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."
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."
But those "holes" have been plenty obvious through 16 games. DeBoer noticed improvement in the Caps' system play from early in the season to now, as has Oates, but it's not quite to the Devils' level.
"We just have that kind of system right now and they have it long time, so they know exactly what they have to do," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "Right now we know exactly what we have to do. If you're gonna play the same way like we played all the time, no penalties, I don't think somebody gonna beat us."
Beaten 11 times already in the first month, the Caps can blame 79 minor penalties. Taking several of them in short succession played a substantial role in Thursday night's loss to the Devils.
But Oates doesn't think the system is the problem. Instead, he pointed to focus, discipline and turnovers.
"You turn the puck over, that's got nothing to do with any system. You get the puck on your tape and you turn it over, that's a mistake," Oates said. "There's obviously things we can do better every single night and we're trying to accomplish that. But nothing wrong with the system."
Having seen the Caps in the infancy of learning and again now, DeBoer said: "They're getting a lot closer to playing the way we did last year down the stretch, and it took us a while."
At the All-Star break a year ago the Devils were 26-19-3. That's 48 games, all the Caps will have during this shortened season. New Jersey finished the regular season on a 22-9-3 run and then went 14-6 in the playoffs.
Oates became a hot name as coaching candidate in the process, and DeBoer said he was a major contributor to the way the Devils played. It's not much of a surprise that Oates took essentially the same system, with what DeBoer termed some "tweaks," to Washington.
"I think when you have a system and you see success and you're a part of it and you're able to see how it was implemented and how it worked ... [it's] a compliment to the system and just how those guys, the coaching staff, were able to implement it and get the guys to buy in," said Salvador, now New Jersey's captain. "I think the biggest thing with any system you do is getting the players to buy into it. I think you can have the best system out there, but if the players don't believe in it, don't buy into it, it's not going to matter."
From Ovechkin down, the Caps seemed to unflinchingly buy into Oates' system. Losing can be trying on everyone's patience, but players can see a glimpse of what they hope to attain when they look at the Devils.
"Their system is almost bullet-proof, and that's why we're trying to play that way," Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It almost doesn't matter who you have in the lineup; if everyone is doing things the same way and the right way, then it just makes you that much better."
At the core, Oates drew from DeBoer and his own experiences as a player, that offense can come from being smart and responsible defensively. His players said the keys to Oates' system are sticking to the game plan and everyone doing his job correctly.
But Oates pointed out that the Devils still make mistakes. The system, when executed correctly, protects against those.
"We're not all perfect, we're going to make mistakes," Clarkson said. "You're going to turn the puck over once in a while, but as long as you know that that guy behind you is going to be there, you're not as afraid to do it. You're not as afraid to try and make a play. ... I think once you start playing as a group of five, you become successful and that's when teams win is when you play as a team."
Ovechkin cited "teamwork" as the key to everything working correctly. Center Mike Ribeiro again mentioned the "details" of the game.
Those details are far from perfect a third of the way through the season.
"You can sense there's certain place over there that they're still hesitant," Elias said of the Caps. "And I'm sure that they work on it, they look at it, a lot of videos. And that helps. But it's up to the guys to really, really kind of buckle down and just pay the price. Sometimes it's not easy and sometimes you think that individual stats might go out of it. But you look at it: If you play that way and you really believe in that system you get rewarded."
The rewards came in bunches for the Devils, from the Prince of Wales Trophy as Eastern Conference champions to Ilya Kovalchuk's successful transformation from left to right wing. Struggles filled the early days in New Jersey, too, something the Caps can take solace in.
"I think you go through your learning curves. You have new guys that don't know the system or are new," Clarkson said. "But whenever you have a new coach, that's going to happen. Same there in Washington. They have a new coach and it's a shortened season and Oatesy's a smart, smart hockey guy.
"It takes a little bit of time. We went through some bumps in the road last year with the new coach, but I think once you get through those hurdles and bumps in the road you come out a better team, and we showed that by how we did."
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