Let's be real now...the way things have been going for these New Jersey Devils, the Olympic break couldn't have come any sooner. Since January, the Devils have gone 9-13, losing eleven of those thirteen in regulation, and were shut out four times. Over the course of these twenty-two games, the Devils have barely averaged over two goals a game and save a significantly tighter cushion, the fact their position in the standings remained static over the past two months simply amazes me. With twenty-one games remaining this season, hopes are high the Devils can regroup, recharge, and reconnect with the winning ways that helped them excel throughout the first half of the season.
The Olympic break provides three things the Devils players, coaches, and management can utilize if they’re properly taken advantage of. First, there’s the momentum change that can benefit or kill the pace certain teams have taken throughout the season. As we’ve seen, it’s been win one, lose one, win one, lose two, win one, lose three, etc. for the Devils since the new year commenced. The fact a shakeup, possibly the biggest this team’s seen in almost a decade or franchise history (acquiring Kovalchuk) dented the funk the Devils are in at most is very disheartening. Although Kovy’s had a goal and four points in his first five games, which are solid numbers, he’s yet to reach expectations that came with his arrival (then again, few big name players on new teams ever do). If all goes well, the resumption of the season two weeks from now can serve as a new beginning for the team where the consistency of the team’s offensive production, Marty’s dominance in net, and the defense’s ability to maintain the reputation of its mentality can be replenished.
I guess you can consider these numbers…in the 2005-2006 season, the Devils entered the Olympic break with a 30-22-6 record and finished 46-27-9 for the year, going 16-5-3 upon returning from break. Before the 2006 Olympics, the Devils were on pace to finish 42-32-8, whereas after the break, they were poised for a 54-17-11 record. Before the 2002 Olympics (although this was a different hockey era), the Devils were 25-19-9-4 and finished 41-28-9-4 for the year, going 16-9 after the break. Before the 2002 Olympics, the Devils were poised to finish 35-27-13-7, whereas after the break, the numbers indicate they’d have finished 52-30. While I’m sure these numbers may have changed if the situations presented transpired, I hope you yet the point I’m trying to make…the Devils have benefited from that two week pause that occurs once every four years. The Devil’s current record of 37-21-3 is the best they’ve had going into an Olympic break since 1998. Despite the discouraging stumble that’s raised great concern, if Devils history maintains its consistency every four years, the numbers provide reason for Devils fans to keep their heads raised high once the season resumes.
Getting on back on track, the Olympic break can provide a good amount of time for the players, coaches, and management to evaluate themselves, their team, rights and wrongs, and outcomes that potentially await them. We all know the Devils are a good team that’s capable of better play than what they’ve done since January. Having said that, it’s clear they’re far from perfect. The first three quarters of the season should have given us enough indication on the team’s strengths, weaknesses, and who the over and underachieving players are. As fans, we’ve raved about their strengths such as the team first mentality and continual functioning of “the system”, the team’s ability to win games in multiple situations, and the standout play of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Andy Greene, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Patrik Elias. We may have complained twice as much this year about their flaws such as the inconstancy of the special teams, undeserving ice time and roles of players such as Jay Pandolfo, Mike Mottau, and Colin White, and Lemaire’s frequent line shuffling during games (which we thought was a solitary trait the team was liberated from with the resignation of Brent Sutter).
There are many things I’m sure we all hope we want the likes of Jacques Lemaire, Lou Lamoriello, and players we’ve singled out all season to realize. I’m sure we all want Lemaire to realize he doesn’t have to mix his lines up after one bad period or shift and in order to have an effective offense, he should realize another two things: Put the players he has in the lineup in situations where they can be utilized to be best of their ability, and the offense has more capable pairings other than Parise and Zajac. I recall Brian Rolston (who I think receives the most undeserving criticism of anyone on the team) and Patrik Elias produced quite often when they were on the ice together. If Rolston’s usefulness can’t be extracted any other way, I see no reason why Elias and Rolston shouldn’t be entwined together the way Parise and Zajac are…why not give a Kovalchuk-Elias-Rolston combo a shot (correct me if it’s already been attempted)? I’m also sure we’re pleading for a better-or in this case, lesser handling of the likes of Jay Pandolfo and Mike Mottau. While many Devils fans are likely repulsed by seeing Pandolfo and Mottau respectively on the third line, second defensive pairing, and penalty kill (currently twentieth at 83.7%), it’s possible Lemaire’s simply working with what he has, as he’s yet to work with a fully healthy roster this year.
While acquiring Kovalchuk was a shakeup in itself, will Lou think that wasn’t enough to solidify his team’s anticipating cup run this spring? The Devils still have a chunk of cap space and tradable assets to play with and some analysts, such as the guys on NHL network (I forget who in particular said it so don’t call me on it) don’t believe Lou is done just yet. I doubt we’ll see Lamoriello pursue another star forward, but another role playing wing, top three center, or second pairing defenseman or two shouldn’t be out of the question. I don’t consider myself an insider, but a friend of mine with a source in the Sabres organization said in New Jersey’s last meeting with the Sabres, scouts from the Nashville Predators attended the contest, but weren’t scouting anybody from Buffalo. Defenseman Dan Hamhuis, a pending unrestricted free agent is rumored to be available, and while I doubt Nashville’s parting with any of their essential assets, since they’re involved in the Western Conference’s tight-knit playoff race, how would the potential realism of a deal sending Jason Arnott back to Jersey appeal to Devils fans? Unlikely, but so was the Kovalchuk trade, which reminds us once again how you never know what Lou Lamoriello has up his sleeve.
After the Olympic break concludes, Devils fans should be relieved to know their team will be two weeks closer to having a full, healthy roster for the first time this year. Players such as Patrik Elias (despite playing in the Olympics), Anssi Salmela, and Bryce Salvador, who’ve battled nagging injuries throughout, or at some point this year will have two full weeks to further recuperate, especially if they’ve played with injuries the public and media are oblivious to. Paul Martin and David Clarkson, who’ve been out with injuries since early October and late November, respectively, are projected to be returning, or close to returning between late February and early March and to say their absences haven’t been missed is a bold, ludicrous statement. Clarkson was expected to break the twenty goal plateau this year, while being a potent physical force that makes things happen at both ends of the ice, who’s capable of being used in any situation. Martin, who continues to hold the title as the team’s top defenseman, will add much needed stability on the blue line, a boost on the defense’s ability to be flexible offensively and defensively, not to mention Martin can log more minutes than any player on the Devil’s roster.
Through the eyes of many fans, the return of Paul Martin and David Clarkson better the team outside of the skills both players contribute. With two players returning, guaranteed to be lineup regulars, it leaves the Devils with fourteen forwards and seven defensemen. That means one forward gets demoted to Lowell and one defenseman rides the press box or follows the same fate. With Clarkson and Martin’s skill and capabilities, hopes are high the roles and ice time of players such as Jay Pandolfo and Mike Mottau, who I’m sure is every fan’s choice as the odd man out on defense, will be significantly reduced. Considering the outcome of Ilkka Pikkarainen and limited use of Andrew Peters, there’s surely reason to set high hopes to see the undeserving players get their due when their superiors return to the lineup. On that note, I’ll end this write up by sharing a belief many will deem obvious in what an injustice it will be if the roles and ice time currently endured by the likes of Mike Mottau, Jay Pandolfo, and arguably Colin White and Dean McAmmond (the only reason he’s currently a lineup regular is because of the rash of injuries the team’s fought all year) go unchanged, while their deserving demotions are rubbed off on the team’s unproven or underused players.