The Devils are just one point behind the Capitals for the Eastern Conference lead, but they have certainly had their share of adversity so far this season, particularly in the form of injuries. A major key to keeping New Jersey afloat in the standings has been the emergence of Vladimir Zharkov and Niclas Bergfors up front.
Many experts in the hockey world didn’t think that the Devils had some of the better prospects in the league. After all, The Hockey News ranked them 30th among the 30 teams in the league in their annual Future Watch edition. A quick look back at some American Hockey League history, which reveals the Devils farm club hasn’t made the playoffs since 2000, makes you think The Hockey News was onto something.
But the kids are proving to be A-OK in Jersey, which in large part is due to the organization’s patience with their prospects.
Some well-respected hockey experts thought that Bergfors, drafted in the first round of the 2005 Draft, was taking too long to develop and that he was destined to be a rare Lou Lamoriello draft day misfire. But after four years of riding the buses in Albany and Lowell, Bergfors is making a name for himself this season.
It is weird to think of a player drafted in the same year as Sidney Crosby, who was taken first overall in 2005 and is in his fifth season in the NHL, as a rookie, but that is the case for Bergfors. Having the proper seasoning has helped Bergfors develop into a top-six forward for the Devils and is currently playing on the club’s best line with Zach Parise and Travis Zajac.
Bergfors’ offensive exploits haven’t gone unnoticed throughout the league, where he currently sits second among rookies with 11 goals and 22 points only behind wunderkind John Tavares of the Islanders.
Like Bergfors, Zharkov was only recently called up in late November, but when Rob Niedermayer and Jay Pandolfo came back from injury, Zharkov was playing so well that Matt Halischuck, who had been on the team the whole season, was sent to Lowell instead of the 21-year-old Russian.
In his first two games, Zharkov didn’t record a point, but it was obvious to viewers that it was only a matter of time before he got going because he was creating opportunities. Since those two games, he has four assists in his last six games and has moved up to playing alongside Patrik Elias and Brian Rolston.
Even though Zharkov has yet to score in the NHL, he has created several goals already and it is no coincidence that the Devils are 6-2 since Zharkov has arrived in New Jersey.
A good example of that was Saturday against the Flyers when he out dueled former Devil Arron Asham along the boards for a loose puck and fed Elias perfectly for the Devils third goal of the first period – the first two goals that period were scored by Bergfors.
With both Zharkov and Bergfors performing so well, Devils coach Jacques Lemaire is going to have a tough decision where to put Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson when they return from their injuries.
All of the sudden, a team that looked as if it lacked depth at forward in the beginning of the season, is now one of the deepest teams in the league. I’ll bet it makes you forget about Brendan Shanahan awfully quickly.