Tonight's 3-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks is the Devil's sixth consecutive win, tying them for the division lead, while getting them one win shy of becoming .500 at home. The Devils have gone 12-2 since their worrisome 0-2 start, which I acknowledge my frequent bringing up of for good reason. Record aside, it looked as if the two winless games forecasted a long and misfortunate season for the team, whose struggled to fully reestablish the offensive punch their game featured last year, and have scored no more than two or three goals on average. In addition to the offensive woes, the injury bug returned to the Devil's locker room with a vengeance, claiming defensemen Paul Martin, Johnny Oduya, forwards Jay Pandolfo, Rob Niedermayer, and for tonight, Brian Rolston. Despite the return of Patrik Elias, one would assume the Devil's struggles would be constant, despite having enduring a similar injury scenario last year, this team is comparatively less skillful than last year's and features a number of different faces.
So having said that, the question stands...Why have the Devils emerged out of the ashes of adversity once again and how is this situation and team currently different than last year's? Starting with record comparisons the Devils are currently 12-4, while they were 7-9 at this time last year. A plausible excuse for the team's poor play at the time was their adjustment period after learning Martin Brodeur would be out for over half the season, in addition to the handful or so of injuries the team had at the time, which the Devils are currently experiencing once again. In fact, this is the Devil's best start after sixteen games since the lockout ended. At this point in the season, the Devils were 6-10 in 2007, 10-6 in 2006, and 7-9 in 2005. This doesn't necessarily answer the question behind the team's success and further asks what the team is doing right to be where they are right now.
Over the summer, GM Lou Lamoriello avoided cashing in at the free agent market, because he believed certain prospects in the organization were capable of sufficiently succeeding the roles that departing players left, while having veterans step their current roles up. After a discouraging start, a frustrating two months of standing pat looks to be proving its case. After scoring his first goal of the season, rookie right wing Niclas Bergfors has had seven points in nine games that included four goals, giving him nine points for the season. The implied replacement for Brian Gionta, Bergfors' nine points in sixteen games are similar to Gionta's three goals and eleven points he had last year at this point in the season. Defenseman Andy Greene has two goals and eight points in thirteen games. The Devils are also 12-1 with Greene in the lineup. Defenseman Mark Fraser has played a sound defensive game, while forward Matt Halischuk hasn't registered a point this year, is making up for it in other ways, and is keeping up with the game's pace, although it's easy to tell he needs another year in the minors before being committed to a full time roster spot.
As Lou predicted, veterans are stepping up and maintaining bigger roles. After a slow start, members of the ZZ Pop Line (Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner) seem to be continuing where they left off from last year as the three currently combine for 17 goals and 45 points. Brian Rolston's been having a roller coaster season thus far, having about three pointless weeks after he tallied four in his first five games. He had two goals and three points in his last three games, which hopefully continues tomorrow night in Pittsburgh. David Clarkson has arguably stepped up the most, whose play is turning heads. Clarkson has five goals, thirteen points, and leads the team in penalty minutes and fighting majors, proving the case of his continual development into a top six power forward.
The current play of the team's rookies and veterans has been vital, and could improve if the offense puts the puck in the back of the net more frequently. The players that have fallen to injury need to be considered as well because anyone currently on the Devil's injured reserve list has ultimately had little impact on the team's current success. The Devil's top two defensemen Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya have been mediocre at best before falling to injury. Martin only had two assists and was plus one in nine games, while Oduya was pointless, minus five, and had sixteen penalty minutes, none of which were fighting majors in eleven games. Oduya's play was a concern, along with Paul Martin's scarce offensive production, although he played serviceable defensive hockey. It's obvious both defensemen haven't played to their full potential and the fact the Devils have lost once since Paul Martin's injury could indicate both defensemen haven't had as big of an impact on the team as one might initially perceive, which created the opportunity for players like Andy Greene and Mark Fraser to step up and prove their worth.
Jay Pandolfo was enjoying a solid rebound season before getting injured. He reestablished himself as the team's top checking wing and penalty killer, and had a pair of points in nine games, which is encouraging for a third line winger. Players like Pandolfo are ultimately replaceable and like losing Madden and Gionta, the Devils have lost more of a team face instead of unique authentic skill. Can the same currently be said for Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya? Out of the four players currently on injured reserve, Rob Niedermayer led the four with two goals and seven points in thirteen games as the Devil's third line center, comparatively more sufficient than John Madden's three goals and six points he had at that point last year. While Niedermayer's presence might be missed the most, the team's recent success has picked up the slack left, along with rookie Tim Sestito making a secure primary fill-in until Niedermayer's return.
The early season success is undoubtedly something for Devils fans to enjoy and rave about. After a quiet ascension in the standings, many deem the Devils one of the hottest teams in the league, despite their rash of injuries. Although the strong start is something different at this time of the season for the Devils, I'm not entirely sold for three reasons. First, I still believe the Devils haven't proved anything yet. Despite the new faces and victories, the core changed little from last year, the same core that surged through the first 3/4 of the season last year, only to collapse at the end and suffer an early playoff exit. Second is the lack of sufficient offense (although this team's been much better with their one goal leads), a concern I've expressed that won't change until this team shows they're capable of expanding their victories beyond the 2-1, 3-2, and 3-1 games we've seen. Third and most important, it's still very, very early. The Devils only played sixteen games and have five and a half months of the regular season left, where they'll play sixty-six more games, where anything and anything can and will happen, as proved in the past two seasons. I'm trying to remain realistic and not get anyone's hopes up, although I hope I end up being wrong and what's going on here may, in fact be the start of something good.