It has been a strange and interesting year for the New Jersey Devils. Forced to play most of the season without their Hall of Fame goalie, many expected the Devils to struggle mightily, but the Devils commitment to defense and some inspired performances have kept the team right near the top of the Atlantic Division. As of January 14th, the Devils find themselves in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, and only 3 points behind the first place Rangers in the Atlantic with two games in hand. Let's take a look at some of the individual performers responsible for the Devils success and hand out a few mid-season awards:
Most Valuable Player
Zach Parise—Named to his first All-Star game, Parise continues to mature as a player and emerge as a star in this league. Parise is halfway to having the first ever 50 goal season for a Devil, and at the very least is on pace to challenge the team record of 48 goals set by Brian Gionta in 05-06. One record Parise won't be able to break this season will be the Parise family record of two All-Star appearances, which is still held by Zach's dad J.P. Parise. If the younger Parise continues to raise his level of play the way he has, something tells me J.P. will only be able to claim that title for one more year.
Most Valuable Defensive Player
Scott Clemmensen—If someone would have told you back when the season started, that Clemmensen would be your everyday goalie, you would have told them they were crazy. With Brodeur out, the Devils could have panicked and went after a more established goalie like Nikolai Khabibulin. Instead the team turned to former Devil Scott Clemmensen and have never looked back since. Admittedly, Clemmensen has been helped by the team's "defense first" philosophy, but you cannot discount the role he has played in keeping this team right in the thick of the Eastern Conference race. Clemmensen was not asked to replace Marty Brodeur; there are only a few goalies in the history of the game who could do that. He was simply asked to keep the team above water until Marty returns and he has done that, going 16-9-1 with a respectable 91.8% save percentage. Not All-Star numbers by anyone's imagination but enough to get the job done.
Martin Brodeur—What was supposed to be a year of milestones and records for Marty has turned into a frustrating year of injury. Still in search of the 14 wins and 7 Shutouts needed to pass Patrick Roy and Terry Sawchuk respectively, Brodeur's focus has become simply getting healthy and back on the ice. One wonders whether there was some bad karma from changing his helmet design to MB30 this season. While I personally don't buy into these kinds of things, in a world where fans talk of "Sports Illustrated cover jinxes" and "Madden curses," sometimes maybe it's a good idea not to tempt the sports gods.
The "Most Consistently Underrated" Award
Patrik Elias—If the NY Metro area gave out awards for guys you won't realize how good they were until they are gone, Patrik would finish second only to NY Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran. Producing a typically solid Elias first half, Patrik has put up 19 goals and 31 assists which ties him with Zach Parise for the team lead in points with 50. Patrik has also been snubbed by the NHL this year, being left off the All-Star roster. Keep your head up Patty; someone out there still appreciates you.
The "Golden Gloves" Award
David Clarkson—Having to fill the enforcer shoes on this Devils team, David Clarkson has been involved this season in what seems like some of the longest hockey fights in recent memory. His 83 penalty minutes give him the slight edge over fellow Devils pugilist Mike Rupp for the team lead, but the real story has been the quality of some of these fights. One wonders if a possible matchup with Manny Pacquiao is in his future.
The "Retro" Award
Lou Lamoriello—Going retro seems to be the theme for the Devils in '08-'09. Brian Rolston, Bobby Holik and Scott Clemmensen all made returns to their old team this year, and now everyone's favorite oompa loompa has gone a step further and brought back sniper extraordinaire Brendan Shanahan back to Jersey. At age 40, can Shanahan really contribute to this Devils team? That is yet to be seen, but one thing that can be said is that Lou understands the Devils small but knowledgeable fan base, and their passion for the teams history. In the end, who doesn't want a GM that actually understands the fans?
What To Watch In The Second Half
With my beloved NY football Giants eliminated, I can now turn my full attention to my most anticipated sports moment of the winter: The Return of Marty Brodeur! Without Marty, the Devils have improved their defense and even given their offensive playmakers a little more freedom to create. If they get a healthy Marty back, and continue their progress defensively, the Devils are poised to become a dangerous team going into the playoffs.
And that my friends, will indeed be something to watch.