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Brent Sutter is Looking for Scoring Improvement

One of the big reasons why I feel the Devils have done so well this season, especially on offense, has been the fact that Brent Sutter has stay consistent with his lineup.

Last season, Sutter constantly jumbled his lines so much that all you really could count on was that Martin Brodeur would be starting and there would be 18 skaters active on the roster. For much of this season, the Devils have caught a groove with it's forwards:

Elias-Zubrus-Gionta; Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner; Rolston-Madden-Clarkson; Pandolfo/Rupp-Holik-Shanahan.

The last two lines had the most flux with injuries and the signing of Shanahan; but Sutter would set a line up and keep the players together for the most part. He'd usually shift things up in-game if the team has been lifeless out on the ice (or just plain bad); or if someone got injured. But that hasn't happened all that much except for the three games last week.

However, last night featured something odd. The Devils were doing well against the Colorado Avalanche and Sutter mixed up the forwards anyway. Elias shifted to center, Rolston took Elias' old spot, Pandolfo and Holik moved to Madden's wings, and the fourth line became Clarkson-Zubrus-Shanahan.

I noticed this mainly in the third period, the Devils' best period in terms of scoring. And it definitely caught Gulitti's attention, as it was the big story from his reports of today's practice. Gulitti highlights why Sutter is likely making these changes:

Sutter is clearly searching for offense from a line other than that one.

Elias has no even-strength goals in the last 12 games, but has two power-play goals over that stretch. Gionta has three goals in his last 24 games. Zubrus has one goal in his last 18.

After scoring three goals in his first five games with the team, Brendan Shanhan has no goals in his last nine games. He has only one even-strength goal in his 14 games, but playing on the fourth line with Holik and Mike Rupp/Pandolfo obviously factors into that.

Yes, the Devils are scoring an average of 2.97 goals per game this season. Yes, the Elias-Zubrus-Gionta line has been effective. They work hard, they cycle the puck well enough, they generate shots on net and scoring chances. Their CORSI rating according to Behind the Net stands at 10.9, 9.7, and 10.6 for the line, respectively. Statistically, their effort is leading to shots. And as seen last night, while the Parise line got the goals; the Elias line created some shots against a floundering Colorado defense. Not to mention that the Devils got twice as many shots on net with the standard lines in the second period last night, than they did in the third period.

However, hockey remains as a results oriented business. And Gulitti's figures say it all. Effective as they may be against team defenses, perhaps "setting up" the Parise line for the killer goal on some occasions; it hasn't been a productive line. I think a lot of that is attributed to the fact that, I think, Gionta is in a slump of sorts. Zubrus doesn't have a ton of goals either, but his role is more physical and involves a lot more dirty work. Gionta is often the player Elias looks to pass it to down low and across the slot for a scoring chance. Just last night, Gionta had a great one; but he couldn't capitalize. And he hasn't for a while, as Gulitti pointed out.

2008 - Brian Gionta 60 13 32 45 11 28 2 2 0 0 170 7.6

OK, he's been getting assists; but he's not putting it in. Not good for an ex-48 goal scorer (though he was almost literally on fire that year, especially on the power pay). Elias' recent goals have come on the power play and he's been mostly setting up goals, anyway. I certainly understand Sutter's eagerness to see if he can get some players to do more and give the Devils more than one true scoring line again. After all, maybe the other three lines "ran their course" and some change could lead to a more productive attack. And who wouldn't want to see that? Other than the opposition? I completely understand why he's doing this.

My big concern is that it could just as easily cause some damage in the short term. Yes, the Parise line is carrying the load production-wise; but the team has been winning with the same lines for quite while. Should Sutter revert to his ways of last season, it could disrupt the on-ice chemistry the Devils have already formed that I think has been crucial to their success.

Plus, it's about to be March and the Devils haven't clinched a thing. Is now really the time to start experimenting with the lines? I mean, maybe Sutter thinks a deal is about to be made real soon and he wants to see who fits in where, then fine. But why cross a bridge that isn't there or fix something that isn't really broken? I would think now is the time to gear up for the playoff run and let the chemistry remain as is.

Still, Sutter understandably wants more balanced scoring. A one line team can be stopped pretty easily if that one line isn't doing so well on a given night. But is it worth trying Rolston at center, a position he really hasn't played all season, as Gulitti noted from today's practice? Why have Elias shift over to center at all when he's having a great year at wing? He's not at center on special teams, either; and I'm not sure why that would out Gionta's lack of scoring? In fact, why not shift Gionta to another line? Should Zubrus, who has really fit in centering with Elias and Gionta, really be sent down to a fourth line? Will he be able to help create scoring chances with Clarkson and Shanahan as linemates instead of Elias and Gionta? Could Zubrus help Shanahan be more productive, and vice versa? Because of these questions, some of these changes make me scratch my head a bit.

It's not that I'm totally against changes; I'm just not fully sold on it considering how well things have gone with the same lineup. Not to mention how frustrating it was at times last season with a constantly mixed up forward lines.

Lastly, as Elias stated in the end of Gulitti's report, the finish has really been the only problem for the other lines. I'm not sure moving players around will get them to "finish" any better.

Of course, that's always the risk you take when trying to improve anything. Issues arise, questions are raised, and doubts are formed. I understand that. I hope I'm wrong, and maybe the Devils can still keep rolling in the East with some new forward combinations and that balanced scoring. If it gets players not named Parise, Zajac, and Langenbrunner scoring more consistently, then great. I will welcome these changes. Yet, I also hope that if they don't work all that well, I really hope Sutter returns to what had worked.