NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — It’s easy to look at the once-proud New Jersey Devils and to think this is an organization that’s seen better days.
The three-time Stanley Cup winners are in danger of missing the playoffs for the third straight year and fourth time in five seasons.
They are 12 points out of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with nine games to play in the regular season. Their playoff hopes might end this weekend.
What’s the major problem — or problems?
Big picture: New Jersey doesn’t have a game-breaker on offense or defense and its best player has been goaltender Cory Schneider, whose 2.17 goals-against average is the NHL’s fifth best.
The Devils also don’t have a coach. The team has been run by Lou Lamoriello, Adam Oates and Scott Stevens since Pete DeBoer was fired in December.
While it sounds dismal, there is reason for hope.
The Devils (31-31-11) have returned to their roots since the middle of January and have posted a 16-10-3 mark playing a tough, hard-nosed game in which the defense helps set up the offense.
It’s like the old days when Martin Brodeur was in goal and had Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko in front of him. The playoffs were a given with the team making them 13 straight seasons between 1997 and 2009-10 and 19 of 20 since the 1990 season.
The new names are now Schneider with a group of defensemen in their early 20s featuring Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill and Damon Severson.
“I know it is hard to see from the outside, but you have to see the young D back there,” said Scott Gomez, a member of the Devils’ 2000 and ’03 Cup champions who returned to the organization this season.
“That’s where you win. All those Cups we won, we had some great forwards and centers but it started with Scotty (Stevens) You know, defense and goaltending win. I’ve never played without a great goaltender and we have one of the best guys in the world right now. You can build off that.”
Schneider, who took over the No. 1 spot when Brodeur was not re-signed after last season, has been spectacular despite having a losing record (26-27-11). The 29-year-old has five shutouts, a .928 save percentage and leads the league with 1699 saves.
“Schneids had been good for us all year,” forward Stephen Gionta said. “Obviously we didn’t perform up to standards the first half of the year and we knew that.
“The second half, since the All Star break or a little before that on the California trip, things started clicking for us. Obviously, it may be a little too late, but we know what we have to do night in and night out, and how we have to play.”
The big hope for the Devils is the young defensemen who have been mentored by Stevens and learned a lot playing with underrated veteran Andy Greene.
Lamoriello said the group has matured and learned from their successes and failures.
“Let’s put it this way: It has grown quite a bit since the beginning of the year,” Lamoriello said. “It has a lot of room to grow more, and I think with Cory and the defense we’ve had the way the last 20 games have gone, the defense has not been the issue.”
With their talent and skating ability, the young defense can also become a weapon on offense, which is where the Devils have struggled in recent years.
Mike Cammalleri, who signed as a free agent, has paid off, scoring a team-high 25 goals. However, there is a fall off after that. Adam Henrique is second with 16, Steve Bernier has 12 and Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias 10.
In some ways it goes back to the 2011-12 season, the year the Devils lost the Cup Finals to the Kings. They lost captain Zach Parise to Minnesota in free agency and then had game-breaking forward Ilya Kovalchuk leave the NHL to return to Russia after the following season.
The offense was never replaced and there was little in the farm system after years of getting low draft picks. Free-agent signings didn’t seem to pan out.
“It’s not going to take much,” Greene said. “I don’t think we are very far off. Obviously we have a heck of a goalie and good young D and that’s where you start. That’s how Lou does it, going from the net out. We add a few forwards here and there and all (of a) sudden things are looking good. It’s a fine line in this league between making the playoffs and missing out. There is so much parity. One good offseason and you are right back in there.”
(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)