New Jersey Devils: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
By: Mike Luciano (@THG_MikeLuci)
Recent years have shown that the New Jersey Devils aren’t exempt from suffering competitive setbacks in the wake of losing core players. The losses of Scott Niedermayer (2005), Brian Rafalski (2007), and Scott Gomez (2007), all of whom departed via unrestricted free agency, exemplified the Devil’s proclivity to the consequences of that scenario. While the Devils remained regular postseason contenders through the 2009-2010 season, their glaring shortcomings became more apparent as each season progressed. Until this postseason, the Devils hadn’t won a playoff series since 2007.
For a team that usually makes the playoffs, only to fall apart in the opening round, one has to wonder how these past outcomes would be different if their core remained intact.
Since 2007, the Devils have sorely needed another top-two center and a top-pairing offensive defenseman; needs that were never directly addressed. Looking back on those years, it was apparent that the Devils didn’t have the assets, cap space, or appeal to obtain the right players.
After the Devils’ remarkable 2012 postseason run, the Devils’ future looked bright. The rise of Adam Henrique and the hopeful future of Jacob Josefson gave the most substantial depth at center behind Travis Zajac for the first time since Scott Gomez left. The Devils were stacked at the wings, and many were cautiously optimistic that Zach Parise would be wearing the “C” for a long time. Adam Larsson became the face of the Devil’s future on defense, ending years of uncertainty on the team’s blue line. Martin Brodeur showed he still has gas left in the tank (and has the most reliable backup he’s had in years). With a budding prospect pool featuring Mattias Tedenby, Eric Gelinas, and Jon Merrill, the Devils seemed poised to remain competitive.
We all know where this is going.
Will the loss of Zach Parise set the Devils back? How is it different from the last setback the Devils suffered?
The best way to address these questions is to look at the current Devils roster and compare it to the roster the Devils had going into the 2007-2008 season. As far as offense is concerned, their current roster and the roster they had going into the season five years ago both have what the other needs.
The 2007-2008 Devils sorely lacked depth down the middle, which the current Devils roster possesses. Five years ago, the Devils were stable at the wings, featuring a then-budding star in Zach Parise, a younger Patrik Elias, and core veterans Brian Gionta and Jamie Langenbrunner. Even with the absence of Parise, the Devils currently have a formidable array of wingers. Led by Ilya Kovalchuk, their depth at wing features an older but still solid Patrik Elias, and an established power forward in David Clarkson.
In addition to Zach Parise, the departures of Alexei Ponikarovsky and Petr Sykora left fifty-nine goals unaccounted for. Despite a discouraging sophomore campaign, hopes are high that 2008 first-round pick Mattias Tedenby will take advantage of the roles vacated by these departures. The same holds true of signee Chris Butler, who wasn’t able to thrive with the Senators. While we know what the rest of the forward corps are capable of, it remains to be seen how these two players will fare.
Simply put, the Devils defense was a laughing matter five years ago, featuring Paul Martin, Johnny Oduya, Karel Rachunek (RIP), Colin White, and Mike Mottau. The strong play of Martin Brodeur created the illusion that the defense corps was much more competitive than it was. Although the current defense still lacks a mature anchorman, it was good enough to send the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals and has remained intact since then. The current defense has its distinguishable offensive and defensive players, and faces a unique issue: a surplus of NHL-capable players.
Martin Brodeur is five years older and isn’t the superlative force he was five years ago. Although he made his fifth Stanley Cup Finals appearance this past spring, and showed he still had some gas left in the tank, Devils fans ought to remain cautiously optimistic on seeing the Brodeur from the 2012 postseason carry over into the next season. The biggest difference between the Devil’s goaltending situation now and five years ago is that Brodeur’s workload is finally reasonable, unlike back when he was making more than 75 starts per season. Brodeur’s lessened workload stems from him having a more reliable backup in Johan Hedberg.
It’s vital to consider the quality of leadership now compared to what the team had five years ago. Although both team’s captaincies were unoccupied at this point, they currently have a wide array of candidates. Ilya Kovalchuk would be the safest choice for the long term but other possibilities include Bryce Salvador, Andy Greene, Travis Zajac, or David Clarkson (despite them going into contract years).
The biggest difference in leadership lies in the man behind the bench. Five years ago, the Devils thought the hiring of Brent Sutter marked the start of an era of coaching stability, but four coaching changes later, the Devils seem content with Pete DeBoer, the Devils’ first head coach to enter back-to-back years since Sutter. Considering that DeBoer and Sutter have similar coaching styles, how the Devils thrived offensively under Sutter during his second season, and how positively the Devils responded to DeBoer, hopes are high that the Devils have found their man.
If the departure of Parise positioned the Devils to suffer another setback, this team is in a better position than they were five years ago. Parise’s thirty-one goals will be accounted for, while the team’s identity, which will always be manned by Martin Brodeur until he decides to call it a career, will sort itself out. The only obstacle the Devils could face is dwelling on Parise’s departure and failing to recognize that a rebuilding identity shouldn’t stop a team from winning hockey games.