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The Benefits of a Defensive Coach

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Anyone who has watched the New Jersey Devils this season knows that they are not making the playoffs because of an extreme lack of talent at the forward position. Yet GM Lou Lamoriello still wants to hire a defensive coach. Is that a good idea?

Strong defense and goaltending...the Lou Lamoriello way
Strong defense and goaltending...the Lou Lamoriello way
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The other day, Lou Lamoriello came out and said that when he does eventually hire a single coach as opposed to a trio of coaches manning the bench, he wants to make sure that the coach he picks "fits within the framework of the system that we play."  Specifically, and as we all know, this means that he wants a coach that thinks "defense first."  Once a coach is in place that will strongly focus on defense and preventing goals, he can then worry about getting some offensive pieces to "complement that."

As a lifelong Devils fan, this makes total sense.  I do not remember life before Lou Lamoriello as a GM, and I do not remember a Devils team that ever stressed offense over defense.  Yes there were some Devils teams back in the heyday that were near the top of the league in scoring, but that was never the specific focus of this team.  Play strong defense, play tough, have excellent goaltending, and use this to create a solid foundation.  From there, goals and wins will come.

The question then becomes whether or not this is still a good philosophy.  The NHL has attempted to change the rules to make the game more offensive and fun to watch.  Teams like Tampa Bay and the Islanders are near the tops of the Eastern Conference because of their excellent ability to score a bunch of goals on any given night.  Indeed, if you look at a chart of all teams in the NHL, sorted by Goals For, you will find that 8 of the top 10 teams on that list are going to be playoff bound this year.  Teams who score do well, plain and simple.

So as Devils fans, should we be worried that the GM of our favorite team is working with an outdated philosophy?  Should we be nervous that the next coach will not fix the extreme scoring woes that we have witnessed the last few years, because that coach will be a defensive mind?  While the scoring is a major issue, and will most likely continue to be an issue moving forward, I would not be so quick to anger over the decision to look for a defensive head coach.  Rather than criticize Lou, I instead want to commend him on sticking to his guns and going defense, and I hope to make my point here.

Defense Wins Championships

The age old adage in sports is that while offense is shiny and nice and can get you far, it is defense that wins championships.  This was obviously true in the NHL for quite some time, given the Devils won three cups based on a philosophy that stressed strong defense and goaltending.  However, it is right to question whether or not that is still true in the modern NHL.  To take a look at this, I will chart the teams won the Stanley Cup Finals from the 2007-2008 season until today.  I want to know how many goals these teams scored during the regular season, how many goals they allowed, and where this ranked them in the NHL in that season.  This can tell us how offensive or defensive they were that year.  Also to add another layer, I will add all Corsi events, both for and against, to showcase how many shot attempts each team took, and how many each gave up.  All of this information is courtesy of Puckalytics, which I have linked above.

Year

Team

GF

Rank

GA

Rank

CF

CA

CA Rank

2007-2008

Detroit Red Wings

250

4th

178

1st

4867

3361

1st

2008-2009

Pittsburgh Penguins

258

5th

233

17th

4373

4722

20th

2009-2010

Chicago Blackhawks

262

3rd

201

4th

4976

3863

1st

2010-2011

Boston Bruins

243

6th

187

2nd

4921

4787

26th

2011-2012

Los Angeles Kings

187

29th

170

2nd

3774

3119

3rd

2012-2013

Chicago Blackhawks

149

2nd

97

1st

2103

1782

3rd

2013-2014

Los Angeles Kings

198

26th

167

1st

3888

2957

2nd

I think this chart does a good job of proving the point that in the NHL, if you can reach the playoffs with a strong defensive team that focuses on goal prevention, you have a good shot at winning it all.  The one obvious outlier in this chart is the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the cup despite ranking 17th in goals against during the regular season.  They were of course a scoring machine, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each scoring over 30 goals and 100 points for the season.

Other than them, however, each of the other teams had a solid defensive foundation on which they found success.  The Red Wings were indeed the fourth best offense back in 2008 in terms of goals scored, but they were the absolute best at preventing goals, allowing only 178 goals against over the course of the season.  The Boston Bruins were also quality goal defenders in 2011, with only 187 goals allowed.  The biggest poster boys for this argument, however, have to be the two Los Angeles Kings teams that are on this list.  Simply put, they were not good offensive teams.  The Kings were next to last in 2012 in terms of goals for, and were 26th in the same category last year.  Those are really poor numbers for a championship team.  What they did exceptionally well, however, was prevent goals.  The Kings allowed only 170 goals against in the 2011-2012 season, and only allowed 167 last year.  Those are exceptional numbers over an 82 game season, and are the best on this list (the lockout shortened season aside).

The Corsi For vs Corsi Against stats also help to showcase shot suppression.  Again, Los Angeles really shines in this category, namely for the Corsi Against category.  They suppressed shot attempts at an exceptional rate the two years they won it all.  The biggest disparity, however, was Detroit, who had 1507 more shot attempts for than against in 2007-2008.  That is an excellent split.  But overall, you will tend to notice that apart from the Penguins and Bruins, the Corsi Against stats are rather low for each team.  They were excellent defensive teams, and it led them to a Stanley Cup.  (Of course, the Devils finished first in Corsi Against from 2010-2014, and second in 2009-2010.  So there is that issue)

So if you want to believe that defense still wins championships today, which I do buy into, look no further than Los Angeles.  They may not score a lot, just as the Devils don't, but they sure know how to stop the other team from scoring.  Add the ability to score some clutch goals in the postseason, and you have yourself a Stanley Cup.

Develop the Young Talent on the Roster

The obvious argument for bringing in an offensive minded head coach is that the Devils don't score many goals, and an offensive mind would work with the talent available and hopefully bring in other talent to improve scoring and make this team competitive again.  That is not an unsound argument at all, considering the Devils will never become a quality team again without the ability to score goals on a regular basis.  However, I want to make a different argument.  The Devils have one of the worst farm systems in hockey, as is made clear whenever someone online ranks each team's prospect pool.  The Devils are almost always ranked at or near the bottom (examples: Hockeys Future, Bleacher Report).

What the Devils do have, however, is quality defensive talent under the age of 25.  On the big club's roster this year alone, we have seen Adam Larsson, Damon Severson, Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill, and Seth Helgeson.  Also down in Albany and elsewhere, there is Steve Santini, Joshua Jacobs, Reece Scarlett, and others.  That is a plethora of defensive talent that still needs to be developed.  Defensemen take longer to develop than forwards, as best shown by Larsson himself, who has only really begun to bloom this season.  A defensive-minded coach could really work with this young talent to get the most out of them.

This would of course be positive for a couple reasons.  First and foremost, it would improve this Devils' roster.  If Larsson can become what the Devils were expecting of him with the 4th overall pick, and if Severson can develop into an all-star talent like it seems that he can, that would be huge.  Then, if Gelinas can learn how to play better defensively, and if Merrill can showcase more offense and find more of a decisive edge defensively, that would also create another two very good NHL defensemen.  Add in the developing young talent on the farm, and that is a definitive excess of NHL-caliber defense.  With who would be available at that point, the Devils would have one of the top defenses in the league, plus players to trade.

At that time, the defensive-minded coach would be in an ideal position to trade one or two of those defensemen for top 6 offensive talent.  By bolstering the defense, the only position of abundance in the prospect pool, the Devils could really gain some quality offensive pieces.  This might be a slower process than bringing in an offensive mind and letting him go to work, but I believe it would be more beneficial to the team in the long run, as it would really work to create the next strong core of Devils that could be with this team for a decade or more.  Who would not want an all-star defense backed by Cory Schneider for years to come?

Conclusion and Your Thoughts

In the end, those are two main arguments I can give that back Lou's decision to look for a defensive coach this offseason.  In this day and age, defense is still managing to win championships, and Los Angeles has proven that it can even be done without a strong regular season offense.  Plus, the only real positive prospects that the Devils have are defensemen.  It would be beneficial for the team to bring in a defensive coach that could really develop these players at the NHL level and develop them into the best NHL players that they can be.  Then, some of those defensemen could be used as trade bait to bring in top 6 forwards, which would then work to improve the offense.

However, what are your thoughts about Lou wanting to bring in a coach that stresses defense first?  Do you think that it is a good idea for this team, or do you think that the New Jersey Devils should be looking for an offensive coach that will help improve goal scoring?  Also, would you be happy with him hiring Scott Stevens or Adam Oates?  Who would you like to see behind the bench next year?  Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.