Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Sutter Needs to Step It Up

Let me tell you, there is nothing like seeing the Devils win or seeing a Devil perform particularly well like a big Martin Brodeur save or a sweet play led by Patrik Elias like seeing it live. That said, seeing the Devils skate in a proverbial fog, waste what they have accomplished, show no urgency or even the desire to try and win the game, and lose a hockey game (especially to a division opponent) is a lot more disappointing and frustrating when you see it live. The the 4-2 loss to Pittsburgh definitely falls into the latter category.

Now, the meltdown in the second period and the third period apathy has drawn quite a reaction. Jeremy Kenter has an extensive overview at Devils Daily, highlighting the meltdown. The Interchangeable Parts live-cap is also extensive, expressing many frustration and expletives about the lack of performance from the Devils attack. Rich Chere at the Star Ledger puts the poor performance into perspective, despite the ridiculous headline - the Devils did not put out an effort for two-thirds of the game. Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice has two news items about Johnny Oduya's turnover (and Oduya's and Martin's lack of reaction) and the Travis Zajac line being called out by head coach Brent Sutter for their performance.

These are all very valid and all players not named Mike Rupp and Rod Pelley are deserving of criticism. Especially Zach Parise, who was outplayed by Mike Rupp. But I want to make two separate points. First, I'd like to state that Rupp and Pelley played very well and they are the only Devils who should feel anything resembling pride or a positive feeling about the game, should they want to feel that. Second, I want to criticize Brent Sutter because I feel he is very deserving of it after this game.

The game prior to this one was a terrible game for New Jersey, giving up the lead to a team they have dominated for the better part of a decade in the state. After the game, Sutter indicated that he was not happy in the post-game press conference (noted by Gulitti). That such a performance will not be looked upon kindly. Asses were to be kicked. Names were to be taken. One would be led to believe that a lackadaisical performance would not happen again sometime soon. Yet, that's pretty much what happened last night. I'm sure Sutter punished the team appropriately after the Montreal game. But if his goal was for that punishment to motivate the team against Pittsburgh, he failed miserably. Yes, how the team performs has to do with the players on the ice, their own motivation, effort, and focus. But the head coach is also responsible for providing that motivation prior to the game and in between periods so they could provide a strong effort with a clear focus on winning. I definitely did not see that after the first period last night outside of the fourth line.

This leads me to criticism number two: Sutter, change your game plan! I think it's fine and sometimes a smart decision to mix up lines in the middle of the game. Here are some examples just off the top of my head. If a player is struggling, having him play with others could provide a spark. If the opposition has trouble handling speed, putting three fast skaters for a few shifts can take advantage of that. This is good. But last night, we didn't see it on defense when the defensemen did impersonations of the slow kid chasing the others in "tag." That could have been useful. But more to my point, the Devils stuck to the exact same approaches on offense and defense all night long. Despite Pittsburgh picking up on it! The Devils dumped the puck into the zone on offense more often than not and by the third period, the Penguin defense played wider and got to those pucks first and took possession. On defense, the Devils didn't even try to hold a position - they were likely instructed to chase and kept doing so despite being beaten quite a bit. There was no indication that Sutter instructed the team to do something different on offense and defense; despite an amateur like myself easily noticing Pittsburgh reading the Devils perfectly.

Do some Devils like Parise need to play better? Absolutely. But Sutter needs to improve in his own performance to keep the Devils from slumping. Especially when Our Hated Rivals visit New Jersey on Friday, kicking off a February of 11 home games at the Rock. I can't speak for all the fans, but this kind of frustration needs to become rare and quickly.

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