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Looking Back at the 2008-09 Devils for Ideas for the Future Devils Offense

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The 2008-09 New Jersey Devils were the one team out of the last nine that didn’t finish near or at the bottom in terms of offense. What can we learn from that squad? This post explores that question.

Carolina Hurricanes v New Jersey Devils
Brian Gionta was a big part of that 2008-09 offense. Perhaps his departure was bigger than originally thought...
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils need offensive help. This has seemingly been a refrain for fans of the organization for decades now. It’s also true. Perhaps now more than ever with the team still in a re-building situation. In eight of the last nine seasons, the Devils have been near the bottom in terms of generating shooting attempts, nevermind scoring goals. The lone exception in recent history has been the 2008-09 season. The Devils weren’t near the bottom in terms of generating offense and scoring goals in that campaign. In fact, they did rather well from a possession point of view. As Ray Shero and his staff figure out what they can do to improve the team, let’s look back at that season to see if there’s any lessons that can be applied for the future.

Guessing at the X’s and O’s

Early last month, reader AlienDev had a question in response to something Alex posted.

Hey Alex – any ideas why our team dropped off so precipitously? Is it correlated to a change in strategy or formations? I would prefer to think of the data to support a change in something we want the guys to do, versus just asking them to make this stat go up. For example – do we want shorter passes, or less dump & chase, or more pass completions, or less passes and more skate with the puck? Likewise, on the D side, do we want to pressure more, push up more, swamp the puck carrier? Just looking for ideas… maybe a follow up post?

A little after that, Ryan Stimson coincidentally posted this at Hockey-Graphs about certain strategies on offense. He found that attacking from behind the net may be a more productive strategy than just going from low-to-high in the offensive zone. He also pointed out that teams should be identifying and shifting strategies to account for varying opponents. This would be in conjunction in collecting data associated with them; which can make analytics more applicable in the short term. Solely relying on attacking from behind the net may not be the best strategy all the time. Low-to-high would work in a situation or against a team that tends to collapse on defense, especially if the attacking team has a defenseman or a point man who can threaten from distance. Ideally, we should want the Devils to go for the latter conclusion. As far as between the two approaches, behind the net sounds like a good idea.

However, is that what was done in 2008-09? What strategies did they employ? Again, the Devils were far more productive on offense in that season compared to the other eight seasons since 2006-07. Perhaps it would be best for the Devils to incorporate those tendencies and/or seek players who can fit them.

Unfortunately, there are two caveats. One, I’m still learning about recognizing strategies in hockey. I figure that as long as I show what I’m seeing, it could make sense. I at least have Ryan’s post to go off of. Two, I couldn’t find a full game from 2008-09 to watch and record what the Devils did on a regular basis. Old games seem to have been put by the wayside under the NHL’s recent new video offerings. Or at least, I have yet to figure out how to find them. Instead, all I can go off from those days were highlight videos the NHL put up on YouTube from those past years. At least from a couple of them, I can show you how the Devils had some successful attacks - and some of which show off what Ryan meant about building from behind the net. (And it’s a nice trip down memory lane, too)

In this clip from 12/4/2008 against Philadelphia, the 2:12 mark shows the forwards building up their attack from by the corner. Jamie Langenbrunner identified Zach Parise from behind the net as he got to the goal line. Travis Zajac stayed higher in the upper circle as a potential out and to draw attention away. Langenbrunner threw it to Parise behind the net, who could have went for a close shot (he did) or attempt a pass to Zajac in the slot. Amid the fracas, Langenbrunner (who moved towards the middle himself) and Zajac went in, Paul Martin started coming down from the point; and Parise (who was fortunate to retrieve the loose puck), wrapped around and eventually then put home a rebound.

On March 19, 2009 against the Flyers, the highlight video begins with a successful dump-and-chase entry. Zajac dumped in ahead of Parise gaining the zone. As Parise picked up the puck in the corner, Zajac went to the middle and Langenbrunner was coming in late on the offwing. Parise kept looking up for Langenbrunner, flung a pass from the corner to #15 for a successful one-timer. One man went behind the goal line, looking for his two linemates in an advantageous spot - and successfully so.

At the 1:17 mark of this same video, Brian Gionta receives a puck from behind the net. He takes a touch in control and then fires a pass to the slot. It eludes a rushing Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus. the puck comes to the point for Johnny Oduya. He unleashed a slapshot, which was deflected into the net by Gionta - who circled around the net to get to the middle to provide traffic. The forwards moved too well for that to have been a coincidence.

The 2:25 mark shows a rare defenseman leading a rush. Brendan Shanahan made a pass up the zone to David Clarkson. As a forward was calling for a change, Oduya just darted through the middle of the ice. One move and one shot later, he’s celebrating a goal.

On December 10, 2008, the 3:20 mark of this video features Langenbrunner from behind the goalline. Once Parise won the puck on the sideboards and gave it to him, he went to the slot. But he was covered. Zajac moved towards the sideboards, but he was covered too. So Langenbrunner went with a third option: the point. The pass was made before he ran out of space in the corner. At the same time, Parise was moving back towards the far circle. Bryce Salvador let loose with a shot and Parise was in a spot to re-direct it in for a goal.

The 2008-09 Devils appeared to like their counter-attacks and you see a good example of that starting at 3:55. Gionta recovered a puck and went off, with Elias and Zubrus skating on by. Gionta gained the zone in the 3-on-2 rush. Elias was a short option, but Gionta went wide with Zubrus. Elias skated towards the net as Zubrus skated towards the edge of the near circle. The timing was perfect as the goalie saw #26 instead of the puck as the shot went into the net.

On January 13, 2009, the Devils successfully visited Vancouver. At 0:22, you’ll see Brian Rolston dump the puck in. John Madden and David Clarkson gave chase, while Rolston hung back a bit. Madden was able to pass it to Clarkson behind the net. Meanwhile, Rolston went to the slot. Clarkson went around the net and, get this, made a pass. Rolston slammed in a shot for a goal.

At the 1:01 mark, you will see another example of the Devils getting the puck deep and turning it into something on the scoreboard. Martin made a good pass to Elias in the neutral zone for an exit, and Elias hit Zubrus in stride to continue to attack. Zubrus gained the zone and dumped it with a Canuck defender in front of him. Zubrus followed the puck as the goalie unwisely came out to play it. Meanwhile, Gionta was heading behind the net on the far side. Zubrus’ pressure forced Sanford to play the puck around - only for Gionta to get it. Gionta had the empty net to wrap it in. Otherwise, Elias would have darted to the slot to give Gionta a glorious passing opportunity. The goalie made that goal happen, but you can see the continued mindset of the attack: get it deep and look for options from there. The forwards without the puck are to provide those options either in the middle or away (or behind the goal line themselves).

The 2:35 mark shows Zajac scoring off a 3-on-2 rush. It’s also a good example of what I keep seeing in these clips when the Devils are scoring off a counter-attack or an odd man rush. The Devils generally have a forward head towards and crash the net. This way if there’s a short rebound or the crashing Devil can get inside presence, the Devils can make the most of the play. Or at least apply a lot more pressure.

OK, here’s two more clips to go through and they’re long. But they’re worth it because it’s against Our Hated Rivals.

On December 27, 2008, the Devils went into the then-unclaimed-Rangertown. At the 4:42 mark, you’ll see Parise and Langenbrunner battle for a puck on the near boards. As Parise gets it loose, Zajac heads to the far end of the zone. A Ranger defender winds the puck around the boards only for Zajac to take it at the goal line. He drops it for Parise at the goal line; when he’s checked, he dishes it back to behind the net where Langenbrunner went. Again, not an accident. As Langenbrunner gets the puck, Parise gets inside his defender and drives to the slot. He’s patient to wait until Parise gets there. Pass, shot, score.

Now if you have a lot of time on your hands, here’s an eight-and-a-half minute highlight video of the December 12, 2008 game against Our Hated Rivals. A total thirteen goals were scored! Even Jay Pandolfo scored!

I’m starting at 3:18. The play begins with Langenbrunner receiving a long pass from the defense. Langenbrunner falls and puts a pass too far for Parise to reach. But Parise hustles and wins a 50-50 for the puck to play it - where else? - behind the goal line. While that was happening, Langenbrunner skates to above the far circle and Zajac enters in near side. As Parise comes around the net, he sees Zajac wide open. Zajac takes the pass. Langenbrunner is down low, Parise is circling around to where Zajac was, and Zajac just walks in for a shot. The rebound comes right to him and Zajac just puts it around the False King of Manhattan. Another success from behind the net.

At 7:04, after the Rangers tied it up, the Devils win a faceoff and Oduya carries the puck into the Rangers end. As he falls (as he does), he dumps the puck in deep with Zubrus near by as support. As the puck went deep, Gionta and Elias gave chase. Gionta went past the net to get to the puck while Elias stayed on the far side of the zone and then Zubrus went in. The puck came out in front and Zubrus was in a good spot for a shot. Instead, he played it out to his left where Elias was alone at an angle. While it was quick and not necessarily intentional, the play was created from behind th net.

The last goal of the game came from a similar play. Starting at 7:55, Langenbrunner keeps a puck in the zone and sends it in deep. Only Parise is nearby to get it. However, #9 can only knock it away before getting checked. In the near corner, Bobby Holik (!!) gets ahead of his defender and winds it back along the endboards in the other way. Parise darts to the boards to get it. He’s briefly open. Langenbrunner was coming in high and was also open. Pass, shot, 8-5 New Jersey.

So as a result of watching those videos and more, I do not think these were coincidental plays. Even those with some fortunate bounces featured a Devil from behind the goal line finding an open teammate in a good position for a shot. Options were provided, whether it was someone in front of the net or to the side. If it came back to the point, Devils would circle in front of the goalie to give a long shot a screen. Even dump-and-chase tactics ended up being fruitful, presumably because the Devils had the players to go get it. Plenty was similar to what Ryan described as building out from behind the net. So much so that I think that it was at least intentional for a few lines, if not the team.

I would have preferred to watch a full game or two to see how they forecheck and broke out. There was only a little bit of it from the highlight videos online. However, those that made it showed me a few things. Passes through and into the neutral zone were direct and put the player in a position to succeed. The Devils did forecheck aggressively, to the point where a second forward could get to the blueline to provide support should the first one be successful. Watching a full game would help show whether that was the case. But it appears that the 2008-09 Devils played like what John Hynes stated last Summer: fast, attacking, supportive hockey. That’s the main conclusion to take out of these highlights, if nothing else.

The X’s and O’s Need Jimmy’s and Joe’s (At Forward)

Of course, it’s not enough to have the right tactics. Sure, Hynes could have the team try to emulate what the 08-09 team did and/or the build from behind the net strategies Pete DeBoer favored (and still does favor). But having the right players is so important. In the last post related to this, reader Triumph44 summed it up succinctly:

The Sutter Devils in 08-09 played relatively high event because the Devils had very strong forwards – they had Parise, Langenbrunner, and Gionta as rate shooters (as well as Clarkson on the 4th line). They got worse as the season went along in part because they added Havelid and Shanahan, two players who were probably worse than whoever was playing there. I also imagine that Brodeur’s injury also changed things for the Devils. Next season Lemaire came in, Gionta was gone, and the system changed considerably.

Triumph44 is right. And the difference after Sutter’s second season was stark. For perspective (and my own curiosity), I went to Corsica and downloaded the individual 5-on-5 stats for Devils forwards (min. 50 minutes played) from 2008-09 through to this past season. I averaged their individual shots for (iSF, or the shots that the player actually took themselves) and Corsi for (iCF, or the attempts that the player actually took themselves).

Average Individual Shots For & Individual Corsi For in 5-on-5 play by Devils Forwards (min. 50 minutes played)
Corsica.hockey

The difference is stark going from 2008-09 to 2009-10. Even though the tactics may have changed, its clear that the Devils didn’t have as many forwards to create shots and attempts. In 2008-09, they had nine forwards with over 100 shots for and 150 attempts for that the player took in 5-on-5 play: Parise (242 iSF, 371 iCF); Gionta (186, 330); Elias (153, 243); Langenbrunner (143, 239); Clarkson (134, 210); Zajac (122, 207); Rolston (101, 180); John Madden (115, 177); and Zubrus (100, 167). Shanahan’s rate of individual attempts and shots was good, but he was basically a shooter at that point. Still, that’s a collection of productive to very productive players from a shooting perspective; enough to spread liberally throughout four lines. Parise was a force then, Gionta was also a threat, and their linemates were able to do well themselves in addition to setting them up. It’s that latter point that meant three to all four lines had at least someone at least good enough to take their own shot. Triumph is right that Gionta leaving was a big deal and the team also lost Madden. While Parise, Zajac, and Langenbrunner were better in these categories in 2009-10; only two Devils had seasons that has since surpassed Gionta’s output (Parise in 2008-09, 2009-10; Kovalchuk in 2011-12) and the other guys weren’t as good from that standpoint.

Let’s go back to today for further perspective. In 2015-16, the Devils had two forwards meet the criteria of at least 100 individual shots on net and 150 attempts at goal in 5-on-5 play: Kyle Palmieri (121, 220) and Adam Henrique (101, 160). Lee Stempniak was close to making it three, but that still speaks to the team’s issues both tactically (e.g. the breakouts, passing in general), injury (e.g. I’d like to think Mike Cammalleri would’ve been up there if he was healthy) and talent-wise (e.g. the players, Jordin Tootoo finished fourth in individual attempts). The two that did make that cut-off alone represents a big drop off from a shooting perspective from where the team was seven years ago. Palmieri’s 2015-16 would’ve ranked only fifth on that team; Henrique would be at the bottom of that team’s list.

As much as I would like to think that implementing tactics and strategies from that 2008-09 would help, it can only go as far as the players can run it. The lack of shots generated from most of last season’s forwards does not fill me with confidence that the addition of Taylor Hall alone will help. Hall will help but there must be more, whether it’s in getting more players that are talented enough to make their own shot and improving the practices to get those players the puck. To me, more must be done to revitalize the offense. I don’t think it’s so much that they need another Parise or even another Brian Gionta; but they need to strengthen the forwards.

One last thing: why forwards and not defensemen? Interestingly, the average individual Corsi for and shots for values for defensemen was higher in 2015-16 than in 2008-09. It could be that the 2008-09 blueliners were better at moving the puck out on breakouts, but they weren’t creating the offense either. The Devils had strong forwards to carry that weight, and carry it, they did.

I still think looking to the past for ideas has some merit. It’s clear the 2008-09 team was actually fast, attacking, and supportive as evidenced by video. There are strategies on display within, but that team had the players who were productive enough to turn those opportunities into attempts, shots, and goals. What do you think the current team should do to get closer to that level? Do they have the shooters now and could be more prolific if they were able to better get the puck to them? Do they need better or at least healthier talent at forward? What level do you think they will need to reach to be more competitive for the future? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about what the team was like in 2008-09 and how it may apply to the 2016-17 team and beyond. Thanks to AlienDev and Triumph44 for their comments that helped out in this post; thank you for reading.