The New York Rangers drew the biggest headlines last summer when they signed free agents Chris Drury and Scott Gomez.
But it was their neighboring rivals, the New Jersey Devils, who made the most significant signing in the off-season. With interest in the team waning and the Devils about to move into a new building, GM Lou Lamoriello convinced Brent Sutter to leave the cozy confines of junior hockey and bring his magic to the NHL.
After a humble beginning – the Devils lost seven of their first 10 games – Sutter is making his mark. Not only are the Devils the NHL’s hottest team, having won nine in a row before suffering a 1-0 overtime defeat to the Rangers Sunday, they are playing decidedly interesting hockey.
They still play a defense-first style, but Sutter has the Devils attacking more in the offensive zone, taking chances rather than automatically retreating the way they did in the past.
This is not the same old boring Devils we have grown accustomed to seeing the past few years. These guys play with speed and passion.
It took a while for the players to get the hang of Sutter’s game plan, but the results have been smashing.
In particular, Zach Parise has blossomed into one of the NHL’s most consistent and exciting young players. After 29 games, he ranked 18th in NHL scoring with 14 goals (three game-winners) and 32 points.
Normal defensive stalwarts John Madden and Jay Pandolfo (until he was injured) also have been reborn as solid two-way performers and, after a slow start, Brian Gionta is also hitting his stride.
It remains to be seen where Patrik Elias fits in with Sutter’s plans. He had just six goals (four game-winners) and 16 points and was minus-5 in 27 games.
It looked early on like goalie Martin Brodeur might pay the biggest price for the Devils change of style, but as his teammates became more accustomed to what was expected from them, his numbers have improved dramatically.
Brodeur was 2-6-0 in his first eight games with a 3.28 goals-against average and an alarming .877 save percentage. In his next eight games he was 3-4-1, 2.19 and .909 and during his team’s nine-game winning streak, it was vintage Brodeur. His GAA in that span was 1.53 and SP was .940. He had two shutouts.
With the Senators, Rangers and Hurricanes struggling to find their games, the Devils have emerged as a serious threat for the Eastern Conference title. There’s still plenty of hockey to play, but the Devils are the real deal.
And they can thank their coach, Brent Sutter, for the dramatic turnaround.