So for a fan, while I'm glad to see the Devils back their return begins the worst way possible - with a 10:30 start. Well, maybe it's actually the best time for the team to get a West Coast trip in with the Olympians not needing far to travel from Vancouver to join their rested teammates. Still, the Devils will go from February 12 to March 10 between home games - a total of four weeks, before they conclude the final month of the season with eleven games at the Rock. In total, the team will play twenty-one games in 41 days from Tuesday till the finale against the Sabres on April 11. Interestingly, the Devils have closed the season at home against their eventual playoff opponent the last two years, but it could be unlikely this year unless the Sabres and Devils both lose the division and wind up in the 4-5 series.
Earlier in the season I said this year would be judged in three parts: the first half of the season, the stretch drive from New Year's to the Olympics and then the post-Olympic sprint headlined out of the box with the zaniness known as the NHL trade deadline. While the Devils passed the first part of the year with straight A's, the second part was all but disastrous as New Jersey limped into the break 5-11-2 in their last eighteen games. By some divine intervention though they remained in first place a point in front of the Penguins with a game in hand, holding the second seed in the conference only behind the ridiculously hot Capitals, who've basically lapped the field (thirteen points in front) as far as getting the top seed in the East.
So now begins the third and final part of the regular season. Despite some fans' idiocy on the internet, there is no danger of the Devils missing the playoffs. Not when the bubble teams are all around .500. Odds are it'll only take around 86-88 points to get the last spot this year and the Devils already have 77 so making the tournament isn't the issue. One could argue home ice isn't an issue either, especially with the team having gone 2-5 at the Rock in playoff games but after the anomaly of being way below .500 at home and perfect on the road in October, things have become more normalized since then with the team compiling a 20-9-1 record at the Rock, going 19-5-1 since the start of November. After the Devils won their first nine games on the road however, they've gone 8-12-2 away from New Jersey since then.
Maybe the bigger issue with getting a higher seed is the quality of your first-round opponent. Should the Devils lose the division they'll likely either face a brutal Sabres team or a surprisingly good Senators team in the first round, assuming they don't drop further in the standings since there's currently some separation between the top five and the bubble teams. Of course, you could get the wrong match-up against a bubble team like say, the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist's seemingly .00001 GAA against the Devils - or even the Flyers who the Devils are 1-3-1 against this year and might also be in the market for a goalie (aren't they always?).
Larger point here is it doesn't really matter where the Devils finish, so long as they come out of the winter malaise before the playoffs and stop blowing two-goal leads every other night. Not to mention having a healthy roster would help. For the first time since October, the Devils almost have all hands on deck with only the record-slowly healing arm of Paul Martin remaining on IR and finally recent acquisition Ilya Kovalchuk can get some meaningful practice time in with the rest of the team. Especially with a reasonable schedule this week seeing games in San Jose, then two days off before the trip to Calgary to get a look at former coach Brent Sutter's Red Deer Flames, then concluding the road trip against hapless Edmonton on Sunday before the showdown with the Rangers next Wednesday.
Chief among my concerns is the workload of Martin Brodeur. While the Olympics were at least a temporary salve and gave him enough rest for the stretch drive, as I said in my prior blog I'm not sure it'll really matter come April assuming he plays his usual 75+ games. Currently, backup Yann Danis has more relief appearances (five) than starts (four), despite a 1.85 GAA and .932 save percentage. Will Brodeur's uneven performance the last two months including the Olympics convince Lou Lamoriello and Jacques Lemaire once and for all they have to manage their biggest asset? Probably not, but maybe the embarrassment he endured during the Olympics of being benched and watching Roberto Luongo lead Canada to a gold fuels him for hopefully the team's longest playoff run since 2003 - which would only require going six games in the second round, unfortunately.
Defensively Martin's seemingly never-ending injury remains a concern but the Olympic break should at least prove beneficial for Colin White, Bryce Salvador and especially Andy Greene, who's already played much more during the first 3/4ths of the season than he ever has in two entire seasons with the team, as well as Mark Fraser who'd been playing everyday rather unexpectedly. Hopefully Anssi Salmela also looks like the player he was in his first couple of games after coming over from the Thrashers than he was during a final, hurried return against the Hurricanes in the last game before the break. At least he doesn't have to adapt to the system like most of our deadline acquisitions since he came up through Lowell after all and played for the team last year.
Up front, Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise showed off their chemistry to the world and shouldn't miss a beat once reunited with Travis Zajac, sporting a fresh tan from Costa Rica. How quickly the second line jells - assuming Patrik Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk and Dainius Zubrus remain together for more than five minutes - will tell the story on how fast the Devils' offense can pick it up. At least they did pick it up in spurts once we traded for Kovalchuk, from 21 goals in 13 games just before the trade to sixteen goals in six games after it. Not exactly great, but an improvement. And adding David Clarkson to the lineup also adds more depth to the top three lines and some grit to a power play that looked as dark in the last twenty games as the Prudential Center during that infamous January game against Tampa Bay, going from a top five power play at 21.9% efficiency during the first half of the season to an ungodly 8.9% that ranked last in the league during the most recent stretch, even with Kovalchuk.
Coaching-wise, my two big concerns with Jacques Lemaire before the Kovalchuk trade were Brodeur's workload and the team's reliance on a checking line. One of the happy byproducts of adding Kovalchuk has been the virtual ending of the checking line concept. While third-line center Rob Niedermayer still gets minutes, Jay Pandolfo hasn't as much and the top two lines now get the majority of the minutes. Hopefully the third line, now that reinforcements have arrived, becomes viable enough to at least ensure we don't run the top six forwards into the ground a la John Tortorella in Tampa Bay with Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. Still, you pretty much have to hope for a healthy lineup to ensure we don't go back to the old, slow checking line come April once again. And the power play should be a concern but it isn't for me, both given Kovalchuk now having more time to acclimate and the fact Lemaire's usually been good at coaching special teams with average overall offensive talent in Minnesota.
As far as Lou, well if he does nothing else before the trade deadline you can't accuse him of not trying to go for it this year after the shock blockbuster in getting both Kovalchuk and Salmela from Atlanta. While I would like to see them get another defenseman who can fit in the system and/or another centerman who can actually win some faceoffs and not be a total zero offensively, it is possible the team returns to its first-half form regardless and is only enhanced by Kovalchuk's presence and the return of almost everyone to the lineup. Plus I'm not sure it's likely Lou will want to dig into the farm system too much more after giving up three players and a first-rounder to Atlanta, unless he's starting to think his own time to win is running out.