After suffering another consecutive loss and descending to the .500 mark in games played after the Olympic break, my frustrations and concerns have risen for this New Jersey Devils team. This is the second game in a row that the offense has failed to maintain any productive consistency or convert on the power play for the sixth consecutive game. I normally like to abide by the twenty-four hour rule to express my insights about my team when my frustrations are at the point, where they’re eating away at my sanity, so fortunately, my professionalism has bested the sensation this time around.
At this point in the season, attempting to trace the roots behind this team’s dysfunctions is truly an enigma in itself. General Manager Lou Lamoriello went out and arguably made his biggest move in almost a decade by acquiring star left wing Ilya Kovalchuk, whose gone pointless in his last four games and only has five goals and twelve points in sixteen games since being traded from Atlanta. While he’s clearly exiting his prime, goaltender Martin Brodeur was well rested coming out of the Olympic break with the need to prove himself, along with sitting out in two of the last four games, but has gone 5-3 in his last eight starts, accumulating an unorthodox 2.40 GAA. The Devils even have their entire squad fully healthy for the first time all season and only won once since.
I know for the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of focus and outcry against head coach Jacques Lemaire with many fans calling for his firing, citing beliefs that he’s lost control of this team and is the reason behind the offense’s lack of productivity and team’s power play woes. I’m not saying I have an established side in the ordeal but will entertain the notions the radicals hoping for a Spring 2000 repeat in coaching status may base their argument from.
I’ll admit I was very apprehensive when the Devils hired Lemaire this past summer. Knowing his reputation as a defensive minded coach, although he insisted he wouldn’t return to the trap-happy play he instilled on the Devils during his first stint, I was more so concerned with the direction the team was going at the time (an alleged youth movement), the quality of the team’s offense and defense on paper, and how bringing a veteran coach into play would impact the team’s development.
Getting into specifics, my primal concern was having a coach, who although said he wouldn’t suffocate his team with his defensively dominant mentality of veteran status, take over a team that’s proved its offensive capabilities, backed by a limited defense corps, and is replacing the voids created by their off-season losses with youth. I’ll admit I was baffled by the initial success the Devils had under Lemaire during the first half of the season, especially with the rash of injuries the team battled throughout that span. Although I was proud and excited for my team, I was always skeptical and unconvinced because I didn’t want to get my hopes up like I did last year…and the year before that…and the year before that one too.
Fast forward to now and I’m sure the majority of Devils fans caught up in the hype their team generated a few months ago wouldn’t entertain the thought their team would be enduring their current struggles. Maybe this team shows their true colors at this time of year? You can say the Devils have gone through the same course of events for the past two consecutive seasons and appear to be getting the hat trick this year. I called this recent course of events “red bull seasons”. For the past two seasons the answers appeared obvious: a suspect and overachieving defense that finally ran out of their luck, the needs up front never being fully addressed, and an overworked goaltender thinking he can do it all.
When you evaluate this current team on paper, there shouldn’t be any excuses for the way they’ve been playing. Their top six forwards include Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner, and when he wants to be, Brian Rolston…every one of those players is capable of scoring twenty-five, thirty-plus goals. The additional depth up front features the likes of Rob Niedermayer, Danius Zubrus, David Clarkson, and capable checking line players such as Dean McAmmond, Rod Pelley, rookie Vladimir Zharkov, and Pierre Luc-Letourneau Leblond. Not a bad assembly of forwards eh? On defense, the Devils have two solid stay at home defensemen in Bryce Salvador, Colin White, the return of the team’s entitled best defenseman Paul Martin, deadline acquirement Martin Skoula, who has a track record of making an impact on every team he’s played for on and off the score sheet, and are riding the inconsistent, but helpful breakout season in Andy Greene, whose legitimacy should stay on trial at least into next year. I think what they have between the pipes is self-explanatory.
Now, don’t think I’m just aimlessly rambling on as I intend on making a point with everything I’ve said. I’m sure by now you know the question I’m getting at is why would you bring in a coach who specializes in defense when your offense is clearly your team’s biggest strength? I know I may as well eat my own words as I did laud Lemaire and the Devils earlier this season and tried diffusing the avid beliefs the team’s offense would suffer because of his reputation. Some might say I answered my own question since the Devil’s defense is suspect, you bring in a coach like Lemaire to improve the defense…no, no, no. Lemaire may have improved the team’s defensive game, but the quality of the team’s defense hasn’t changed and based on the numbers, you might as well say he’s obliviously stifled the offense all season. In the first twenty games, the Devils averaged 2.6 goals for and 2.1 goals against, whereas under Brent Sutter, the Devils averaged 2.9 goals for and 2.45 goals against (which we’ll excuse because of Brodeur’s injury) in that same span last year. In the Devil’s last twenty games, they’ve averaged 2.1 goals for and 2.45 goals against, while throughout the last twenty games last year, the Devils averaged 2.65 goals for and 2.8 goals against.
As of last night, Ilya Kovalchuk’s played sixteen games with the Devils and has totaled only five goals and twelve points, whereas in his last sixteen games with the Thrashers, he accumulated eight goals and sixteen points, not to mention had thirty-one goals and fifty-eight points in forty-nine games after missing some considerable time due to injury. Before being traded to New Jersey, Kovalchuk was on pace to score forty-eight goals and total eighty-nine points, whereas now he’s poised to finish with forty-two goals and eighty-one points, stupendous numbers, but his lowest since the 2006-2007 season. This year, Zach Parise experienced one of the longest goal droughts of his career and is on pace for thirty-eight goals and eighty-two points, whereas last year under Sutter, he reached career numbers of forty-five goals and ninety-four points. Between what Parise and Kovalchuk are capable of, that’s a difference of thirteen goals, goals that could have made a vital difference in the standings and outcomes of past games, or lessen the deficits the Devils couldn’t overcome. Throughout the first half of the season, Lemaire had defense remain the team’s priority, while letting the offense do their thing, but since January,it’s clear things have changed.
No coach is perfect and I bet every coach in the league has arguably mishandled their lineup and certain players, whether they’re getting too much or little of a role or ice time. Lemaire is no exception. The first two players that come to mind are Niclas Bergfors and Johnny Oduya. At the beginning of the season, Bergfors finally earned himself a roster spot after spending four seasons in the minors and was expected to develop into a top six forward, being described as a player that’d be most effective when on a line with players that are at or above his skill level. Although he was always hard on him, Lemaire had the right idea with Bergfors, who spent most of the first half of the season on the top two lines. Before January, Bergfors was averaging around fourteen to sixteen minutes of ice time and totaled thirteen goals and twenty-six points in thirty-nine games. In a full season, he was on pace for twenty-seven goals and over fifty points. In his final fifteen games with the Devils, Bergfors didn’t score a goal and only tallied one assist, while seeing his ice time and role decline sharply. Upon being traded to Atlanta, after sixteen games, Bergfors has seven goals, twelve points, and would have been on pace for thirty-six goals and sixty-one points in a full season after being traded. Notice how his production’s increased since arriving in Atlanta and the vast difference in goals and points he was poised for when he was being used properly in New Jersey and now in Atlanta.
Johnny Oduya was a different story. After signing a three-year extension that prevented him from hitting the free agent market last summer, he was thought to be set for another productive season, where he’d arguably challenge Paul Martin as the team’s best defenseman. His struggles throughout his time in New Jersey were blatant and stagnant, which arguably affected the state of the team’s blue line…why give such a high role and quantity of ice time to someone that isn’t fulfilling expectations? It was clear Oduya wasn’t a product of Lemaire’s system, a reason Lamoriello would deny for involving him in the Kovalchuk deal. Since his arrival in Atlanta and playing in a wide open up tempo system, he’s had a goal and six points in sixteen games, which would have him on pace for five goals and thirty points in a full season…we won’t even go near what he was accumulated to have if he was still in Jersey. Oduya could be another example of an oppressed young defenseman a defensively dominated system represses, who goes to a normal team and breaches his potential.
Bergfors’ declination in role and ice time made him one of Lemaire’s biggest victims of his continual line shuffling that one could argue has caused certain players to receive undeserving quantities of ice time or lineup appearances for that matter. The evidence is in front of us that when Lemaire panics, becomes impatient, or desperate, he takes it out on his offense by mixing his forward lines and has deployed some questionable yet interesting trios, while breaking up promising and proven lines that have produced consistently in the past…just because one line is having a bad game doesn’t mean you have to ban their union for an undetermined period of time, which Lemaire has done with the ZZ Pops line, particularly with Zach Parise and Travis Zajac, the team’s golden duo. I don’t recall Brent Sutter separating Parise and Zajac once or over a period of time last year.
Earlier in the year, Niclas Bergfors was getting goals and points when he played with Parise and Zajac, not to mention was on the way to becoming a power play asset for the team as he had eight power play goals before being traded, which led the team at the time. Rookie Vladimir Zharkov also showed potential when he was on a line with Patrik Elias and Brian Rolston. Although he didn’t score, his ability to set plays up showed he had the potential to excel in that player type, and more importantly, how he knew where and when to be on the ice. Subsequently, after a few off games, Lemaire seemingly banned these two from having a top six role, limiting them to third and fourth line minutes and even scratching Bergfors and Zharkov on occasion. Now Bergfors is establishing a bright future in Atlanta, while Zharkov is clearly the lineup’s odd man out and hasn’t played a game in two weeks.,,and this is a coach that’s been lauded for his handling and preference of having a youthful presence in the lineup.
You can say he’s done the same with the defense but I’ve beaten that subject to death. How Mike Mottau, a career AHLer at best and someone, has his current role, which Lemaire would excuse by saying he plays because he can log heavy minutes is like watching someone getting mauled by a wild animal behind a shatterproof window…you can do nothing but watch. Sure Mottau can log big minutes but what can he do with those minutes? What part of his game does he excel in that makes his time on the ice useful to his team? While Lemaire goes with a predictable, yet experienced lineup, promising youngsters like Mark Fraser and Ansi Salmella ride the press box as leftovers of an already overcrowded Devils lineup.