3 December 2013, 17:54

VOR’s NHL 1-on-1: the making of Dainius Zubrus and the NJ Devils

By David Kerans

NEWARK (VOR)— If you thought the New Jersey Devils were boring, you have a lot of company.

Traditionally short on speed and scoring, the club long ago solidified a reputation for dour defense and quiet efficiency. As accurate as this perception may be, it is not sufficient to understand and appreciate one of the NHL’s biggest riddles: how a team presumed to be less talented than most controls so many hockey games, even when they aren’t winning.

Does anyone get through?

Thus, in raw numbers, NJ concedes just 42.8 shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play this season (a distant second best is CHI’s 45.6). In the last five games, NJ has simply stifled its opponents, who have generated an average of only 35 shot attempts (in all situations, including power plays). This is not an aberration: last year the club topped the entire NHL in shot attempt differential, and by a wide margin. Why can’t anyone get through?

In search of a solution to this riddle, we travelled to Newark to get a first-hand view, and looked under the hood, so to speak, at one important piece of NJ’s puzzle—veteran forward Dainius Zubrus. What we found encouraged us to conclude that this team’s remarkable defensive consistency is no accident, and that it stems from a combination of attributes hidden from a casual viewer.

“Something tactically new taking place in hockey”

"I was truly impressed with the Devils forechecking 'savoir faire' a couple of years ago while watching some of your playoffs run to the Conference Final, at that moment I really thought something tactically new was taking place in hockey so utterly dominant was your team’s possession game while in the offensive zone…. which just went on… and on. As I was watching my Habs last night getting totally outplayed in their own zone for unusual long stretches of time it just reminded me of how terrifically effective the Devils can be when they are playing this way." – Sports Blog Nation member pierrelionel, December 3, 2013

This assessment from a MTL fan cuts to one of the key elements behind NJ’s muffling of opponents’ attackers: NJ maintains possession in the offensive end. Every team wants to do this. Every coach develops schemes to achieve it. Everyone practices it. But NJ manages to do it, much more effectively than a look at their roster would suggest: the forwards are not overly large or fast, and seven of them are over 30 years old.


Puck possession king Patrik Elias, seen here eluding Ovie and keeping control last season Photo credit: © Bruce Bennett, AFP

So have the Devils created something tactically new in hockey? How do they do it? We lean towards a combination of three elements: 1) a heavy admixture of forwards blessed with high-level puck possession skills, especially along the boards; 2) a coach who prioritizes possession play and finds ways to pursue this even against teams bent on preventing it; and 3) above average understanding between players in the offensive zone (we dare you to watch a team like NYI in the offensive zone for a few games and tell us you can’t see the difference).

It takes a lot of concentration, coordination, composure, and character to do what NJ is doing. We don’t find that boring at all. While no one in Las Vegas may be rating the team a Stanley Cup favorite, we consider NJ one of the NHL’s most interesting stories.


Composure king Peter DeBoer behind the bench earlier this year  Photo credit: © Marianne Helm, AFP

Torturing BUF, handling MTL

The Devils put all their quiet talents on display on Saturday and Monday, against BUF and MTL, respectively. Shot attempt totals speak loudly to NJ’s control in both games: 52 to 35 vs. BUF and 63 to 39 vs. MTL. Data on NJ’s passing within the offensive zone provides the starkest possible testimony to NJ’s domination of the Sabres: against BUF the Devils attempted 54 more passes in the offensive zone than their season average (!).

The numbers are all the more impressive for NJ playing on a very short bench. The Devils expended a lineup spot on enforcer Cam Janssen for each game, just in case they needed him, and then lost a key forward in each (Ryan Carter early in the 1st period vs. BUF, Adam Henrique in the 2nd vs. MTL). They played most of these two games with just 10 forwards.

With DeBoer at the controls, this NJ team looks likely to frustrate other teams all year long. Nevertheless, getting the playoffs will not be a cinch. There is more to hockey than superior 5-on-5 puck possession. Special teams, shooting, and goaltending certainly come to mind. If NJ can ever polish its performance in those dimensions, the team will be a serious threat in the Eastern Conference. Even if they don’t the rookie D pairing of Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill could shore them up enough to qualify for the playoffs.

All-purpose Zubrus

As mentioned above, NJ relies on sophisticated play from its forwards in the offensive zone. One of the men they count on most is Dainius Zubrus. Standing 6’5” and a veteran of over 1,100 NHL games, Zubrus can handle himself on the boards, in front of the net, and everywhere else. He has been remarkably durable, and is putting in more than 17 minutes per game this year for NJ--far above the 11-13 minutes some foresaw for him this year).

Zubrus is not flashy, and flies under the radar of most NHL fans. But regular students of NJ’s play can tell you how valuable he is. The team’s record slumped sharply when an injury sidelined him last season. So far this year, his +11 plus/minus rating is tops on the team; his 55.2% 5-on-5 Corsi (i.e. 55.2% of shots attempted while he is on the ice are NJ shots) is 1.7 above the NJ team rate; and DeBoer has had him on the ice for 39% of NJ’s shorthanded time. That is a strong vote of confidence.

Zubrus in front

Size in front pays off (here vs. ANA)  Photo credit: © Bruce Bennett, AFP

Zubrus showed us some of his best stuff vs. BUF. He got the puck out of his own end all seven times he had it, maintaining possession on six of those. And he was all over the puck on offense: he attempted a whopping 18 passes in offensive zone.

We found Dainius in a relaxed Devils locker room after the victory over BUF on Saturday, and spent a few minutes asking him how he made his way in hockey:

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Kerans: I’m interested in how you got started. Lithuania is not a hotbed of hockey, not so many famous players. But you came, and you started, and how did it happen? Who started you?

Zubrus: Well, I got lucky, ‘cause I was born in a little town, Elektrenai, and it’s a small town, maybe 15,000 people, but we had the best hockey rink in the country {in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic within the USSR}. And I was lucky that we had a coach who had trained another guy that played in the NHL, Darius Kasparaitis. My brother took me to the rink, and that’s how it all started—I was six years old.


View of Elektrenai’s main rink in 1984, just when Dainius was starting out  Photo credit: © Fred Grinberg, RIA Novosti

Kerans: Is it anywhere near Kėdainiai? That’s the only town I’ve been to in Lithuania {other than the capital, Vilnius—DK}, where Lifosa is {a very large phosphate fertilizer production facility}.

Zubrus: Kėdainiai? (laughing) Well, listen, Lithuania is the size of New Jersey. There’s only maybe 3 million people, so it’s close.

Kerans: Explain to people, that getting equipment was not elementary. I worked in the Soviet Union, in hockey, a little bit, and just getting stuff was not so easy. Did you have enough?

Zubrus: Well it wasn’t so easy, but I had enough, honestly. In the Soviet days, I guess you can say maybe it wasn’t the greatest, maybe it was kind of the minimum, but the government sort of provided you with some stuff and if you wanted something nicer then you had to buy it—and we did that, ‘cause we went a few times to what was then Czechoslovakia. So, it was fine.

Kerans: There was a moment when the Soviet national team didn’t have any players shooting righty. A lot of kids shot left, they told me, because they couldn’t find a right-handed stick. But you were a natural lefty?

Zubrus: That’s a good question. Thinking back, I think we had a couple guys on our team {who were right shots—DK}. I think our coach was kind of fair—he gave us a right and a left stick to try, and asked which one was more comfortable, and I think that’s how it started.

Kerans: One day in January I think, in 1993, you came with Druzhba 78 {the club Zubrus moved to, in Kharkov, when he was a teenager—DK} to play in Moscow, against Spartak Moscow, and maybe some other teams you played there. I was coaching Spartak Moscow that day

Zubrus: Really?

Kerans: They had a good team; you beat them. I admit I don’t remember you in that game, but you were probably the tallest kid out there. Or maybe you didn’t play that game.

Zubrus: What year was that?

Kerans: It was 1992-93, might have been January.

Zubrus: I was there. Oh, you know what? Actually, you saying that reminded me: I did not play that game…

Kerans: That’s why I don’t remember you!

Zubrus: I think a few days before that I had a concussion. So I think I was in the hospital, actually.

Kerans: There was another fellow from the Baltics on that team. And our players, when they would come off after a shift, they really praised him. His name started with a “B”; small guy, very shifty, might have worn number 13, but I don’t remember for sure. Small kid from the Baltics—do you know who I’m talking about?

Zubrus: I don’t think he was from the Baltics. There were a few really good players on our team, but I don’t remember any kids that were from the Baltics.

Kerans: His name ended in “is”?

Zubrus: I don’t remember, honestly.

Kerans: Are you in touch with any of the kids from that team?

Zubrus: Yes! A few of the guys. Our goalie is coaching back in Kharkov right now, Alex Barankovskii. Another guy is coaching too, Oleg Panasenko.

Kerans: And you’ve been supporting that program for a while, right, Druzhba 78?

Zubrus: I’ve been trying to help a bit, yeah. There’s a lot of good kids that come from there, and they got scholarships here and they played in college. Another guy from my team still plays professionally in Belarus, Oleg Timchenko, I keep in touch with him too.

Kerans: Were those some of the best coaches you ever had? Growing up, did you really learn a lot from the coaches in Kharkov?

Zubrus: Yeah. Hockey-wise, here it’s a different system. I think you have a different coach every couple of months probably. There’s hockey schools for this, hockey schools for that. Over there it’s sort of different.

Kerans: You have the same coach over there every year, year after year. In Spartak that’s the way they did it.

Zubrus: Well, exactly. Never mind same (coach for a full) year. He stays with you. He pretty much takes you from the start of your career, as a kid, all the way to when, I guess you could say, you graduate.

Kerans: How did you ever get to Kharkov? And would your parents not want you to go?

Zubrus: Well, I was 12 years old when I left, so my parents… Well, you know my son is 11 years old right now, so I don’t know how I would react to that. Of course my mom was crying every time I was leaving, and I think my dad was kind of hiding that, but it wasn’t easy for them.

Kerans: It wasn’t easy for you.

Zubrus: Well, it wasn’t easy for me. But yeah, I stayed with the family of one of the other kids on the team. They were good people and I stayed there…

Kerans: Did you have your own room?

Zubrus: No, I shared a room with my teammate.

Kerans: Was it close to the rink?

Zubrus: It was close enough. I was lucky, because Kharkov is a big city, and some kids were taking a bus, the metro, or both (just to get to practices and games).

Kerans: How was the language adjustment? In Kharkov they speak normal Russian, but you didn’t grow up speaking Russian.

Zubrus: My very first coach in Lithuania was Russian…

Kerans: So hockey talk was clear.

Zubrus: Hockey talk was okay. And at the time it was still the Soviet Union, so in Lithuania we would take Russian (class in school) twice a week. So my Russian was okay—not great, I’m sure there were a few bumps. But once I got started going to school I graduated from my high school in Russian language.

Burning Bryz

Burning Bryz, beating PHI: Zubrus scores in Game 4 of 2012 2nd round playoff series

Photo credit: © Bruce Bennett, AFP

Kerans; Do you know how you were discovered? It was the Flyers, I think, that took you,

Zubrus; I’m not sure. It’s not so much about discovering. Most of my teammates, I think probably 10 or kids, came over and played juniors for a year before the draft, which was when we were 17 years old, and I think that’s how I and a few other guys got drafted. I think Dmitriy Yakushin played a couple of games in the NHL for Toronto {yes he did, in 1999-2000—DK}. So it was kind of like that--we played juniors, and if you play well, you’re going to get noticed, and you get drafted.

Kerans: I really enjoy your play, and want to wish you a lot of luck in the future.

Zubrus: Thank you very much

hockey, NHL, VOR's NHL, Dainius Zubrus, New Jersey Devils, Peter DeBoer, Lithuania, Kharkov
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