Tonight begins the 2017 preseason for the New Jersey Devils. Training camp has been underway for a few days and the first game will show off what they were working on for at least a little bit. Before training camp officially began, the team underwent a media day. Among the standard storylines that one would expect in camp, one particular word stuck out to me. A four letter word (five if you’re WWE Superstar Enzo Amore): soft. From Chris Ryan’s article at NJ.com, here are some select quotes from Kyle Palmieri and Ben Lovejoy:
"You spend time in the summer talking to guys from other teams, and I don't think there's a single player in this room or another room that would have said we were one of the tougher teams to play against," forward Kyle Palmieri said.
"It's a mindset and it's personnel. We were far too soft last year. We were not hard to play against," Lovejoy said. "Not so much the physical game, but the winning battles, the mentality. We weren't strong along the boards, we didn't have that fight every game that we need, and I really think that's such an important part of the game."
Soft is a pretty loaded word in professional sports. It is synonymous with weakness. With the amount of preparation, devotion, physical and mental strength and stakes involved, being seen as weak is a problem. It hurts from a business perspective - who wants to pay to see a bunch of pushovers? It hurts from a personal perspective - it is demoralizing to work so hard to ultimately take loss after loss. It hurts from a team perspective - trying to build something up with so many setbacks adds another challenge.
It’s also absolutely appropriate. The 2016-17 Devils were a soft team in many respects. This is a team that finished the season with three wins in their last twenty-four games. This a team that finished near or at the bottom in the league when it came to point percentage in situations where they were leading after the first period (44%, 30th in the NHL per NHL.com) and the first two periods (70.9%, 29th in the NHL per NHL.com). In 5-on-5 situations, Natural Stat Trick listed the Devils with a 47.8% Corsi For percentage, which was the fourth lowest in the league; that meant opposing teams generally enjoyed the run of play against the Devils. Knowing that the Devils were also dead last in Corsi For per sixty minutes, it wasn’t as if the Devils were putting up offensive pressure like the rest of the league. Special teams success rates for the Devils were at 17.5% for the power play (22nd in the NHL per NHL.com) and 79.6% for the penalty kill (23rd in the NHL per NHL.com). So special teams hardly was a strength for the Devils either. You’d be hard pressed to find something the Devils did really well last season relative to the league. The 2016-17 Devils were a bad team and like a lot of bad teams, they were relative doormats for most of their opponents. In other words, they were soft.
Now, I understand that most of those stats I just pointed out are really more of a case of results. Winning board battles is not yet a countable stat. Identifying smart plays is not yet trackable, although I’d like to think Ryan Stimson came close with his passing project that may or may not be dormant. But the beautiful thing about stats like CF% is that they are impacted by whether a player or a unit or a team are able to do those things Lovejoy mentioned. Winning board battles, not just chipping pucks away, completing passes, not throw away pucks for icings (something Lovejoy could stand to work on), committing to defense (that would be nice for Palmieri and way, way nicer if guys like Miles Wood do so), and so forth does all add up. It also makes a team much more difficult to play against. To that end, I am pleased at what Palmieri and especially Lovejoy for their statements.
I also applaud Lovejoy for clarifying that he wasn’t referring to the other kind of “soft” that comes up with respect to hockey. That is, a team that doesn’t go out and decide an answer to some of their problems is violence. I get that its an entertainment business, but enforcers are increasingly rare in this league. I’ll never not enjoy a big hit but I can’t really enjoy a penalty from it or potential suspension. The growth of analytics are showing that it’s better for a team to load up on skill than size. I think some teams have certainly taken notice. We’re starting to see that even with some of the draft classes selected, such as the Devils’ most recent one. Additionally, Ray Shero did not go out and try to some sign some “toughness” for the sake of it this summer. Hopefully Shero and the coaches will inform their players to be more difficult opponents than trying to bonk some heads - like Miles Wood, for example.
It goes hand in hand, but good teams are hard teams. Or at least they are not soft teams. Sure, you may get the complaint about how a “heavy” squad can be a physical challenge. But, by and large, being able to score a bunch of goals, drive the play, and keep opponents to a relative minimum in scoring, scoring chances, shots, and/or shot attempts would be much better than having a 6’1” average height and a 210 average weight. The focus should be on what can lead to more wins. With more wins comes not only success but also respect. It’s the way Palmieri’s colleagues are going to tell him about how the Devils are one of the tougher opponents in the league.
In effect, the question - Can the 2017-18 Devils be a harder team to play against? - is really - Can the 2017-18 Devils be a better team?
That’s what will begin to be answered in this preseason. The results of the games do not matter but the performances do. Not just for players wishing to make the team or earn a role, but for the team as a whole. Shero did add talent in Marcus Johansson, Brian Boyle, and (hopefully) Will Butcher. And whatever else Drew Stafford has left in the tank. Shero removed or released players that were not contributing on last season’s team. There will likely be wildcards in Nico Hischier, someone I expect to make the team but I couldn’t tell you how well his first NHL season will go. There can be bounce back seasons from Cory Schneider and Taylor Hall, who are the two star players on this roster. It is entirely possible that 2017-18 Devils will be better - at least on paper.
There is one aspect that will play a crucial role in making the Devils harder: the coaching. John Hynes is in the final year of his three-year contract. After a crummy 2016-17 campaign, we’ve seen only the goaltender coach changed. One would have thought that some other assistants would be replaced if only to try something different. Well, this staff is going to have to do so if for them to keep their jobs beyond this season. Their general tactics and instruction were clearly not effective last season. The record and the stats both speak to that. So it is a big question mark whether Hynes can get the players in better positions to succeed (example: Damon Severson should be playing behind Hall, not Lovejoy.) and have them actually succeed. If he can, then the Devils will very likely be a harder team to play against. If not, then he may be replaced by someone Shero thinks can do that. Better that than have Hynes head another soft Devils team.
We’ll begin to see whether the Devils will be less soft and somewhat harder happen tonight. I think it is a good theme as any for the seven preseason games and something to think about during the 2017-18 regular season. I will put the questions to you before tonight’s preseason game. Do you agree that the Devils were soft last season? Do you think this season’s team could be a harder opponent for other teams? What do the Devils need to do be less soft - to be a better team? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the team in the comments. Thank you for reading.