By Max Herman
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The NHL season may be young, but we are now deep enough into the schedule that we are starting to get a decent feel for how teams are shaping up. The same can be said for the New Jersey Devils, who played their 17th game of the year Wednesday night, a 5-3 win over the surging Buffalo Sabres.
With that, I give you my first edition of the Devils progress report, where I cover every element of the team’s play and assign grades accordingly. Why waste any time? Let’s dive in…
Perhaps it’s not entirely fair to judge the job the Devils’ forwards have done purely based on number of goals scored, but the fact of the matter is that when a team has their forwards playing really well, the puck ends up in the net a lot more often. And after 17 games, the Devils rank 23rd in the league with 2.41 goals per game.
Now before you go crazy and remind me that the Devils aren’t built to win games the same way the Washington Capitals do, you’re absolutely right. The Devils will win most of their games due to shutting the other team down with good team defense.
Head coach Pete DeBoer has established that defensive irresponsibility will not be tolerated, as skilled forward Mattias Tedenby has seen himself removed from the lineup on a few occasions because DeBoer doesn’t feel he can trust him in the 3rd period of close games.
As for the offensive side of the forwards’ responsibilities, the Devils certainly showed a lot of potential in scoring 8 goals in two games against the Bruins and Sabres. But until it shows up more consistently, I can’t give them a higher grade than this.
Top 3 Stand-outs: Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, Adam Henrique
If defensive responsibility is going to be laid at the feet of the forwards on this team, needless to say the blue-liners bear their share of the burden too, and then some. The Devils rank 20th in league, allowing 2.76 goals per game, and quite frankly, that’s not good enough.
If this team could be relied on to score 3 or 4 goals a game, that would be one thing. But there have been waaaay too many breakdowns inside the Devils’ own blue line, and it has cost them dearly in a number of games already this season. This is not to say that a fair share of blame shouldn’t be laid on the forwards, but they do refer to these guys as “defense”-men for a reason.
The Devils could also benefit from having their defensemen factor into the flow of the offense more consistently, something that has been missing from the identity of this team for a while. Over the years, we’ve seen the Devils’ best offensive defenseman transform from Scott Neidermayer to Brian Rafalski to Paul Martin to Andy Greene. Sense a downward trend? Adam Larsson may be that guy eventually, but right now he needs some more seasoning.
Having said that, Larsson and Mark Fayne are two youngsters who are proving that they belong in this league. Those two guys figure to be staples on the New Jersey blue line for years to come, as their progress has been very impressive.
Top 3 Stand-outs: Adam Larsson, Mark Fayne, Andy Greene
There’s usually no surprise when you see an “A” grade next to the New Jersey Devils for goaltending, but that’s because we’ve come to expect that from the likes of Martin Brodeur. The surprising part of the grade is the fact that it’s mostly due to the stellar play of Johan Hedberg and not Brodeur that the Devils have been so good at that position this year.
Hedberg’s numbers say just about everything that I could possibly put in writing to back them up: 6-4-1, 2.45 GAA, .914 Save % … in a word, solid.
Martin Brodeur has seen limited time so far due to a shoulder injury, but played his best game of the year against Buffalo on Wednesday. He admits it has taken time to fully recover from the injury, but I would count Marty among the least of the Devils’ liabilities when he is healthy. When you consider with that the job Hedberg has done as the back-up, goaltending is an unquestionable strength for this team.
Power Play: F
They’ve done a decent job of generating chances with the man advantage, which made me consider giving them at least a passing grade here. But NHL hockey is a results-based industry…and so is my progress report.
The numbers are downright ugly. They are 27th in the NHL in power play percentage (11.9%), and only the St. Louis Blues have scored fewer than New Jersey’s 7 power play goals. But add onto that the fact that the Devils have surrendered 3 shorthanded tallies to the opposition, and it just puts a little bit more filling into the turd sandwich that has been the Devils’ power play this season.
Penalty Kill: A+
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Devils’ power play lies their penalty kill. Plain and simple, it’s been about as good as it can possibly be. The Devils’ rank 2nd only to the Penguins in penalty kill success rate (92.1%). In fact, the Devils are still yet to give up a power play goal at home this season. No other team in the league can say that. In addition to the stunning success rate of the PK, the Devils have potted 3 shorthanded goals, which is a stat the Devils haven’t fared particularly well in since the days of John Madden and Jay Pandolfo.
Overall Grade: C+
The Devils are 9-7-1 after their first 17 games, which is certainly respectable. However, there is a little bit of artificial padding behind that mark. This is because 4 of those 9 Devils’ wins have come in the shootout, which if you have ever read my column before, you know I detest. So in other words, in games that weren’t decided by a breakaway competition, the Devils are 5-7-1. Hmm, all of a sudden that doesn’t look quite as good.
Nevertheless, the Devils have proven to be an extremely hard-working team that can be very dangerous to play when they put everything together. At this point I think it’s safe to say that anyone who thought the Devils were in for another disastrous season like last year were mistaken
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