With three Stanley Cups in less than 10 years and the Hall of Fame goaltending of Martin Brodeur, the New Jersey Devils have been known as a serious contender in the NHL. However, since the lockout this team has been a shadow of its former self.
First of all, the Devils have not won a playoff series since 2006-07 season when they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Last year they did not even make the playoffs. How can they be considered a contender with no recent playoff success? Due to management's inability to recognize the results for what they are, and the revolving door of coaches, the problems have gone from the front office to the ice.
Without question, Ilya Kovalchuk is the Devils’ banner acquisition post-lockout. Prior to Kovalchuk’s trade to New Jersey, he was a two time 50+ goal scorer. In his time with Atlanta, he averaged a goal every 1.68 games. New Jersey acquired him, and then subsequently signed him to a 15 year, $100 million contract, to produce all-star offensive numbers. In New Jersey, including the results from this season so far, he’s averaging a goal every 3.6 games. Clearly, his production has not justified his salary.
Beyond Kovalchuk’s salary, he has had other negative impacts on the Devils, chiefly the diminished role of team captain and “franchise player” Zach Parise. With Parise coming up on Unrestricted Free Agency, there should be cause for concern that Parise, and his camp, have not agreed on a long term deal with the Devils. Parise’s average ice time is 3 minutes less than that of Kovalchuk. Parise is playing 1:30 less in power play time this season compare to Kovalchuk, and Parise has more goals at the moment. Before Kovalchuk’s arrival, Parise was an undisputed first line NHL left winger, although it’s now clear that he’s second string.
Through parts of three seasons, it is evident that Kovalchuk and Parise have virtually no chemistry on the ice. Despite this, Jacques Lemaire and his successors, have continually tried to play both left wingers on the same line. I’m starting to wonder when the coaches and management are going to wake up and realize that this is not working. These two players have succeeded in the past with two severely contrasting styles. Anyone who watched Kovalchuk play in Atlanta would know that he hardly ever scored while manning the point on the power play, which is how New Jersey futilely deploys him. Parise, on the other hand, generates the majority of his offensive abilities off the cycle. Given Parise’s sharply declining production, he has less incentive to sign long term with New Jersey.
New Jersey’s management may not have noticed that both their goaltenders combined age is almost 80. Based on his health and recent statistics, Martin Brodeur is nowhere near the Hall of Fame calibre that he displayed earlier in his career. And, there is nothing wrong with that. Brodeur’s impressive longevity has more so to due his recent accolades than his overall goaltending quality. For example, journeyman Johan Hedberg has been the better goalie for the Devils.
The 2010-11 season Hedberg is statistically better than Brodeur, posting a 2.38 goals against average, and .912 save percentage versus Brodeur’s 2.45 goals against, and .903 save percentage. This season the statistical gap is even larger. However, at 38 years old Hedberg is not an exceptional goaltender capable of carrying his team deep into the playoffs. Looking at New Jersey’s goaltending pipeline, things do not look much better. Jeff Frazee, at age 24, has not been able to crack the role of backup goaltender in the 3 years he’s been with the Devils farm team. Given their cap situation, New Jersey will have a hard time finding a quality replacement through free agency, when their current tandem ultimately retires.
Another issue for New Jersey is their defence. In this past offseason, the Devils bought veteran defensemen Colin White out of the last year of his deal. White has been a big bodied defensemen with the team since they won their second Stanley Cup in 1999-2000. Despite suffering a serious eye injury, over the past couple of seasons White has been their most consistent and reliable stay-at-home defensemen. The questionable part of this transaction is they kept Bryce Salvador, after he did not play a single regular season game last year due to a concussion he suffered during the pre-season. New Jersey fans know that Salvador’s abilities were diminishing prior to his injury. Therefore, keeping Salvador while releasing long time Devil Colin White makes little sense, especially given their virtually identical salaries.
On top of that, Andy Greene, who signed a long term deal with the Devils this season, has seen his role diminish in favour of the 18 year old rookie defensemen Adam Larsson. I made my thoughts clear on 18 year olds in the NHL in my last post, so it comes as no surprise that I do not see the reason for this. Larsson has replaced Greene on the power play as the point defensemen. It took Larsson 10 games to register his first NHL point. Greene has played barely over 1 single minute of power play time this season after scoring 37 points in 2009-10. Since New Jersey’s power play was more potent with Greene as quarterback, the reasoning for his lack of play escapes me, especially since Larsson has not yet proven to be an effective power play point man.
New Jersey cannot be considered a contender any longer. Based on the standings and overall look, this team do not appear strong enough to make the playoffs, let alone win a series. The more the team stagnates, the less reason Parise has to commit to the team long term. If I have noticed that his role in New Jersey is declining, then I’m fairly certain Parise can as well. Management needs to recognize the mistakes they have made and reconstruct this team into an ACTUAL contender rather than relying on the remnants of a dynasty.