By Steve Lichtenstein
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With the exception of one magical ride to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, the Devils haven’t been relevant in nearly a decade.
Last season may have been the nadir. Only five teams finished with fewer than the Devils’ 78 points, a low for the franchise in a non-lockout season since 1988-89.
The consequences: Long-time Godfather Lou Lamoriello was asked to step aside for new general manager Ray Shero, who in turn hired John Hynes, a rookie NHL coach.
Any bump in the standings this season would have been considered a sign of progress, but for these Devils to be in the hunt for a playoff berth at the All-Star break, well, it’s almost like they made a deal with, um, some conniving, soul-searching, mystical entity.
New Jersey currently sits just outside the eighth and final seed after Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat in Pittsburgh. With 55 points in 50 games , the Devils have plenty of work to do to get over the hump.
Still, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, which is kind of odd considering one usually associates such improvement season-to-season with significant upgrades in personnel. A game-changing first-round draft pick. A heavy investment in a marquee free agent. A blockbuster trade.
Who did the Devils bring in over the summer to augment the talent on the roster?
Lee Stempniak!? Kyle Palmieri!? David Shlemko!? John Moore!?
New Jersey’s best player continues to be goaltender Cory Schneider, who is ranked in the upper tier in virtually every statistical category. His numbers include 22 wins (sixth in the league}, four shutouts (third), a 2.03 goals-against average (fifth) and a .929 save percentage (seventh).
The 29-year-old netminder has been a rock at “The Rock” the last two seasons, no longer needing to look over his shoulder for legendary Martin Brodeur.
But make no mistake, Schneider is no Brodeur, who in my opinion was a superior athlete and the greatest skating and puckhandling goalie of all time. Schneider is still below average in shootouts (2-4 with a .609 save percentage this season), which must be improved post-All-Star break in order for the Devils to avoid ceding away crucial points in their playoff chase.
Schneider, though, is a perfect fit for these Devils. He’s disciplined, rarely out of position, and aware of his surroundings. He’ll make enough acrobatic saves to keep New Jersey in most games.
He has to, since the Devils have averaged just 2.28 goals per game, tied with Buffalo for the second-worst rate in the NHL.
The Devils struggle to merely create scoring opportunities. Their 24.2 shots on goal per game is not only the league low, it’s also more than three per game below Arizona, the next closest competitor. That’s the same disparity between the Coyotes and the ninth-place Ducks.
Such weak production was hardly unexpected given the limited talent up front. The only player (not including 39-year-old Patrik Elias, who has appeared in only 13 games this season and is out indefinitely after undergoing knee surgery two weeks ago) who has ever exceeded 26 goals in a season is Mike Cammalleri, who leads New Jersey with a mere 38 points.
I was hoping for more from New Jersey’s defensemen, but as a group they have contributed just 16 goals, led by Shlemko and Andy Greene’s four apiece.
So how in the world are the Devils in a position where they are resting up for a postseason run?
Give credit to Hynes, who would be a lock for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year if not for Barry Trotz’s Capitals soaring so far above the East that only a plague will prevent them from capturing the top seed.
Hynes has squeezed everything out of his troops over the first 50 games. Stempniak and Palmieri have been playing far over their heads. The New Jersey-bred Palmieri in particular has impressed with his Alex Ovechkin-like lasers from the left circle on power plays. Young veterans Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson have stepped up to be leaders on the ice.
More importantly, Hynes has the club playing the same workmanlike brand that defined the franchise during Lamoriello’s 28 years in New Jersey. The Devils are as close to a sure thing with a lead as you can get as they are the only team in the league that has yet to lose a game in regulation when scoring first (17-0-3) and they’re 16-0-1 when leading after two periods.
As is, however, I doubt that the Devils have enough firepower to burst into the top eight in the highly-competitive conference. The Devils do have some salary cap space (around $9 million) to be a buyer at the trade deadline, but you can probably count on one hand the number of teams that aren’t looking to add scoring.
The Devils could especially use a playmaking center to take the load off Henrique and Travis Zajac. Someone adept at faceoffs to address their second-from-the-bottom 46.7 percent win percentage.
Is Carolina’s Eric Staal too much to ask for?
I’m sure it is for this frugal organization.
However, people forget that though Lamoriello was notorious for preferring anonymity over stars, he wasn’t averse to acquiring a big-name forward down the stretch of seasons where he thought it would make a difference. Think Alexander Mogilny, Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk, and, of course, Ilya Kovalchuk.
The latter hung around New Jersey long enough to experience the Devils’ last run to the Final before “retiring” to Russia a year later.
Kovalchuk’s and fellow sniper Zach Parise’s decisions to “go home” to play hockey sent shockwaves through the franchise from which it has yet to recover.
The Devils are getting closer to what they once were, but unless Shero pulls a rabbit out of his hat in the next 30-odd days, they’ll be sitting at home watching the playoffs on TV for a fourth straight season.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1