The Devils' Offensive Style

Now that there's a bit of a lull, thanks to the weekend, let's consider how the Devils have been successful on offense this season.  They certainly have been productive.  The Devils score an average of 3.02 goals per game, which is the eighth best average in the league.  Their goals for/against ratio in even strength situations is the second best in the NHL at 1.36.   How the Devils accomplish this has a lot to do with why they have this awesome record as of now:


36 - 17 - 3

Won 3


I think it mainly has to do with the Devils' style of play fits the roster well.   Consider their days back in the mid to late 1990s, especially under Jacques Lemaire's coaching tenure.  The Devils relied on the neutral zone trap, waited for the opposition to make a mistake (or force them into making one), and hit them on the counter attack.  The current Devils don't do so much of that. They are now a puck possession team.

They try to earn the puck back in the neutral zone or in their own zone, and then the puckhandler looks up.   They look to see if they have a long option up along the boards, usually firing the puck off the boards to get it to the forward up-ice.  Should the pass be successful, they will either take it over the blueline themselves to start the attack or dump it off to the corners if there is no room available.  If there is no long option, they'll keep the passes short and the rush will look to go to the sides of the ice provided there's no gaping hole in the center.

That dump-in is quite important because that's where the battles begin.  The current roster doesn't have a single soft player in the lineup.   While not everyone is a powerhouse, they aren't afraid to take hits or give them out.  This is true on the defense, unheralded as they may be.  This is true across all forwards from the big men (e.g. Zubrus, Rupp, Holik) to the older players (e.g. Madden, Rolston, Shanahan) and to the skilled forwards (e.g. Elias, Gionta, Parise).   The players are able to handle this style of play and they are utilized accordingly.

One or two Devils will go into that corner and try to win possession back, or keep it themselves.  Should they do that (and they tend to do so well), they either look to move the puck around the zone for an opening or the forwards start cycling to create space.   From there, the Devils keep searching for a good shot and maintain the puck at the same time.  While their shot selection is questionable at times, the team isn't shooting whenever possible either.  By maintaining the puck, they can control what's going on, make better decisions on offense as to when to shoot and how to set up a play, and put the pressure on the opposition - either to tire them out (especially in battling for the puck and in cycling) or get them out of position to create that crucial opening.    Once it's there, the Devils have the scoring chance they need to score or can create a rebound from the shot.  With a Devil usually down low or near the slot, they can be quite adept at putting those rebounds home - just look at Zach Parise!

To be fair, Sutter looked to put in this kind of style last season.  The Devils did a lot puck-dumping of it last season to the point of excess.  It's generally a safe play, if the Devils don't win it back, the other team still has to get out of their zone to go back on the attack.  When the Devils were struggling in breaking through on offense, they'd just dump it in and by the third period, the opposition defense knew well enough to play deep enough and position themselves a little wider to get to those pucks more easily. I don't think the players fully bought into the system and I don't think the implementation was well done.  Therefore, the Devils didn't do as well at keeping the puck and the scoring chances they needed weren't being created in the run of play.  That the Devils only scored an average of 2.42 goals per game, the fourth lowest in the league, last season proves how ineffective their attack truly was at times.

The Devils haven't fallen into the same trappings this season, from what I've seen, and not just by the numbers. The big difference is that Sutter and the coaching staff has allowed the players enough leeway to make decisions as necessary on ice.  A big example is that the defensemen or the point-man is allowed to sneak in for a closer shot or pinch in on offense.  The Devils are defensively sound enough for a forward to drop back; and so far the defense have been wise on when to get in there.  It forces the opposition to be aware of a fourth player or a different player getting to the faceoff dots and below.

A second example is that sometimes a Devils defensemen will take the puck in off the breakout and take it from end-to-end if the space is available more than just on a few rare occasions.  Instead of two men and the puck carrier coming over the line, it's three and the puck carrier.   These options, and the fact that the Devils actually do them, keep the opposition honest.  This way they can't just focus on the dump-in. 

Thirdly, the Devils' forecheck is a lot more aggressive.  Even on the penalty kill, the Devils will send a guy up just to force a little pressure should there be no concern of him getting caught.  That little bit of pressure sometimes forces a turnover or a bad pass into the neutral zone. The Devils will win that puck and try to keep it on Devils' sticks as they go back on the attack.   On some shifts, the Devils will send in two forecheckers - one shallow, one deep - if they feel they got a good chance to get the puck back. When the Devils let up on the forecheck, the team's performance tends to suffer because it can allow the other team that extra space to get going on offense - allowing the defense with the puck more time to pick out a target to get it up ice.

Lastly, that the team has largely had a season with Sutter and tried out getting into this system has helped a lot as to why this style of play has worked for New Jersey and why they've been so good at scoring goals.  For all of this cycling and puck movement to work, chemistry is crucial.  Like I said, the players from last season now fit into this style much better and it's executed with more confidence and risk.  The new acquisitions of Rolston, Holik, Shanahan understand this style well, which helps as they aren't all that small either. When you also consider that Sutter has finally settled on a general lineup, namely the top two lines, the chemistry has been allowed to germinate and I think it has made the current systems, and ultimately the team, more successful.

Essentially, it breaks down to this.  The Devils' style mandates that they don't rely on a counter attack or beating opponents with speed or sitting in a trap.  They work hard to win the puck, create space when they do have it, move it around the offensive zone on the outside - all of which requires possession.  That's why it's such a terrible thing when the Devils are doing a poor job passing the puck in a game.  It's not just that they allow the other team to take the puck back.  It means they can't get it up ice for that initial dump-in. It means a cycle can't really get going, as it requires a series of short passes.  It means the Devils will not be able to maintain possession of the puck for a significant enough time to do anything. 

This is not to take away some of the individual performances the Devils are having.  However, the team as a whole has been this productive - especially compared with last season's relative lack of goals.  In that case, credit has to be attributed to the Devils' offensive style of play.  Given how successful it has been, I hope they continue using it in the foreseeable future.

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