It's a number that will forever be the cause of simultaneous feelings for fans of the New Jersey Devils. Once sprawled above it, in all capitals, the name of NIEDERMAYER. It hardly fit on the back of the red and black jersey, but in that jersey a hall of fame career was created, and then solidified. Among the best skating defensemen in NHL history, incredible stick-handling ability and a good shot. Many great moments in Devils history were a direct result of the work of one Scott Niedermayer.
The memories were all great until the summer of 2005, when the opportunity to play with his brother Rob in Anaheim was too much for Scott to turn down. Two years went by, the 27 sweater seeing little action except the occasional prospect call-up. Barry Tallackson and David Clarkson each wore the famed number for a few games, but for the first time since 1991, the number largely sat vacant.
Fast forward to the fall of 2007, when a sudden lack of defensive depth opened the door for Massachusetts native Mike Mottau, a late draft pick of the Rangers ten years prior who had been unsuccessfully trying to work himself into the NHL since. Originally expected to provide depth and experience for Lowell, Mottau made the Devils out of training camp, and what resulted was a slighly less glamorous assignment for the number 27. If this all seemed like a good read until now, that's because it was. But what happened since has begun to snowball into a notable void on an otherwise well-constructed Devils team.
Now, you might find yourself asking, "But he did make the team, so what does that say?" Well, not much in this case. The 2007-08 Devils were quite thin on defense. Bryce Salvador was still in St. Louis and would not be traded to New Jersey until March. Martin and White were there, but Oduya was still an unproven commodity, Andy Greene was very much still a prospect, and the departure of Brian Rafalski and Brad Lukowich over the summer led a panicked Lou Lamoriello to sign Vitaly Vishnevski and Karel Rachunek, as well as claim Sheldon Brookbank off waivers.
The stats do not tell the entire story. Sandwiched in between his debut -11 season and a current -2, the 2008-09 season saw Mottau rack up an unbelievable +24. It sounds hard to believe that one can just walk into a +24, unless of course you just happen to be on the ice when the Devils' monstrous line of Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner is producing at the rate they were that year. Mottau's 14 assists in 08-09 show that he did contribute some of the time, but more often then not, it seems he was in the right place at the right time more than anything. The numbers seem strange because if you watch enough Devils games, you will start to notice a few disturbing trends about the new #27. Mike Mottau is, in a word, blasé. Capable, maybe, but more bad turnovers than a burnt-down bakery and awful positioning have led this writer to look at who the defensemen on the ice were whenever a turnover has lead to a goal against the Devils. And wouldn't you know it, 9 times out of 10, skating back to the bench, seemingly unaware of it all, is #27 in red.
But therein lies another problem; skating back with him is Colin White, once viewed as future anchor of the Devils' blueline, now due to an unfortunate eye injury, a grizzly veteran whose better days are behind him. White is still able to hold his own physically, and is quite adequate. This would be more true, however, were he not always paired with Mike Mottau. Unfortunately there is no statistical way to prove this, other than looking back at every game film in existence since the beginning of Mottau's tenure, so you'll just have to trust me on this one.
Given the current state of affairs in New Jersey, with Paul Martin having missed most of the season with an arm injury, I'm not attempting to imply that Mottau shouldn't be playing at all. Rather, a player who is clearly a 6th defenseman at his best is being given top-four minutes, while promising rookie Mark Fraser is being withheld from key game situations on a nightly basis. In most cases, playing the veteran over the rookie would make sense at those times, but when that veteran is a defensive liability, a team would at least do themselves well to try the rookie in said situations and find out for sure what he is or is not capable of handling, rather than making assumptions and leaving the game in not-so-capable hands.
Unfortunately, the only people who can do anything to remedy this situation don’t see Mike Mottau as a problem, and that’s very unfortunate. Granted, there are several games where the problem is not necessarily him over anyone else. But over the season as a whole, he’d lead the league in assists if they counted all the times he assisted on the opponent’s goal.
As previously stated, it’s probably better to let our defensive prospects get playing time in Lowell and have Mottau play right now in Paul Martin's absence, but when Martin returns, Mottau should sit while Fraser continues to play. I think the Devils would be very surprised if they just let Fraser handle some of these pressure situations and see what he can do.
Unfortunately, it seems as if Mottau has some kind of spell over Jacques Lemaire and Lou Lamoriello, because on any other team in the league Mottau would have been out the door by now, or at least up in the press box. Between Fraser, Tyler Eckford and Matt Corrente, we have a group of young defensemen who are either ready to play in the NHL or ready to be trained to do so, which means someone has to be moved in order to make that happen. Hopefully if Mottau's not traded this season, his impending unrestricted free agency will ensure that he’s be off our books for good this summer. But based on the way things have been, I wouldn’t count on it.