It was only too easy to dismiss the New Jersey Devils as a one-year wonder after last season. After their run to Stanley Cup Finals, the team lost captain Zach Parise to the Minnesota Wild. Ilya Kovalchuk made waves when it was reported he would stay with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL despite the lockout ending.
The Eastern Conference looked stronger as well. The New York Rangers landed Rick Nash, the Carolina Hurricanes united two of the Staal brothers and the Pittsburgh Penguins finally had a healthy Sidney Crosby.
So far, none of that has mattered. As New Jersey reached the quarter mark of this lockout shortened season, the defending Eastern Conference champions lead the conference, with a two-point edge on the Boston Bruins. The Devils have just one regulation loss— a 5-1 defeat in Pittsburgh nine days ago —and remain one of two teams without a regulation loss on home ice.
New Jersey is currently on a five-game winning streak, which includes a weekend sweep of a home-and-home series with the Penguins. The Devils held the high-powered Penguins offense to two goals combined, outscoring them, 6-2. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were held to one point combined.
“It’s a testament to our character,” Devils coach Pete DeBoer told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. “I think a lot of people thought that maybe our run last year was accidental and I think you’re seeing the depth of this team and how they play.”
They don’t award the Stanley Cup for a good start, and the Devils know that. It is an encouraging sign for a team that many picked to finish outside the playoffs.
Here’s what has gone right for the Devils at the quarter mark of the season:
1. Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg – An Unstoppable Duo
Coming into the season, there were concerns about both Brodeur and Hedberg. They were valid points – the two were a combined 79 years old and Brodeur began showing his wear and tear with various injuries and average play (by his standards) over the past few seasons. While Hedberg played well in his backup role, his age raised issues about his play. Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello locked both players into two-year contracts, a move that has looked great in the early part of the season. Brodeur has built off his strong play in last year’s playoffs, starting the season 6-1-2 with a 2.29 goals-against average, .911 save percentage and one shutout. Hedberg has equaled those performances, going 2-0-1 and allowing just two goals on 74 shots. He also has one shutout on the season.
It’s not just the numbers that are impressive. Both goalies are locked in to start the season. Brodeur has made several highlight-reel saves and bailed out his team when it struggled defensively the first few games of the season. Hedberg hasn’t missed a beat in limited playing time, shutting down teams on the road. The production isn’t completely unexpected – Brodeur is a future Hall of Fame goalie, and Hedberg won 17 games last season. It’s a much better start than most expected from the aging duo.
2. David Clarkson Proving Doubters Wrong
Clarkson had a breakout performance last season, scoring a career-high 30 goals and 46 points under his former junior coach. There were those who questioned whether or not he could continue that production this season. With New Jersey needing to replace Parise’s 69 points (31g, 38a). He’s picked up the slack so far, netting nine goals and 15 points through the first 12 games. He’s tied for second in the NHL in goals, two behind Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek. He leads the team with five power-play goals, and already has two game-winning scores this season.
DeBoer knew there would be doubts about Clarkson’s play, but he was confident in his right wing.
“I think people thought maybe last year was an accident for him or a fluke and he’s showing it isn’t,” DeBoer told Gulitti.
While hitting the 30-goal mark may be difficult in a shortened season, Clarkson is on pace for 36 goals this season. An unrestricted free agent this summer, he’s continuing to evolve into one of the game’s best power forwards.
3. The Return of Adam Henrique
Henrique’s return to the lineup allowed DeBoer to finally balance out his lines. He’s been an anchor on the second line, centering Patrik Elias and Clarkson. While Elias and Clarkson were off to good starts before Henrique stepped in, that line has now become the biggest threat for New Jersey. They do the little things – chip pucks in deep, establish a fore-check and fight to get to the tough areas – that make them a matchup nightmare for opponents. That line has quickly developed chemistry, and it shows in the production – Henrique has six points (4g, 2a) and is a plus-3 in seven games, and Elias leads the team with 11 assists. Henrique has avoided the dreaded sophomore slump so far this season, adding some much needed depth to the Devils lineup.
4. Production from all four lines
This production won’t show up in terms of goals, assists and points. Sure, the top two lines are expected to collect the majority of points. But DeBoer is finally starting to roll all four lines during games. The fourth line combination of Krys Barch, Jacob Josefson and Bobby Butler has become an asset for DeBoer and his staff. Taking up the same role as the CBGB line during last year’s playoff run, the fourth line provides DeBoer with an energy line that can still threaten to pot some goals. All three players continue to see their ice time increase as DeBoer begins to utilize all of his lines.
The third line has also become a dangerous weapon for DeBoer. Nicknamed the CBGB line, Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier are becoming an effective shut down line. They’ve constantly found themselves on the ice playing against the other team’s top unit. Gionta annoyed Crosby during the weekend sweep, earning a few shots from the Penguins captain. Carter dropped the gloves with Robert Bortuzzo, and Bernier put together several quality scoring chances. Those three have re-established the aggressive, fore-checking style New Jersey effectively used last season.
5. Special teams continue to improve
The Devils were dangerous on the penalty kill last year, and its carried over into this season. New Jersey leads the league with three shorthanded goals, including two from Kovalchuk. They’ve killed 26 of the last 28 opponent’s power play chances, and sit seventh in the league with a 86.2 percent success rate.
The power play is also starting to round into form. New Jersey had to adjust to a new system after Adam Oates left to coach the Washington Capitals. After a tough start to the year, the units are starting to click. The Devils are 7-for-22 with the man advantage during their current five-game winning streak, raising the conversion rate to 20.8 percent. That’s good for 14th in the league. Both units are finding the back of the net, with Butler and Henrique bringing some much-needed offense to balance the two units.
6. Defensive depth
The Devils have eight NHL-caliber defenseman on the roster. Peter Harrold, who played in every Stanley Cup Finals game last season, has been a healthy scratch in all games except one this year. Henrik Tallinder hasn’t found himself in the lineup since being part of the loss to Pittsburgh nine days ago. It’s a good problem for DeBoer to have, and the defense hasn’t missed a beat from last season. They’ve continued to play aggressively in their own end and jump into the play in the offensive end.