New Jersey Devils: 5 Unsung Heroes of the 2011-12 Season

Peter MillsContributor IIIMarch 30, 2012

New Jersey Devils: 5 Unsung Heroes of the 2011-12 Season

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    The NHL season is coming to the close, and the New Jersey Devils are probably a lot happier than they were last year at this time.

    The team sits in sixth place, three points away from clinching a return to the postseason. A lot of players are playing a lot better than they did last year, and there are some obvious reasons for the team's success: Ilya Kovalchuk finding his stride is one. Zach Parise returning from injury is another. David Clarkson's breakout season has been huge.

    But beyond the more popular players, the players that get interviewed after each game, there are the other guys, the players who contribute night in and night out, just in a less flashy fashion.

    Here are five players who have played outstandingly for the Devils this season, whether most people notice or not.

    All stats were obtained from, Hockey Reference and the Devils' home page

Bryce Salvador

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    Salvador's not a flashy defender, and he's not a particularly skilled offensive defender. In past seasons, he played a moderate role (under 20 minutes per game) and added a few goals and fewer than 20 points.

    This year, Salvador's taken on a more stay-at-home role, as players like Adam Larsson, Andy Greene, Mark Fayne, (briefly) Kurtis Foster and Marek Zidlicky took on the more offensive roles.

    Salvador has contributed on defense, though. He's fifth on the team in hits and second in blocked shots, with 103 of each. He's a reliable secondary defender, eating more than 20 minutes per game.

    Most impressively, he's leading the team in plus/minus with a plus-17 rating. That's plus-10 more than any other Devil who's played at least 40 games.

    Salvador's reliability in the back-end has been hugely important to a Devils' defensive corps that's seen its share of injuries.

Petr Sykora

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    It just feels right to have Petr Sykora skating for the Devil each night. The Czech veteran signed with the Devils in the off-season, much to the delight of at least one Devils fan.

    Sykora doesn't enjoy nearly as important a role a he used to, but he's still found ways to contribute.

    He's spent the season moving around the lineup, often-but-not-always finding himself on a line with Patrik Elias. And given the opportunity, he's produced: he has 18 goals and 21 assists while playing in all 78 games so far this season.

    Sykora is also tied for second on the team with five game-winning goals. He sports a plus-two rating and, as important as anything, carries a league-minimum cap-hit.

Johan Hedberg

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    As far as goal-tending goes, the focus will always be on Martin Brodeur as long as he's still playing. And while Marty's had a strong year, playing especially well in recent months, he's also played inconsistently.

    Between fatigue, injuries and sub-par play, Brodeur has needed breaks from time to time, and Hedberg's played a tremendously strong supporting role as the backup.

    Hedberg has appeared in 26 games, and has a 16-7-2 record to show for it. He has significantly better numbers than Brodeur in both save percentage (.917 vs. .905) and goals-against average (2.27 vs. 2.48). He's also posted four shutouts to Brodeur's two.

    Marty even seems to have learned a thing or two from Moose, namely the throwing of one's body recklessly towards the puck and almost always pulling a save out of it.

Alexei Ponikarovsky

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    When the Devils acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky mid-season, it didn't seem like a major roster move. Sure, Poni's an experienced, veteran winger with some size, but all the Devils gave up was defensive-prospect Joseph Sova and a fourth-round pick. When the price tag is that low, surely it means the player is all but done, no?

    Well, apparently not. Ponikarovsky's fit in perfectly on the Devils. Averaging almost 15 minutes on-ice per game, Poni's contributed six goals and 10 assists in his 29 games with the team. 

    At 6'4", 229 pounds, he also makes a great line-mate for David Clarkson, who enjoys overly-physical high-powered offense.

    Ponikarovsky will be a free agent after this season, If he's willing to return, the Devils would be wise to retain the services of the multifaceted forward—especially considering his relatively measly $1.5 million cap-hit.

Anton Volchenkov

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    Anton Volchenkov signed with the Devils as a free agent the same year as Ilya Kovalchuk. And for a little while, the signing seemed pretty bad.

    Volchenkov is a stay-at-home defender, and he'd been darn good at it. For years, he was perennially near the leaders in blocked shots, and let's just say The A-Train knew how to hit. But he produces almost nothing on offense, to the point that he got his first goal as a Devil this season.

    So a $4.25-million cap didn't seem like the right price. It might still be more than deserved, but Volchenkov is finally playing like the player the Devils had hoped for.

    He leads the team in both hits (170) and blocked shots (120). He's even added a little offensively, with two goals and nine assists. Not great numbers, but not nothing either.

    Volchenkov's solidity near the net has also allowed for the faster d-men to play a slightly looser style, offensively.

    And while Volchenkov's health seems to be in constant jeopardy, he's managed 69 games this season. One more would put him at 70 for the first time since 2007.

    Think someone else should be in here? Leave your opinions below!