Sunday, April 1, 2007

The "System"

New Jersey is known its strong commitment to defensive play, often referred to as "the system". The debate then becomes whether Brodeur is responsible for the system, or merely a product of it.

New Jersey became an elite defensive team in 1993-94, Brodeur's first year in the league, and has been excellent ever since. It seems like Brodeur must have had a lot to do with it, and to some degree he has. However, that was also the same year that Jacques Lemaire was hired as coach. The team let in 79 fewer goals that season, went over 100 points for the first time in franchise history, and made it to the Conference Finals. The next season, the team allowed fewer shots, fewer goals, and won the Stanley Cup. Since then they have had 9 100 point seasons, and have added 2 more Cups, all the while playing great defensive hockey. So who is most responsible for the New Jersey system, Brodeur or Lemaire?

One of the key arguments for those who favour Brodeur is this: if Lemaire's system is so great, why hasn't he had more success with the Minnesota Wild? He has been the coach there for 7 years, and this year will be only his second playoff appearance. If the "system" was so easy to put into place, wouldn't he have some Cups by now?

The Wild were an expansion team in 2000-01, and like most expansion teams they were not very good. For the first two years of their existence, the Wild had seasons of just 68 and 73 points. However, Lemaire's defensive coaching ability showed through the mediocrity - even if their inaugural season, with a roster stocked with castoffs from other teams, the Wild finished a respectable 12th in the league in goals against.

In 2003, Minnesota broke out. Led by emerging star Marian Gaborik, the Wild went 42-29-10-1 for 95 points, good for 3rd in the Northwest Division. The team was excellent defensively, finishing 4th in the league in goals against. In the playoffs, they went to the Conference Finals before losing to Anaheim.

However, Minnesota has not duplicated that success, missing the playoffs the next two seasons despite again finishing 4th in the league in goals against in both years. In both years they actually finished 8th in the conference in goal difference. The problem was their tough division, and bad luck in close games. In 2003-04, Minnesota played 20 ties, by far the most in the league, and it was primarily their failure to capture overtime bonus points that cost them a playoff spot. In 2005-06, the team went 38-36-8, despite scoring 16 more goals than they conceded, because of a poor record in one goal games. In both years the team was one of the best defensive teams in the league, but nevertheless narrowly missed the postseason.

This year, Minnesota will make the playoffs, despite again playing in a very tough division. They are currently tied with San Jose as the best defensive team in the league.

Comparing the Wild with the Devils, it is clear that the teams follow a very similar profile. Since 2003, New Jersey has scored just 31 more goals than Minnesota, and has conceded just 16 fewer. The difference in goals against is just .05 per game over that stretch.

Minnesota defensive rank, last 4 seasons: 4th, 4th, 4th, 1st
Minnesota goals against average, last 4 seasons: 2.33
New Jersey goals against average, last 4 seasons: 2.28

The evidence is clear: Lemaire's system has been implemented in Minnesota, and has made Minnesota into one of the top defensive teams in the league. After a couple of years spent developing talent, the team has been roughly the equal of the New Jersey Devils in terms of defensive play. The difference between the teams has been strength of division, strength of conference, offensive talent, and luck in close games.

So Lemaire's record in Minnesota is in no way an argument against his contribution to New Jersey's defensive success. In fact, it reinforces that position. He took an expansion team and made them one of the top defensive teams in the league within three years, and has maintained an excellent defensive record ever since, despite never having a superstar goalie or any star defensive players. This is strong evidence that it was Lemaire that established the Devils system. The success was certainly aided by New Jersey's excellent defensive players, including Brodeur, but claims that "Brodeur is the system" are once again not backed up by the facts.

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