The Main Lessons Learned from the New Jersey Devils 2010-11 Season

Originally, this was supposed to be a season-in-review.  Yet, an honest and accurate review of this season can be done in a succinct fashion.  Before the season, this team was expected to do something in the playoffs. I said as such back in September; the goal for this season was to get past the first round (Kevin, Tom, and Matt had higher expectations).  The Devils, who compiled a record of 38-39-5, didn't even make the playoffs.  Therefore, the 2010-11 season was ultimately a disappointment and a failure.

I could leave it at that, toss in links to all of the previous months and reviews and be done with it.  Though, I don't think that's very constructive.  As accurate, brutish, and short as the above was; it's devoid of detail.  I feel that the most constructive way to look back the 2010-11 New Jersey Devils is to regard the season as a learning experience.   As such, I would like to point what I believe are the major lessons from such a poor season.   Hopefully, these lessons will be heeded in this coming offseason and for 2011-12.

The most important lesson is the first one, and yes, it does need to be in all capital letters.

Lesson: THE REGULAR SEASON MATTERS

This is the biggest lesson from this season.  If you take nothing else away from 2010-11, then let it be this one.  Those 82 games from October through early April do mean something.

Before this season, the Devils last missed the playoffs in the 1995-1996 season. Over time, I think that fans and the team have taken the regular season for granted. Throw in three straight years of first-round-and-out performances; and it's easy to just equate success with the playoff performance.   Just look at the season preview we did as an example. None of us honestly expected the team to struggle to make the playoffs.  I was the most pessimistic and I directly said that the goal for this season is just get past the first round.  It didn't cross my mind that the playoffs weren't a guarantee.  

With such a long streak of making the postseason (and often with home ice in the first round), I guess I assumed it to be - and I don't think I'm the only Devil fan to hold said assumption.  Increasingly, we believed that there aren't any big games in the regular season; that it's all about what you do in the postseason regardless of how the format lends itself to favor hot teams as opposed to the best teams.

And why shouldn't we?  The winner of the playoffs is the champions. They get hoist the greatest trophy in all of sports.  That's why guys will play hurt, why guys will do otherwise ridiculous things to keep their team's hopes alive at winning just a game much less a series, why they lift all them weights, etc.  From that standpoint, it's understandable, right?

However, so much went wrong this season to confirm that the playoffs aren't a guarantee. A berth must be earned.  How the team performs during the season is important and making the postseason should be looked upon as an accomplishment. Above all else, the 2010-11 season has demonstrated that the regular season isn't to be taken for granted.

Lesson: When the Shooting Percentage is Low, Everything's Harder

The biggest hindrance to success this season has been goal scoring.  Oh, sure, the number and severity of injuries didn't help.  The coaching in the first 33 seasons was horrid. The players weren't playing as a team as a captain struggled to find something in the locker room. But even when the coaching got better, the captain got shipped out, and the team got healthier, this team just struggled to score goals. Many of those wins in that incredible 23-3-2 run were close affairs.

As Gabe Desjardens recently showed in this post at the Behind the Net blog; the Devils were excellent at puck possession and yet their PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage) was still quite low.  While it's unclear as to whether shooting percentage can be controlled (luck plays a large role in it, as Gabe showed in May 2010: here and here), it most certainly matters and it certainly undercut the Devils this season.  Need proof? The Devils scored 176 goals, their lowest total in a full season in their history in New Jersey.  Per Behind the Net, their even strength shooting percentage finished at 6.7% and their 5-on-4 shooting percentage was 8.4%.   New Jersey did a fine job in getting attempts; they just often didn't go in.  It's incredibly difficult to win games that way.  It was definitely so in the first half of the season, especially when the other team went up early and the struggles just weighed on the players like an anvil on their backs.   In the second half of the season, it was more viable as the defense played far better and the Devils had more control of the puck.

The good news is that shooting percentages tend to regress to their true means over time. On top of that, they'll get shot-machine Zach Parise back and even if the percentages are low, the quantity of shots may increase just by him alone.  Still, I highly doubt the Devill will shoot under 6% at some point into next season or finish below 7% at evens next season.  If they do, then someone should check to see if anyone hexed the team or something. 

Still, if you must be honest about what ailed the team the most this season, it's the shooting percentage.  The team's shooting percentage handcuffed them from any real shot at success this season short of a massive defensive performance. I'm hopeful it'll get better.

Lesson: The Guy Behind the Bench Doesn't Control Everything, But He Still Can Have An Impact on the Team - Good or Bad

Plenty didn't go right under John MacLean.  Players got hurt, most notably Zach Parise. The team was shooting at historically low rates. A defensive breakdown or two by a player led to disasters in games.  MacLean and his staff could not any of control that.  However, there were plenty of injuries in the 2009-10 and that team got it together. The Devils were never a high-scoring team, and yet they got results.  And even if a player or two seemingly made one or two bone-headed moves, it wasn't the end of the world in the big picture.

In retrospect, what generally hurt MacLean the most was his inability to get much right over what he could control.  Lines would be changed to get guys "going"(whatever that means) regardless of whether they made any sense by playing style or position. Defensemen were often held back from playing on offense, limiting many attacks to just whatever the forwards could do.  On breakouts, forwards went out into the neutral zone, leaving the defensemen to attempt a long breakout pass.   Second periods were consistently miserable under him. MacLean either didn't know what adjustments to make from period to period or didn't believe in adjustments.  If you made a mistake on the ice that led to goals against and MacLean liked you (e.g. Jamie Langenbrunner), then you weren't punished. (Though if you're late to a meeting, then you'll get scratched out of the blue like Ilya Kovalchuk.)  Some were honest tactical attempts that didn't work out and were strangely not changed; some were just boneheaded moves to begin with. 

It's not that the decision to hire MacLean as a head coach was a bad one.  He was an assistant for several years and was the head coach of the AHL affiliate that went to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.   It's not like the players hated the guy - Martin Brodeur's quip after the firing revealed that everyone liked him, reported here by Dave Hutchinson at NJ.com.  It's just that he turned out to be a bad one for this team, which put the Devils in a hole they couldn't crawl out of.  His lasting contribution to this season is a 9-23-2 record and a lot of unhappy Devils fans.

The return of Jacques Lemaire led to a turnaround of this team. Not an immediate turnaround, but the team that was in dead last at Christmas turned out to be a competitive team.   That alone, to me, emphasizes the kind of positive effect a coach can have on players.  Lemaire made adjustments.  Lemaire held players accountable. Lemaire rode on players who needed it, and guided them when that was necessary.  I'm sure it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, but it got the job done.  

So while the Devils missed the playoffs, there's nothing but good feelings for what he did.  I said it as such here; in response to his announced retirement after Sunday's season-ending game. According to this post by Tom Gulitti, the players recently stated that want the next coach to be like Lemaire - regardless of how much they may have liked MacLean. And why not?  Under MacLean, we saw a glimpse of how bad they could be.  Under Lemaire, we saw how good they could be.  Truthfully, they're somewhere in the middle. A coach that knows what he is doing and will be respected by the players will get them on the better side.  Essentially, coaches matter.

Lesson: A No-Trade Clause Is No Longer Binding for This Organization

Captain Jamie Langenbrunner was horrible on the ice and frustrating to read after games. For me, the tipping point was on December 6 when he started recycling lines after another bad loss.  And he couldn't just go.  He had a no-trade clause. Lou has always honored such clauses.  It's why they had meaning to the Devils.  It's why I regarded any attempt to trade someone with a NTC or a NMC to be wishing for a unicorn. 

On January 7, a precedent was set.  Jamie Langenbrunner was traded to the Dallas Stars. He was asked if he would waive his NTC and he agreed.  Right to Dallas for a conditional draft pick, which is currently a third-round pick in 2011.  I was honestly shocked.  In the short term, the trade justified itself.  Coincidentally, the Devils started winning hockey games - and did it all without anyone wearing a ‘C' on their jersey. There was a lot less sulking on the ice, overall.  It's unclear whether or not Langenbrunner was a malcontent in the back, but he certainly wasn't helping on the ice. 

The long term effect from this trade is that a clause isn't completely secure in New Jersey anymore. That may not be a bad thing.  If the player wants out and the team's willing to make that happen, then a clause won't come in the middle.   I wouldn't expect Lou to start moving anyone who's bad or has a bad contract that has a NTC.  It's just that it is no longer out-of-the question to suggest that someone with a trade clause should be moved for other assets.

Lesson: One Player Does Not Make a Team

One of the big lessons of the 2008-09 season was that there can be life after Martin Brodeur, who suffered his first major injury of his career then. 2009-10 saw the blueline led by Andy Greene playing out of his mind instead of the incredibly effective Paul Martin, who was out for most of the season. This season showed that there can be life without Zach Parise. The connection across all three is that one player doesn't make a team, important as they may be.

Don't misunderstand me. I would love to see Parise remain a Devil for life. A healthy Parise makes this team better.  However, the second half of this season showed that the rest of the team isn't a bad team at all.  That's a takeaway from this season that shouldn't be ignored.   If the shooting percentage wasn't stuck in the gutter, then this reality would be more emphatic. There's top-end talent (Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias); veterans who have been useful despite certain flaws (Brian Rolston, Dainius Zubrus); defensemen and goaltending as solid as you could hope for (Martin Brodeur, Johan Hedberg.)  It's not a perfect lineup by any means and age will certainly be a factor for some next season.  At the same time, it's not riddled with glaring holes.  On paper, this should be a competitive team and with a proper head coach and better luck (fewer injuries, improved save percentage).

Something to look forward to: A lot of players were thrown into the lineup due to injury, and some turned out to be promising players for the future.  Mark Fayne and Matt Taormina showed that they can be NHL defensemen. Alexander Urbom, at least, will be fighting for a roster spot at camp this fall.  Mattias Tedenby (after some time) and Jacob Josefson didn't look out of place at this level.  Forward depth for the near future may be bolstered with the likes of Vladimir Zharkov and Nick Palmieri.   While these players are limited in their game now, they will improve and develop into NHL players who can be useful in certain spots in the line up. They all may not be hot prospects with ceilings as high as the eye can see, but they are important too.  Plus, with the salary cap, getting young depth is important to spend money on other players, like Zach Parise.

I emphasize this youth aspect as it further highlights that a successful team - both in the season and in the postseason playoffs - is exactly that: a team.  For the Devils to get back where we would like them to be and to show that this season will be an aberration in retrospect, they'll have to continue larger organizational philosophy that no single player is bigger than the team.  That means no players who complain about "it" and have beefs with coaches in the locker room. That means no players who don't want to be around when the going gets tough.   Fortunately, we have seen evidence of said players being shipped out and the team not looking to rush their youth in a vain hope of striking gold.

Above all else, and here's that first lesson again, they have to perform as if regular season matters dearly; from October all the way through April.  Sure, slumps will happen, and there will be struggles in a season. It happens to everyone. They just can't be three-month-long dips in performance where the team's chances of winning a game are usually dead by the second intermission.  They can't suffer prolonged problems and not try to solve them well after it meaning anything.  There needs to be better success in the beginning and consistency through the end.  If they can do that next season, then they should be playing through mid-April at a minimum.  Then, and only then, should we be concerned about what they do in the playoffs.  I, for one, won't be worried about it in September 2011.

The Past Months in Review

For those who do want to revisit the season month-by-month, here are the month-in-review posts from this past season. 

In case  you're interested in knowing who o the team we thought was the best (among other awards), then please check out the player awards we deemed prior to the final weekend of the season.

Your Lessons Learned

The above is my extended take on what went on in this season.  I'm sure you have other lessons to be taken from 2010-11 (e.g. Adam Oates should stay far, far away from a power play).  If you do, then please feel free to share them in the comments.  As usual, I invite you to discuss the ones I pointed out in the comments.   Thank you for reading.
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