‘Devils in the Details’
By Sean Hartnett
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Even considering the absence of key winger Ilya Kovalchuk, few expected the defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils to be in the unfamiliar territory of 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings with six games remaining.

For the Devils, it’s been a rare season from hell. Their 2010-11 playoff-less campaign was supposed to be an exception in their proud history. That season, inexperienced head coach John MacLean was canned after 33 games as the Devils failed to absorb a number of key injuries. Interim head coach Jacques Lemaire took the Devils on a stunning 22-3-2 run, but it wasn’t enough to avoid an early-summer vacation.

In the shortened 2013 season, the only truly debilitating injury that the Devils had to absorb was that of Kovalchuk, whose return date is still uncertain.  Even when Kovalchuk was in the lineup, the Devils were not scoring goals with ease. The Devils’ paltry 96 goals scored this season is the least of all 30 NHL clubs — and that’s with Kovalchuk playing in 32 of 42 regular-season games.

New Jersey is currently mired in a ten-game losing skid, while legendary net-minder Martin Brodeur is stuck on career win No. 666.  It sounds like something out of “The Twilight Zone” for a team accustomed to achieving excellence.

“I think we could have won our last six or seven games, and I don’t doubt that we can win six or seven in a row,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said after New Jersey’s 2-0 shutout defeat to the Maple Leafs on Monday. “We don’t have to change a lot to do that other than to score a few goals.”

Don’t Blame DeBoer

Blame cannot be assigned to DeBoer. The Devils are outworking their opponents every night and outshooting them at an incredible margin. In their past two shutout losses to the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Devils have generated 70 percent of total shots — yet they’ve been outscored, 4-0.

Watch the Devils and you’ll see 60 minutes of grinding effort. The desire is certainly there from the men in red and black. They’re doing everything that DeBoer asks of them, only failing to put the puck in the back of the net.

Bored Brodeur Left Helpless

Meanwhile, Brodeur nearly has been as helpless as a spectator in recent games.  The highly-competitive all-time great is actually unhappy with his miniscule workload considering the Devils’ dominance in shots, offensive zone time and puck possession.

On Monday night at Air Canada Centre, the Leafs only tested Brodeur with five shots through two periods. They only ended registering 12 total shots on the night.

This had a negative effect on Brodeur, who finally surrendered the first goal of the game at 13:28 in the third period when the Leafs were on the power play.

“When you do get some shots and get into the rhythm, you feel a lot better about yourself, about your game,” Brodeur explained. “And that next scoring chance you feel that you’re able to stop. When you don’t have a shot for a while it makes it hard.”

It’s not about a curse, the number 666 or anything else otherworldly. The Devils simply aren’t stocked with enough scorers along their forward lines. This is something that general manager Lou Lamoriello should have adequately addressed at the trade deadline.

It’s understandable why Lamoriello didn’t pull the trigger on a major deal, as it was clearly a seller’s market. Still, it was surprising not to see Lamoriello take the proactive route by acquiring a player who could at least temporarily fill Kovalchuk’s skates.

Diminished Sullivan Wasn’t The Solution

There’s no knocking Steve Sullivan’s tenacity, but a long history of injuries has rendered the 38-year-old a shell of his former self.  The brave and determined Sullivan fits right in with what’s wrong with the Devils. Their roster is stocked with too many grinders and not enough pure scorers.

Lamoriello should have paid the premium needed at the trade deadline to bring in a goal-scoring marksman. It was obvious that Lamoriello wasn’t going to part with Jon Merrill, but parting with just a 7th-round draft pick was only going to get you a diminished version of Sullivan.

The past few weeks have made it blindingly clear that DeBoer is stuck with a group of players who collectively have the skill, but not the talent required to reach the playoffs.  With only six games remaining, the Devils are staring at a near-impossible route to the playoffs.

New Jersey is six points off the 8th place Rangers and the Blueshirts also have an extra game in hand. Even though the Devils face the rival Rangers two more times between now and the end of the regular season, their destiny is out of their hands.

With or without Kovalchuk in the final games, the Devils must somehow flip the switch and transform into a goal-rich hockey club. That isn’t likely to happen, nor is the possibility of the Rangers or Islanders folding up entirely in the final stretch.

Sadly for the 40-year-old Brodeur, he’ll have to wait until the start of the 2013-14 season to resume his quest for adding a fourth Stanley Cup ring to his collection. The playoffs are never the same without Brodeur’s magnificence. It’s a shame that we won’t see the legendary net-minder gracing the playoff stage when the 2013 NHL playoffs get underway.

Are the Devils toast, or do you still believe that they can squeeze into the playoffs?  Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettHockey.

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