- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2013

Bryce Salvador questioned himself. His entire career, coaches told the defenseman to stand in front of the net. Then Peter DeBoer came to the New Jersey Devils last season, armed with a new system that transformed the team’s philosophy.

“It’s one of those things where there’s a learning period with it,” Salvador said. “To leave the front of the net and put pressure and these things, it’s, for some of us older guys, a little bit difficult.”

Picking up DeBoer’s system, which is predicated on a relentless forecheck, quick movement in the defensive zone and the ability to create offense from turnovers, was difficult for the Devils. And it took time. But once everything clicked, they made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Washington Capitals are in the beginning stages of that transformation under coach Adam Oates, who served as an assistant to DeBoer last season. And while the Devils‘ system is the model, the Caps have some notable handicaps to overcome as they adapt and try to turn things around after a 5-10-1 start.

“We went through the exact same thing last year,” DeBoer said. “The only benefit we had was time and practice days, which you don’t have the luxury of having this season.”

New Jersey Devils head coach Peter DeBoer, top, talks with his team in the third period of the NHL hockey game on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, in Pittsburgh. The Devils won 3-1. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
New Jersey Devils head coach Peter DeBoer, top, talks with his team ... more >

DeBoer’s Devils went 8-7-1 in their first 15 games last season and 12-21-1 in their first 25. Growing pains were the norm.

“First of all, you’re gonna question certain things no matter who you are,” veteran left wing Patrik Elias said. “Not everybody goes into it right away. But more and more guys will eventually, and once you do, you’re gonna have success. Everyone. Not just as individuals, but as a team and it’s just the most important.”

Reflecting on the Devils‘ deep playoff run and his former team’s success after Zach Parise left for the Minnesota Wild, Oates said he was a little surprised. But the strength of the foundation has everything to do with New Jersey’s strong start to rise to the top of the Atlantic Division.

“The guys realize that nothing is better than the system,” Oates said. “Nothing.”

Despite early rough patches, the Devils had enough success to follow DeBoer’s lead. Right wing David Clarkson played for him with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League and knew what to expect.

“He’s always been someone that’s really structured and stick to the system and believe in what works,” Clarkson said. “If you believe what he tells you works and you do it, then you’re going to be successful, and we proved that last year. We did pretty well and went pretty far with that.”

The Devils came within two victories of capturing the Stanley Cup, but the adjustment for players didn’t come quickly or easily. The biggest challenge, according to DeBoer, was being able to move around the ice “seamlessly” as a five-man unit.

“The first two months, if you’re thinking about where you should be instead of reacting, you’re there late and holes open up in your game,” DeBoer said. “It takes a while to get that trust and that it’s second nature, and there’s no shortcuts to get that.”

Forget about shortcuts. The Caps didn’t even get a full training camp or any exhibition games to test out Oates‘ system.

“We haven’t had that and obviously we haven’t even had that much practice time because of the season [being] so compressed,” Washington defenseman Tom Poti said. “We’re doing as best as we can, we’re trying to learn as much as we can through video and things like that.”

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