Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Catching up with the Devils at the All Star Break
Normally at the halfway mark, I'd rock a good/bad/ugly column about the Devils. But I've spent some unemployed days thinking long and hard about it, and I still can't find much, if anything, to put into the bad/ugly part of that column. So without further ado, let's see some reasons why it's good to be a Devil fan.
First the team stats:
-3rd in the East, 1st in the Atlantic with 61 points. If the season ends today, they play the Flyers in the first round.
-9th in goals scored, 4th in goals against.
-14th in pp and pk.
Next some impressive individual stats
-Zach Parise 28 goals (t-3rd) 27 assists, 55 points (t-7th)
-Patrik Elias 20 goals, 34 assists (t-10th), 54 points (9th)
-And just so we're clear, that's two Devils in the top 10 in scoring, neither of whom are on the same line.
-Career #2/#3 goalie, Scott Clemmensen: 18-9-1, 2.30 GAA, .922 sv%
-Career highs in goals for: Travis Zajac (15) and David Clarkson (10)
-And for the record, we've still got nearly a half a season still to play.
Some other reasons to be happy:
-Remember the good ol' days of Madden and Pandolfo shadowing the opponent's top line? No more apparently. Even before Shanahan was brought to this team (more on that below) Pandolfo was placed on the fourth line with Holik and Rupp while Madden was moved to a quasi-checking line along with Rolston and Clarkson. The Rolston/Madden/Clarkson line may not give the Devils their best checking line in team history, but they certainly give the team the highest offensive pop out of any third line in team history. Even killing penalties, Madden is with Elias on the Devils' top pk line. And so far this move is working as the Devils came back from a 5 game road trip giving up only one PP goal in the final period in a win vs. Nashville.
-And speaking of Elias, welcome back Patrik! No player was hurt more by the lockout than Elias, who spent his free season Russia near death from a bout of Hepatitis A. Elias returned in January, '06 but he hasn't been nearly the same player that he was before the lockout. He would go on a scoring streak for a few weeks, but would then disappear for weeks at a time. But this year, for whatever reason, it seems as though he's ready for a consistently very good year. And for the record, he's not on the same line as Parise, so he's finding his own path to gold.
-And speaking of Parise, I'm not asking for a Hart Trophy for the man. The Hart should be monopolized by Penguins and Capitals for the next 10-15 years. But can Parise please get nominated if he keeps this up? Homeboy is on pace to get 45-50 goals and with all due respect to Captain Langenbrunner, has become the on ice leader of the team.
-And speaking of Parise and the Hart Trophy, reason #45,584 why the NHL could be a fantastic league with improved PR: what other league refers to their trophies almost solely by the names of past greats? I'm looking your way, Hart Trophy, Stanley Cup, Lady Byng, etc...
-And uh, Scott Clemmensen's been very good too. Two things we have learned from this: 1) Sutter will ride every goalie he has as hard as he rode Brodeur last year. Clemmensen is playing about as many games this year and 2) either Clemmensen is a very good goalie or the Devils defense is better than anyone thought...
-...and I'm going with the latter. Clemmensen is probably pretty good, but this defense is starting to make a claim in their own right. The defense doesn't have a whole lot of experience, but most of the guys have made significant strides this year. It's a given that Martin and White would probably make a #1 defensive pairing on most teams. Likewise, Mottau and Oduya have made significant strides and are more than capable defensemen. I always had higher expectations for Greene, but as a 3rd defensive pairing, the Devils could be way worse.
-Another great thing for contending teams to have: two enforcers by the name of Mike Rupp and David Clarkson. As for Rupp, I'll concede that other than reminding fans of the 2003 Cup, in which he scored the Cup clinching goal, Rupp doesn't do much more than fight. But Clarkson is turning himself into a heckuva player, modeling himself as a poor man's Dave Andreychuk. Clarkson could just be a checking line enforcer who's not afraid to throw down the gloves, but he has become a big guy to stand in front of the net and collect garbage goals. And yeah, a 20 goal season at the age of 24 isn't too shabby either.
-But what makes this team click is the fact that they have two stellar scoring lines, something not always seen during the Lamoriello era. I'm not ready to compare either of the top two lines to the Elias/Arnott/Sykora line of '00, but both of these lines are good enough to succeed on any playoff contender. With the Langenbrunner/Zajac/Parise line, the Devils showcase two of their building blocks for the future along with their captain, while the second line of Elias/Zubrus/Gionta contains two bonafide goal scorers who are playing as well as they have in three years. In fact, all you need to know about the effectiveness of the top two lines is that they're so good that...
-there's no room for free agent sniper Brian Rolston on either of the scoring lines. No way that someone with Rolston's shot should be on anything but the top two lines, but the truth is that it's not worth breaking up success that the scoring lines have provided. So instead, as discussed, Rolston has worked his way onto the third line, a quasi-checking quasi-scoring line with Madden and Clarkson. And Rolston has been effective; not necessarily in a way that can be measured on the stat sheet, but he of the dynamite slap shot is always a force to be feared on the power play, and a way for the Devils to trot out four forwards on the power play.
-And last but not least, welcome to the team Brendan Shanahan! I'm not calling Shanahan old, but the man was traded for Scott Stevens! And he had almost 90 goals under his belt at the time! So yeah, the man is old, but he adds some scoring toughness and another offensive weapon to a team that already has a surprising amount of offense recounted above.
Conclusion: So I'm not saying that this team WILL represent the East in the Stanley Cup this year. But I am saying this: in a year when the Devils offense and defense is as good as it's been post-lockout, in a year where Brodeur should come back in March and be well-rested for the playoffs for the first time post-lockout, why should the Devils not be considered as serious Cup Contenders?