With the New Jersey Devils at about the halfway point of the season, I think it’s time to give out the mid-season report cards to everyone.
The Devils currently stand at 24-15-3, good enough for 51 points and third place in the Atlantic Division, and sixth overall in the Eastern Conference. If the season ended today, the Devils would find themselves in a first round playoff matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers. However, with the imbalance of games played, it is way too early to look closely at potential playoff matchups just yet.
Six forwards have skated in all 42 games, we will start with them, and work our way down in reverse order of games played (in alphabetical order):
David Clarkson(42 GP, 8 G, 8 A, 16 P, -1, 81 PIM, 3 PPG, 1 GWG): At the beginning of the year, I would’ve hoped for about 10-15 goals for Clarkson, and that seems to be where he is headed. I never expected him to be that serviceable on the power play, but he has contributed better then expected on the second unit. Overall, Clarkson has been about as valuable as one could have hoped for going into the season. He even has added a few moves to his two-move repertoire from last season. Grade: A-
Patrik Elias(42 GP, 19 G, 29 A, 48 P, +12, 22 PIM, 6 PPG, 1 SHG, 5 GWG): After starting off a little slow, Elias has been a constant force for this team. It has long been thought that the Devils seem to go as Elias goes. When Patrik is playing to the level he is capable of (which is as high as anyone on this team), the Devils do well, and vice versa. Elias is likely the MVP of this team so far this season, and always has shown the ability to score in the clutch (note his 5 game-winning tallies). The biggest gripe against Elias this season is something beyond his control, that the NHL denied him a much deserved berth to the upcoming All-Star Game. Grade: A
Jay Pandolfo(42 GP, 4 G, 5 A, 9 P, -7, 6 PIM, 1 SHG, 1 GWG): In my opinion, there has been no greater disappointment this season for the Devils then the play of Pandolfo. In the past, there has been no greater support of Pando, but this year there is little to support. The great play in the defensive zone has been spotty at best, Pandolfo has not been nearly as effective on the penalty kill as year’s past, and in my opinion is on the hot seat to potentially lose his spot in the lineup when the recently signed Brendan Shanahan enters the lineup. Pandolfo has not been the same since last year’s injury to his midsection/hip area. Grade: F
Zach Parise(42 GP, 24 G, 25 A, 49 P, +14, 18 PIM, 6 PPG, 4 GWG): As good as Elias has been, Parise is right there, if not even ahead of where Elias is. Parise isn’t the fastest guy, he doesn’t have the best shot, but he always seems to be in a position to score, by outworking his opponents. He also displays unbelievable hand-eye coordination which has led to some deflection goals. Parise is developing into the face of the franchise, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him wear the “C” at some point over the next few seasons. Grade: A+
Travis Zajac(42 GP, 11 G, 20 A, 31 P, +14, 23 PIM, 2 PPG, 1 GWG): As long as Zajac continues to stay away from dropping the gloves (had one ugly fight with Dan Girardi on Dec 12th), he has been a great improvement over his sophomore slump of a season. Zajac continues to grow more and more confident in his shooting ability, and has developed a great two-way game. He is a big reason why head coach Brent Sutter has stopped using the checking line, as he feels comfortable with Zajac and his defensive abilities against other team’s top lines. You can expect Zajac’s development to continue, and hopefully 20-25 goals when it’s all said and done. He should also expect a nice contract at year’s end, when he becomes a restricted free agent. Grade: B+
Dainius Zubrus(42 GP, 10 G, 16 A, 26 P, +9, 43 PIM, 1 PPG, 1 GWG): Zubrus is a tough player to read, because while he certainly has been a major improvement over last year, Zubrus seems to be the type of player that always leaves you thirsty for more. Playing him with Elias in my opinion is a great fit, because both players have great vision, and also the talent to take advantage of that vision. Zubrus hasn’t shown to be the most consistent guy on the team. In two games alone, he’s scored six goals total (highlighted by four goals against Tampa Bay on Nov 23). Unfortunately, in the other 40 games, Zubrus only has four total goals, so he needs to improve there. Grade: C+
Brian Gionta: (41 GP, 10 G, 26 A, 36 P, +10, 22 PIM, 2 PPG, 1 SHG): Gionta will always be a victim of his 48-goal season back in the 2005-06 season. If you hold him up to the standard of that season, he will always look like a disappointment. If you look have the expectation of him as a solid 25-goal scorer, then he will live up to those expectations. Thus far, he has been a very good fit with linemates Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus, and seems to have become more of a focal point in the offense overall. Gionta is also the victim of more posts and crossbars then anyone on the team, although there is no official stat to document it, so that’s only my opinion. Grade: B
Jamie Langenbrunner(41 GP, 8 G, 22 A, 30 P, +11, 33 PIM, 1 PPG, 1 GWG): Capt. Langenbrunner is a tough player to get a read on. One day, he’s a dynamic player who helps Parise and Zajac to be one of the more efficient two-way lines in the NHL. Another day, he’s a player who takes a dumb, lazy penalty in the offensive end. Too often, Langenbrunner appears to be a player that shows up referees after being called for a penalty he didn’t agree with. As a Captain, Langenbrunner should not do this, but his emotion sometimes gets the best of him. In some cases, that is a benefit, but other times it is a detriment. Grade: B-
Michael Rupp (40 GP, 3 G, 3 A, 6 P, +3, 78 PIM): Any time you can have your enforcer playing at a plus level (for his plus-minus), he certainly isn’t killing you when he’s on the ice. Rupp has played with the edge needed, and has stood up for his teammates when opponents cross or even approach “the line.” Rupp has caused some havoc with opponents, none more so then Eric Boulton of Atlanta who took a double minor for roughing to try and get back at Rupp on Dec 8. Rupp will give you some production, but don’t count on him, any production he gives should be considered a bonus beyond his enforcer role. Grade: B
John Madden(36 GP, 4 G, 7 A, 11 P, -9, 14 PIM): If Pandolfo has been the biggest disappointment for the Devils this year, Madden isn’t all that far behind. While he was the biggest surprise last year, Madden seems to have lost that extra burst of speed he featured last season. As a result, Madden has lost his checking line assignment, and too often been a step slow in his defensive responsibilities or in the offensive end as well. Needless to say, maybe his foot injury has taken more of a toll then the public will ever know. Grade: D
Bobby Holik(24 GP, 2 G, 3 A, 5 P, Even, 22 PIM): Holik was brought in for a few different reasons this past off-season. One of them was to provide help in taking face-offs, an area where he has mostly lived up to expectations. Holik has never been the fastest skater in the league, but he has definitely lost some more speed, which isn’t a big surprise given his age (37). He also had a nasty finger injury after an Alexander Ovechkin shot squeezed his finger between the puck and his stick on Oct 18. Holik has taken some careless penalties, which is definitely an area where he needs to tighten things up. As far as I know, there isn’t a better player at giving good quotes in the locker room then Holik, who is always known for his ability to speak. Overall, as fourth line center, his contributions have been about as much as one could expect, with a hope that maybe he will add a little more scoring in the second half of the season. Grade: C
Brian Rolston(24 GP, 7 G, 3 A, 10 P, -7, 14 PIM, 4 PPG, 2 GWG): Rolston suffered a high ankle sprain against Atlanta on Oct 16, and even after his return, not surprisingly, struggled a lot to return to form. Rolston has seemed to improve of late, scoring six goals and posting two assists in his last fourteen games, so maybe it’s not fair to grade him on his entire season thus far, but I don’t think there is much choice. I fully expect Rolston to have a big second half, and if he doesn’t get that plus minus past even by season’s end, I’d call it a shocker. Adding Brendan Shanahan to the power play will only help Rolston’s production, so that’s another improvement I expect to see in the second half. Grade: C-
Petr Vrana (16 GP, 1 G, 1 P, -4, 2 PIM): It started off strongly for Vrana, who scored his first goal in his first game. However, it pretty much went all down hill from there. When he was exposed to waivers before being sent to Lowell (AHL), GM Lou Lamoriello summed it up best with the following quote, “Right now with the 12 forwards we have healthy he was not going to be playing here, so we wanted to put him through waivers, so he can stay down there and play and he has the option of going up and down. There is the risk of him being claimed by another team and if that happens, so be it." Had Vrana produced, Brendan Shanahan also likely wouldn’t have been signed recently. Grade: F
The following players have played 15 games or less, and have been given an incomplete for their grade:
Nicklas Bergfors: (8 GP, 1 G, 1 P, -1)
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond: (6 GP, 1 A, 1 P, +1, 15 PIM)
Barry Tallackson: (4 GP, -1)
Matt Halischuk: (1 GP, 1 A, 1 P, -1)
Patrick Davis: (1 GP)
Of this group, Bergfors had the highest expectation, Halischuk might have the highest long-term potential, and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond was a fan favorite for a bit because of his feistiness. Davisis young and has some potential, while Tallackson appears to be a fringe NHL player as of now.
Coming soon… Part II—Defense and Goalies