The NHL All-Star break, the unofficial “halfway point” of the season, is upon us. It’s a time for teams to reflect on their performance the past few months and, if necessary, adjust expectations for the second half. Some, like the Winnipeg Jets, find themselves clinging to playoff hopes, after missing the postseason in 2010-11. Others, like the Tampa Bay Lightning, have seen the high hopes from last season, when the team was one win from the Stanley Cup Finals, dashed with a first half that finds them in 12th place in the Eastern conference at the break.
The New Jersey Devils, who missed the playoffs last season for the first time in fifteen years, are currently in the eighth spot in the tight Eastern Conference, with 55 points. They are in a considerably better position than at last year’s break, when they sat in last place, with a 16-30-3 record and 22 points out of the eighth and final playoff slot.
The Devils offense has been a baffling unit this season. Loaded with scorers and playmakers, as well as emerging rookies, it appears on paper to be one of the strongest units in the NHL. That hasn’t always been the case.
The offense struggled at the beginning of the season, lagging towards the bottom of the NHL in goals per game. It appeared that the team’s injury issues, as well as a lack of chemistry on the first line, contributed to the struggles. The offense has emerged of late, however, with Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise building a good rapport with center Adam Henrique on the first line, and the surprise scoring contribution of David Clarkson (16 goals). Patrik Elias has been his usual solid self, and veteran Petr Sykora, who the Devils picked up off the scrap heap, has been stellar, chipping in 12 goals. The Devils have seven players with double-digit goal totals thus far.
New Jersey has always been known as a defensive team, and this season their defense is upholding that tradition. Despite injuries to key players Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder and Andy Greene, the Devils defense has posted a decent 2.79 goals-against average. Digging a little deeper, they are third in the NHL in shots against per game, allowing 26.9 per game. The emergence of top draft pick Adam Larsson has also been a bright spot on defense, with the rookie leading all Devils defensemen with an impressive 22:10 average time on ice per game.
Power Play: D+
The Devils power play has been a consistent concern this season, but their anemic 14.7% average only tells part of the story. They have allowed an incredible 12 shorthanded goals this season, far and away the most in the NHL, a glaring problem that has been partially rectified with the addition of offensive defenseman Kurtis Foster to the power play unit. New Jersey hasn’t given up a short hander since January 2.
Penalty Kill: A
New Jersey’s penalty kill unit has been one of the most efficient in the NHL thus far, allowing just 10 goals and disposing of opponents power plays at an 88.8% clip. They’ve also recorded an NHL-best 11 shorthanded goals.
Martin Brodeur has shown flashes of brilliance and has also looked terrible at times. His .894 save percentage is 66th in the NHL, and his 2.77 goals-against avg. is good for 48th best in the league. Not exactly Brodeur-esque numbers.
Backup Johan Hedberg has been mostly solid, posting a .909 save percentage in 21 games.
New Jersey’s coaching staff deserves kudos, as they have held together a team that at times seemed decimated by injuries. Assistant coach Dave Barr deserves credit for the penalty killing unit’s solid performance, and head coach Pete DeBoer has not been shy about complimenting him. On the other side of the coin, Adam Oates, who handles the power play, should not be completely immune to criticism for the often lackadaisical play of that unit.
Overall, DeBoer and his staff have brought an air of quiet confidence and stability to the Devils bench.