24 Cups sizes up the Devils

Steve Kerley’s scouting report:

 It’s déja vu all over again in New Jersey as Jacques Lemaire is back as head coach.

Lemaire is the biggest new ‘free agent’ signing in Jersey as the master tactician returns to try and win another Stanley Cup.  He brings his consistent, unwavering vision of what a team needs to do in order to win the ultimate prize.  Obstruction and clutch and grab may be things of the past in the NHL, but Lemaire is still the master of stifling, trap-based defensive hockey.

All systems are go as the Devils pass the halfway mark of the 2009-10 season.  Right now, the Devils are a well-oiled machine that is firing on all cylinders even though some of the box scores are more reflective of soccer than hockey. 

• How good has the first half of the season been for the Devils?  They lead the conference in wins (30) and fewest losses (10).  They have the best home (16) and away (14) win totals and are 8-2 in their last ten games.  And to top it all off, they have allowed the least amount of goals against (89).  Only Chicago comes close to New Jersey’s first half season benchmarks. (Please Note: this preview was filed before Jersey’s Friday night game against Tampa Bay.)

• All of this in light of the fact that four front line players have missed a significant amount of time due to injury.  Paul Martin (32 missed games) is the PP quarterback and main offensive threat from the blue line.  He had 25 points in his last 39 games last year and has just hit his prime at 28.  He’s in his UFA contract year.  Patrik Elias (14 games) is an elite talent who is a nondescript star. A point a game man who scores goals, sets up the PP, and kills penalties.  He has 26 points in 27 games so far this year.  Dainius Zubrus (21 games) is an underachiever but he does bring good size and shutdown ability to the centre ice position.  NJ is weak down the middle as long as he is on the shelf. David Clarkson (16 games) is probably one of the most improved players in the NHL and is now much more than just an enforcer.  He was well on his way to a possible 50 point season.  All of these guys will help down the stretch once they return from injury. 

• New Jersey has always suffered from a lack of firepower but this year they seem to be benefitting from a balanced attack.  Eight players have two or more GWGs.  Seven players have three or more PPGs while six Devils have 10 or more PPPs.  All of this without their top Dman, Paul Martin (9 games played).  My player to watch tonight is Niclas Bergfors (13/14/27/8) who is a major contributor when it comes to significant goals.  He leads the team with 4 game winners and 8 PP goals.  He’s also 2nd in terms of PP points.  Just 22, he’s undersized (5’11″/185) but has really broken through this year as the injury to Elias allowed him to showcase his talents and get more ice time.  He wears sweater #18.

• The four main offensive weapons up front (besides Elias) are the youngsters, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac, as well as the veterans, Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Rolston.  Parise (18/25/43/3) was a steal in the 2003 draft (17th overall) while Zajac (10/21/314)) was a 2004 pick from Salmon Arm who went in the 2nd half of the round.  Coach Lemaire has never had a player with 85 points or more (in a season) during his entire coaching career so it will be interesting to see how much leeway he gives Parise.  Langenbrunner (13/24/37/4) is having a career year and is presently riding an 82 point streak over the past 87 games. He plays on the big line with Parise and Zajac.  Rolston (13/10/23/5), 2nd overall the past 10 years for shots taken in the NHL, is a Lemaire favourite from Minnesota.  In fact, he averaged 65 points a year while playing with Lemaire.  Both these seasoned players can move into the centre slot if need be.

• GM Lou Lamoriello (Jersey’s main blog in entitled, In Lou We Trust) always has a knack for finding cheap, serviceable secondary line players.  Rob Niedermayer (great fill-in at centre), Dean McAmmond (versatile, great wheels) , Jay Pandolfo (slipping and expensive), Rod Pelley (on the bubble energy player), Andrew Peters (Jersey’s version of Laraque), and Ilkka Pikkarainen (7th round pick) fill out the bottom of the pack.

• Players seem to come and go in Jersey but Lamoriello always is able to pull young players out of the blue.  The Devils have a variety of good, young prospects up front who will be slowly brought along as they are trained to fit into the Devils’ mold.  I won’t list them all but I count seven.  I only mention this because they all have the potential to be starters in the NHL with proper seasoning.  The Devils have $3.3M in cap space so there’s a good chance that they could trade a few of these youngsters to bring in the missing piece of the puzzle.

• Most people would say that New Jersey has a weak blueline due to the fact that there aren’t a lot of ‘big names’ on it.  My only answer is that they (Andy Greene, Mike Mottau, Johnny Oduya, Bryce Salvador, and Colin White) must be doing something right seeing that New Jersey has the best defensive record in the NHL.  In Ontario, the main grocery chain is Loblaws which is owned by the Weston family.  Their discount chain goes by the name of No-Frills.  Enough said.

• Everything in Jersey begins and ends with Martin Brodeur which is why I’ve saved the best for last.  There’s no need to review his skills  and accomplishments as his record speaks for itself.  Brodeur is in the unique situation this year of being able to cement his reputation as the greatest goaltender of all time by accomplishing a rare feat at the age of 37.  Winning both Olympic gold on home ice, as well as this year’s Stanley Cup (his 4th), will elevate him into the stratosphere of Canadian hockey legends.  It’s a tall order considering the workload and the odds, but he certainly seems to be up to the task.  The fact that he has four shutouts in his past 12 outings has to give pause to the Habs for tonight’s game.  His back-up is Yann Danis who is a familiar face to Montreal fans.  Danis is an adequate second stringer but is strictly along for the ride.

* Are there any weaknesses for a team that seems primed to make a long playoff run?  Well they could use some depth at centre as well as another offensive Dman to go along with Martin.  They have a balanced scoring attack but another shooter wouldn’t hurt for when they have to go up against Pittsburgh and Washington.  However, the greatest weakness in Jersey just may be the fallibility of their greatest strength.  Martin Brodeur plays a lot of games, with many of them coming during a condensed schedule this year.  He’s 37 and will also have to carry Canada on his back during an intense two week Olympic pressure cooker.  He’s really not injury prone but can break down from overwork near the end of the season.  Truth be told, he stumbled during last year’s playoffs.  The loss was squarely on his shoulders.  Most teams can’t win the playoffs if they lose their 1st string goalie.  But that’s not the point.  The Devils need to bring in some quality relief so that Brodeur can be properly rested during the final quarter of the season.  70 regular season games as well as 30 possible Olympic and playoff games just might prove to be too much.

Stat Pack* – GF: 13th, GA: 1st, GD: +33(!), GAA: 2.15(!), PP: 5th, PK: 11th, STT: 105%, FO: 48.7%, CS: $3.33M.

Injury Report* – Clarkson (leg), Martin (broken arm), Zubrus (leg).

The Habs play New Jersey twice this month which kind of makes my stomach churn.  Winning both of these games against the conference leaders would be a litmus test of the highest order.  When it’s all said and done, I’d gladly settle for a split.  There’s no better time to steal a game than on home ice.

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