Close your eyes. What comes to your mind when you think about the New Jersey Devils? Now open them. BOOM, Scott Stevens lays out a forward streaking into the zone! Close them again. Now open. CRUNCH, a grinding check by Ken Daneyko plants an opposing player face first into the glass. Now close and open again, there’s the “Crash Line” of Bobby Holik, Mike Peluso and Randy McKay, inflicting damage and shutting down the other team’s top line. Close and open and there’s Krzysztof Oliwa dropping the gloves… and you get the point.
In order for the Devils to get off the deck, they need to deck somebody. Flatten them. Lower the boom. If that sounds too gruesome or blunt for your taste, well maybe you ought to check out some highlight reels from the days of yore and that will jar your memory.
I know that some will counter that a linchpin of Head Coach Peter DeBoer’s squad in last year’s playoff run was that quintessential Devils discipline. That is true. That and a solid fore-check. The Devils’ turning the other cheek and not allowing the opposition to get under their skin or take a dance partner to the penalty box, showed a lot of control and was a credit to their selflessness. Yet, “stupid penalties” haven’t been their undoing during this most recent hiccup.
What is needed is a force. A force that can provide some energy by throwing some weight around. A force that can inflict a sense of fear and doubt when the opposition’s top forwards come gliding in.
Just who is that or who will emerge in that role for New Jersey? Is he on the roster? I have no doubt the Devils have their fair share of grinders but is there a punish er among them?
Would you believe me if I told you it’s Stephen Gionta? Well, if the question is who leads the Devils in hits, the answer is Gio. Yes, that’s right, Stephen Gionta (as of this writing) leads the club with 37 hits. In fact, Gio took the lead at Winnipeg, as his four hits paced the Devils’ paltry 12 overall. Now I love all five-feet, seven-inches of the Rochester rascal, from years of watching him play in Albany but the Devils could really use a tone setter to deliver some big hits and preferably on the blue line.
A guy like David Clarkson will still dish it out and he does have 35 hits and 35 penalty minutes but I’m sure New Jersey brass would prefer he focus on putting the puck in the back of the net. On defence, one would expect Anton “A-Train” Volchenkov to be a force with a nickname like that. On the season, Volchenkov has 23 hits, although to his credit he is third on the club with 31 blocked shots. Would Captain and fellow defenceman Bryce Salvador be a candidate to take on that imposing leadership role? Well, to his credit, “Sal” does pace the squad with 40 blocked shots but he clocks in with 22 hits.
Would you believe me if I told you that all five-feet, eleven-inches of Marek Zidlicky, leads all Devils defencemen in hits with 26? That’s right, the guy brought in to lead the rush and quarterback the Devils power play, leads them in hits and is tied for third on the team overall with Steve Bernier. Again, like with Gionta, that’s no knock on Zidlicky but one would think the five other six-foot defencemen for the Devils, not named Peter Harrold, would get more physical.
Taking a look at some recent performances, there has been something left to desire for the Devils in the hit department. A 3-1 loss at the Winnipeg Jets to close out February, saw the Jets out-hit the Devils 26-12. In their first match-up of their home-in-home at New Jersey on Sunday, again the Jets out-hit the Devils 22-18. Again, Gionta paced the Devils with four checks. Prior to that, the Devils did out-hit the Washington Capitals 28-25, albeit in a 5-1 dismantling by the Caps. You know, before Mike Milbury went off on Alex Ovechkin? Although one reason for the 5-1 pasting may have stemmed from something that happened the game before, in a 3-2 Devils victory at Washington. In that contest, New Jersey was out-hit 30-to-9 by the Caps. Ouch.
Even going back to their President’s Day tilt against the banged up and injury riddled Ottawa Senators, the Devils fell 2-1 in a shootout and were out-hit 27-to-19.
I’m not insinuating the Devils are “soft” by any stretch. They just may want to take a page from their fore-bearers and you know… make things go SPLAT!
Michael Gwizdala covers the New York Islanders for The Hockey Writers. Michael is also an Associate Producer at WNYT NewsChannel 13. Additionally, Michael was once a Media Relations intern for the AHL Albany River Rats. Michael is a graduate of The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.