The performance of the defense for the New Jersey Devils has been inconsistent through long periods of the 2013-14 season. This inconsistency has, more often than not, caused the team to lose close games, it has created situations where New Jersey has surrendered the lead in games late in the third period, and it is one of the strongest areas of criticism from the team’s loyal fan base.
Now that the Devils and the rest of the NHL are on an extended break due to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, I thought this would be an ideal time to provide some analysis of the defensive group the Devils have put on the ice this season. Those of you who have followed my coverage of the team know that I have written previous articles on this area, and it is an area related to the team which I have a particularly strong interest.
Devils identifier: Defense
I have been a Devils fan since the very beginning in 1982, so I understand the frustration level of the fans regarding this group of defensemen. Throughout the Devils history, myself and the other long-time fans have seen some great defensive hockey players wearing the red and black New Jersey sweater.
The defensive intensity of those teams in the past became the identifying factor for the Devils, it was their hallmark. They hit and checked their opponents and exerted their physicality onto the game to intimidate the other team. Those teams were tough and mean but also disciplined and deliberate in their defensive activity.
The Devils became known for their use of the trap in those years, and they utilized that strategy to perfection to limit the offensive opportunities for their opponent. New Jersey would then patiently wait for a few points in a game to counterattack the opposition to gain a quality scoring chance. The Devils won many close games using this conservative and highly defensive oriented approach and had success in the postseason with it as well.
The rules in the NHL have changed and the trap is no longer allowed, but the Devils still fielded teams with strong defensive capability. The combination of that consistently strong defense and the stellar goaltending of Martin Brodeur achieved outstanding results over the years since the rule changes were made after the lockout in 2004-05.
When Peter DeBoer became head coach of the Devils prior to the 2011-12 season I was optimistic because he was known to have a coaching philosophy which emphasized defense and the forecheck. New Jersey advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season as coach, but the last two seasons have seen the defensive play drop off and the inconsistent results are a direct reflection of that change.
The defensive unit for New Jersey this season has been characterized by appearing old and slow at many points. The unit has had some issues with injuries and the younger players, with the exception of Eric Gelinas, have struggled and even Gelinas has had his fair share of defensive lapses.
The Devils issues defensively are not tied purely to allowing goals because in that metric they have allowed the fifth fewest goals in the entire league. The problem is with the timing of the goals they have allowed.
According to www.nhl.com and a closer analysis I did on the Devils record in game situations here is how the team performs while in the lead in games:
When New Jersey leads after the 1st period:
14 wins – 5 losses – 5 overtime losses
This record looks good but it is the third worst record in that situation in the NHL. Most teams protect a lead even after just one period, and the 5 overtime losses is an indication of a team that may start well and then not finish the game consistently.
When New Jersey leads after the 2nd period:
15 wins – 0 losses – 4 overtime losses
This record also appears very impressive but their win percentage in this scenario is ranked 20th in the NHL out of the 30 teams. In my view it is great that they have never lost a game in regulation after a second period lead. However the 4 overtime losses again indicate that the Devils fail to protect leads in games they should win in the 3rd period. This in turn yields losses in overtime.
In the scenarios where the Devils are trailing the score in a game the news is very bleak:
When New Jersey trails after the 1st period:
2 wins – 11 losses – 5 overtime losses
This record is the 29th worst in the league – the only team with a worse record is the Nashville Predators. This certainly indicates that if the Devils defensively have a lapse early in the game, they very infrequently recover to win the game.
When New Jersey trails after the 2nd period:
5 wins – 16 losses – 3 overtime losses
This record is ranked 9th in the NHL which indicates that many teams have difficulties in coming from behind after 2 periods of play. In the 24 times the Devils have trailed they have won or forced extra time in 8 of those games. This indicates some of the resiliency of this team.
Overall, the amount of overtime losses is a clear indication of a team which has difficulty closing out games. In many of those circumstances the goals allowed could be attributed to a defensive miscue or a lapse which gives the opponent the opportunity to score the decisive goal.
The defensive players for the Devils do not contribute much offensively with the exception of the before mentioned Eric Gelinas, Marek Zidlicky, and Andy Greene. The Devils defensive unit has scored just 25 total goals this season.
The lack of a top notch two-way defenseman is both a positive and a negative for this team. New Jersey has struggled to score goals at many points thus far this season, so to have a defensive player with offensive skills would be an asset. However, that type of player leads to more frequent defensive lapses where team speed is the most effective way to protect your goal from an offensive breakaway by the opponent.
The Devils do not have much speed on their roster so they are better off playing a more conservative, defensive-minded approach. The late game collapses can be fixed through protecting the seams, staying disciplined, and keeping the puck along the boards.
The Devils also recognize the need to develop some younger players because their core defensive players are older veterans. The responsibilities of the position of defenseman frequently require younger players more time to develop than at other positions in hockey.
New Jersey has made some curious decisions regarding the younger players on their defensive roster this season. They have demoted Gelinas to Albany, Adam Larsson played in 20 games and was sent to Albany, and both Jon Merrill and Peter Harrold have been inconsistent at points yet remain with the team.
The fact that Larsson is still in the minors in Albany really puzzles me. Though the reports from Albany over the Olympic break seem to indicate that he was pressing too much in game situations. It seems like the Devils front office believes that an extended stay in the minor leagues will help him to refocus his game. I think he needs to get another opportunity before this season is over, and he may not.
The defensive pairings are also an area where many fans, myself included, have had some issues with the Devils coaching staff this season. In my opinion, when Anton Volchenkov was out recently with an injury, I did not like the pairing of Merrill and Harrold. I felt like they were too inexperienced to be on the ice together. DeBoer should have put Harrold with Andy Greene, and paired Mark Fayne with Merrill.
In my view, both Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky spend too much time trying to poke check the puck out the defensive zone instead of hitting or tying up an opposing player so they cannot make a play on the puck in those situations.
The play of some of the veteran players has just looked so slow and they all tend to shy away from tying a player up in front of the net, which has been the cause of some crushing late game goals by their opponents.
The Devils have to get back to the way they played during the stretch of games that they were hitting and playing very tough defense in mid-December. If they regain that type of intensity and confidence they can make the run at a wild card playoff spot. This team has the talent defensively to be a very formidable team, they just have to work at executing and maintaining that intensity for the full 60 minutes of regulation time.
The Olympics are winding to a close and that means the return of our beloved Devils for their stretch run of games to end this season. If the defense can make some adjustments to protect the lead in close games, the Devils could finish this season with a flourish.