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Devils At The Break: Elias Returns To All-Star Form

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Patrik Elias played in his third All Star game yesterday, scoring a goal in the loss. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

This will be a regular feature during the Devils’ five game All-Star break. In this feature, we’ll look at overall team news, discuss individual player performances, and give expectations for the second half of the season. You can find all these articles under the “Devils At The Break” category located on the sidebar.

It’s been a rough few years for Patrik Elias.

The franchise leader in points, Elias hasn’t been the healthiest skater the past few seasons. Various injuries sidelined the left-winger, but last season was particularly troubling. He missed several games with after undergoing surgery to repair a hernia. Then, as he was beginning to contribute to the team, he sustained a concussion and missed several other games.

Heading into the season, expectations were high for the entire offense. Teamed with Jason Arnott, fans and analysts figured Elias would record better numbers.

But no one envisioned this.

At the All-Star break, Elias is the Devils’ best scorer. His 37 points leads the team, and he’s second with 13 goals. He leads the team in game-winning goals (4), and his powerplay production (seven points) also tops the team. But it’s not only his offense that’s improved.

Elias became the unquestioned leader of the team this season. A former captain, Elias never shied away from tough questions. He provided the media with honest answers and called out teammates for subpar play. Even without wearing the “C”, there was never a question about who led the Devils. With Jamie Langenbrunner traded, I argued the team should appoint Elias captain.

Without the puck, Elias still poses a threat to opposing teams. He’s become one of the main “quarterbacks” on the Devils’ powerplay, controlling all the play along the side boards. While its stalled lately, he’s helped improve the powerplay. He remains one of the best penalty killers on the roster as well.

Everything about Elias’ game improved this season. With the puck, he’s creating more opportunities to score. It’s a skill that’s been lacking for the past few seasons. With the increase in shots, Elias is creating more opportunities to score. And, unlike several of his teammates, his shots are finding the back of the net.

Elias took a backseat to other big names on the Devils’ roster during training camp. But as the season progressed, he rose to the top. This might not be Elias’ best statistical season, but he’s proven he’s finally healthy and ready to return to form.

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Devils At The Break: The Zach Attack Takes A Seat

January 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Zach Parise has missed almost the entire season with a torn meniscus. Photo Credit: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

This will be a regular feature during the Devils’ five game All-Star break. In this feature, we’ll look at overall team news, discuss individual player performances, and give expectations for the second half of the season. You can find all these articles under the “Devils At The Break” category located on the sidebar.

For the past few seasons, the New Jersey Devils dealt with significant injuries.

Two years ago, Martin Brodeur missed almost thirty games after an elbow injury. Last season, several players missed significant time, including Patrik Elias and Paul Martin. Despite those injuries, the Devils found players who could plug the holes.

An injury to Zach Parise, however, wasn’t an easy fix.

Parise, who left the ice in a game against the Los Angeles Kings on October 30, sustained a torn meniscus and will probably not return this season. For a player in a contract year, it was a blow to his bargaining power. His loss also hurt the team, eliminating one of their biggest offensive weapons.

Something wasn’t right with Parise at the beginning of the season. The Devils’ left-winger lacked that extra gear on the ice. Many attributed it to conditioning, but there was a deeper secret – Parise only had one good knee. His other, which he hurt during summer conditioning, hampered his play. Parise played on it, believing it could improve over time.

It wouldn’t. The knee continued to hamper Parise, and his play reflected it. In 12 games, he recorded only six points (three goals, three assists). The knee problem constantly plagued him, and it all came to a head during that Kings game. After a harmless check as center ice, Parise hobbled over to the bench and sat doubled-over in pain.

Parise's presence in the owners box has been an unfortunate sight for Devils' fans. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Since then, the void in the Devils lineup has been noticeable. The first line isn’t nearly as effective and lacks Parise’s creativity and shot. A pure goal scorer, the team lacks his quick-strike ability. And while the offense has improved, Parise would make them that much better.

The biggest player impacted from the injury was Travis Zajac. Zajac and Parise knew how each other played, and they could make amazing plays on the ice. With teams focusing on Parise, Zajac became a good first-line center. Last season, Zajac posted career highs in goals (25) and points (67). Without Parise, though, Zajac hasn’t found his offensive rhythm. Through 49 games, he only has 26 points (seven goals, 19 assists).

Parise’s injury continues to reverberate throughout the entire lineup. With impending restricted free agency looming, the organization needs to make a decision on Parise. The injury is the first major injury of Parise’s young career. But it will come into the negotiations.

After so many productive years, the Zach Attack disappeared for the season. His absence still affects the lineup, and has been one of the biggest disappointments of the Devils first half of the season.

Devils At The Break: The Failures Of Ilya Kovalchuk

January 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Ilya Kovalchuk failed to live up to the expectations of his 15-year, $100 million contract during the first half of the season. Photo Credit: Jenniffer Brown/The Star-Ledger

This will be a regular feature during the Devils’ five game All-Star break. In this feature, we’ll look at overall team news, discuss individual player performances, and give expectations for the second half of the season. You can find all these articles under the “Devils At The Break” category located on the sidebar.

It’s been a tough start to Ilya Kovalchuk‘s 15-year, $100 million contract with the New Jersey Devils.

Kovalchuk, the crowning jewel of the Devils’ offseason, has yet to produce Kovalchukian numbers. His goal scoring, once great, seems to disappear. His creativity was stymied by opposing defenses every game. His defensive effort slipped. Worse, he was a healthy scratch for being late to a meeting.

With Jacques Lemaire behind the bench, Kovalchuk improved dramatically. But even with his improvement, the first half has been one of both frustration and disappointment for Kovalchuk.

Kovalchuk’s season began ominously during the summer, when his contract created a two month mini-drama. On July 19, New Jersey announced it signed Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million contract. The deal, the longest in NHL history, faced several challenges. While the players association approved the deal, the league rejected the deal because of cap circumvention. That kicked off a summer of arbitration hearings, contract negotiations and rampant rumors. Eventually, the contract passed, but not without amendments from the league and various fines for the Devils.

With “The Kovalchuk Saga” over, the team could finally focus on working Kovalchuk into the offense. Head coach John MacLean decided to stack his first line and move Kovalchuk to the right-wing. The possibility of complete offensive dominance raced through the minds of fans and analysts. The combination seemed to work, as the line opened the season with two goals against the Dallas Stars. That, however, would be the height of their success.

As the season wore on, Kovalchuk shifted around the entire lineup. His offense was nowhere to be found, and MacLean attempted to jump start him by any means. Kovalchuk played with every line, often double-shifted. But his goal production continued to spiral downward. It all culminated in one of the most disappointing moments of the season, during a shootout:

That failed attempt summarized Kovalchuk’s struggles in a singular moment. One of the most talented scorers no longer had confidence in himself.

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Devils At The Break: The End Of The Streak

January 27, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the only times this year we saw John MacLean smile. Photo Credit: Andy Marlin/Getty Images

This will be a regular feature during the Devils’ five game All-Star break. In this feature, we’ll look at overall team news, discuss individual player performances, and give expectations for the second half of the season. You can find all these articles under the “Devils At The Break” category located on the sidebar.

The New Jersey Devils made playoff appearances commonplace during the past 13 seasons. This season, however, ushered in a new era, one where fans and players probably won’t see New Jersey in the playoffs.

The Devils, mired in last place, will need a Herculean effort to even position themselves for the playoffs. In their remaining 33 games, New Jersey must go nearly perfect to gain enough points to contend. They’d also need a tremendous amount of help from other contending teams. This perfect storm, unfortunately, won’t occur.

So now, the fans, players and organization enter the post All-Star break as – gasp – sellers. It’s an unknown feeling, one which could determine the direction of the organization for the next few seasons. For many fans, however, the shock and disappointment of this unknown time are over.

The Devils, as we all know, opened this season with great expectations. The offense looked stacked, Martin Brodeur returned to his Vezina ways just a season ago, and new coach John MacLean promised a fresh, up-tempo attack. If only the games were played on paper.

New Jersey’s “super team” fell flat on its face. The offense fell flat, the defense looked miserable and their goaltending was atrocious. Injuries also piled up, shelving important players like Zach Parise, Bryce Salvador and Brian Rolston.

Through it all, MacLean couldn’t resuscitate his team. Players seemed to quit after goals, and no changes worked. Eventually, with a 9-22-2 record, Lou Lamoriello decided to fire MacLean. Lamoriello, known to take control of teams, entrusted former coach Jacques Lemaire to turn his team around.

Lemaire’s time as coach began as MacLean’s ended. In his first three games – all losses – the Devils were outscored 17-3. Even after starting 1-7-0, Lemaire continued to adamantly argue this squad had talent. Then, the Devils started winning. Eventually, they put together a four-game win streak and finished for the All-Star break on a 6-1-1 run.

The recent success won’t bring the Devils to the playoffs, but it shows a return to Devils’ hockey. The team defense is better, the offense scores goals, and it seems Brodeur found his stride. Lemaire re-built a solid foundation within this organization, and the players now have a system that works.

The post All-Star break won’t be fun for the Devils. Their 13-year playoff streak, second to only Detroit’s current 19 season run, will come to an end. Players will be moved, the team will lose, and pride will be the motivation for several players. It’s not the situation many expected for this franchise. But if the past eight games show anything, the Devils won’t go down without a fight.

Devils At The Break: Ilya Kovalchuk Comes To Town

February 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In the fourth installment of “Devils At The Break,” I’ll take a look at the trade for left-winger Ilya Kovalchuk. The trade, one of the most aggressive by general manager Lou Lamoriello in his tenure, hasn’t had immediate benefits. But the trade served its purpose – to spark the team and add a potentially dangerous weapon.

The Atlanta Thrashers desperately tried to keep their superstar winger in their uniform. Atlanta general manager Don Waddell didn’t want to trade the team’s captain, who scored 328 goals since being drafted in 2001. The Thrashers, an expansion team in 1999-2000, couldn’t find sustained success, only making one playoff appearance. Kovalchuk balked at a 12 year, $101 million dollar extension, and the race for Kovalchuk was on.

On February 4, the trade between the Devils and Thrashers was announced. The Thrashers agreed to trade Kovalchuk and defenseman Anssi Salmela to the Devils in exchange for defenseman Johnny Oduya, rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round selection in this years draft. The teams also exchanged second-round picks in this year’s draft.

Kovalchuk’s offensive numbers immediately placed him as the Devils’ leading scorer. In 49 games with Atlanta, “Kovy” netted 31 goals and collected 27 assists. He also tallied 19 points on the powerplay, which gave coach Jaques Lemaire a weapon to run the point on the powerplay.

Kovy made his debut with the team the next night against the Maple Leafs. The winger didn’t score any goals, but he assisted on two goals that night. But the goals would be hard to come by. Kovalchuk didn’t score in his next three games. He didn’t even register a point. And the winger was pressing. He recorded eight shots against the Rangers on February 6, nine against the Flyers on February 8 and another five against the Flyers two days later. In the four games since the trade, Kovalchuk put 23 shots on net but couldn’t break through.

Kovalchuk finally scored his first goal as a Devil against the Predators February 12. He also recorded two assists and finished with three points, his highest offensive output for the team.  It seemed as if a weight was lifted from his shoulders. Devils fans even threw their hats on the ice to celebrate the occasion.

But the results of the trade haven’t been immediate. The Devils went 2-2-1 in their final six games before the break, and they continued their month-long slump. But what the trade brought the Devils was someone who can score goals and create his own chances. His offensive numbers are underwhelming thus far, with only one goal and four assists in the six games. But his offensive potential drew the team to him, and it’s that offensive potential we will see in the second half.

Looking back on the trade, I would think the Devils clearly made their team better. They gave up Oduya, who took a step back after last season’s offensive performance. Bergfors showed a lot of promise for a rookie, but he constantly fell out of favor with Lemaire. The Devils saw this year how much talent they have in their system, and Cormier’s disciplinary issues raised a red flag in the organization. The team acquired a proven scorer, something they’ve sorely lacked, and they didn’t give up much to get him.

Kovy’s slow start wasn’t encouraging, but I believe he will heat up during the latter part of this season. In the two games before the break, Kovy began to show promise with Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner. The powerplay can only be better with Kovy on the point, and I expect to see it flushed out and better after break. While the immediate results haven’t been evident, I believe this trade will be seen as a success when looking back on this season.

Photo Credit: Bill Kostroun, Associated Press

Devils At The Break: The Curious Case of Brian Rolston

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

In the third installment of “Devils At The Break,” I’ll take a look at the Brian Rolston, the Devils’ left-winger. His second go-around with the Devils has been subpar at best, and I’ll take a look at his performance.

In the summer of 2008, Rolston was one of the big free agents on the market. The 33-year old winger came off three straight 30+ goal seasons with the Minnesota Wild, and his big shot ability allowed him to quarterback the powerplay. And his powerplay numbers were stellar, as he accumulated three straight seasons of 10+ goals.

The New Jersey Devils needed a goal scorer, but Rolston’s powerplay ability drew the team to him. The Devils didn’t have a true point man, with Paul Martin still a few years away from becoming an above-average offensive defenseman. The Devils offered Rolston a four-year, $20.25 million dollar contract, which the left-winger accepted. Rolston was, once again, a New Jersey Devil.

Brian Rolston of the New Jersey Devils handles the puck as Alex Tanguay of the Tampa Bay Lightning chases him during their game on January 8, 2010 at The Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

In his first season as a Devil, Rolston underperformed. The winger lost an edge and crashed into the boards in Atlanta, and had to be helped off the ice. Rolston suffered a high-ankle sprain and missed considerable time. He played through the injury, and his numbers reflected it. He finished last season with 15 goals, 17 assists, and 32 points, his lowest offensive output in seven years. He didn’t deliver on the powerplay either, finishing with eight goals and eight assists.

This year, Rolston continues to underperform. The winger has 17 goals and 13 assists on the season, which will place him above last year’s numbers. But Rolston’s major problem comes from with his lack of shot accuracy. Although there is no specific stat to track missed shot attempts, I can confidently say that many of Rolston’s shots miss the net. He fails to hit the net time and time again, especially on the power play. Those misses greatly diminish the impact of his shot. Rolston can make goalies duck in fear, as Jean-Sebastian Giguere all showed us. His shot leveled Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, leaving him laying on the ice for several minutes. But the winger hasn’t shown that same power with the Devils. As a result, Rolston hasn’t been as effecitve scorer worth almost five million dollars a year.

But the Devils should have seen this decline coming before offering him a contract. Rolston, who recently turned 37, began to decline while with the Wild. Here are his numbers from his three years in Minnesota:

Year              Goals        Assists           Points          Plus/Minus         Powerplay Points

2005-2006       34             45                  79                 14                                    32

2006-2007       31              33                 64                   6                                     34

2007-2008        31             28                59                  -1                                     28

As we can all see, Rolston’s production declined each of his three years in Minnesota. He was still productive, scoring over 50 points each season. However, his goals, assists, points and plus/minus all steadily declined. It should come as no surpise that, as Rolston ages, his production will decline. But with his offensive firepower, it shouldn’t fall off as steeply as it has. I cite his lack of shot accuracy as one of the main issues for his decline. But I’m sure that age accounts for part of the reason.

Almost halfway through his four year deal, Rolson hasn’t been the investment the Devils planned on. He hasn’t brought any significant upgrade to the powerplay, and his offensive skills look average at best. With the Devils in almost desperate need of some blue-line help, I would think Rolston would be the one dangled to other teams. It would be a tough sell for trades with his diminished production, but general manager Lou Lamoriello may be able to sell Rolston on his potential.

It’ll be interesting to see if Rolston stays for the length of the contract, but from what I’ve seen, Rolston already wore out his welcome. He’s become an older player whose skills have diminished. If he can find his offense, he can be a productive member of this team. But he continues to hurt the powerplay, and now skates on the third line (a checking line). Brian Rolston, a player who came with such high expectations, shouldn’t be expected to contribute as he did in Minnesota. He’s merely become an older player who will produce at a high level.

Devils At The Break: The Young Guys Step Up

February 21, 2010 2 comments

In the second installment of “Devils At The Break”, I’ll take a look at some of the young players who have stepped in and contributed during the first part of the season. With the plethora of injuries the Devils faced this year, their AHL players showed the talent the team built within their system. None of us can be sure what the young guys will bring in the second part of the season, but their play has, without a doubt, positively impacted the team in the first part of the season.

Mark Fraser

In training camp, the Devils young defensemen showed they could perform in coach Jacques Lemaire’s system. But when injuries occurred on the blue line, Fraser was the one defenseman to stick around.

Fraser was drafted in the third round of the 2005 draft, and up until this season spent considerable time with the Lowell Devils. While in Lowell last season, Fraser played 74 games, leading all defenseman with 14 assists and 17 points.

Mark FraserFraser received his call up this year on October 19, and set the tone in the Devils first matchup against Pittsburgh. Fraser scored on a shot from the point at 9:50 of the first period, and the Devils won the game, 4-1. Fraser added another goal against Pittsburgh on December 21. For the first part of the season, Fraser recorded two goals and three assists. He also finished +4 for the first half, an impressive number for a young player.

Fraser hasn’t seen much ice time, only averaging 12:12 of ice time a night. But the Devils young defenseman has played solid in his time on the ice. Fraser doesn’t seem to be out of position often, and he often makes the smart play. While he hasn’t become a staple of the defense yet, I think Fraser outplayed veterans such as Mike Mottau several times leading up to the break. It’ll be interesting to see whether he receives more playing time once the Olympic break ends.

Niclas Bergfors

The now-departed right-winger, who went to Atlanta in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade, showed the offensive talent we’d all heard about for the past few years. He looked to be one of the promising rookies for the Devils this year, but fell out of favor with Lemaire, which led to his departure.

Bergorfs was selected by the Devils in the first round of the 2005 draft, and became a regular in the Devils organization in 2007-2008. It wasn’t until last year that Bergfors broke out, scoring 22 goals and collecting 51 points for Lowell. He also recorded 12 power play points with the AHL club.

Niclas BergforsBergfors broke camp with the Devils, and he was expected to contribute from the outset. He found success on the powerplay, where he scored tallied 13 total powerplay points – including eight goals. But his offensive success couldn’t please his coach. Lemaire constantly berated Bergfors for not playing defensive hockey and taking too long with his shifts. The rookie only averaged 14:53 of ice time with the Devils, and his departure in the Kovalchuk trade came as no surprise.

His offensive talent shining, Bergfors has made an immediate impact for the Thrashers. In five games he’s already scored three goals – two game-winners – and recorded four points. Despite his absence, the right-winger contributed to the Devils while he wore the red, white and black sweater.

Vladmir Zharkov

Another young right-winger, Zharkov was called up after getting off to a hot start for the Lowell Devils. Even though his offensive has slowed with the big club, Zharkov managed to stay around and become a productive member of the Devils.

The Devils selected Zharkov in the third round of the 2006 draft. The Russian-born winger joined the Lowell Devils in 2008, and over parts of two seasons (92 games) recorded 17 goals, 38 assists and 55 points. He also finished the 2008-2009 AHL campaign with a +23 rating.

Vladmir ZharkovThe Devils right-winger made his NHL debut against the Islanders on November 28. Though he didn’t get on the scoresheet, Zharkov put five shots on net and had several scoring chances. The rookie still hasn’t scored his first NHL goal, but he’s recorded eight assists while playing between the Devils third and fourth line. With some of the games he’s played, I would think we’ll see him light the lamp in the second part of the season.

What Zharkov lacks in offense, he’s made up for with his defensive play. I haven’t seen many of the Devils forecheck and play solid defense like Zharkov. The reason he’s earned his consistent spot in the lineup comes from his solid play in his own end. He looks to pressure the puck whenever he’s on the ice, which is something Lemaire stresses to all of his forwards. Zharkov doesn’t play a ton of minutes, averaging 11:35 in ice time a game, but he’s made the most of his opportunity. He’s also seen some time with the powerplay, showing a little more responsibility for this team.

There have been other AHL players who played for the Devils this year, from Matt Halischuk (20 games) to Rob Davison (1 game). Many of these players contributed, but the three above contributed the most to the team before the Olympic break. With the injuries the Devils sustained this season, the play of Fraser, Bergfors and Zharkov helped to ease the pain of losing some key regulars. While none of them have become “twenty minutes a night” players, they’ve each given something to the team. Without their solid play, the Devils would have faced an even greater uphill battle in the first part of the season. While some of them may lose time or be sent back down, general manager Lou Lamoriello and Lemaire now know the caliber of players they have waiting in the wings.

Photo Credits:

Mark Fraser’s photo: NewJerseyDevils.com

Niclas Bergfor’s photo: Getty Images

Vladmir Zharkov’s photo: Jonathan Newton, Washington Post