As we all hilariously heard on Monday, Pete DeBoer wants his Devils team to play more like Team Canada. Ok then. Once we put aside the surface absurdity of that comment (which is hard to do) there are certainly a few takeaways, although no team can play like Team Canada. One thing that was clearly noticable was the tight defensive games and, most of all, the dominating puck possession and unwillingness to give up the puck or the defensive zone. In my opinion, the suffocating play of Team Canada stemmed from the dominance of their forwards, a forward group with a talent level entirely unmatched anywhere, anytime. Still, if we want to apply a concept to an individual team at the NHL level, to me, it goes back to their willingness to ice useful, highly skilled players on all lines, including the fourth line, and not settle for "role" players or less talented bangers. This unwillingness to give up possession of the puck does not stem from hitting or punching or energy or grit, in reality it stems from talent, skill and passing ability.
Well, the Devils are a puck possession team. That is their game, and they are actually near the top of the league (7th) in close score fenwick differential. Great. This is certainly, historically, a good sign in terms of predicting future success. So what am I getting at here? Well, if the Devils want to play more like Team Canada, the only way I see they can do so is to ice the most talented overall and best possession forwards the team has. For me, this makes the continual decision to ice Stephen Gionta on the 4th line puzzling at best. The Devils have a younger, more talented forward who is a better possession player sitting in the team's box wearing a suit every game, and he has played a grand total of 4 periods of hockey in the last 2 months. Now granted, the differences in CF% between Josefson and Gionta are not huge, but Gionta has ranked last on the team in 2013. He is currently last on the team again this season among all players not named Mattias Tedenby, who I feel confident saying will not be back in New Jersey at any point this year.
Another critical element to maintaining possession is successful passing. Ryan recently put together a thorough passing analysis of all Devils forwards. To quote Ryan's article, "Gionta attempts a pass every 1:37, generates a shot attempt every 12:57, and generates a shot every 44:25. Those are not good and they are lowest of all forwards not named Cam Janssen." Additionally, Gionta is the 13th most accurate passer on the team out of 15 forwards in the review. Well then.
Conversely, we have Josefson, who is the most accurate passer on the team. Again, to quote Ryan from his fantastic analysis, "Josefson attempts a pass every 1:05..generates a shot attempt every 6:38..and generates a shot every 16:55....Jacob Josefson finished as the number 1 ranked passer in terms of accuracy among forwards, number 2 in terms of fewest turnovers committed, and 5th in PE%. If that’s not the recipe for a smart, two-way, bottom 6 center, I don’t know what is." I wholeheartedly co-sign the final part of this statement.
The Devils are a team that wants to play a possession game, not give up much defensively, and find a way to get another goal here or there. Well, Josefson may not put the puck in the net much, but his outstanding passing ability can maintain possession and also generate more shot attempts and most likely goals for his linemates. He also will give up very little defensively and is responsible in all zones. In fact, one of the greatest players of all time, was pretty happy to briefly have Josefson as a linemate last month.
If the analysis of one of the all time great forwards isn't good enough, how about one of the all time great coaches and talent evaluators? Let's see what Jacques Lemaire thought of Josefson during his last stint in NJ. Very high praise from a man who is not known for puffing up players with undeserved compliments or blowing smoke or anything like that. In fact, if anything, Lemaire has always cut with a sharp knife and not minced words. It's just not possible that Josefson somehow un-learned all of these fantastic qualities one of the all time great coaches saw in him just three years ago. No, the scoring hasn't come, but Lemaire aptly predicted that part of the game would require a young player like Josefson to get consistent ice time and generate chances game after game. I don't believe he has ever consistently been put in a position to do so since 2011.
I'm sure some people will argue me on this last point, mentioning that he has by now played 109 games and has only 23 points. Well, guess what? In case you haven't checked, Stephen Gionta has played 107 games and also has just 23 points. Not exactly a huge difference there overall, if you want to start touting 'overall games played' and point production as a reason for a player to be in or out of the lineup. Gionta has more points recently? Well, he does. But, it's my opinion that the vast majority of the reason Josefson has so few points over the last two season falls on Pete DeBoer. Somehow, at some points last season, he managed to shockingly create another fourth line that played below the CBGB line and that's where he stuck Josefson, because, well, you can't break up the dynamic, symbiotic CBGB dynamo right?
Actually, a quick look at the WOWY numbers shows that this season Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier fare dramatically better when they play away from Gionta. Hmmm. Must be an anomaly or a small sample size or something, because THESE GUYS ARE SO GOOD TOGETHER. Sorry to tell you, last season, the splits were even more dramatic, and not in a good way. Yes, let's at all costs keep together a group of players in a possession dominant system that fare better when playing apart. Makes a lot of sense to me.
I know what Stephen Gionta brings to the table, and his efforts are admirable and appreciated. Grit, heart, sandpaper, energy. I'm pretty sure no one on the team gives more effort-wise on a nightly basis. This post was not intended to dog him unnecessarily, but merely as a point of comparison for what little sense some lineup decisions make on this current Devils team, especially in light of their issues and stated / desired style of play. The coach wants the team to play more like Team Canada, eh? Well, here's some breaking news, Team Canada didn't win anything by bringing a bunch of Stephen Gionta types to Sochi, or by having more heart, more grit, or more sandpaper in their game. Regardless of how ridiculous it is on the surface to try to reproduce the results of one of the most talented, if not the most talented group of forwards ever assembled, it makes even less sense to look at how that team succeeded and still not ice the most skilled forwards you have at your disposal.