Former New Jersey Devils defenseman Brian Rafalski will announce his retirement in the coming weeks, according to several media reports.
Rafalski, who signed a five-year, $30-million contract with the Detroit Red Wings after the 2007 season, will forgo the final year of his contract. He’ll leave $6 million on the table after retiring and open a big hole along the Red Wings blueline.
After going undrafted out of the University of Wisconsin, Rafalski spent four seasons in Europe – one in Sweden and three in Finland – before signing with the Devils before the 1999-2000 season. He finished with 32 points in the regular season, ranking third among the team’s defenseman, and averaged over 21 minutes of ice time in the playoffs. He helped lead the Devils to their second Stanley Cup championship.
He continued to take on a more prominent role on New Jersey’s defense throughout his seven-year stay. He led all defenseman in points five of the next six seasons, becoming the most consistent offensive threat along the blueline. He routinely topped 25 minutes of ice time in the playoffs, playing in all situations.
He won yet another cup during the 2002-2003 season, totaling 11 points and once again averaging over 25 minutes of ice time.
Rafalski became a main cog on the Devils blueline, an achievement considering the defense’s tremendous depth. In an era where Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Sheldon Souray all donned a Devils jersey, Rafalski found a way to stand out and make a name for himself. That’s no small feat, especially for someone who couldn’t catch on in the NHL for four years after college. His offensive skill and no frills play made him a fan favorite and one of the most successful Devils’ defenseman.
Despite leaving the team four seasons ago, the Devils have yet to fill the void left by Rafalski. Several replacements, from David Hale to Paul Martin, all failed to deliver the same offensive production. It’s possible that some prospects, like Alexander Urbom and the ever-present Jon Merrill, may fill that void. Rafalski remains one of the best to ever patrol the Devils’ blueline.
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.
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.
The Devils rank last in the league with 58 goals scored in 32 games. Multiple fowards, like Ilya Kovalchuk, have suffered through season-long offensive slumps. Their lack of finish highlights the team’s inability to score goals. But the blame shouldn’t be heaped on their shoulders.
The Devils defense currently sits tied for 26th in the NHL in goals scored. Their seven scores place them with the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs, both below .500 and near the bottom of the standings. The lack of offensive defensemen has helped stymie the Devils offense this season. With no viable options in sight, the poor scoring abilities of New Jersey’s defensemen will continue to hurt the offense.
During the offseason, the Devils failed to address one glaring issue – the lack of a quality puck-moving defenseman. The team lost Paul Martin to free agency, eliminating the only quality offensive defenseman on the Devils roster. Andy Greene remained, becoming the number one offensive option. Instead of filling a glaring hole, Devils’ general manager Lou Lamoriello signed Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, hardly the offensive juggernauts.
That hole remains larger than ever. Greene has failed to meet expectations, with only 10 points through 32 games this season. No other defenseman filled the void. It seemed like Matt Taormina could fill the void, but a high-ankle sprain shelved the rookie. With no promising offensive defenseman being called up and trades looking non-existent, this hole will probably remain for the rest of the season.
Those seven goals represent more than offensive futility. Without offensive skill, every facet of the offense suffers. It starts with New Jersey’s breakout. Not every defenseman needs offensive skill to make the first pass. Most Devils’ defenders,, however, lack the skill to carry the puck up ice. They can’t make forechekcers miss, so opponents focus on forwards. That cuts down the options for the defense and neutralizes the breakout.
This carries over into the offensive zone as well. Teams are routinely clogging the slot and giving the Devils point shots. Opponents know the defenseman pose little threat. That allows them to knock away rebounds, etc. and deny Devils’ forwards scoring opportunities. With less space to work, scoring chances decrease dramatically.
The Devils aren’t the only team with this problem. Several teams struggle to find offense along the blue line. One look at the chart (seen here) shows the importance of offensive production from the defense. Teams like Atlanta, Detroit and Pittsburgh have multiple goals from defenseman. It’s no coincidence they sit atop their respective conferences. Offensive defensemen open up more possibilities and create a better overall offense.
While the forwards receive most of the blame, Devils defenders remain a large culprit in the team’s offensive futility. With no goal scoring along the blue line, New Jersey enters every game shorthanded offensively. The coaches should find a way around it. But, as the stats show, little contribution from the blueline costs teams in the standings.
The Devils entered tonight’s game desperate for a consistent effort and two points. The team went up against their division rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who hadn’t lost a regulation game in their past ten contests. While the Devils put forth a consistent effort, it was the same losing effort. The Penguins defeated the Devils, 2-1, sending New Jersey to their sixth straight road loss.
Sidney Crosby Sinks The Devils
There’s one name that makes Devils fans instantly feel nervous and angry at once – Sidney Crosby. Coming into tonight’s contest, the Penguins captain recorded 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 33 career games against the Devils. Crosby carried a 15-game point streak into the matchup as well. And in only two periods, Crosby collected two points – including the game-winning goal – to sink the Devils.
Crosby’s first point of the night – an assist – helped even the game, 1-1. The Penguins moved through the neutral zone, and didn’t look to have anything developing. A cross-ice pass was tipped by Adam Mair, but Crosby used his back skate to kick the puck to his stick blade. The Penguins’ captain then moved down into the Devils’ zone along the side boards. He passed across the ice to Pascal Dupuis, who fired a one-timer past Johan Hedberg for his eighth goal of the year.
Crosby’s second point of the night proved to be the game-winning goal. With the puck in the Devils’ zone, Alex Goligoski drove to the faceoff circle and shot the puck. Hedberg made the initial save, but the puck caromed off his pads and to the side of the net. Crosby, all alone, dropped to one knee and fired the puck into the open net for his 24th goal of the season.
Crosby was the reason the Devils lost tonight. As much as fans despise him, he’s virtually unstoppable right now.
The Devils’ Powerplay Shows Life
One of the Devils’ major problems during the season has been the powerplay. It’s been especially dreadful on the road, where the team had one powerplay tally prior to Saturday’s game against Philadelphia. But New Jersey went 2-for-3 against the Flyers, and that solid play continued against the Penguins, accounting for their only goal of the night.
With Dupuis in the box for hooking during the first period, Mattias Tedenby controlled the puck and brought it around the net. The rookie right-winger moved from behind the net and found a streaking Jason Arnott entering the Penguins zone. Arnott one-timed the pass, but the shot went wide right. The puck hit Brian Rolston, but the left-winger stayed with the puck and fired home the shot for his second goal of the season.
For all of the man-advantage struggles, the Devils have shown improvement the past two games. Their 3-for-7, good for about 43 percent. Combine that with better numbers at home, and the Devils powerplay is showing improvement.
John MacLean’s Swan Song?
The Devils needed a win tonight, plain and simple. Another loss meant yet another losing streak and another loss against a quality opponent. As its been all year, the Devils failed to capitalize on opportunities and allowed other teams to dominate games. Instead of stretching leads, the Devils watched them slip away. They couldn’t get anything going, and it might have cost their coach his job.
As I posted here, I don’t believe MacLean should get the axe. Two weeks ago, this team looked like it was turning a corner. But since winning three of four two weeks ago, the Devils dropped three straight. They haven’t shown any signs of a turnaround under MacLean. The team has three days off before they face Ottawa. General manager Lou Lamoriello may feel this is the best time to change coaches.
For the rest of the recap, follow after the jump.
The Penguins lead the Devils, 2-1, in the third period of their game tonight at the CONSOL Energy Center.
Sidney Crosby almost scored his second goal of the night at 12:21 of the third period. Crosby sent a wrist shot over the glove of Johan Hedberg, put the puck hit the pipe and came out into the slot.
David Clarkson and Deryk Engelland dropped the gloves at 14:31 of the period. The scrap started because of a hit Clarkson put on Engelland in the Penguins zone. Engelland landed some solid right hooks, but Clarkson dragged the defenseman down to end the fight.
Hedberg stoned Kris Letang to hold the deficit at one. With Rod Pelley in the box for delay of game, Letang sprung free in New Jersey’s defensive zone. The defenseman drove the net and shot low into the pads. Hedberg made the save, then absorbed the hit from Letang when he crashed the crease.
The Penguins lead in shots, 27-18. Pittsburgh, already 0-for-4 with the man advantage tonight, will have 1:09 remaining on their fifth powerplay opportunity, a tripping minor to Dainius Zubrus, to begin the third period.
Travis Zajac nearly tied the game with 4:55 left in the middle period. Jamie Langenbrunner stripped former teammate Paul Martin in the neutral zone and joined Zajac for a 2-on-1 rush. The captain passed the puck to Zajac, who cut toward the front of the net. He moved across the crease, looking to backhand a shot past the blocker of Marc-Andre Fleury. Penguins defenseman Zybynek Michalek ended the chance, knocking the puck off Zajac’s stick.
Shortly after that, Fleury stoned a Dainius Zubrus attempt from the slot. The Devils’ center skated the puck into the slot and fired a shot glove side. Fleury gloved the attempt and held on for the whistle.
Crosby’s goal at 12:49 of the second period put the Penguins ahead, 2-1.
Alex Goligosky drove the net in the Devils zone, putting a shot on Hedberg. The Devils’ goalie blocked the initial shot, but a rebound caromed off his pads and to the left of goal. Crosby, who was all alone at the side of the net, went to one knee and hammered home the shot for his 24th goal of the season.
Crosby now has two points tonight (one goal, one assist). He’s been averaging two points per game during his 16-game point streak.
Colin White should take the blame for that goal. He left Crosby all alone to come to the front of the net. I don’t know if there was a breakdown in communication, but you don’t ever leave Crosby alone near your net.
I’m not sure what the ice conditions are like at the Penguins new arena, but it looks choppy here in the second period. Several pucks have bounced over sticks, and players from both teams are wiping out on the ice.
Pascal Dupuis had an opportunity for his second goal of the game only 33 seconds into the second period. White tried to shoot the puck off a faceoff in the Penguins zone, but the puck was blocked to the neutral zone. Dupuis raced ahead of the defense and broke in on a short breakaway. Hedberg came out to challenge, and turned away the scoring chance.
The Penguins outshot the Devils, 16-8, in that first period. Pittsburgh also had three powerplay opportunties, generating six shots. The Devils were able to kill off all three opportunities.
An early whistle cost the Devils a chance for a rebound opportunity with 25 seconds left in the period. The refs blew the play dead after it appeared Fleury stopped and held a shot. But the puck trickled behind the Penguins goalie and sat all alone in the crease.
Zubrus had a beautiful scoring opportunity denied with less than a minute left in the first period. The center caused a turnover in the Penguins zone and drove the net. He couldn’t keep the puck on his stick, and missed out on an opportunity to put a shot on net.
Dupuis’ goal at 15:41 of the first period pulled the Penguins even with the Devils, 1-1.
Crosby started the play in the neutral zone, kicking a loose puck from his back skate to the blade of his stick. The Penguins captain skated into the Devils zone along the side boards, and found Dupuis open in the middle of the Devils zone. Dupuis ripped a one-timer past Hedberg for his eighth goal of the year.
The assist stretched Crosby’s point streak to 16 games.
Brian Rolston’s powerplay goal at 14:20 of the first period put the Devils ahead, 1-0.
With Dupuis in the box for hooking, Mattias Tedenby curled behind the Penguins net with possession of the puck. He came up to the side boards and passed the puck to Jason Arnott, who was streaking into the zone. The center blasted a shot toward net that went wide right. The puck hit Rolston, and the left-winger corralled the loose puck and fired it home for his second goal of the season.
Tonight’s Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (8-16-2) face off against the Pittsburgh Penguins (18-8-2) tonight at the CONSOL Energy Center. It’s the second of six meetings between the two teams this season. The Penguins lead the current season series, 1-0-0.
The Last Devils Game: The Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Devils, 5-3, Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia. New Jersey jumped out to a 2-1 lead after one period. But the Flyers fought back, scoring three straight goals between the second and third periods to take a 4-3 lead. The Devils cut the deficit to one, but couldn’t tie the game late in the final period.
The Last Penguins Game: The Penguins destroyed the Columbus Blue Jackets, 7-2, Saturday night in Pittsburgh. The Pens scored four goals in the first period – including two on the powerplay – to lead 4-0 after the first period. The Pens put the Blue Jackets away, scoring three goals over the final two periods.
The Last Devils – Penguins Game: The Penguins beat the Devils, 3-1, on October 10 at the Prudential Center. The Devils, playing with 15 skaters because of injury, fell behind, 1-0, after Alex Goligosky scored a first period goal. Mark Letestu extended the lead to 2-0 in the second period. Patrik Elias cut the deficit to 2-1 in the third period, but the Devils couldn’t tie the game. Ex-Devil Paul Martin clinched the win with an empty-netter.
Stepping Out of the Igloo: The Devils will play their first game in the CONSOL Energy Center. The Mellon Arena, or the “Igloo”, will suffer the same fate as the Spectrum in Philadelphia. The Penguins new digs are LEED gold-certified and was voted one of the best arenas in all of sports.
Tonight’s Matchup: The game features two teams going in two very different directions. After struggling early, the Penguins caught fire. In their last ten games, Pittsburgh is 9-0-1, earning 19 of a possible 20 points. Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed two goals or less in his last 11 games, and Sidney Crosby has 17 goals and 14 assists on his current point streak.
The Devils, on the other hand, are trending in the wrong direction. After winning three of four games two weeks ago, the team dropped two in a row. It’s been feast or famine offensively, and the defense plays suspect. Inconsistent efforts doomed New Jersey, especially in the second period of games.
Devils’ captain Jamie Langenbrunner acknowledged that another poor effort could lead to a blowout loss.
“When you face a team like that, you have to be at your best or they embarrass you,” Langenbrunner said to Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record. “I think if we go in with any mindset other than that, it will get ugly.”
The key for tonight’s game is simple – consistency. As Langenbrunner said above, the Devils need a sixty minute effort tonight. If they slip up for one shift, it can cost them the game. New Jersey can’t give Pittsburgh any extra opportunities. The Devils need to limit the turnovers and give the effort their capable of giving. Pittsburgh is playing unreal hockey right now, and allowing them to capitalize on mistakes will doom the Devils. A win over their rivals would be huge, but it won’t come easy. A consistent effort throughout the game will go a long way towards getting the Devils a much-needed victory tonight.
Gametime is 7 p.m., and you can catch all the action on MSG Plus or WFAN 660AM. Here is the projected lineup for tonight’s game:
FORWARDS: Ilya Kovalchuk – Travis Zajac – Jamie Langenbrunner; Patrik Elias – Jason Arnott – Dainius Zubrus; Brian Rolston – Adam Mair – David Clarkson; Mattias Tedenby – Rod Pelley
DEFENSEMEN: Colin White – Henrik Tallinder; Andy Greene – Mark Fayne; Anton Volchenkov – Olivier Magnan; Matt Corrente
GOALIES: Johan Hedberg; Martin Brodeur