The start to this condensed season is a surprise one for the New Jersey Devils.
They remain one of just four teams without a regulation loss, and sit in first place in the Atlantic Division. They’ve used a combination of stellar goaltending (nine goals allowed) and timely scoring to open the season with a 3-0-2 record. They’ve recorded a point in five straight games for the first time since the 1993-94 season, when the Devils started the season with seven straight wins.
Things aren’t perfect for New Jersey. They’ve been plagued by slow starts, being outshot 45-24 in the first period. Opponents have outshot the Devils in the first period during three of the teams five games. New Jersey has also scored just 12 goals in those five games, ranking 25th of 30 teams in scoring.
Here are five thoughts on the Devils first five games of the season:
1. The Strong Goaltending
Both Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg opted not to play during the lockout, creating a guessing game for how they would start the season. Both have showed no rust from the long layoff, combining to allow just eight goals on 129 shots (not including last night’s shootout). Brodeur picked up right where he left off after last year’s playoffs, starting this season with a 3-0-1 record, a 1.69 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and one shutout. That’s coming from a 40 year old player on a nine month layoff.
Hedberg had a similar performance last night, stopping 27 of 28 shots during regulation and overtime. He stopped four of six attempts in the shootout, but didn’t look like a goalie who last played 301 days ago.
There were worries about both Brodeur and Hedberg heading into the season. They’re a combined 79 years old, and aren’t getting any younger. Through the first five games, they’ve showed that age is just a number.
2. Clarkson’s Hot Start
David Clarkson finally broke through last season, reaching the 30-goal plateau and recording a career-high 46 points. He added 12 points in the postseason (3g, 9a), but never seemed to lose his toughness, finishing with 138 penalty minutes. He also tallied seven game-winning goals, becoming a main source of secondary scoring for New Jersey.
After losing Zach Parise in free agency this summer, Devils coach Pete DeBoer thought each player needed to step up to fill the void. Clarkson has certainly done that, starting the season with four goals and seven points. He’s riding a five-game point streak, the second of his career, and looking every bit like the 30-goal scorer from last season.
Clarkson is an unrestricted free agent, so each goal and point drives up his future contract. Early this season, he’s proved last year wasn’t just a fluke. He’ll be an important part of the puzzle going forward as New Jersey searches for consistent scoring throughout the lineup.
3. A Lack of Secondary Scoring
For as great Clarkson is playing, the Devils are still lacking consistent secondary scoring. The top skaters are producing, with Travis Zajac (2g), Patrik Elias (2g), Ilya Kovalchuk (2g) and Clarkson combining for 10 of the Devils 12 goals. Those four players account for 83 percent of the teams offense. This group can’t be expected to carry the load every single night, especially in a condensed season. Dainius Zubrus, who scored 17 goals last season, has one in five games despite spending three games with the top line. Stephen Gionta is the only third or fourth line player with a goal. The Devils blueline also hasn’t found the back of the net this season.
The loss of Adam Henrique has also drastically effected the team’s scoring depth. The rookie center, who is still a week or so away from returning after surgery to re-attach a ligament in his thumb, recorded 51 points last season (16g, 35a) during the regular season. He added 13 points in the postseason (5g, 8a) while playing heavy minutes. The Devils need him back in the lineup to help boost that scoring depth.
New Jersey has never been an offensive juggernaut, and nobody expects that from this team. But other players will need to contribute, and that secondary scoring isn’t there just yet.
4. Slow Starts and Sloppy Play
Heading into this shortened season, with just a week to prepare, set up teams for some sloppy games at the start of the season. New Jersey was no exception. They’ve been badly outplayed in the first period, usually finding themselves under siege for the first ten minutes of the game. They’ve also been sloppy in their own end, consistently turning over the puck and missing breakout passes with some regularity.
Brodeur has bailed New Jersey out of those tough situations, but those slow starts will eventually catch up to New Jersey. It already reared its ugly head in Montreal, when New Jersey was outshot, 16-7, in the first period and finished the period trailing 2-0. The players have already addressed it, improving in last night’s game. But they haven’t dominated a period since the season opener at Nassau Coliseum 11 days ago.
5. Offense From The Blueline
The Devils defense still has yet to record a goal this season, but it hasn’t stopped them from becoming a major part of the offense. The Devils blueliners have combined for seven assists, led by Marek Zidlicky’s four helpers this season. They’ve recorded an assist on over 58 percent of New Jersey’s goals. The Devils need the defense to step up, and not just in its own end. Getting involved in the offense will be a key this season, especially with goals coming at a premium over the first five games.
The Devils blueline is one of the deepest in the league, with last year’s fourth-overall pick Adam Larsson a healthy scratch for the first five games. It’s capable of becoming a major player on the offense, even without a player to headline the group.