Sunday, January 1, 2012

Devils close old year and head into a new one on high

Although the Devils aren't even halfway through the NHL season yet, in a sense their 3-1 win over the Penguins on New Year's Eve did close a successful chapter as they finished 2011 with nine wins in twelve games. Overall, 2011 proved to be a gigantic improvement on 2010. Between the latter part of the '09-10 season and the ill-fated beginning to last season, the Devils were 30-42-8 with 68 points in 80 games during 2010. With their revival in the second half of last season combined with a plus .500 start this year, the Devils finished 2011 with a 49-29-4 record and 102 points.

That difference represents quite the turnaround for this Devils team, who ended 2010 on the lowest of notes, in last place in the NHL and with once-popular Devil (and longtime assistant) John MacLean getting the ax just 33 games into his coaching tenure. This year's Devils are 21-15-1 and moving up in the standings fast, with a team that's getting healthier by the day - although they got a scare when defenseman Anton Volchenkov left yesterday's game late in the first period and didn't return. Ostensibly he won't be out too long, but Matt Taormina did a good job filling in for Henrik Tallinder when he missed six games due to back spasms, so he'll be counted on to step in if Volchenkov misses any time.

Among the regulars only Andy Greene and Jacob Josefson remain on the shelf, with Josefson having made significant progress from a serious collarbone injury, and the latest is he's expected to accompany the team on their Western Canada swing next week, with an eye on returning then. Greene might come back closer to the All-Star break but otherwise the pieces are starting to come together with Travis Zajac now four games into his return from achilles surgery.

Other than good health, the team has more reasons to be optomistic about what lies ahead in 2012. Rookie Adam Henrique, former A-line star turned camp tryout Petr Sykora and fellow vets David Clarkson and Danius Zubrus have all provided welcome and somewhat unexpected contributions. All Henrique has done is put up 28 points in 34 games with a +7, after coming into the season with exactly one game of NHL experience. Clarkson - after a couple of dissapointing seasons - is surprisingly tied for the team lead in goals with thirteen, with Sykora and Zubrus also chipping in ten to this point.

Those four, along with team leaders Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias have given the Devils an NHL-high seven double-digit goal scorers. A nearly ageless Elias leads the team with 34 points in 36 games, having made a full-time switch to center this season. After slow starts, Parise and Kovy have each picked it up, with the captain tallying 7 goals and 10 assists in fourteen December games - and best news of all may be that the clock's started again on a potential long-term contract negotiation. Kovy has put up ninteen points in his last sixteen games, and may finally be on the way to silencing his critics once and for all, especially with more games like Saturday's. All Kovy did was put up three points including a spectacular penalty shot goal in the first period, as the Devils squeaked out a game against a stubborn Penguins team.

Defensively it hasn't been as pretty at times but things could be worse, if Bryce Salvador wasn't playing some of his best hockey as a Devil the last few weeks and Mark Fayne hadn't come out of nowhere last year to become not only a blueline regular, but one that frequently gets used against other team's top scorers. At times vets Tallinder, Volchenkov and Greene have been shaky, along with new acquisition Kurtis 'The Statue' Foster but all are capable of better play in the second half, especially once they become more acclimated to coach Pete DeBoer's system. Last but not least, teen sensation Adam Larsson has alternately defied the skeptics by becoming a regular (and playing big minutes) as a teenage rookie, but also showed why he's a teen at times with mistakes that the team's just going to have to live with. For what it's worth, Larsson is already the team's leading point-getter from the blueline - granted with just thirteen in 35 games, and he's been taken off the power play to focus on his five-on-five game.

In goal it's been a bit of a mixed bag with Martin Brodeur finally showing signs of recovering from a nightmarish injury-marred start to 2011-12 in his last few starts, holding both the Sabres and Penguins to one goal apiece. He was rooked out of a star yesterday afternoon, but during his own interview for MSG+ at center ice after the game, Kovy gave Marty his due props for a strong 29-save performance against the Pens. For the most part, Johan Hedberg has been strong again as the Devils' backup/injury fill in and his stats are still a lot better than Marty's, though his last few outings haven't quite been up to early season standards.

As far as DeBoer and the system, it's been a mixed bag so far. Clearly the team is finally attempting to break the mold of its pre-lockout thinking of trap, checking line and playing in one half of the rink with a more up-tempo system - changes I think were overdue, especially with the lack of defensemen that could execute the old style system. Analyst Pierre McGuire couldn't emphasize enough how much he liked our new system in a recent VERSUS telecast. However breaking in a new system and shelving old methods of thinking haven't come without growing pains. For every game the team's come back from two and even three goals down in, they've also give up multiple two and three-goal leads. Special teams has also emphasized the mixed bag of the new system, as the Devils have become shorthanded terrors when on the penalty kill, but a power play disaster when it comes to both scoring and giving up shorthanded goals.

My only real problem with DeBoer so far has been his insistence of doubling up on enforcers, frequently dressing both Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen, but that's really a bit of a nitpick since the fourth line isn't going to win or lose us too many games this year. Thankfully, with some of the regulars that have come back in recent weeks the icetime of our top players has been cut down from ridiculous to 'normal' top player levels. I've liked his use of timeouts for the most part, though his timeout yesterday in the midst of a penalty kill was a bit puzzling - and soon after the Penguins scored their only goal to cut our lead to 2-1.

All in all though, things are looking up for the Devils as 2012 begins. With young players like Henrique, Larsson and Fayne playing key roles along with a solid core of vets and role players, this version of the Devils may just get back to the playoffs after missing last year for the first time in fifteen years. What this team could do in the big dance is anyone's guess, it'd depend on a lot of factors - such as how Marty's playing, how much the defense progresses and whether the offense can keep putting up points at the rate it's been doing so lately. Not to mention whether the team makes any big deadline deals and how that affects the team.

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