The New Jersey Devils will enter the post-Olympic break portion of their schedule with a record of 24-22-13. Their 61 points are good enough for seventh in the Metropolitan Division, five points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the third spot in the division. They are three points behind the Detroit Red Wings, who have the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Devils will continue their season with a home contest against the Columbus Blue Jackets on February 27th. Here are five story-lines to follow as we enter the final weeks of the 2013-14 season:
1. The Battle in the Crease
Cory Schneider started the last six games for the Devils before the break and won just two of the six. He has started twelve of the last fifteen games for the Devils and won half of those. However, despite the low wins total, Schneider’s stats on the season and of late are phenomenal. He has allowed two goals or less in thirteen of his last fourteen starts dating back December 28th (only exception was the 3-2 OT loss to Nashville on January 31st). On the season he has a GAA of 1.85, second in the NHL, and a save percentage of .926. Without question he will be the Devils number one goaltender going forward since he has not only earned it with his performance on the ice but has gained the trust of Coach Peter DeBoer.
The real question is what will happen to the goaltender with the most wins and shutouts in the history of the NHL, Martin Brodeur. Brodeur has not started the last seven games at the Prudential Center dating back to his start against the Flyers on January 7th. In his only three starts since that game he lost to the Phoenix Coyotes in Glendale, defeated the Montreal Canadiens in possibly his last start in his hometown, and then lasted two periods in an ugly defeat to the New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium. While Brodeur regained the number one spot in the crease at the end of October and again in December, this time it appears there is no chance for him to overtake Schneider. While Brodeur supports Schneider and DeBoer’s decision to stick with Schneider, he has made it clear he wants to play whether he takes the net in New Jersey or elsewhere. What happens after the roster freeze is lifted at midnight on February 24th through the trade deadline (March 5th at 3PM) will be one storyline worth watching.
2. Will the New Jersey Devils Go a Full Calendar Year Without Winning a Shootout?
The Devils are 0-8 in shootouts this season. Dating back to last season the Devils have lost twelve consecutive shootouts. Their last win in the skills competition was a 3-2 victory on March 10th, 2013 against the Winnipeg Jets at the Prudential Center. Martin Brodeur has not won in the shootout since March 27th, 2012 against the Chicago Blackhawks when the Devils had Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk on the team.
The Devils have shot 25 times this season and scored just once. On December 4th rookie Reid Boucher, in his first shootout attempt in the NHL, put the puck in the net for the Devils against Peter Budaj of the Canadiens. On the other end of the ice, Schneider and Brodeur have combined to allow 11 goals on 25 shots against. Even with the lockout wiping away the beginning of the 2012-13 season the Devils have never gone more than a calendar year without a winning a shootout. If the opportunity arises at some point in the team’s final 23 games, which in a tight playoff race will surely happen, can the Devils snap the dreadful drought?
3. March 20th-March 23rd at the Rock:
The Hudson River Rivalry Season Finale and the Return of Zach Parise and David Clarkson
The Devils will play a five-game home stand from March 18th until March 27th but the real storyline involves the three middle contests. On March 20th the Devils will welcome Parise back to the Rock for the first time since Game 5 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final when the Minnesota Wild invade Newark. In one previous meeting against their former captain in Minnesota on November 3rd, the Devils fell 4-0 and Parise had an assist.
Two nights later the Devils will host the Rangers for the third time this season and second time at the Prudential Center. The Devils are 3-1-0 against the Rangers in four previous meetings this season including their 7-3 loss at Yankee Stadium in the 2014 Coors Light Stadium Series. The Devils defeated the Rangers at Madison Square Garden twice with Brodeur between the pipes. Their only previous battle in Newark, a Devils 4-0 victory, occurred on October 19th when Schneider stopped all 22 shots he faced in his introduction to the Hudson River Rivalry. Adam Henrique, Andrei Loktionov, Michael Ryder, and Dainius Zubrus each had a goal in that game.
Highlights from the New Jersey Devils 4-0 victory over the New York Rangers at the Prudential Center on October 19th, 2013:
The following evening the Devils will face the Toronto Maple Leafs in their only meeting in Newark during the 2013-14 season. The Devils lost both meetings in Toronto earlier this season in the shootout. However, this will be the first time David Clarkson suits up in Newark against the team that signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2005. In 426 games with the Devils, Clarkson had 97 goals and added 73 assists. His best season came in 2011-12 when he notched 30 goals and totaled 46 points in 80 games in DeBoer’s first season as coach of the Devils. In his only two games against New Jersey, Clarkson was held without a point but did have four shots on goal and two penalty minutes.
4. The Fate of Jaromir Jagr
Jaromir Jagr leads the Devils with 49 points thus far. He has 17 goals and 32 assists with an outstanding +/- of +21. The Czech Republic Olympian is an integral part of the Devils offense this season but Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello may consider moving Jagr to a team that is a lock to make the postseason. The Devils have four games before the deadline and will have nineteen games remaining when the deadline passes. Since Lamoriello became the GM before the 1987-88 season the Devils have missed the postseason only four times (1989, 1996, 2011, 2013). Only twice did they enter the trade deadline with virtually little or no chance and that was in 1989 and 2011. This is unfamiliar territory for Lamoriello, the longest tenured GM in the NHL. The Devils do not have a first round draft pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and need a top-six forward to compete for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If Lamoriello truly believes in this roster and can add a top-six forward without sacrificing some of his top prospects then Jagr will remain a Devil. If the Devils struggle out of the gate after the break and Lamoriello is unable to make such a move, Jagr may be headed out of Newark in exchange for draft picks and/or prospects.
5. The Blue Line
The retired banners in the rafters at the Prudential Center show how much defense means to the success of the Devils. Their current captain is defensemen Bryce Salvador, one of their four Olympians was defenseman Marek Zidlicky, and arguably their strongest player every time he is on the ice is defenseman Andy Greene. Currently also with the parent club are Anton Volchenkov, Mark Fayne, Jon Merrill, and Peter Harrold. The logjam continues north where the Devils top minor-league team resides in Albany. Playing with the Albany Devils is Adam Larsson, who is ready to jump back to the NHL according to Albany Devils coach Rick Kowalsky, and Eric Gelinas, who is working on the defensive side of his game after putting up six goals, two of which were game winners, and sixteen assists with New Jersey earlier in the season. As a pairing in late October and early November in New Jersey, Gelinas brought out the best in Larsson and both contributed to the positive turnaround of the Devils season until Larsson went down with an injury on November 23rd against the San Jose Sharks.
Eric Gelinas netted the game-winning goal against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on December 7th, 2013:
The Devils have nine defensemen that can play in the NHL but an NHL starting lineup usually only holds six (sometimes seven). It is almost a certainty that one of them gets moved for an offensive player but the question is which defenseman would be shipped out of Newark? Gelinas, Merrill, and Greene are just about a lock to stay in New Jersey. Larsson would bring back a top-six forward but would Lamoriello trade his highest draft pick (4th overall in 2011) since Scott Niedermayer was drafted 3rd in 1991? Salvador is the captain but is under a 35+ contract and Volchenkov has a no-trade clause in his contract. Zidlicky is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end but also has a NTC. Harrold provides the Devils with reliable depth at the position with a light cap hit and is unlikely to be moved. Fayne, in his fourth season with the Devils, is an unrestricted free agent after the season. There are many options for Lamoriello to mull over and the depth in the Devils organization on the blue line is even deeper than these nine defensemen with players such as Reece Scarlett and Damon Severson maturing. This will be an intriguing storyline to follow as the stretch run gets set to begin.
The Devils four Olympians won’t be coming home with a medal but will be joining a team very much in the playoff hunt. These are five storylines to follow as the Devils continue their quest to reach the playoffs for the first time since their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final two seasons ago. From the two men vying for time in the crease to the abundance of defensemen in front of them, the end of the 2013-14 season promises to be an exciting time for Jersey’s Team.
Leo is in his second year with THW. He covers the 3-Time Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils and the Albany Devils of the American Hockey League. You can follow Leo on Twitter, @LeoScaglioneJr.