By Max Herman
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There are but 50 games remaining on the schedule for the New Jersey Devils this season. And seeing as how they’ve managed to win just 9 of the 32 contests played thus far, needless to say fans of the team figure to see a lot of meaningless hockey the rest of the way.

But what’s most alarming about their most recent stretch of play is that not only have the Devils been losing, they’ve completely gotten away from the few good things they were doing that were at least contributing to a winning cause.

The low point of the season came Saturday night in Atlanta in the form of a 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Thrashers. As the score got more and more lopsided, the team’s attitude changed from angry and frustrated to one representative of a group that had completely given up. If it were a boxing match, the referee would have called for the bell in the early rounds.

Since we have already established that hopes of making the playoffs this year are all but extinguished, the Devils have some soul searching to do here. Every player in that clubhouse needs to look around the room right now and ask themselves, “What am I playing for?” Is it for your teammates? Is it for your next contract? Is it to keep John MacLean off the unemployment line? At this point, I don’t care. But until this team finds some semblance of purpose and stops playing like they’re waiting for the time to expire, don’t expect the results to change very much.

Obviously that is a blanket statement that doesn’t apply to every individual player on the roster, but it appears as though hopelessness is sweeping through the Devils’ locker room pandemic-style.

It’s no secret that scoring goals has been an issue all year. But how’s this for a stat? In 16 of the Devils’ 32 games (that’s half of them for the mathematically-impaired) the Devils have either been shut out or scored just one goal. By contrast, Sidney Crosby has seven multi-goal games all by himself. Suffice to say Sid’s 54 points this year is more than any player on the Devils’ roster…32 points more…yikes…

There has to be concern that the team’s losing ways is sewing itself into the fabric of this franchise. As the Devils have continued to lose their way this year, the message that has emanated from their meetings with the media has deteriorated from being cautiously optimistic and hopeful to one of increasing embarrassment and lament. Take a gander at some of the quotes following the beating they took in Atlanta…

“There’s not a whole lot to say. That’s not the way a National Hockey League team is supposed to play.” – Jamie Langenbrunner

“It’s definitely difficult to go see and see the guys, the behavior of everybody. It’s just tough.” – Martin Brodeur

“That was embarrassing not only for myself, but for all of us. I’m at a loss for words right now.” – Johan Hedberg

“We’re still 100 points out of the playoffs.” – Ilya Kovalchuk

“It was a bad and embarrassing effort…I’ve got nothing else for you guys.” – John MacLean

It sure does sound like these guys have just had enough. They’ve stumbled so many times this season, but Saturday was a knockout blow. Will it prove to be the catalyst for change? Given Lou Lamoriello’s track record, one might think so. But “status quo” has been the message all year to this point, and thus far the most radical move we’ve seen has been placing Brian Rolston on waivers.

The GM has certainly been hamstrung by the salary cap restrictions that have hung over the team since the Kovalchuk contract was inked, but many of those problems go away next season. It is with this in mind that I suggest that Lou start thinking about initiating negotiations for Zach Parise’s next contract soon…

With Zach on the shelf until at least late January, it’s not like contract talks could provide any distractions for him. Especially given how rocky Kovalchuk’s first full year in New Jersey has gone, Lamoriello needs to lock up Parise and establish him as the face of the franchise going forward. If he waits until the offseason, it allows for the possibility of another team swooping in and making a humongous offer that the Devils might not be willing to match.

It is worth noting that because Parise is a restricted free agent, the Devils would have the opportunity to match any offer he may receive. If he does wind up leaving, the Devils would be compensated with draft picks, but just ask a Devil fan if that would make them feel any better about losing Engine #9. I’d guess that they wouldn’t be particularly thrilled.

Max’s Three Stars Of The Week

Third Star: C Travis Zajac
After going back and reading my last column, I realized I may have been a bit too hard on Travis. In a year where seemingly every player on the roster is underachieving, Zajac has provided a good spark. He’s earned 5 points in the last 5 games and was one of the few players to show emotion on Saturday when he uncharacteristically dropped the gloves and fought Rich Peverley. That was merely frustration boiling over, but look for Zajac to convert his hard work into more than just an impressive faceoff percentage in the weeks ahead.

Second Star: LW Patrik Elias
This shouldn’t be taken as a slight against Jamie Langenbrunner, but can anyone explain to me why Elias is not the captain of this team? Aside from being the leading point-scorer on the team, Patrik is also the unquestioned emotional leader. No one takes all of this losing harder than him, but Patty will still be the first to answer all of the tough questions. Like Zajac, he too has 5 points in as many games, and even in this dreadful year is doing plenty to establish himself as one of the best players in the franchise’s history.

First Star: LW Ilya Kovalchuk
The team’s results have gotten worse, but Ilya looks as though he’s decided that he doesn’t want to be the focus anymore when the Devils fall short. With 3 goals and 4 assists in his last 5 games, Kovy has to at least be feeling better about where he is at individually. His slap shot is unstoppable when he rips it from the top of the circle, and it was the method by which he scored all three of those goals. You may not be able to take much solace in moral victories, but if Kovalchuk’s resurgence continues, that would be a big positive for the rest of this season.

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