During their spectacular run to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring, the Devils faced a gauntlet of some of the Eastern Conference's most physical teams. Sitting atop what is perhaps the most bruising division in the NHL, New Jersey appears to have enough physicality to stay there. But a closer look, and some recent transactions, indicate that the Devils may have to make more changes if they expect to win the division this spring.
The ascent of forward David Clarkson from borderline enforcer earlier in his career to the team's leading scorer has been an open invitation for opponents to take liberties with the right wing. In the past, the physical play, especially after the whistle, would have been met with Clarkson dropping the gloves, but his current status as their top goal-scorer prohibits that from happening. The result, as it happened against the Penguins on February 9, is that enforcer Krys Barch stepped in and did the fighting for him.
Barch, acquired as a free agent in July after dropping the gloves 12 times last season for the Florida Panthers, is a legitimate enforcer who can go toe-to-toe with the toughest players in the NHL. But is Barch enough of a deterrent?
During last season, the Devils generally kept two pure fighters, Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen, on their roster. Boulton, who signed with the Islanders after the season, dressed for 51 games and racked up 115 penalty minutes while fighting nine times. Janssen, recently demoted to Albany (AHL), racked up 75 penalty minutes in 48 games last year, also fighting nine times, including a marathon scrap with Barch.
But with the loss of Zach Parise to free agency, GM/President Lou Lamoriello appears to be primarily concerned with the depth of New Jersey's skill positions, rather than protecting them. He chose to send Janssen to the AHL partially to ensure a roster spot for 18-year-old Stefan Matteau, the Devils' top draft pick.
Still, Lamoriello did make a move recently that, while not striking fear into the hearts of opponents, provides New Jersey with some much-needed size after Dainius Zubrus went down with a wrist injury. The Devils reacquired forward Alex Ponikarovsky from the Winnipeg in exchange for draft picks. Ponikarvosky, listed at 6'4", 225 pounds, played 33 games for the Devils last season, registering seven goals and 11 assists before signing with the Jets last summer. His one goal in the playoffs last spring proved to be a big one, an overtime Game 3 winner vs. Philadelphia that gave New Jersey a 2-1 series lead. Ponikarovsky gives the Devils a big, physical presence, and he can do the dirty work on the boards when needed.
With perennially physical teams like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in the division, the Devils will not have an easy time trying to hold on to the top spot in the Atlantic. Whether they need to carry another enforcer or continue to use that roster spot for a skill player remains to be seen.