Since the departures of superstar forwards Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the New Jersey Devils biggest struggles has been the absence of a strong and consistent top-six unit. Two years ago, the top line of Jaromir Jagr, Travis Zajac, and Dainius Zubrus was heavily relied upon and they answered the call for a period of time. But while there have been flashes of potential combinations as well as certain lines exhibiting the reliability expected from a top unit, it has seemingly never been a sure thing.
When a certain line produced, the others went cold, which meant the Devils lacked that one, two punch that many top tier teams had. Oppositional defenses, particularly the top pair, could easily match up against the hot line. Before the season began, it was said that certain players would have to make an impact if the Devils were expected to have any kind of success.
During the preseason it looked as if Zajac would stay with Mike Cammalleri, and Adam Henrique would play on a line with Kyle Palmieri. Nevertheless, New Jersey hockey turned out to be unpredictable yet again. Instead the first line emerged with Henrique centering Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak while Zajac centers Palmieri and now Sergey Kalinin on the second.
Whether it is producing on the score sheet, their puck possessing skills or their defensive abilities, this New Jersey team looks to have found the missing ingredient and has finally established a clear-cut top-six.
Since the beginning of the season, the second line has been anchored by Zajac and Palmieri. After starting the year with Jiri Tlusty, Palmieri and Zajac have recently been excelling with Kalinin as their linemate. It would not be wrong to suggest that at this point any of the three men on the second line are New Jersey’s breakout players.
It is important to note that while he was not regularly on the score sheet, Zajac’s play always went beyond scoring. But as the Devils were goal starved the importance of him finding his scoring touch increased and simply playing well was not enough to silence restless fans. Even though he did well with Jagr, not since Zajac was with Parise has he shown such poise and confidence as he is now. He is getting to the loose pucks and establishing those previously elusive second and third opportunities to put the puck into the back of net. He is also one of the main reasons New Jersey’s power play has been effective. As Zajac’s production has increased, the critics have quieted and that helps every player’s game. Additionally, the speed, scoring ability, and overall aggressiveness of Palmieri and Kalinin have benefitted him as well.
Palmieri is helping to make general manager Ray Shero’s trade for him at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft look like a brilliant move. While he brings speed and physicality to the top-six, Palmieri’s biggest weapon could easily be his shot, which he is proving time and time again. He is a skilled player but still provides grit and is not scared to fight back or drop the gloves if the game is not going in New Jersey’s favor.
All three players have chemistry and are a threat when they are on the ice. Kalinin may have been a stranger to most Devils fans and some questioned him making the team over Joseph Blandisi after the preseason wrapped. But no one is questioning the decision anymore. He is a force when he has the puck and is an overall strong puck possession player. Kalinin’s reliable and consistent play has earned him a spot on the power play where he scored the game winning goal against the Chicago Blackhawks. He brings size to the top-six and is not only having a great introduction to the NHL but also looks to be relishing it.
New Jersey’s top line has by far played the biggest role in jump-starting the season and helping the team reach the positive side of .500. The line of Cammalleri, Henrique, and Stempniak carried the Devils to the team’s first victories of the year. Their overall effectiveness sets a tone in the game and in often cases helps spark the team.
Henrique, Cammalleri, and Stempniak are all feeding off of each other and that is the makings of a balanced and successful line. They all possess skill and can score what many consider pretty goals. But also none of them are nervous to go for that greasy goal and drive the net. It is evident that they want to score and are willing to do virtually anything to get that result including getting under the skin of the their opponent.
Their play could be defined as opportunistic. They are creating their own chances but also forcing and capitalizing on oppositional mistakes. Stempniak has fit in seamlessly with Henrique and Cammalleri. Between setting up plays and scoring several key goals, he is appearing to be one of the biggest steals of the offseason and a very smart signing by Shero. Entering camp as a tryout, no one could have imagined a more perfect script for Stempniak.
Cammalleri and Henrique are enhancing Stempniak’s role and playmaking. It is hard to fathom that even though Henrique and Cammalleri were teammates last year, that they rarely were on the ice at the same time. Cammalleri and Henrique are effectively emulating the way Henrique used to play with Patrik Elias. Both players just seem to know where the other is on the ice.
Entering this year many people thought that Henrique and Cammalleri were the Devils’ most important offensive pieces. The expectations for the men were and still are high. However, playing together is showing that the expectations may not be far out of reach and could easily become a reality.
While the season is still young, New Jersey’s top-six is doing exactly what people had hoped to see. Coming into the year, there were questions surrounding the Devils’ top two lines and who belonged. But now six players have answered that question and done so in a big way.
Amanda Rosko is an avid hockey fan. This is her second year covering the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers. She graduated with honors from Rutgers University in 2014 with a B.A. in Journalism and Media Studies.