Why the Devils Win: A Metro Hockey Update
By Andrei Petrovitch
Twenty years ago, Wayne Gretzky called the New Jersey Devils a "Mickey Mouse organization." While such a statement would sound odd now, it certainly made sense when Gretzky said it. After all, the Devils (who were, previously, the Kansas City Scouts and Colorado Rockies) were ineptly run. The team "boasted" a roster that included such no-names as Aaron Broten and Jeff Larmer. Defensive play was non-existent; this deficiency proved fatal, as the team couldn’t score enough to stay competitive in the run-and-gun ‘80s.
But in the years since that infamous statement, the Devils have become one of the most respected teams in the National Hockey League. Although the team missed the playoffs for the first five years of its current incarnation, it has made the playoffs 13 of the last 15 seasons since. During that time the Devils have also won two Stanley Cup championships in three Finals appearances along with numerous regular season division and conference titles. Meanwhile, the New York Rangers haven’t been to the playoffs in five seasons, while the New York Islanders have made it only once in the past eight; neither team, at press time, is a lock this year.
So what is the Devils organization doing right? What are the Rangers and Islanders doing wrong? And what can they learn from the Devils?
Patience, Patience, Patience!!!
Rome wasn’t built in a day, or, for that matter, a season. Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello knows this and plans accordingly. Players acquired in the Entry Draft, no matter how highly touted, are given time to develop in one of the team’s minor-league affiliates. Skaters, especially defensemen, are not rushed into the lineup. When a player is called up from the minors to the big club, he is often used, at first, in a fourth line/sixth defenseman role. Depending on his progress, he then moves up on the depth chart; if he struggles, or if all roster spots are filled, he is then promptly sent back down to the minor leagues to develop his skills. This process occurs on all teams, of course, but what makes the Devils unique is how patient team management is. Often times, teams lose patience and trade away players who don’t make a dent within three years. In some cases, three years is the minimum in the Devils organization!
The Islanders were notorious during much of the ‘90s for rushing players into the lineup. Some examples include Dean Chynoweth and Brett Lindros (the latter being perhaps the most incompetent stickhandler in NHL history).
Good Drafting = Good Team
Great teams are always built the same way: a team drafts some quality youngsters that are allowed to develop at a reasonable pace. The team then acquires, via smart trades and astute free agent signings, role players who can support the youngsters and help them develop into stars. The Devils are no different. The teams’ nucleus – Patrick Elias, Scott Niedermayer, John Madden, Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, Colin White, Martin Brodeur – were all products of smart scouting and drafting. The Rangers, on the other hand, have a history of salivating over, well, just about any big name player out there without any consideration for how that player fits into the organization’s depth chart. This bizarre obsession has lead to promising draftees being traded away or "buried" in the minor leagues. Also, too many free-agency acquisitions lead to the development of a mercenary attitude in the locker room. Drafted players, however, grow up together and become familiar with each other’s habits. This familiarity leads to greater communication, and thus helps the on-ice chemistry.
Fighting with a System, not Against One
The Devils also succeed because the organization, from the big club to its minor league affiliates, is designed with the Neutral-Zone Trap in mind. Every player coming into the organization is already familiar with the Trap, thus making it easier for the team to integrate new faces when necessary. The Rangers have no discernable system, and the annual roster turnover makes implementing one difficult. As a result, the coaching staff de jour is always forced to reinvent the wheel each year.
Youth will be Served
Veteran experience is certainly helpful, but young legs and lungs are essential for any team to succeed in a grueling 82-game season. This is something that the Rangers don’t seem to understand. Of course, an all-kid team never got the Islanders anywhere during the latter part of the ‘90s. But the young, energetic players on the Devils are supported – not supplanted – by experienced, battle-hardened veterans like Scott Stevens and Joe Niuwendyk. It’s the right mix of young and old that is important; go too much in one direction and your team is doomed. Lou Lamoriello knows this, and fine-tunes his roster accordingly (witness last year’s acquisition of 27-year old Jamie Lagenbrunner).
Accountability and Team Play
No one rocks the Devils’ boat as long as Lamoriello is steering the ship. Discipline problems are dealt with promptly and severely – just ask Mike Danton, who’s career has been in non-playing limbo ever since he dared to question the coaching staff. Players who cannot adapt to the team system are replaced with players who can, and players who are on the decline (like Doug Gilmour, Neal Broten or John MacLean) are let go. Defensive play is a team-wide responsibility, and anyone who thinks otherwise is quickly scratched out of the next game. While some critics claim that this leads to "boring hockey," the Devils couldn’t care less; witness how the team kept the defending champion Detroit Red Wings to only 16 shots (!) in a 1-0 victory on Tuesday.
The Devils also realize that defense leads to offense. A properly implemented defensive system like the Neutral-Zone Trap can cause the opposition to turn over the puck, thus making them vulnerable to a counter-attack. With their speed (provided by their younger players) and their poise (provided by their veterans), the Devils can capitalize on such opportunities, as evidenced by the team’s win over the San Jose Sharks on January 22. In overtime, when the Sharks turned over the puck in the neutral zone – the result of aggressive back checking on the part of the Devils – Niuwendyk seized the opportunity to start a rush towards the San Jose zone. He found himself on a breakaway and ultimately scored the game winner. It was a victory that was earned with disciplined defensive play, and not with an emphasis on reckless puck pursuit.
Someone oughtta tell that to those two Mickey Mouse organ- uh, I mean, other two Metro area hockey teams.