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Top Shelf: Devils can change their ways in tough situation

Zach Parise and Patrik Elias will be counted on to generate more offense now that Martin Brodeur will miss significant time. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Zach Parise and Patrik Elias will be counted on to generate more offense now that Martin Brodeur will miss significant time. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

It could be the ultimate change on the fly.

The New Jersey Devils, as everyone knows by now, are embarking on a three- or four-month glimpse into what life will eventually be like when Martin Brodeur packs in his pads.

I’m sure the Devils could do without the reality dose, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from it. No, I’m not talking about some incredibly concealed silver lining in the fact Kevin Weekes and Scott Clemmensen are now New Jersey’s goalies; but Brodeur’s injury opens the door for the Devils to undertake a fundamental shift in their approach to winning hockey games.

This isn’t the first opportunity for change in New Jersey. When Brent Sutter took over the team last year, there was a sense the Devils were about to become an attacking team. Sutter was going to move into the office previously held by defense ministers like Jacques Lemaire and Pat Burns, and all of a sudden the whiteboard was going to be filled with big red arrows pointing toward the opposition’s goal.

But it didn’t quite play out that way. The Devils started the season with a higher number of forays into enemy territory, but eventually fell back on their tried and true method of victory by suffocation.

That’s because one of the easiest things in the world for a team and person to do is play to their strengths. It sounds reasonable – even plain right – but doing what you do best often comes at the expense of working on what you’re not good at.

Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali was famous for a lot of loud things, but what many people don’t realize is one of his best attributes was embracing the very simple philosophy that your preparation time is best spent getting better where you’re bad.

When training for a fight, Ali chose capable sparring partners with attributes reflecting what he expected to see from his eventual opponent. He knew he could dance, so he didn’t waste his time prancing through practice. He set about improving other aspects of his approach.

You can’t blame the Devils for reverting back to defense and goaltending last year. That formula was good for a decade’s worth of success. It’s tough to have someone like Brodeur in net and not make him the backbone of your squad. If a baseball team has a lights-out closer, they’re probably not going to hand the ball to the batboy in the bottom of the ninth, just to see what he can do.

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But sticky circumstance is usually the ultimate motivator in change. Despite their best intentions, the Devils didn’t alter their game last year because, quite simply, they didn’t have to.

That’s no longer the case.

What better time for New Jersey to push the boundaries of Zach Parise’s budding talent or try to figure out if Patrik Elias is still an elite scorer than right now?

I’m sure there are some Devils fans still wearing tattered Ken Daneyko sweaters who think the best approach now is for their team to build a five-man fortress about three feet from the crease.

Forget about it. Defense is the most teachable aspect of the game, but you still need better personnel than New Jersey has on the back end to execute a complete and utter lockdown game. And when scoring chances do inevitably slip through and Brodeur isn’t there to bail them out, the Devils had better hope they’ve put enough goals on the scoreboard to absorb the blow.

I don’t think anybody, including myself, believes the Prudential Center is about to be set ablaze by firewagon hockey. But New Jersey, currently 20th in goals per contest, has a window of opportunity to change the culture of its team by incorporating more attack into its game.

And hey, just think how deadly the team will be when a well-rested Brodeur returns to find a little less pressure in his crease.


Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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