needs to work harder in games. This is the only way they'll be able win consistently. That's obvious. What isn't so obvious, is that working on little things like simplifying passes and calming down to make better decisions with the puck and on defense. That will help them win those games and turn the supposed corner in their season. Is my idea the only way? Of course not. I just want to see the Devils want to be the team they have the talent to be; and I definitely think this is a team that's better than 7-9-2 after 18 games.

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"calmer on the ice" is a good statement. kurt kleinendorst of the lowell devils always calls this "simplifying your game." it worked for dan mcgillis under KK's tutelage last year. and it worked for the squirt teams that KK coached as well.
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