This post is going to be shorter and sweeter than normal. Today (Thursday) is my 52nd birthday and I’ve got places to go and people to see. The beauty part is that next week, my family will be heading to Newark to catch three Devils games in person. We didn’t really want to go right before the big holiday, but with two kids in school, we need to schedule our visits around times when we could catch multiple games and the kids are off. So we shall be at the Flyers, Oilers and Red Wings games. Hopefully three big Ws.
Also, before I get too much into the system stuff, I recommend you stop what you’re doing and go and listen to this podcast:
New PDOcast with @KevinisInGoal:— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) December 13, 2023
•Complications of evaluating goalies behind really bad defensive teams
•How changing defensive environments affect goalies
•The future of goalie usage
•Devils struggles keeping puck out of nethttps://t.co/oeX2e1Kl3d
It’s a nice jumping off point for this piece. I’ll let you listen to the Devils goaltending discussion towards the end of the podcast. Then you come back here, ok?
The one thing I want to focus on is what Dimitri talks about toward the end of this is with regards to how the Devils failure to produce offense in any other fashion besides the rush has led to the repeated arguments on Twitter and everywhere else in Devils fandom these days. Most are saying defense or goaltending? It’s the equivalent of the chicken or egg question.
But Dimitri theorizes that because the Devils offense is so good on the rush, but never keeping zone time and sustained offensive pressure. I think he said they dropped to 15th in the NHL, compared to last year where they were near the top. The team buzzed regularly in the offensive zone, had insane puck possession which helped them with their rush-based offense. One thing Dimitri doesn’t account for was the fact that Nico Hischier missed 11 games with what most assume were concussion symptoms. Hischier is good on the rush, but he’s also a true puck possession guy when it comes to getting the puck low and grinding. Tomas Tatar also moved on and he was also a great guy for this exact purpose. Nico is back now and Tatar is in Colorado. It’s not surprising that since Nico has returned, the defense has appeared to stabilize. I would say that part of it is that the Devils aren’t just having rush chances that are one and done. They are getting a little more sustained pressure.
And here’s the thing I want to focus on. The Devils have become known throughout the league as a team based on rush offense. If you can clog the neutral zone on them and slow down the rush a bit and either get them to dump it in and try and retrieve it...OR take away all the options on a rush, then you stop them. Plain and simple. And, not to alarm anyone, but more and more teams are implementing elements of the trap into their games. Some are going 1-2-2 with very light forechecking pressure. Some are 1-3-1, again with light forechecking pressure. The goal is to either A. turn over the puck for quick odd man rushes against the Devils (think the Colorado game in Colorado earlier) or B. Suffocate the Devils speed and not allow it to run wild on the team by making Bratt and Jack Hughes and even Dawson Mercer have to decide to pull the ripcord on a rush and dump it. This stifles Lindy Ruff’s system and it’s becoming really commonplace for teams to do this. Hell, sometimes when the Devils get the lead, you can see them setting up in the 1-2-2.
The NHL has always been a league that trends toward certain strategies and then coaches do their best to try and alter that strategy. The trap will always come back because coaches do NOT love free flowing offense. Even Lindy barks about allowing too many chances, etc. The experts talk a lot about “structure” these days, but really it’s a code word for playing a shut down defensive system like the trap. It can also refer to all five players sagging down REALLY low in their own zone to protect the most high danger areas. Witness this moment from the Bruins game I happened to tweet about:
Teams like the Bruins are really structured defensively. Both in the neutral zone and defensive zone. If you score a goal on them, it’s likely going to be one based on outworking them and determination. There won’t be many rush ones. Except maybe for 3 on 3 OT where it’s next to impossible to collapse and protect the neutral zone and the house with only three guys:
Ladies and gentlemen….. Jack Hughes. pic.twitter.com/7U7o2pdvyc— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 14, 2023
Even then, the Bruins still had three guys playing defense. It’s just that Bratt’s exceptional skating, opened up that lane for the briefest of moments to allow Jack Hughes to get a relatively open shot. Elite talent=winning results in OT.
But I guess my question is this. Tom Fitzgerald has built a team based on rush chances and attacking as much as possible. He has defensemen who are in that mindset all the time. Not too many of the Devils have the structured, defending mindset. And I get it. Playing offense in hockey is a TON more fun than defending. It’s like in youth baseball...would you rather be a batter or out in the outfield, picking dandelions? Professional players get paid to do both but that doesn’t mean they really enjoy blocking shots or getting in lanes or taking hits to make plays or battle for pucks. So Coach Lindy Ruff has developed a system around that philosophy. Or it’s possible, that’s just how he coaches. It’s interesting looking back on something written when he was let go in Dallas now.
Maybe the reason Ruff has his defensemen so active is because he wants to try and maintain the offensive zone possession and not have the team be “one and done” as Dimitri says? I’ll just say this much, it’s a lot easier to do that now that Nico Hischier is back. And Simon Nemec is giving the Devils superior defensive zone and offensive zone play. And Luke Hughes has matured every game. So maybe the team having a full squad who can actually keeps pucks in offensively now and not just be a “rush” team will suddenly make our defense AND our goaltending better? It could track.
Also, just a quick happiest of holidays wish to you all!! Since I heading to Newark next week for three games, my writing time will be severely limited so you won’t see a FanFirst Friday again until early January. But hopefully, it’ll be a nice and tidy recap of three beautiful wins in NJ. Here’s to the Devils being the best of all in 2024!!! Thanks for reading along these past couple of years.