Picking up where we left off Tuesday when Travis Hughes, from Broad Street Hockey, told us what we need to know about the Flyers, we follow the Lightning to Newark, where they play the Devils tonight. I asked John Fischer three questions about the club he's been blogging about for years, up at In Lou We Trust, and he offered up his usual great insight. Thanks to John for taking the time to share what he knows with us!
Carolyn Christians, Raw Charge:
1- The New Jersey Devils began the season as the reigning Eastern Conference champions. And they seem to be doing well so far, with only one regulation loss in 9 games (5-1-3). But unlike their opponents in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Los Angeles Kings, this club experienced a couple key personnel changes since last June. The most conspicuous is the loss of team captain Zach Parise. Less noticeable is that two assistant coaches left for new positions. Larry Robinson is now contributing to the great start in San Jose and Adam Oates is leading the Washington Capitals through their quagmire. How significant is the impact of all these losses and how has Pete DeBoer adjusted?
John Fischer, In Lou We Trust:
The most significant loss is Zach Parise in that the Devils lose a do-it-all-and-do-it-really-well forward who played in all situations and was ferocious on the forecheck. Given that much of the Devils' success have come from being aggressive, that absence hurts in addition to the production he usually provides.
I feared Larry Robinson would be a big loss as well since he ran and coached up the defense very well in New Jersey. I don't think Mike Mottau ever gets top-four minutes without his help, for example. Yet, the Devils' defense has been very good with respect to limiting shots against. They've had some sloppy periods and games but in the big picture, it's not looking like a huge loss. Peter DeBoer, I think, has tried to make the most of it.
The Devils are thin at forward but so far they've gotten just enough out of them to succeed. The Devils' remain very strong on the penalty kill, the power play has been effective to a point, and, again, the defense has been good in terms of shots against. They're just now above 50% in Fenwick percentage in close-score and tied-score games so there's further reason that he's continuing on.
I think the loss of Parise will loom larger as the season goes on, though.
Easy. David Clarkson is hot right now, Ilya Kovalchuk isn't.
Clarkson has always been a shoot-first-pass-later kind of player. DeBoer has put him up with Patrik Elias all season long and either Travis Zajac or Dainius Zubrus as the third man on the line. Those three are pretty good to very good two-way, possession players and so Clarkson can just focus on firing away without being a liability. As proof, Clarkson leads the team in shots with 38. He just scored two goals against Our Hated Rivals to continue his impressive run of production but it's worth noting that one came off a rebound and one came off a fumble by Rick Nash. They're good goals but it's not like he's been sniping them all day long.
As for Kovalchuk, I think he's just cold. Like Parise, he plays in all situations and he's been contributing in that regard. He's been one of New Jersey's best penalty killers, he's the pointman one would dream to have on the power play, and while he had a frustrating weekend, he was skating with purpose and pace against the Rangers. The only criticism I can think for him as a whole is that he should get more shots on net. He has had a tendency to defer too often when he has an open lane to shoot. Kovalchuk's a good passer but he could be a bit more selfish. You can extend that criticism to the rest of the top-six not named Clarkson. Even when Kovalchuk hits, say, Zajac with a pass across the slot off the rush, Zajac tosses it back for some reason. I think they just need to bomb away. The goals will come.
As a side note, Ilya Kovalchuk's massive amount of ice time is the result of being out for entire power plays, regular shifts on the PK, and getting double-shifted when the fourth line goon/not-good-player sits early in the game. The coach wants him out there that much, which speaks to how they see #17 as much as how they see the rest of the roster.
3 - The average age of the New Jersey Devils roster on opening day indicated they are the oldest club in the NHL at 29.7 years (according to James Mirtle's number-crunching) Over at Hockey's Future, the Devils' prospect pool ranks 27th out of 30. First off: Does the team, in reality, seem to be "old" to you? (or are the goalies skewing the numbers?) And do you feel a sense of urgency with this group, like the window is closing on the Devils chance for another deep playoff run, maybe even another Cup?
The Devils are an older team, that is true. Their best forward from last season, Patrik Elias, is now 36 and Dainius Zubrus is 34; they represent a third of the Devils' top six. The defense has only two regulars below the age of 30. The goalies are very old relative of other players.
I don't think there's ever a "window" for a team to make a run to the Stanley Cup. I didn't think the Devils would make one last season but they most certainly did. As long as a team as a quality general manager and an understanding the short, medium, and longterm roster situation, a team can remain competitive and get into the playoffs.
Once you get in, then a run is always possible based on matchups, run of play, etc. So while the Devils are old and they're thin on forward prospects - but absolutely loaded with defensemen prospects - I wouldn't count the Devils out just yet. When (If?) Lou retires, then I'd start to worry a little more about whether they can keep playing beyond the regular season.