Sometimes the numbers don’t lie. Just past the halfway mark in the season the New Jersey Devils record is 12-29-3, sad numbers for a team that is accustomed to being in a fight for the division lead.
Looking at the events of the season a complex pattern emerges as a possible explanation for this catastrophic collapse.
It all started last February with the Ilya Kovalchuk trade. The Russian superstar’s transfer came at a high price: Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, the Devils’ first-round draft pick last summer and eventually a hundred million dollar price-tag to keep him. Comparing the trade to that of March, 2000 when Alexander Mogilny joined the team, G.M. Lou Lamoriello hinted that Kovalchuk could be the missing link in the team’s drive towards a fourth Stanley Cup. Alas, that was not to be. Kovalchuk became a hard fit in the Devils’ style of play and the Philadelphia Flyers eliminated the club in the first round of the playoffs.
Lost in the excitement and the drama of the summer’s signing were the not-so-subtle changes happening inside the team. Paul Martin exercised his free market option and moved to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder were signed as free agents.
The long-established myth of the Devils being a defensive juggernaut has been exploded. With no Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko to make the area in front of Marty Brodeur a dangerous place to be, opponents have had free reign in the slot area. With no Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin or Johnny Oduya to make that initial pass out of their own end, the offense has struggled on breakouts while the stretch pass has been non-existent. Turnovers in their own end, errant passes by veteran players, even comedic errors in D-to-D exchanges have caused goal after goal, often early in the game and with debilitating effect.
With their new Head Coach John MacLean at the helm, the offense struggled to find a personality. The famous forecheck, a game-winning staple of previous years absolutely disappeared. The hit-turnover-score Devils stopped hitting and stopped scoring. In December and January the team went 20 straight games without scoring more than three goals in a game. Kovalchuk seemed to be playing with a new set of line mates in every game.
Injuries did not help. Bryce Salvador suffered a concussion is preseason. Zach Parise, the hardest working player in the league was forced to finally undergo surgery to repair a torn meniscus, is still sidelined and not expected to skate again before the month of March. On October 9, Anton Volchenkov took a puck in the face, suffered a broken nose, whiplash in the neck area and perhaps a concussion. Jacob Josefson, a young rookie from Sweden, who had shown flashes of brilliance in the few games he played, suffered a broken hand and is now in Albany regaining his playing shape. On November 3 in Chicago, perennial All-Star goalie Marty Brodeur was hit on the elbow by a Patrick Kane slap shot that forced him to miss several games. Johan Hedberg seemed inadequate as his replacement.
By December, the team was in chaos. Night after night, in the midst of the team’s longest losing streak since the franchise’s early days of the Eighties, MacLean stood before the press publicly seeking an answer. “ Something’s broken and we have to fix it,” became the theme. On the ice the players looked listless and depressed.
While the broadcasters talked of “just not getting the breaks” and the fans were rebelling openly in the stands, Lamoriello called in Jacques Lemaire to replace MacLean. Once the architect of the Devils climb to glory, on his first night back on the job Lemaire cracked to the press “This is going to be a lot harder to turn around than I thought. The players have lost their confidence. All of them. Brodeur and Kovalchuk included.”
Days later the new coach claimed the entire team was not in good enough shape to play the game he wanted them to play. “They don’t have the stamina to forecheck, to play a full sixty minutesand we have to fix that. All I want from them right now is the ability to compete.” Marty Brodeur agreed with the coach’s assessment of his game, declared that he was not competitive or deserving of being in net and stayed late for extra practice several days in a row. The team skated more in their workouts than they would in preseason. Hard work was the proscribed cure and the Coach became the taskmaster.
Over the last five games it seems Lemaire has reached his first goal. In the last two weeks, the team played back-to-back games against both the Flyers and the Lightning and has started to compete. Two tough, close losses to Philly were followed by two high-scoring wins over division-leading Tampa Bay. The skaters have found their legs and the scorers are starting to find the net. Kovalchuk seems to have found a soul mate is Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias has returned to form and the defensive game (Lemaire’s specialty) has returned.
With 27 points earned in 44 games the team is 24 points out of a playoff spot. “I don’t care about the standings,” declared Lemaire. “If we can look back and say we were the best we could be by the end of the year then I will be satisfied.”
The Devils are still a team in turmoil. Rumors of unhappiness in the ownership and the management are rampant. Brian Rolston has cleared waivers. Annsi Salmela has just been put on that list. Jamie Langenbrunner was shipped back to the Dallas Stars and there is a constant feeling of more changes to come. Add to that the impending retirement of Marty Brodeur, the upcoming negotiation to keep Zach Parise and a questionable financial state and you have a boiling cauldron.
In the words of Bob Dylan: “The times, they are a-changin’.”