By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
The Tampa Bay Lightning feast on counterattacks.
If you turn the puck over to them in the neutral zone, it’s often bing, bang, boom, and the puck is in the back of your net a few seconds later.
Tampa Bay scored three times in that manner during its 4-2 victory over the host New Jersey on Thursday.
The Devils? Well, they require a lot more effort to produce any results in the offensive zone. A good portion of the their NHL-low 105 five-on-five goals this season have come the way Sergey Kalinin put a pair past Lightning goalie Ben Bishop.
Kalinin was standing in front when defenseman John Moore’s wrister ricocheted off his right leg to tie the game at 1 in the second period. In the third period, Kalinin picked up a loose puck along the goal line, after teammate Bobby Farnham’s heavy forecheck forced a turnover, and he surprised Bishop with a short-side snapper that cut the Lightning lead to 3-2.
Throw the puck at the net and hope something good happens. Work hard along the walls and hope to force the defense into a mistake. That has been the Devils’ approach all season.
The problem has been that such work has been rewarded all too infrequently. New Jersey is last in the league in both total goals (179) and goals per game (2.21). This despite the NHL’s eighth-best power play efficiency (20.4 percent).
The Devils just don’t possess the skill on their roster to manufacture enough scoring chances off the rush. In a league where the competition is gravitating toward turbo-charged skaters, New Jersey is still stuck in putt-putt land.
As the Devils finish their playoff-less 2015-16 campaign with Saturday’s home tilt with Toronto, their need for speed should be priority number one in the offseason.
Head coach John Hynes doesn’t quite agree with that assessment, but his eyes did light up a bit when he said, “Would we like to add some speed and some talent and some offensive players that could put the puck in the net? For sure. But I think if you look at our team in general this year I think we hung with most of the faster teams in the league pretty well.”
Hynes was referring to the close defeats to Tampa bay (twice), Florida and Washington in the last two weeks. Yes, the Devils’ structured game can frustrate even their most-skilled opponents for a while, but you don’t need to be a hockey aficionado to see how far away they are from being able to win consistently at this level.
Of their forwards, only Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri and Joseph Blandisi have shown the ability to generate speed with the puck through the neutral zone on a regular basis.
Blandisi, however, has committed so many sins away from the puck that he often spends shifts (or games, like during the Devils’ miserable 3-1 loss to Buffalo on Tuesday) in Hynes’ doghouse.
Palmieri, who leads the Devils with 29 goals and 55 points, will be a restricted free agent after this season. There may be only five forwards under contact for next season, including the retired Ryane Clowe, who hasn’t played since 2014 due to concussion issues. But I would only label Palmieri as a must re-sign for general manager Ray Shero this summer.
The New Jersey-bred Palmieri said he hasn’t given much thought to potential free agency.
“Right now the only thing on my mind is getting a win on Saturday,” Palmieri said. “(New Jersey) is where I grew up, so it’s got a special place for me. I’m a restricted free agent, so that stuff usually works out pretty easily.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Patrik Elias, who on Thursday played his second game following a long-term stint on injured reserve. As much as it pains me, I don’t think the Devils should re-sign the pending unrestricted free agent.
Elias, who will turn 40 next week, has been coy about his future plans after his three-year $16.5 million contract expires. Will he call it a career after Saturday’s game? If Shero passes, will he pull a Martin Brodeur and try to extend his playing days with a different franchise?
“Who knows what the future holds,” Elias said during his postgame remarks to the media after Tuesday’s loss. “I truly hope it’s not a farewell, but you never know.”
As a player who has excelled for 20 years in this league, all in New Jersey, Elias shouldn’t be begrudged for wanting to continue to play.
However, that doesn’t mean that Shero has to keep paying a sentimental surcharge for a player who hasn’t been productive in more than two years.
In 15 games this season, Elias has registered one goal and four assists.
Elias was never the biggest or the fastest or the owner of a rocket for a shot, and all he has left is his guile. You were still able to see it at certain times on Thursday — the sneaky maneuver to draw a penalty 37 seconds in, or the deft passes to create scoring chances for linemates Jacob Josefson and Mike Sislo.
It won’t be an easy call to turn away a player whose jersey is next in line to adorn the Prudential Center rafters. A two-time Stanley Cup Champion.
The Devils’ career leader in goals, assists and points.
It has to be done, however. The Devils need more burst from their strides.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1