In the wake of his hiring, there was lots of talk about Brent Sutter bringing back the Flames "defensive conscience". Local pieces have talked about an emphasis on making each player personally responsible from pluggers to the stars - which is nice in light of the last few seasons under Mike "Cheerleader" Keenan. But what do the Devils results from last year tell us?
Sutter's Devils had an underwhelming blueline, to say the least:
Martin - Oduya
Salvador - White
Motteau - Greene
New Jersey had one of the cheapest bluelines in the league at just 13M and change (only Tampa Bay was lower). To put that in perspective, the Flames had the pricest defense corps at 24M+; about 11M richer than the Devils. Despite that relative handicap, Sutter's club was in the NHL's top half in terms of raw shots on net per game (29.5) and top 10 in terms of shot quality against (SQA) according to NHL Numbers. As a result, the Devils gave up the second least amount of ES goals against this past year (123), behind only the uncanny Boston Bruins. And that was with Scott Clemmensen as the team's starter for most of the year.
The only defensive area the Devil's struggled in was the PK. New Jersey was 20th overall with a 79.9% success rate, although the 0.97 SQA figure they managed matched their ES efforts. Unfortunately, the better than average ES SV% established by Clemmensen et al didn't carry over a man down for whatever reason, perhaps accounting for the discrepency.
By comparison, the Flames gave up slightly more raw shots per game last year (29.8) and the quality of the shots surrendered was higher as well (1.01 vs 0.97). So much for that extra $11M. On the PK, Calgary was ranked considerably higher in terms of success rate, but that had a lot to do with Kipper's oddly good SV% and not the fact that Calgary once again gave up more and better shots than the Devils.
New Jersey was a solid outshooting team under Sutter, managing a gross +337 corsi number over the course of the season. Their ES SQF rate was middling (1, good for 15th) but they were in the top 10 in terms of shot output. They were also 15th in terms of overall production (238 GF), but tied for 9th at ES (154). Their ES SH% wasn't anything to write home about (7.7%) so they weren't riding the percentages train.
The combination of healthy rates and SQ numbers on both side of the ledger had the Devils 5th in the league in terms of expected ES goal differential as tracked by Hockey Numbers at +18. Keenan's Flames were actually 4th (+23), but the combination of shoddy ES goaltending and mediocre defensive performance resulted in a lower actual GD than NJD (+31 vs. +5).
3.) Line Matching
In what may seem like good news to some Flames fans, Brent showed a high degree of fidelity towards certain line combinations last season. The Langenbrunner - Zajac - Parise trio spent a huge portion of the year together - basically whenever Jamie was in the line-up. The defensive pairings were also fairly stable.
His first season in NJ, Sutter sent John Madden out against the big guns as much as possible. That changed last year with the emergence of Zach Parise as a legitimate superstar, enabling Sutter to go power on power more frequently. According to Behind the Net, the tough sledding was more or less evenly spread out amongst Parise, Langenbrunner, Elias, Madden, Zajac and Pandolfo. The good news from a Flames fan perspective is it was the right move: the Parise line beat the tar out of the opposition in both outshooting (+12 to +16 corsi) and outscoring (+21 to +26). That Sutter was able to 1.) find a combination for the big guns and 2.) make it work so well is encouraging after watching Keenan indecisively flail around with Iginla last year.
Overall, I like what I see. Of course, Brent won't have the benefit of .934 ES SV% next year, but the fact that he had an ostensibly worse blueline and managed to to coax a top 10 SQA index out of his club is good news. Furnished with the likes of Regehr, Bouwmeester, Sarich (probably) and an improved Phaneuf (hopefully) one would imagine an marked improvement in the Flames SQA measure - and, therefore, goals against - under Brent.