Clumsy title aside, I want to quickly go over what I feel the New Jersey Devils' needs are that cannot be met through free agency. Now, don't get me wrong. As I responded (rather late) to two questions from Jeff Klein of Slap Shot
, I'm hoping the Devils do sign a top 6 forward or a defenseman who is good at moving the puck and can play on the top pairing. Basically, a signing that could help spark the offense and help the goal scoring of the team. While Paul Martin has definitely show he can handle the minutes, the Devils really could use someone who can move that puck with authority - especially on the power play.
However, as I implied in the second half of my response, I am hoping for the current players on the team to improve their ability to score goals. In retrospect, I wish I was more general in that statement. I fully believe that for the Devils to get out of finishing in the bottom third in total goals scored and average goals per game (27th in both categories, 198 and 2.42, respectively), it's going to take more than signing someone like Marian Hossa, Mats Sundin, or Wade Redden. While it would help, here's what the Devils need to address on offense regardless of who they sign. (Note: All salary information comes from NHLSCAP
; all stats are from NHL.com
1. Demanding Better Personally, I hate the standby line of "Player X is making Y million dollars, why in the hell can't he do Z!?" It's too simplistic and it ignores all of what X does in favor of goals or points. In hockey, a player's value is much more than just how many goals or points they put up. Examples of this include effort they give, whether they are willing to pay the physical price to get an opportunity, and how well they pass/skate/lead. That said, the offensive production from some of the Devils has to be better because they are important players being paid to provide this offense. I understand that Elias has tried hard and he switched positions and had a ton of linemates. However, 20 goals and 35 assists is disappointing for a $6 million/year scoring forward. Brian Gionta earned a $4 million/year contract for his goal scoring abilities, and while it would be crazy to expect 45+ goals, is 22 really enough? Dainius Zubrus is that he's a hard working player who does what he's asked and gives a good effort. However, given that he's getting $3.4 million/year until 2013, he needs to better than 13 goals and 28 assists next season. Paul Martin's defensive responsibilities are earning most of that $3.833 million/year contract, moreso than his 5 goals and 27 assists. If Zach Parise is to be the future offensive leader for the Devils - and if he wants a substantial raise in 2011 - he'll need to put up more than 65 points.
Let me be clear, I'm not asking for the Devils to cast off all these players. I'm just suggesting that the organization raise expectations for the highest paid players on the team. I don't doubt their talent, but it's clear that something is preventing that talent from turning into more productive hockey from these players. Given that they are being paid to do that, that's a problem. If the Devils raise their internal expectations and act accordingly to individually motivate their scoring players to do better, we could see all of these players perform with much more consistency and hopefully more point production. That in of itself would go a long way to getting New Jersey to become a decent squad in terms of lighting the lamp. A free agent would help, but these guys are likely going to be here (unless Gionta's traded) next season. The organization needs to do what they can to get the most out of them. However, it's not just all on the player needing to pick it up.
2. Chemistry If a player isn't doing so well or a certain line is getting picked apart on a match up, changing up the lines is a pretty good idea. However, the Devils had changed their lines so much so that I question whether any decent chemistry was built up. Pretty much the only constant to this season on the forward lines was that John Madden played center. We've seen wingers play off-wing, Patrik Elias switch from left wing to center, Mike Rupp on the second line, and so on and so forth. It's understandable to try out new things. However, offense is boosted from when players who do work well with each other develop that all-important chemistry. that knowledge of knowing how their teammates operate, how much they can lead them on passes, whether they should take the shot in odd-man rushes or dump it off, and so on and so forth.
Essentially, Brent Sutter needs to establish who works well with whom, set up their lines, and let them develop. Given it was Sutter's first season with the Devils, mixing it up to see what happens made sense. Now that he's had a season, he really should know how the lines should be set up. And once they are set, they need to go through thick and thin to really gel - show some patience and confidence in a unit should it show scoring promise/production. The A Line wasn't always A-mazing; the EGG line laid a few in some games; and even PZL was puzzling (and I'm sorry for this sentence) on some nights. Yet, the Devils didn't throw away that line. Ultimately, they were good scoring lines and the chemistry within them played a role in their production.
3. Tactical Changes Some of the decisions I saw from the Devils in terms where they position players and how they begin their attacks have been head-scratching. Brian Gionta was not setting up in front of the net to get the garbage goals. The power play unit seemed to just settle for shots from the point or out at the circles. David Clarkson was not told to crash the net very often. The Devils had games where whenever they had the puck in the neutral zone, the attack began with a dump into the corner leading to the Devils fighting on the boards for possession. I don't have anything against a dump-and-chase; only when it continues all game regardless of the opposition figuring it out and adjusting their defense to it after one or two periods. I think this is due to inexperience in the NHL level by Sutter and I expect it to improve for next season, which should help the Devils' overall performance
4. Power Play Coaching Let me admit some ignorance here, I do not know who is in charge in terms of running the special teams in practice and during the game. I do not know whether it is Sutter and one of the assistants like John MacLean, or whether it's John MacLean taking the lead, or whether it's by committee, or whether it's by some random guy sitting in section 4 with a cell phone giving instructions to SHOOOOOOT every time a defenseman has the puck for more than a second at the point. It's quite simple that it's not good. The power play effectiveness rate was 15.6% last season (25th in the NHL) and the Devils only scored 50 goals on the power play (27th in the NHL). It is evident that whoever is responsible in terms of deciding how the Devils will attack on a power play (e.g. umbrella, overload, etc.), who to use on the power play, and providing individual instruction in practice and during games, they need to put up or do something else. Adjustments made in the prior three areas of need would help here; but it wouldn't be such a terrible idea to consider an assistant coaching change or a new assistant coach who can provide a fresh look for power play situations. The power play needs to get better if only so when the Devils do draw a call, fans like me won't immediately cringe to the thought of wasting an opportunity to score.
5. Shooting Accuracy I don't think I need to explain, but the Devils as a team need to work on their shooting. Specifically, hitting the net more often with their shots. If you want further analysis on that, I made an attempt at one here.
That's a whole lot to digest, but those are areas that I think need improvement and I think will improve. As Sutter remains as coach, I think he'll get better in terms of player utilization, setting up lines, and allowing those lines to gel. The real key is figuring out what needs to be done to get Elias, Gionta, et al. to get more chances and get more scoring going and figuring out what needs to be done to revamp the power play. Signing a free agent or two would help in this regard, but these are areas that a free agent can't solve on their own. And if the Devils can't sign the big name player - which is possible, given that most of the league will be looking at them, too - addressing these areas, I think, will lead to a more offensively threatening Devils squad.
Labels: 2008 Offseason, Devils Analysis, Devils Issues