Marino, Devils
Photo Credit: Claudio J. De La Rosa

Devils' Defense Has Helped Spark Strong Run Post All-Star Break

Swarming defense and shooting the puck

Going into the NHL All-Star Break, the New Jersey Devils were on the outside looking in. The team was taking losses in much-needed games, still without elite centerman Jack Hughes, and several teams were removed from a playoff spot. The demands from the fans for a new goaltender or coaching change were loud across social media platforms.

During the NHL All-Star break, the coaching staff, led by head coach Lindy Ruff, decided to change the system that had been the Devils' all season. A system that was more based on a pinching defense, skill play and zone defense was difficult to do this year with the absence of star players on both sides of the redline. The favored style of play left goaltending exposed and trapped the Devils in their own zone for extended periods of time. It also lowered the shot totals and physical play.

Swarming defense and shooting the puck is an oversimplification of the system, but it fits this team’s speed and youth, back to the basics on defense, where the Devils track the puck more throughout the zones. Two defensemen maintain their coverage while the center covers the middle of the ice, allowing both wingers to go aggressively after the puck. It keeps the shots to the outside, making it much easier for the goaltending to stay in position and see the puck.

It is a center-based defense, and luckily, the Devils have four strong, responsible centers. The move of Erik Haula back to Hughes' wing allows Haula to act more in the defensive center role in their own zone and allows the skill of Hughes to pickpocket opposing forwards. The Devils needed to regain full strength again, but they also needed a system based on the players they had on the ice. Often, the system was based on the elite players this season, but with the injuries they were missing, the system failed. A back-to-basics defense allows the Devils to quickly get the puck out of the zone and rely on their transition game, which was unstoppable at times last season.

On the offense side of the game, the Devils are firing from all angles. The three top lines are playing havoc with the opposing team’s defense. The elite line of Hughes, Tyler Toffoli and Haula are a deadly mix of skill and chemistry. Bringing Haula back up to Hughes’ line has allowed Jack to be riskier with his play without costing turnovers or breakaways.

The second line of Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Ondrej Palat is a bigger line that can play a 200-foot game. Bratt and Hischier, the longest-tenured Devil, have great chemistry, and the experience of Palat drives that line. The third line of Timo Meier, Dawson Mercer, and emerging fan favorite Curtis Lazar are giving the opposition trouble. In the last three games, that line has been the most consistent in play.

The fourth line, used sparingly by Ruff, still feels its way but hasn’t been costly. Many question the use of Alexander Holtz on that line, but it is hard to complain as the team is starting to string together wins.

The last three games have given the fans hope again. Even in a loss in Carolina, the Devils controlled most of the game, and the score could have gone either way. Instead of being under fire all game, the goaltending kept the Devils in the game and the puck out of the net. The Devils are shooting like last season, and in all three games, they have fired a barrage of shots at opposing goaltenders.

The stars are stepping up. Hughes is finding his scoring and elite skill again. Hischier continues his Selke skill and putting up goals, while taking over the defensive draws and assignments. Even as an All-Star, Bratt is the most underrated player in the NHL. Finally, on the score sheet again in Nashville, Meier has been a force with his size, physicality, and shot. He is starting to connect well in his new line. If the Devils can find a way to get the Powerplay going again, this could be one amazing drive to the playoffs.

The pairing of Luke Hughes with John Marino and Kevin Bahl with Simon Nemec seems to thrive in the new system. They are still active in the play, but quickly move back to the blue line after their shot. Tracking back and ensuring at least one defenseman is back to prevent breakaways is also a much-needed change. Responsible pinching. Knowing when to move up is something the Devils have made too many errors in this season. Since the break, the team has been much more cohesive in coverage.

To put an exclamation point on all of this, this was the first win for the Devils in Nashville in 15 years. The Devils got behind 1-0 and 2-1, but never felt out of the game. In fact, even while trailing, the Devils played as if they had the lead. Hughes brought the team back to even with a beautiful play by the defensemen Hughes and Marino, while Hischier again brought the game even with a sneaky tip of a Bratt shot.

Meier’s goal, a dirty front-net goal assisted by Mercer, was the icing on the cake. Held off the score sheet with no goals since the middle of December, it lit a fire under Meier. Hischier sealed the game with an empty netter off a great defensive play by Haula. The Devils never felt behind this game.

It’s been three games. But three very big games. Five of six points. With the Los Angeles Kings and Philadelphia Flyers coming up this week, it could be a turning point for how the Devils finish the season and their race to the playoffs.