Rookies will report to the New Jersey Devils training camp tomorrow; but today was the team's annual golf outing for current Devils and Devils alumni. As a result, there was quotes to be had, and Tom Gulitti got more information from the head coach, Jacques Lemaire, about what he plans to do in training camp.
He's hinted at his plans earlier in August, stating that he'd like the Devils to be a "transition team," something I've had plenty to say about. I've said in the past that I was concerned about how Lemaire will manage the Devils, given that I really liked what Brent Sutter was doing with the team. I still am to a point.
However, this quote Gulitti got from Lemaire is quite revealing - and reassuring:
**On being excited to be back with the Devils and the start of training camp: "We were talking about this on our way here, Mario [Tremblay] and I. It's a good, a change. It gives you energy. You need a change. It's like players at a certain time. It's fun. We've got a good start. All of our planning at the start and how we want the game to be played, it's good. Scotty's [Stevens?] there. He tells me what the team was doing good, like the power-play breakout as an example. We don't want to change that because it was good last year. So, we'll keep the same thing. The penalty kill, he says we could be a little better, so we're going to work on that, try to find maybe another system you want to put in. It will be a little different, but maybe we'll get more success out of it. Little things like that. Defensemen around the net. I know myself I noticed that some defensemen could be better there, so we'll work on that. Little stuff like that.
"Let's face it, this team had a great season last year so they must have done something good. So I want to keep this, I don't want to change what was done and they had success with."
Emphasis mine, and I want to emphasize it with some relief. Despite the postseason, the Devils were quite successful last season playing under Brent Sutter's way with a record of 51-27-4. The most obvious area of growth was on offense, where the Devils scored a total of 238 goals, tied with Anaheim for 14th most in the league. OK, it's not a very large number; but it's an improvement over finishing in the bottom third in the league in goals scored. The more aggressive style of hockey really suited the team in motion and on the scoreboard.
That Lemaire recognizes this success is important. It suggests that he doesn't want to change the system entirely, but improve it in certain areas.
On top of this, he calls out some important areas of improvement for the Devils as needing work. I am fully on board with this on the penalty kill. For a team that has had a reputation of being responsible in their own end for over 15 years now, the Devils were not good on the penalty kill last season. New Jersey finished with a success rate of 79.9%, tied with Colorado for 20th in the league. Not something you'd expect with a team that had many returning defensemen, forwards who know how to backcheck, and the dynamic duo of Jay Pandolfo and John Madden. Then again, who'd expect that duo to do so poor as well? Anyway, Lemaire is correct in stating that this function of the team needs to get better.
The latter part about how the defensemen need to perform better, especially around the crease, could be seen as a general "defense needs to improve" comment or one more geared to infamous Game 7 collapse back in April. I'm not sure. Given that Lemaire will have the top 6 of 2008-09 returning on defense, it'll be interesting to see how he'll work with them to improve there. Especially for players like Bryce Salvador and Colin White, who can't rely on their speed on defense, much less in those high-traffic areas.
I do wish he called out how the team did on faceoffs. Yes, they did fairly well last season, with the top 4 faceoff men winning at least 51% of their faceoffs. Yet, John Madden (51.6%) is gone, Bobby Holik (59.3%) is retired, and who knows where Dainius Zubrus (51.2%) will end up on the roster. In the article where this quote came from, Lemaire is talking up Patrik Elias as a center and may use him as a center in training camp. In the comments, Gulitti did state that Elias liked playing the position and he felt Elias did well outside of faceoffs.
It's because of the faceoffs that I don't want to see Elias at center. I've said it before and I still stand by it. It's pretty telling that after a long stint at center in 2007-08, Brent Sutter kept him for the most part at left wing the very next season. I really don't know that a third experiment will yield better results. But it is better to try it out in training camp and preseason instead of the regular season.
If you need a more statistical reason why faceoffs are so important, then you need to read this article by Gabriel Desjardins at Puck Prospectus about how shooting rates change when the defending team wins or loses a defensive zone faceoff. In summary, losing a faceoff in the defensive zone (or winning it in the offensive zone) yields a much higher rate of shots per second within seconds of the faceoff. That possession won by the offense often leads to a shot or shots. The rate of shots are so high, Desjardins compares it to a 5-on-3 power play for 10-15 seconds.
I feel this is a big reason why faceoffs are important at all. Unless Elias somehow and someway gets really good at faceoffs and Rod Pelley shows he's solid at faceoffs, this is an issue that should also be addressed in camp. Hopefully, it will get the proper attention.
Overall, this quote makes me feel much better with the prospect of Lemaire behind the bench, and I'm looking forward to preseason to see how well Lemaire and the coaching staff has done with the Devils. I'm hoping he follows his words and we see a tweaked system instead of a brand new one.