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New Coaches and a New Direction

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Since it seems the only news coming out has been the woeful pessimism in the face of the pending lockout, I figured I’d lighten the mood a bit. The New Jersey Devils have some new faces helping out Pete Deboer this year. Last year’s assistant coach, and longtime member of the Devils organization, Larry Robinson, will be sorely missed. Robinson, at 61 years of age, considered retirement, but instead chose to take a position in San Jose so he could be closer to his family. Via Rich Chere of the Star Ledger, Robinson explains, “It wasn’t so much for me. I enjoyed working with Peter and the staff there. And, of course, I have a tremendous respect for Lou. But I just found it very difficult for my wife.” The Hall of Fame defenseman worked very closely with 19-year-old defensive prodigy, Adam Larsson throughout the season. As a two-time Norris Trophy winner, himself, Robison certainly had a lot to share with all of the young Dmen in the Devils’ system. Larsson really seemed to admire him, so its disappointing we won’t get to see Robinson continue to work one-on-one with him.

Adam Oates was no slouch either. The former special teams coach took a lot of flak early in the season for the erratic power-play and their striking tendency to give up shorthanded goals. But those talks faded as the power-play grew more and more consistent, eventually finishing at a respectable 17.2%, which ranks them 14th out of the 30 teams. Add that to the fact that Oates was active in working with all the players, not just the forwards, and Oates really proved his value this season. Following the Devils’ Stanley Cup run, Oates was given a handsome offer to be the head coach of an always-dangerous Washington Capitals’ team. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in Oates’ position to turn that one down. So the Devils have some big shoes that they need filled.

Enter Scott Stevens and Matt Shaw. Stevens should certainly be a familiar face for Devils fans. He has been with the organization as a special assistant and defensive coach in Albany, and, like Robinson, is also a Hall of Fame defenseman. He will assume Robinson’s role in coaching the New Jersey Devils defensive corps. As much as I want to love this move, I’m still reluctant at this point. He’s definitely earned his right to prove himself behind the bench, and he has the potential to do a lot with this group. But the way that Stevens worked his way through the system just brings back the all too recent memories of John MacLean. We all know what Scotty did on and off the ice for the last few decades. He’s a natural leader and undoubtedly one of the most feared players of his generation. There is a lot he could rub off on these young guys. But following the Johnny Mac saga, I just can’t hop on the Stevens bandwagon until we see the team on opening night.

Matt Shaw on the other hand has a proven record, but faces some recent mixed reviews while running the special teams in San Jose. Shaw is approaching 20 years of coaching experience, so he might be a good counterweight during Stevens’ first NHL go-round. He posted remarkable power-play numbers that saw the Sharks never finishing below 21% over the past three seasons. They also never ended a year below fourth in the league over that three-year span. No other team in the NHL can make that claim for their power-play. The Sharks have a lot of dynamic players that Shaw certainly utilized on that unit, but it will be exciting to see what he can do with guys like Kovalchuk and Elias to elevate their special teams game.

The reasons for Shaw leaving San Jose, however, appear to be because of his responsibilities with the Shark’s weak defensive zone play on even strength. That, combined with the fact that the Sharks were bounced in the first round of the playoffs this year, make Shaw an ideal candidate for a fall guy. Via David Pollack of Mercury News, Matt Shaw explains, “You don’t ever want to be told not to coach. That’s the disappointment. I look forward to the opportunity to work again in the NHL or any level, because that’s what I’ve done for 20 years.” He didn’t sit on the market too long before the Devils took him on board. Their staff now has one of the more offensive minded coaches they’ve had in recent memory.

I like the Shaw hiring a lot. I think it is indicative of the culture shift in the Devils that has been developing since DeBoer took over last year. Under Jacques Lemaire, the Devils were the team that the NHL dreaded putting on national TV. They were a smart, defensive team that played shut-down hockey and won games by frustrating their opponents (and fans for that matter). DeBoer has taken this team in his own direction with a focus more on pressure in the offensive zone. Patrick Elias, for example, has had a resurgent year, posting 78 points at 36 years of age under DeBoer’s system.

I think the Devils ownership has been pushing to make a change towards a more offensive team since the offseason of 2010-11. The offseason in which they gave Ilya Kovalchuk the unheralded $100 million contract. That contract was very “un-Lou-like” (to coin a phrase) when you look at his career of contract offers. I think he felt a lot of pressure from the top to take the organization in a new direction, and to make a statement that the Devils can score goals too.

Further, take a look at the hiring of Pete DeBoer this past summer. There were some very established, defensive-minded coaches on the market when DeBoer accepted the job. Ken Hitchcock seemed like a perfect prototypical New Jersey coach: experienced, defensive, has a winning tradition. But instead Lou brings in DeBoer and the Devils become an aggressive team that forechecks throughout the zone, and would finish 15th in the league in goals per game. Up from dead last the previous year. I think that the Devils organization is trying to make a gradual shift towards this more exciting team that will attract outside fans and some national attention. Matt Shaw is just one more step in that direction. The only question is how far can they move away from the traditional Lamoriello model of a team before they start losing games? We’ll have to wait and see. But one thing is for sure: if the Devils really are shifting towards a more high flying, goal-scoring team, they’ve got my attention. Stay tuned.

 

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Most of what I talk about is hockey, so I figured I might as well write some of it down.

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