After two games in the 2013-14 regular season, the New Jersey Devils have allowed six goals. All of them have come off the rush, be it on a breakaway or an odd-man rush. Friday's home opening shootout loss the New York Islanders included multiple breakaways and odd-man rushes that did not yield a goal on top of the three they got in regulation. That game in particular has raised eyebrows among the Devils faithful, wondering what's going on. It's not entirely unexpected that the Devils aren't a fast team. They have several veterans on both offense and defense who aren't known for being good skaters. Then again, they have had some of these players for seasons now and the team doesn't normally give up so many. I have to agree with it being a problem worth discussing.
In the comments to the recap I wrote about the shootout loss to the Isles, member dr(d)evil had an interesting take about why the Isles were able to get so many open opportunities at Martin Brodeur.
While I’m sure that speedy forwards like Grabner are going to give this team trouble all season, I don’t think we’re going to be giving up so many breakaways all season long. I think the defensemen are still getting up to game speed and are going to improve on making their reads. They’ve never been a fast-skating group to begin with but what’s burned them so far is poor anticipation and getting caught going in the wrong direction.
I think the doctor is onto something. I suspected that the lack of team speed is exacerbated when the loses the puck or if players are in the wrong position. Throw in the fact that the team has played all of two games together and this may be a problem that isn't as large as time goes on. Of course, a defending player being in the wrong spot and not able to catch up is always going to be a problem. The main one is whether it's going to keep happening.
In light of the comment and that larger concern, I think it's worth exploring several of the breakaways and odd man rushes the Isles did get to see what went wrong. While not every team has Michael Grabner and his crazy speed, he exploited the Devils the most with one-on-ones on Friday night. Therefore, I'm looking those plays he was involved to determine what the problems were and maybe what the solution might be.
Grabner's first breakaway
There were two stills from this play of note. Grabner's first breakaway came off the Isles' blueline when he managed to beat Marek Zidlicky to go clearly through to the net on his own.
This still comes shortly after Grabner chipped a puck heading up the boards to past Zidlicky. Now, Zidlicky is in a tough spot. He retreats immediately behind the blueline. It's not clear where the puck currently is, but given Zidlicky's head, it may be going past him along the boards. He's not in a good position to try and keep it. He can't legally step up to hit Grabner as it would be a clear interference call.
However, what he decides to do, well, doesn't work. Zidlicky decided to turn around and lunge at either the puck or Grabner. By turning, he gives up the inside position along the boards that Grabner darts through. By lunging, he needs to either get the puck or get the man. He gets neither so he ends up on the ground like a fool. At this moment, Zidlicky's going down, Grabner's staying up, and the puck is free for the taking for a breakaway. Grabner had one man to beat and he beat him.
Can this be corrected? Possibly. The initial chip threw off Zidlicky and that's going to happen here and there. However, Zidlicky should be experienced enough to know how to react in this situation. I understand Grabner skating forward right at him is difficult to deal with. But he's a defenseman and has been in that spot countless times.
Grabner's second breakaway, first goal
Grabner got ahead in the center of the ice and slid a puck in low past a diving Martin Brodeur. Where did this all begin?
It all came from the neutral zone. Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias converge on Travis Hamonic to force him to make a play. Elias is coming by the boards while Jagr is trying to prevent an outlet pass. However, Jagr's not going to be able to do that because the man behind him is way faster than Jagr. It's Michael Grabner and he turns up the jets right about here. Given the positioning of both Devils, Hamonic is able to play this puck into space for Grabner to collect and go. Ryane Clowe can only watch. He - and the fans - can only hope that the defensemen are prepared for what's coming.
They are not. Bryce Salvador is by the far side of the rink because he just came on the ice for Andy Greene. Adam Larsson is still out there and he's caught in this moment. He's stumbling a bit in this shot, perhaps because he just realized what's coming at him. That hampers his ability to come across to the middle. Even if he didn't, he's beyond the center part of the ice, possibly because he was about to head over for a change. Grabner has the speed and control to simply go through the massive gap between Larsson and Clowe. Four Devils are above the center part of the ice and the one who isn't won't be able to catch Grabner. One simple pass in the neutral zone and catching the Devils off guard makes it easy for Grabner to drive into the zone untouched.
Can this be corrected? I would hope so. The Devils got too aggressive on Hamonic in the neutral zone, the defense wasn't fully changed, and the near-side defender, Larsson, was caught out of position. These are all correctable issues.
Grabner's third breakaway, second goal
Grabner cheats up high and gets rewarded when Josh Bailey made a play off a blocked shot. Like Grabner's first breakaway, the genesis of the play comes from the blueline.
Volchenkov just shot the puck and Bailey blocked it. As it so happened, the puck went towards the nearside boards and right in front of Bailey. Volchenkov is in an awkward position and that's dangerous in this spot. Bailey keeps it away from Volchenkov and will look to try and get it away. Grabner could act as an outlet for Bailey but he's going to cheat and start skating into the neutral zone.
Switching to this back angle, Bailey is now turned and he's just going to clear it past Volchenkov. He gets the puck beneath Volchenkov's stick and ahead of his skates. This not only eludes him but the puck is going to stay below the center of the ice. We know Grabner darted ahead as Bailey was winning the puck. But what of Volchenkov's partner, Larsson at this point of the game? He wasn't on the opposite side. Hopefully, he dropped back in case the puck did get past Volchenkov.
Well, he did but he's too far away from Grabner. In his defense, Bailey put the puck in a spot where Grabner could scoop it up. He's fast enough that Larsson isn't likely going to make up the lateral distance. Though, it would have been nice if Larsson made more of an effort if only to force Grabner to make his decision quicker. Once again in this game, the Isles won a puck at the blueline and it turned into a one-on-one for Grabner. This time, he beats Brodeur on a shot Brodeur should've stopped.
Can this be corrected? I'm not so sure. Volchenkov's shot getting blocked could have gone a different direction and perhaps this opportunity doesn't come. Bailey made the most of Volchenkov being in an awkward spot and Grabner anticipated what could happen and got rewarded. Given that Larsson started on the far side, there was just too much ground for him to catch up even if he intended to go after Grabner in the neutral zone before Bailey cleared the puck. All told, this one was one of the least odious breakaways of thegame. Brodeur really should have made the save.
Grabner and Nielsen untouched, Nielsen's goal
Instead of a straight up breakaway, here is what is essentially an odd man rush that leads to another goal Brodeur should have stopped. The breakdown is apparent early on.
Yes, the Devils were caught in a defensive change! Matt Donovan recognized the situation very well. Andy Greene and Peter Harrold went off on a change as the Devils were on offense. As Donovan picked up the puck along the far side boards, Grabner and Frans Nielsen were on the near side skating ahead in the neutral zone. Marek Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador just got on the ice and they have loads of space.
Zidlicky charges towards the center and is now the one in a two-on-one. Grabner had to hold up a bit to allow Nielsen to gain the zone. He does a pass back to Grabner, Zidlicky had to step up on Grabner, who easily tossed it to Nielsen in the near-side circle. Nielsen does not have the best angle on Brodeur but he's one-on-one with him. Salvador is stuck in the slot to make sure there's no passing lane Bailey. Zidlicky is caught. The forwards had no chance to get back. Nielsen went to the goal line and tucked in a puck through a five-hole Brodeur should've closed.
Can this be corrected? I think so. The original defenders assumed they had enough time to change and they got caught. This one is partially (mostly?) on the bench. Had the change been made sooner or quicker, then perhaps the defense can close down both Isles instead of seeing Zidlicky look pylon-esque in a tough spot. Again, Brodeur should have stopped the shot but the break doesn't happen if the change was better. (Or if Donovan's pass wasn't so good. It was a great read by the defender.)
Grabner's fourth breakaway
This is a situation where high risk doesn't lead to high reward. It's pretty obvious who failed here but let's highlight the important stills anyway.
Andy Greene went up on a pinch and didn't get it. Adam Henrique is in his spot on defense. But all he can do here is watch Frans Nielsen pass it out to Grabner, who's skating ahead in the neutral zone. In this moment of time, it appears Zidlicky decides to go aggressive. Grabner is only about to receive the puck and he's not aware of #2 coming towards him. Zidlicky isn't the biggest or meanest player but it looks like he's about blast Grabner with a bodycheck. That should stop him from skating like a mad man through the Devils' neutral zone.
Nope! Grabner gets past Zidlicky. He just smoothly gets around the attempted check. He may have kicked the puck away, took a step like he was a matador, and then be able to collect the puck for another one-on-one. In the video, you can hear Chico sigh an "Oh" because it's obvious to everyone watching the game what will happen next. Zidlicky committed to the hit and he had to make the hit to stop Grabner. He didn't get it so he once again looks foolish as #40 went for a breakaway. Fortunately, Brodeur did stop the low shot that came from Brodeur.
Can this be corrected? Possibly. The defensemen under Peter DeBoer do tend to pinch and that allowed the Islanders to breakout with plenty of space. Nielsen and Grabner exploited this because Greene didn't get it. The more direct issue was with Zidlicky. I understand he probably couldn't have skated backwards fast enough to contain Grabner. But if you're going to go for the hit there, then you need to get it. Grabner made a nice move but that was poor from the veteran.
Now, this isn't an exhaustive list of all of the breakaways and odd-man rushes by the Islanders in this game. This isn't complete as the Penguins exploited the Devils' positioning for open shots and goals. Still, these examples show off what went wrong for the Devils. The good news is that several of the errors that showed up on video and in pictures are correctable. In that regard, I agree with dr(d)evil. Better execution at the blueline should yield fewer turnovers or blocked out pucks turned into counter-attacks. Improved defensive changes on the fly should give less space. Maintaining positional form can be worked on in practice and can come in time.
A guy like Grabner may find ways to give them fits and all 28 of the Devils' other opponents may not have someone as fast as him. But identifying how he did it so often on Friday night may make it easier to prevent these odd man rushes and breakaways against other opponents in the future. That's my hope at least. We'll see if there are any improvements starting tonight in Edmonton. Thanks to dr(d)evil for the inspiration and thank you for reading.