Last season, the New Jersey Devils made somewhat of an improbable run to the Stanley Cup final where they fell in a six-game series against the Los Angeles Kings. The Devils’ run was “improbable” because New Jersey was among the worst teams in the league just a season earlier when it employed two different coaches and got off to an abysmal start.
New Jersey hired a new head coach – Pete DeBoer – for 2011-12, and DeBoer installed a new system of play with help from a Hall of Fame staff of assistants that included Adam Oates, Larry Robinson and Scott Stevens.
The Devils got out to a bit of a sluggish start, going 4-4-1 in the first month of the season and 12-12-1 in their first 25 games. But New Jersey got rolling once the players had the system down cold; the Devils were 50-26-5 thereafter, including the playoffs.
Early in the 2012-13 season, New Jersey is off to a strong 3-0-1 start. With very little roster turnover and a group of players who are now very familiar with DeBoer’s system, the Devils are difficult to play against night in and night out, despite the loss of captain Zach Parise to free agency.
Meanwhile in Washington, Oates has taken over as bench boss and he is installing a similar system in the District. But unlike DeBoer, Oates and the Caps are trying to do so after a very abbreviated training camp and no pre-season games.
New Jersey defenseman and captain Bryce Salvador doesn’t believe the Devils could do what the Caps are trying to accomplish this season.
"You couldn’t do it," Salvador told Tom Gulitti in the Jan. 25, 2013 edition of The Bergen Record. "It takes a good 15, 20 games just for everyone to get onboard with that. … If you’re a team that’s just trying to do it and, 15, 20 games in, if you haven’t figured it out or you’re not executing or having everyone buy in or you have a little bit of doubt, then you’re in trouble."
Washington struggled through the first three games of the season, losing all three contests by multiple goals. But playing against the Devils in New Jersey on Friday night may have helped Washington, even though the Caps left town on the short end of a 3-2 overtime decision.
“That’s the way we have to play,” says Oates of the New Jersey game. “You are going to be successful if you play that way. It took 57 minutes [Friday] night but we finally tied it up. But we did so many things better, so many things. We played like a group, we faced the puck, we waited until it got out of the zone before we left the zone. We did so many things forechecking-wise. We played a complete game and that’s very encouraging.”
“It helped,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera of the game against the Devils. “We played a pretty solid game except for a few breakdowns. The first period, we dominated pretty much and they scored on the once chance they had. We had some penalty trouble again, and that cost us some momentum but overall in five-on-five we played the game we wanted to. I think it did help playing against a similar style system, I think that was important.”
The Caps play the Devils four times a season in 82-game seasons. They played New Jersey three times early last season, and once late. In that one late contest – on March 2 at Verizon Center – the Devils skated off with a convincing 5-0 win. By that time, the Devils were virtually on cruise control.
“Playing against them last year,” says Washington center Jay Beagle, “we know that it is hard to play against them, especially in their defensive zone. That swarm – as they like to call it – is so hard for someone who likes to get down low and cycle it and grind it. It’s almost impossible.
“You turn one way, there is a guy on you. You turn the other way … there are always three guys on you. You’re always outmanned in the offensive zone. So it’s hard to figure that out. As soon as [Adam] brought that system in, I knew right away that it’s a hard system to play against as a forward. I feel like everything has come easier with every game, system-wise. Everything is coming more naturally and it is getting easier.”
Although Oates preaches “going north” and territorial hockey, Chimera believes that the biggest difference in the Caps’ system will eventually be seen in the defensive end of the ice with that swarming type defense that Beagle described.
“I think in the defensive zone we’re doing more of an overload system on one side,” says Chimera. “I think that’s the big thing. You see most teams nowadays they’ve got three or four guys in the corner and you can’t really do much with the puck because it’s tough to play against. That’s what we want to do, kind of overload and outnumber their guys in our own zone and get out fast. I think that’s where you see the biggest difference. Neutral zone is different too, but the biggest difference is our zone, I think.”
Watching video can only accomplish so much. Eventually, the Caps will be reacting on the ice rather than thinking and then reacting. And when the thinking stops and the reacting begins, the Caps believe they’ll be a much more successful group.
“As a hockey player,” says Chimera, “whenever you start thinking about things when you’re out there, it’s a bad situation. For me anyway, if I go out there without thinking I’m at my best instead of going out there and thinking about where I should be and what I should do. That’s when I’m at my worst I think, when I am thinking too much.”
“They’ve had a little bit longer to fine-tune theirs,” notes Caps right wing Troy Brouwer of the Devils’ system. “And you see how well it works creating neutral zone turnovers, killing the play in the [defensive] zone and things like that. But anyone who is paying attention to the playoffs last year, seeing New Jersey go to the finals and play the way they did, that should clarify how well the system can work if it’s executed properly.”
Some systems are more palatable to players because they’re more fun to play, they deliver better or faster results or they’re easier to pick up. Regardless, the key is getting them all to buy in. And for the Caps in this outlier of a short season, the sooner the better.
Oates envisions his team being as difficult to play against as the Devils are on a nightly basis.
“That’s the way it is supposed to be that when you play that team,” says Oates. “It’s going to be, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be painful.’ That’s how we were [Friday]. We gave [the Devils] a little bit of their own medicine.
“I really hope the guys saw that and believed in it. It puts every guy in a better position to be successful. We gained confidence in it with the Devils last year, and we obviously had a playoff run that was really good. They’re still playing that system and right now they’re on autopilot.”
The Caps followed up that strong effort in New Jersey with their first win of the season against Buffalo on Sunday. Now they know it’s time to start stacking them up. They’ll have their first chance to start a winning streak on Tuesday when they visit the Senators in Ottawa.