From their spot on the visitors’ bench in Verizon Center, the New Jersey Devils can see the home team’s struggles. They recognize that the Washington Capitals are going through a transition, a learning curve while trying to execute a new style of play consistently.
It’s easy for the Devils to identify because they went through the same thing last season in their first year under Coach Peter DeBoer on their way to becoming Eastern Conference champions and appearing in the Stanley Cup finals.
DeBoer installed a system with an aggressive forecheck, predicated on creating offense by forcing neutral zone turnovers, anchored by ample support and pressure in the defensive zone. That’s the same framework Adam Oates, who was an assistant coach under DeBoer in New Jersey last year, brought to the Capitals this year, and it takes time for it to become instinctual.
“We went through the exact same thing last year,” DeBoer said. “It’s moving around the ice as a five-man unit in all three zones seamlessly, without thinking. That’s the key. The first two months, if you’re thinking about where you should be instead of reacting, you’re there late and holes open up in your game. It takes a while to get that trust and that it’s second nature, and there’s no shortcuts to get that.”
New Jersey had the benefit of a full training camp under its new bench boss, a luxury the Capitals weren’t afforded in this lockout-shortened season. Even with the practice time, the Devils got off to a shaky 12-12-1 start in their first 25 games.
Washington fell to 5-10-1 on the season with its 3-2 loss to the Devils on Thursday night. Like many games this season, the Capitals showed the command and execution they are ultimately seeking for stretches but not the whole game. They haven’t found the consistency yet, and New Jersey alternate captain Patrik Elias, 36, took note of the Capitals’ tentative play.
“You can sense, you know, there’s a certain place over there that they’re still hesitant. And I’m sure that they work on it, they look at it, a lot of videos. And that helps,” Elias said. “But it’s up to the guys to really, really kind of buckle down and just pay the price. Sometimes it’s not easy and sometimes you think that individual stats might go out of it. But you look at it: If you play that way and you really believe in that system, you get rewarded.”
It took two to three months for New Jersey to truly acclimate to DeBoer’s system, and entering the all-star break in late January, they sat at 26-19-3. In the final 34 games of the regular season, the Devils found their rhythm and went 22-9-3 to finish sixth in the East with 102 points, which translates to roughly a 60-point finish in a shortened 48-game season. They rolled that finish into three playoff series victories and a spot in the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games.
They haven’t lost a step in this new season either. Entering Saturday’s matinee contest against the Capitals, New Jersey leads the Atlantic Division with 24 points at 10-3-4 and sits second in the East.
The carryover may have caught some off guard given that the Devils lost former captain Zach Parise, who recorded 69 points last year, to Minnesota in free agency, but it is a product of the style they play, their commitment to it and more than a year of experience playing it.
“Their system is almost bullet-proof and that’s why we’re trying to play that way,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It almost doesn’t matter who you have in the lineup. If everyone is doing things the same way and the right way, then it just makes you that much better. . . . That’s exactly why we’re trying to play that way. It’s a very good system that they’ve got nailed.”
Oates even acknowledged that he was a little surprised by how the Devils rolled things into the lockout-shortened season.
“I think the confidence that they got going through the playoff run is a big part of it as well,” Oates said. “And the guys realize that nothing is better than the system. Nothing.”
To reach the stage where the Capitals are comfortable with a system takes time and repetition.
The challenges range from getting players to buy in to reinforcing plays and approaches so they become intuitive and accepting that even once they have a thorough understanding there will be mistakes. Errors are inevitable, but they also can be minimized by the safety net of each individual working within the greater structure of the group.
“We’re not all perfect, we’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to turn the puck over once in a while, but as long as you know that that guy behind you is going to be there, you’re not as afraid to do it,” Devils winger David Clarkson said. “It takes a little bit of time. We went through some bumps in the road last year with the new coach, but I think once you get through those hurdles and bumps in the road you come out a better team, and we showed that by how we did.”