Since their last Stanley Cup win nearly ten years ago, the New Jersey Devils have seen the likes of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski, Scott Gomez and Jamie Langenbrunner all exit stage left.
Whatever the reason for the departure- retirement, free agency or trade- the Devils have lost key cogs to the franchise at various points over the last decade. Each time though, the Devils barely blinked.
Despite not having won a Stanley Cup since 2003, the Devils have missed the playoffs only once over the last the last ten years while winning four Atlantic Division titles and one Eastern Conference championship.
It should come as no surprise then that despite their captain and offensive leader Zach Parise leaving Newark over the summer via free agency, the Devils remain among the teams to beat in 2013.
“I think the confidence that they got going through [last year’s] playoff run is a big part of it as well.” Said Capitals head coach Adam Oates, an assistant coach with New Jersey from 2010-12.
Oates admits that he’s “a little bit surprised,” the Devils have played as well as they have without Parise this season, but he notes that “the guys realize that nothing is better than the system. Nothing.”
Oates readily admits that he is preaching a similar system with the Capitals as the one he saw firsthand during his time in New Jersey. In its most basic form, the system begins with a sound defensive game that looks to pressure opponents’ into turnovers which can quickly be converted into scoring chances at the other end.
A small sample around the Capitals dressing room Wednesday was nearly unanimous in suggesting that a well-coached team like the Devils can overcome the loss of franchise players because of the club’s attention to detail and the system they have in place.
“Their system is almost bullet-proof and that’s why we’re trying to play that way,” 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. Obviously they lose some top-end talent and a guy on the [power play] and the penalty kill, but they’re still playing the same way and they just find other guys to put the pucks in the net. That’s exactly why we’re trying to play that way. It’s a very good system that they’ve got nailed.”
The Devils (9-3-4) visit the Capitals (5-9-1) for back-to-back games Thursday and Saturday, with a chance to reclaim top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Parise meanwhile leads the Minnesota Wild with seven goals and 12 points in 15 games this season, but the Wild enter play Thursday on the outside of a playoff position in the Western Conference. Parise signed a 13-year $98 million deal with Minnesota last summer.
“It’s got to be their system,” Wojtek Wolski said of the Devils overcoming the loss of Parise, a 30-goal scorer in each of his last five full seasons.
“Their system is very similar to ours- it creates a lot of opportunities to score if you’re really focused on playing well in your defensive zone. I’m sure that you never want to lose a player like Parise, he’s such a powerful player but I think that when you have a really good system you can kind of inter-change players.”
Despite the turnover in New Jersey over the last decade, which has also included nine coaching changes since 2005, future Hall-of-Fame member Martin Brodeur has remained among the constants.
The 40-year-old has impressed once again in 2013 with a 7-2-3 record, a 2.29 goals-against-average and a .912 save percentage.
“He’s been, obviously, the best of all time,” Oates said.
“His IQ- he’s a very smart guy. He knows his position; he knows all of the positions. He knows the game… It’s just kind of his personality; he’s a little casual so you kind of forget that. But I would say, for me, the calmness he brought every single day was important to the team and his IQ.”