The State of the Devils: Do not pinch me under any circumstances

ImageContemplate what the Giants would look like without Eli Manning, the Lakers without Kobe Bryant or the Mets without David Wright. Well, I suppose in the case of the Mets it wouldn’t make much of a difference, but typically the loss of your best player is detrimental to a franchise. If he happens to be an all-American marketing dream who pushes himself to the limit every shift, is clean cut, a born leader and always says the right things in front of the cameras it can leave an even bigger void to fill.
Oh, and did I mention he’s only 28?
Well, that’s essentially the fate that befell the Devils eight months ago when Zach Parise, already arguably the best forward in the franchise’s history (though Patrik Elias could lay significant claim to that title) opted to return to his home state of Minnesota to play tiddly winks with the Wild for the next 14 years. Already the Devils’ captain and poised to be a leader and a talent for the next decade-plus, this was perhaps the most significant blow the team had ever taken in its history, at least as far as personnel was concerned.
As a result, the expectations for New Jersey in the 2012-13 season, truncated as it is, were not, how you would say, “high.” Yes, the Devils had gotten within two wins of an unlikely Stanley Cup title in 2012, but in the eyes of many, this author included, that miracle run was the product of multiple relatively flukey factors. For one, New Jersey rode a no-name defense that played well above its head and somehow got four goals and 10 assists in the postseason out of 36-year-old Bryce Salvador, a blueliner who had a total of seven goals and 32 assists in his previous three seasons. The Devils also got somewhat surprising play out of legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur, who despite turning 40 during the playoff run played as if he was 10 years younger. The rest of the luck came from a surprisingly effective checking fourth line of Steve Bernier, Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta, players who might not make the rosters of some NHL teams, and an incredibly favorable draw of Florida (young and inexperienced), Philadelphia (emotionall exhausted after a massive first-round upset of Pittsburgh) and the New York Rangers (physically exhausted after going seven games in two rounds and throwing their bodies around like rag dolls to do it).
Yes, there was offensive talent in Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, gritty forward David Clarkson and, yes, Parise, but the general consensus was that the Devils had a remarkable, inspiring run that belied a base of talent not so on par with the rest of the League. Take Parise out of the equation and you have a roster with one overpaid sniper, one elderly goalie and a dozen complementary pieces that can help you win a Cup, but can’t lead you there. As a result, many prognosticators had the Parise-less Devils scrambling to make the playoffs this season, and quite possibly missing them altogether.
So all of this hasty exposition begs one simple question to anyone who glances at the NHL standings this morning:
“Why do the New Jersey Devils have the most points in the Eastern Conference with a third of the season gone?”

ImageLike so many tough questions this provides no easy answers, but there certainly are some indicators as to how this might be happening. The two biggest ones sit among the Devils’ top six forwards where Elias has been giving Father Time an enormous middle finger with five goals and 16 assists, placing him No. 4 in the League in helpers and No. 8 in overall scoring, and Clarkson has been defying all manner of rational logic by exploding for 10 goals in the season’s first 17 games, sixth in the NHL. Many expected age to slowly catch up with Elias, who turns 37 this April, but he is responding with one of his finest seasons in years and has some people wondering not if he will be too old, but if he will some day wind up in the Hall of Fame. As for Clarkson, scoring is not foreign to him — he did have 30 goals in 2011-12 after all — but he also has never been a horse your offense expects to ride for its production. Clarkson’s 30-goal outburst a season ago was 13 more than his previous career high and furthermore, it came across 80 games in a standard season. Right now Clarkson is on pace for 30 goals in a lockout-shortened season of 48 games, a scoring pace that is remarkable higher if not potentially unsustainable. Ilya Kovalchuk, in the meantime, has 16 points, the second-highest total on the team, and netted a third-period game-winner against the Capitals last night, as he continues to be productive if not justify his massive contract. The rest of the offense has come by committee from all corners with puck-moving defenseman Marek Zidlicky finally starting to generate offense like the power-play quarterback the Devils thought they were getting when they acquired him from Minnesota last season and Henrique, who missed the first five games of the season due to innjury, scoring at a pace of roughly 27 goals over a full season.

On the defensive side, Bernier, Carter and Gionta have again provided the the pressurized forecheck that was New Jersey’s bread and butter in the 2012 playoffs, while Andy Greene has been a surprisingly effective two-way defenseman, putting up eight points while not neglecting his back-end responsibilities by putting up a plus-7 rating. Zajac, too, has been a valuable two-way player with a plus-7 of his own while Adam Larsson, the highly-touted defensive prospect New Jersey took with the No. 4 overall pick in 2011 looks to be developing right on schedule, putting up a plus-6 a season after being minus-7, eating major minutes, committing just three minor penalties to date and learning how to effectively use his 6’3″-frame to keep opposing forwards off the puck. And considering Larsson is only 20 years old, there is plenty more time for him to improve into the franchise cornerstone the organization anticipates.

And then there’s Marty, the ageless wonder between the pipes. We have speculated before on just how much time Brodeur has left in his career, but after he signed a two-year contract this offseason, he likely appears to think that it is, well, at least two years. With the way he’s played so far this season, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t play beyond that either. Granted, his 13 starts are a relatively small sample size, but the numbers are the numbers — and they’re also pretty good. His .911 save percentage and his 2.27 goals-against average are both solid, while his eight wins are the second-most in the League.

All of these facts are lovely of course, but they probably don’t go as far as they could to explain why, exactly, the Devils are where they are. In the 2012 postseason, head coach Pete DeBoer proved his own acumen by introducing such an aggressive forecheck and playing the right lines at the right time, and it appears he’s done the same so far this season — a feat considering special teams guru Adam Oates left in the offseason to be the head man in Washington. But the biggest, most noticeable reason is can be seen by taking a glance at the Devils’ schedule. New Jersey is in one of if not the toughest divisions in the League, with three popular preseason Cup picks (Philadelphia, NY Rangers, Pittsburgh), the defending conference champion (New Jersey) and a young Islanders team that probably isn’t heading to the playoffs this season, but finally looks like it’s on the right track and can win any given night as the Devils found out earlier this week. But the Devils have played the Flyers twice, the Rangers once and the Penguins three times. New Jersey’s record in those six games is 5-1-0. Division games are always pivotal, particularly when the season is condensed and the division is as deeply talented as the Atlantic is. The Devils are simply winning the games they need to win. Whether or not that  is a result of luck, superior coaching or the confidence gained from a deep postseason run remains to be seen, though a combination of all three would seem likely.

ImageWhether or not the Devils will manage to keep this up for the remaining 31 regular season games is also a mystery, but at the moment the team has shown no signs of slowing down nor glaring weaknesses that could be exploited over the long run. New Jersey has once again surpassed early season expectations and played well on just about every front, something that has fans like myself cautiously giddy about what that could mean down the road. If the Devils happen to win the Atlantic Division and take the favorable playoff draw that comes with it, there just might be another deep postseason run in the offing. That is almost certainly getting ahead of myself, but with the way New Jersey has played so far there may be plenty of reasons to think another impressive postseason is unlikely, but there are plenty of reasons to think it isn’t unlikely either.

And in case you’re wondering, Zach Parise has a respectable 12 points in 16 games this season. The Wild, meanwhile, are, barely, eighth in the West.

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