Speak of the Devils: New Jersey at the 3/4 mark

The New Jersey Devils started this season as something of a mystery and for the hockey masses of the Garden State — and elsewhere — that demand some clarity, the Devils haven’t really answered those questions. There are 19 games that now separate New Jersey from the end of the regular season and barring the unexpected it appears the team should earn a playoff berth, something that used to be an afterthought for the Devils. Of course, in a League where more than 50% of the teams make the postseason, that doesn’t really much to tell else just how good this team is or isn’t — and frankly the empirical evidence doesn’t really clear that up either. We do know a few things. We know they’re not bad, although sometimes they can be. We also know they’re not great, although, sometimes they can be that, too.

All in all, if you are a Devils fan, given that the team had a conspicuously murky future heading into this season and was coming off its first non-playoff year since 1996, it’s hard not to be fairly satisfied. After an inconsistent start of the year, the Devils have several positive things going for them. They seem to have bought into coach Peter DeBoer’s aggressive defensive style — New Jersey continues to thrive off turnovers, its penalty kill is third best in the League, the Devils easily have the most shorthanded goals in the NHL and while their average goals against per game (2.71) is not superlative, it has improved over the course of the season.

In addition to that, Ilya Kovalchuk must have been reading this blog, because he seems to have gotten the message and has thrived over the second half of the season. Right now the Russian dynamo has 25 goals and 36 assists, which puts him 11th in the League in scoring, and he seems to have taken his defensive duties on the penalty kill seriously as his three shorties this season are the third most in the NHL. Zach Parise appears to finally have overcome the recovery process from his torn meniscus a season ago, to the tune of 24 goals and 29 assists, and Patrik Elias, with 20 goals and 39 assists seems reborn.

What might be disconcerting however is that despite having a powerful trio of scorers, to say nothing of Adam Henrique being on the inside track to the Calder Trophy as the League’s best rookie and David Clarkson somehow scoring 25 goals so far this season, is that the Devils don’t have much offense beyond that. The Devils are 16th in the NHL in goals per game and their offensive struggles are a sign of some pretty glaring scoring depth. In fact, there is little offense to speak of outside New Jersey’s top six forwards. Of the 165 goals the team has scored in 63 games this season, 139 of them have been scored by just seven people.

That’s an astonishing 84% of the goals coming from just 30% of the nongoaltenders on the team.

This is not the kind of scoring depth that is the mark of Stanley Cup winners. Championship teams roll four lines that both check and score with ease and for any indication of that the Devils can look no further than their own history, as the 2000 Stanley Cup championship team was second in the League in scoring while the 2001 team, which lost Game 7 of the Final to Colorado was No. 1.

For the Devils to have a real impact in the postseason they will need to start getting contributions from their third and fourth lines — not the majority of contributions, but certainly enough to ease the burden lest New Jersey’s elite players be spent by the time they reach the second round.

The good thing is that the Devils have shown that they can be a competitive team. In fact, in their first 11 games after the All-Star Break, the Devils were one of the best teams in the League, going 9-1-1 on a schedule that was anything but soft. That stretch saw New Jersey get wins against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Rangers twice. Even more reassuring for a postseason run is that Martin Brodeur, who also must be reading this blog, started to look like Martin Brodeur again over that stretch. While Marty certainly can’t be counted on to start 70 games a season like he used to, his recent run showed that he may not be done just yet, and it could very well be in the cards for the Devils to sign him for another year this offseason when Brodeur will be a ripe 40 years old.

The question of whether or not to bring Brodeur back, however, is going to be dramatically overshadowed by the question of whether or not the Devils can bring Parise back. No other question looms larger this offseason — or really over the rest of this season — than whether or not the impending unrestricted free agent will be amenable to an extension in New Jersey. Parise has said all along that New Jersey is where he wants to stay, even saying he was willing to negotiate in season to get the job done, though there are conflicting reports on that. General manager Lou Lamoriello has generally been against negotiating contracts in season, but the fact that New Jersey had long ago ruled out dealing Parise at this past Monday’s trade deadline.

Parise’s future is easily the most important decision this franchise will have to make over the next 20 years and its daunting nature could be a cloud over the season’s final five weeks. So far, however, New Jersey doesn’t seem to be cracking under that magnifying lens. Instead, the Devils are jockeying up and down the East playoff ladder, hoping Marty continues to play like a man 10 years younger than he is, hoping the third and fourth lines can begin to light the lamp and hoping their one major acquisition at the deadline, defenseman Marek Zidlicky, starts to play like the power play quarterback they anticipated when they sent three players and two draft picks up to Minnesota for him.

The Devils are actually in a bit of a stumble now, having lost four in a row, but three of those games were against stiff competition — a one-goal loss to Vancouver, a 2-0 loss to the Rangers that may as well have been a one-goal game prior to an empty-netter and was more reminiscent of a gutsy street fight than regular season hockey, and an overtime loss last night to the defending champion Bruins. Strange as it may seem, however, those losses may actually work in New Jersey’s long term favor as it bumped the team out of a potential four vs. five first-round matchup that would have pitted them against another team in the loaded Atlantic Division, either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

Instead the Devils are now in seventh, but are just one point behind Ottawa with two games in hand. The team appears destined to be nestled right into that all desirable six-spot, which would mean a plum first round matchup against the weakest division winner, which, in all likelihood, will be the Florida Panthers, a team that hasn’t seen mid-April in more than a decade. If the Devils can get through that series and build momentum, they’ll likely find themselves pitted against one of the East’s big boys in the second round, be it the Rangers, Boston or Pittsburgh and if the momentum is there, New Jersey could be an awfully tough out in the postseason. The Devils have proven they can play with those big boys. The question is whether they’ll actually do it — and do it consistently — come spring.

And regardless of that, it seems the bigger questions for this team are the ones that will be answered on July 1.

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