LOS ANGELES- New Jersey Devils owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek surely envisioned a new era in which success could also entertain, functionality would be stylish, casual fans should join a die-hard base in a new arena, winning ways could be booming business and a dynamic offensive star would incorporate his game into a defensive system.
Maybe that vision should be a reality.
All the pieces appeared in place. Martin Brodeur was still in the net and Lou Lamoriello was still in the front office. The Devils added a pair of high-priced defenseman in free agency. New Jersey traded for and, after a tête-à-tête with the league office, re-signed the dynamic winger Ilya Kovalchuk to make the most of its power-play opportunities. They had also resuscitated their franchise by developing the outstanding two-way forward Zach Parise. Just three years ago, they opened the Prudential Center as part of Newark’s urban renewal in the hopes of making their prosperity at the box office match their success on the ice. Above all, the Devils were looking to once again capture the Atlantic Division title they had won nine times in the past thirteen years and make their first deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since they last quaffed the bubbly in 2003.
Yet this season has seen Lamoriello show reservation regarding the direction of the organization. New Jersey has been without four of its main defensemen for much of the year due to injury, including their highest-paid free-agent acquisition Anton Volchenkov. Kovalchuk has started the season with a lean six points in twelve games, including a very lonely point–an assist–with the man advantage. Overall, the Devils rank dead last in the league in both scoring (a shutout at Vancouver kept their total at 20 goals) and power-play efficiency, as they have converted just 3 of 41 opportunities. Parise aggravated a knee injury and will miss three months following surgery to repair his torn meniscus. The Devils rank 25th in the NHL in average attendance and are dead last in the standings with just seven points despite having played more games than the three teams immediately ahead of them.
Though the season has 70 games remaining, the urgency has grown steadily in the Devils’ locker room. The paucity of goals and dearth of power-play production are the most apparent sources of frustration.
“Our power plays are awful right now, so we have to change something because it didn’t work at all. We just right now throw the pucks away,” Kovalchuk said.
Captain Jamie Langenbrunner, who was solemn following a 3-1 loss in Los Angeles, quickly pointed out that the Devils’ struggles are not Kovalchuk’s alone and that his contract was not the reason he or the team was feeling such heat and helplessness.
“We all have a job to do here and we all have a role to play,” Langenbrunner said.
“He’s feeling pressure for us to win games. He knows his job is to score goals and it’s one thing not scoring if you’re winning, it’s another thing when the losses start coming. You start to feel it,” said Langenbrunner. “I don’t think there is any guy in this dressing room that’s going, ‘Hey, Kovy, come on, score.’ You can see the effort there, you can see it tonight, if anything he’s maybe trying too hard.”
If too much effort can be just as ineffective as not enough, sometimes a surplus in talent can bring its own pitfalls.
“I think for whatever reason sometimes when you have a lot of talent on the power play you try to make the perfect play and the perfect play doesn’t always work,” Langenbrunner said.
Another Devils veteran, Patrik Elias, who moved from wing to pivot in order to center Kovalchuk’s line for the past three games, dismissed the idea that it is just a matter of time before offensive pressure turns into goals.
“We’ve been saying that for a while,” said Elias. “We had a lot of games that we were getting a lot of shots but still it’s going in for us.”
Elias was pressed to maintain his calm, stately demeanor when asked what needs to change in the Devils ailing power play.
“I don’t know, something. Something needs to change,” Elias said.
“We have to change it up. I’ll go somewhere, I’ll go in the middle, I’ll go in front of the net but we’ve just gotta make it work.”
“We’ve got to simplify it. Get some shots from the blue line and then we can make the plays out of that. Right now it seems like we’re making it easy on the penalty killers.”
Lacking experience, offensive skill and consistent play in their own zone, the Devils’ rearguards have contributed just as much to their woes as the underproduction up front.
“It’s hard, we’re young on defense and definitely missing some key guys,” said goalie Martin Brodeur. “The big thing is it’s tough on them when you score one or two goals a game. It’s tough to win hockey games when you put that extra pressure on young guys that don’t have that experience yet to get through it.”
Following a shutout at the hands of Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks, the opposition gets no easier for the Devils as they conclude their road trip at the United Center against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
For the league’s worst team this season, the long schedule ahead provides limited consolation.
“It’s only 12 games but we have to wake up very very soon because it’s gonna be too late,” Kovalchuk said.