The New Jersey Devils under Brent Sutter in many ways play the same style of suffocating, defence-first hockey they have employed with so much success over the past decade.
But there are new wrinkles to the rookie head coach’s system and for the first month and a half of the season his players struggled to adjust.
Sutter preaches aggressiveness in the neutral zone and on the forecheck, areas where New Jersey teams of the past were more passive, preferring instead to wait for mistakes and counterattack. So freed from their shackles, the Devils ended up becoming too loose in their own end and the losses piled up as a result.
Slowly, however, the transition has begun to settle and now the Devils seem to be have found their way. They’ve won seven straight ahead of their matchup with the visiting Boston Bruins on Wednesday, back in their familiar spot near the top of the Atlantic Division standings at 14-10-2, two points behind the first-place Rangers.
“I think there was a misconception to some degree with the players in the fact that we were more aggressive on our forecheck and I think it led somewhat to us being too aggressive in our defensive play,” Sutter said Tuesday on a conference call. “We’ve made them understand and they’ve adjusted back to how they need to play in our own zone and that’s under control.
“You don’t want to give up a whole lot of space and time but it’s doing it under control and doing it the right way. We’ve gotten back to that and I know it’s made a big difference in our defensive play.”
The new system isn’t the only change for the Devils this season.
First off there’s Sutter, the team’s fifth coach in the last four seasons. He made his way to the Garden State after eight seasons as coach, general manager and owner of the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels, plus two gold-medal runs with the Canadian national junior team.
Then there was a significant roster turnover, highlighted by the departures of Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski and the additions of Dainius Zubrus, Vitaly Vishnevski, Karel Rachunek and Kevin Weekes. Early injuries to Jamie Langenbrunner and defenceman Colin White also hurt.
Finally there was the move to the Prudential Center in Newark from their old home at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, a transfer that forced them to open the season with nine straight road games while their new rinks was finished.
The Devils went 3-5-1 over that stretch which only exacerbated things early on.
“I thought those nine games, as difficult as it was, and yeah we would have loved for our record to be better than it was, it was a great learning experience for everyone,” said Sutter. “We dealt with some adversity and we handled it well. Now our game has gone up a notch, which was important, and we’d like to think we have it going in the right direction.”
Sutter’s own transition from junior to the pro ranks hasn’t been nearly as difficult.
The 45-year-old won a WHL title in 2001, three Eastern Conference titles plus the back-to-back gold medals with the national junior team. His family name and tough demeanour would naturally play well with junior-aged kids, however, and there were questions if his approach would sit well with pros.
So far, so good.
“I don’t think it’s been as major or significant as people might think,” said Sutter. “Coaching is coaching. When I was brought in here, I was brought in here to be me, yet you’re obviously dealing with men that are obviously playing at the pro level now instead of kids dreaming to get there.
“All in all, you still use the people around you like you need to use them.”
Sutter hasn’t disengaged from the national junior team completely, either. He’s had several conversations with Craig Hartsburg, who’ll lead this year’s squad into the Czech Republic and plans to keep a close eye on the tournament during breaks in the NHL schedule.
“I’m their biggest fan,” he said. “It’s a great tournament, there’s great players that play in it, it’s a very intense tournament in a short period of time and you don’t have time to be average. You’ve got to be good right from the start and Canada always seem to be very resilient in that way.”