Brent Sutter - what kind of coach? part 2


Aside from the numbers stuff, I thought it would be useful to have some qualitative analysis of Brent Sutter's coaching style. To this end, I sent John Fischer of In Lou We Trust some questions and he was kind enough to furnish me with some excellent answers, published here with his permission:

1.) Can you identify any major changes that occurred with the Devils after Brent Sutter came aboard as a result of his coaching? Were they beneficial?

When Sutter first started in NJ in 07-08, he started off having the Devils try and play a puck-possession game, where dumping the puck would be the first move into the zone and the Devils forwards would fight down low, win the puck back, protect it, and proceed as necessary (e.g. cycling down low, moving the puck back to the point) until space is made for a shot. The Devils initially struggled with this tactic and Sutter constantly mixed up the lines to find a spark.  All that did was guarantee that no chemistry was developed and so the offense was really just dumping and chasing more than anything else.  Line matching was also something Sutter leaned on in that season.

In 2008-09, the Devils were more confident in playing that style - with all four lines being able to do this and do it consistently.  As a result, Sutter kept the lines as they were which developed chemistry among linemates, they found more holes going forward so they didn't always dump it, the defenders were able to pinch in more, and while they didn't throw a ton of hits, they pounded opposition defenses over and over all game long instead of fading in the third period like they did in 07-08.  I guess you can say their "fighting spirit" lasted all 60 minutes for the most part.  Overall their goal totals flourished while still maintaining a solid defense.  Even the power play improved.  So for the most part, Sutter's coaching was very beneficial after a rough first year.  

As far as negatives, the first thing that comes to mind is that the penalty killing efficiency suffered under his tenure - but that could be due to an assistant coach or the personnel declining in skill (e.g. John Madden and Jay Pandolfo last season). The second is that in both playoff series he coached, he either couldn't motivate the team to step up their play (Rangers in 2008) or that he got away from what was successful in the regular season, and relied on heavy line-matching and counter-attacks (Carolina in 2009).  

2.) The Devils had one the cheapest bluelines in the league but were top 10 in terms of GA last season. Is that coaching or players simply outperforming their contracts?

In my opinion, both! Johnny Oduya was signed out of Frolunda directly because the Devils' scouts were intrigued what he can do and he's improved by leaps and bounds with every season he's been here. Mike Mottau was given a chance in preseason to make it to the roster and has been a pleasant surprise with his steady play on the #4/#5 spot.  And Paul Martin has really grown into the #1 role as a de facto #1 on the team, leading the D in all situations.  All three have earned their deals and then some, in my opinion.

That said, the Devils' coaching staff did an awesome job rotating in and out ultimately 9 defenseman in the 07-08 season while keeping the unit fairly solid as a whole, and they continued by keeping the pairings more regular in 08-09.  The big change is that the coaching staff has allowed the Devils defenders to be a bit more aggressive.  They didn't pinch or stand guys up at the blueline/neutral zone under Julien; but under Sutter's tenure, this happened more often.  This allowed them to be more of a threat in both directions, despite the lack of points they put up. I think Sutter and the assistants recognized that the Devils don't have a true stud defender who can do it all nor can they just out-muscle the opposition every night (no offense to Colin White and Bryce Salvador), but good defending requires good positioning more than anything else, and the Devils defenders have been taught that over and over.  It shows in their play, in my opinion.


3.) Zach Parise and Travis Zajac took some steps forward during Sutter's time in NJ. How did he handle the Devils young assets? Did the mentioned players benefit from his coaching or was their improvement coincidental?

Well, Zajac didn't take any steps forward in the first season under Sutter.  Zajac suffered a terrible "sophmore slump" in 07-08 and found himself on the fourth line due to his poor performances.  He really needed to step up his overall game to show that he still could develop into a top 2-line center and he did just that in 08-09. As a result, Sutter kept him with Parise for much of the season.

As mentioned earlier, the best thing Sutter did that led to all the improvements shown by the forwards is that he didn't constantly mix up his lines.  Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner worked, worked well, and Sutter kept them together even when they had the rare off night. This allowed chemistry to form and gave the players, I think, confidence that they aren't playing with a metaphorical Sword of Damocles over their head. 

Parise really had a torrid season and while I think Sutter's coaching helped a little bit, I think it was mostly Parise's skill fully developing. His tenacious style was apparent even two seasons ago and the production is a natural development of that. While I expect Parise's numbers to go down, it won't be by much - I don't think his playing style will be changed.

Sutter in general only played young players as a necessity, though the roster wasn't exactly overflowing with NHL-ready young players.  While he gave Parise, Zajac, Oduya, and to an extent David Clarkson significant minutes; he didn't give a lot of minutes to Anssi Salmela or Petr Vrana when they were up in NJ.  The brief call-ups (e.g. Nicklas Bergfors, Matt Halischuk, etc.), OK, that's understandable. But he had Vrana for 16 games and on some nights didn't even give him 5 minutes! Not even when the game was out of doubt. You really have to earn your spot with Sutter and that's understandable, but I would say he'd favor the veteran over the youth.  But this is ultimately a minor issue because, again, the Devils didn't have a lot of young players in the system ready for the NHL.


4.) New Jersey's only real "weakness" last season according to the stats seems to be special teams. Were the systems weak or was it something else?

A big part of that was that Jay Pandolfo and John Madden - the Devils top PK players for the better part of the last decade - really struggled last season. And while Madden turned around his lackluster performances as the season went on, Pandolfo didn't. Therefore, players who played some PK had to play more minutes on the PK and that was new. That all said, coaching has to play some role as they're the ones who set up the designs, practices for it, etc.  I can't say how much it was or even that it was Sutter - it could have been an assistant's responsibility.

5.) I've heard Sutter's system summed up as "defensively responsible, but still high tempo". Meaning, I guess...not a Lemaire trap-and-snore type strategy. Accurate?

Yes. The Devils were at their best when they keep pouring on the pressure on an opponent - be it in their own zone, in the neutral zone, or down low on offense.  New Jersey excelled at battling for the puck - especially on the boards - and winning those battles. This was true from Dainius Zubrus (who Devils fans want to see replaced but he truly thrived in this style despite a lack of points) to Zach Parise (who is a constant force on the ice) to David Clarkson to even Mike Rupp (OK, he was more adept at hitting the body, but he gave the effort all the same). Incidentally it's when they bunkered or switched to ultra-defensive tactics did they look really shaky.


6.) Was there any aspect of Sutter's coaching that annoyed you or seemed irrational? For instance, handling of a certain player or player type, doling out ice-times, match-ups, etc?

The most annoying thing about Sutter's coaching came in the playoffs. In 2008, the Devils were floating/seemed tentative for 4 out of 5 games against the Rangers - guess the results of those 4 games. The Rangers are Our Hated Rival, and Sutter can't even get these guys to play with a little fire? In 2009, Sutter bizarrely went from doing what worked in the regular season in Game 1 to strict line-matching by Game 7.  I almost want to say that in 2010, Sutter may get the playoffs right, but his ability to make appropriate adjustments in the postseason, in retrospect, is quite suspect.

Thanks again to John for providing such thorough responses.

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