After a blistering start to the season, the Devils have cooled off significantly in recent weeks. The Devils seem to have hit their first big bump of the season, going 2-4-1 over their last seven games.
Even with their recent drop in the standings, the Devils are still sitting pretty with the eighth-best record in the league and are just three points shy of the the Eastern Conference leader, Montreal.
Things may look bleak with Martin Brodeur being placed on the IR today, but the Devils are still in the thick of the conference hunt. Even now, there's reasons for fans to believe their team could be the conference's top competitor.
The Devils have almost always been a team-centric franchise that focuses on the group, not any given player. The team plays a system that players have to buy into, but the rewards can be great—just look at Patrik Elias' career.
Ilya Kovalchuk is a player who is usually at the center of attention when he's on the ice. When he came to the Devils, there was an adjustment period, but he's now settled into the system and looks very much at home with the team.
After Zach Parise's departure this past offseason, it would have been easy to try to use Kovy to offset the loss, but that's not what the Devils did. Instead, management made sure they retained everyone possible and have made a few trades to bring in fresh talent.
The result is a formidable squad. Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Elias, Adam Henrique and David Clarkson tend to lead the attack, but the team can rely on a whole slew of lower-tier players as well. Steve Bernier, Stephen Gionta—plus Dainius Zubrus and Ryan Carter, when healthy—can all provide supplemental scoring without being defensive liabilities.
Add in four young players trying to jump-start their careers in Jacob Josefson, Bobby Butler, Andrei Loktionov and Stefan Matteau, and the Devils have got an impressive squad of forwards without too many weak spots.
Defensively, the Devils are even deeper. Captain Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov both serve as shutdown defenders, and Andy Greene and Marek Zidlicky give the Devils defense an offensive punch. After that, the Devils have Adam Larsson, Mark Fayne, Henrik Tallinder and Peter Harrold—four players entirely capable of playing steadily at the NHL level.
And of course, the veteran duo of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg to backstop the team. And though Brodeur's health may be an issue right now, the two netminders comprise one of the strongest tandems you could ask for going into the playoffs.
The Devils' depth keeps the team competitive, but it's the abundance of high-end talent on offense that gives the team its edge.
Ilya Kovalchuk was once a Maurice Richard trophy winner, and that's almost certainly not going to happen again; his 50-goal days are behind him. However, Kovy has developed into a superb playmaker who improves those around him. Combined with Zajac, the two keep the top line explosive.
But the second line is arguably even scarier. One of last year's Calder Trophy finalists, Adam Henrique, centers veteran Patrik Elias and breakout goalscorer David Clarkson. Elias has been with the Devils for his entire career and is still notching points in nearly every game. He instantly improves any line he's on.
Meanwhile, Clarkson has quickly emerged as one of the league's top power forwards. Last year, he broke loose for 30 goals. This season, he's started off at an even greater pace with 10 goals and seven assists through 19 games.
With those five forwards, the Devils can put forth two lines than can compete with any team in the league.
It's one thing to have a great roster, but it's another thing entirely to have a roster prepared for a playoff run.
Well, the Devils don't have that problem. Ignoring the fact that almost every Devil on the roster had the experience of making the Cup finals last season, the Devils have Elias and Brodeur to act as the calming veterans on the team. The two have combined for five Stanley Cups and nine finals appearances.
Every team will have some mental problems when hitting a rough stretch during the season, but it's the teams that are able to stay grounded and not panic that usually end up emerging in the playoffs.
The best thing going for the Devils right now is that the Chicago Blackhawks play in the Western Conference.
The Blackhawks have gotten off to a record 16-0-3 start and are just tearing through the competition. Things are much tighter in the Eastern Conference though, where no teams stand out too much.
The Boston Bruins are probably the largest threat for the conference title right now. Although they've played only 15 games, they still hold the No. 5 seed in the conference. Right now, they are third in their division behind the Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators, who have both gotten off to better starts than anticipated.
The Ottawa Senators will likely be unable to keep up that pace, as they've been hit hard by injuries and are currently without their two best skaters in Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza.
The Canadiens may put up a stronger fight, but they are still a very incomplete team and it's hard to believe they will be at the top of the East for much longer. They simply don't have the offensive ability to sustain this kind of success.
The Maple Leafs are also sitting right behind the Devils, but with inconsistent goaltending, injury issues and a serious lack of depth, they will likely struggle to maintain a high standing for the playoffs.
Both the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers were thought to be threats at the beginning of the season, but both teams have been extremely underwhelming; they currently sit ninth and 10th in the league, respectively. Both teams have twice as many road losses as wins and negative scoring differentials.
In the Southeast Division, no clear leader has emerged. While the division features multiple talented teams, the current leader has five fewer points than the Devils.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the wild card. On paper, they're easily one of the league's best teams. However, they recently lost former MVP Evgeni Malkin to a concussion. The injury is still very much up in the air, but thoughts of Crosby's struggles with concussions fresh in the minds of fans and management will keep everyone cautious about this injury. Expect Malkin to be out until they are 100 percent confident with his health.
And with Malkin out, the Penguins are just a much less dangerous team. Besides offering an alternative elite threat to Sidney Crosby, Malkin also has developed the chemistry that's turned James Neal into an elite goalscorer. They're still wildly talented, but the loss of Malkin will inevitably cause some trouble for the team. He's too good for them to not be hurt without him.
A lot of teams still hold the potential to win the conference, but in a shortened season, you can't slip up, and that gives a consistent team a huge opportunity to come out on top of the conference.