6 Questions Facing the New Jersey Devils in the Second Half

Terence McGinleyContributor IIIMarch 15, 2013

6 Questions Facing the New Jersey Devils in the Second Half

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    There is no better way for the New Jersey Devils to start the second half than with a home and home series with the Flyers. Going into last night's contest, New Jersey had beaten Philadelphia in six consecutive games including their playoff meeting last spring. 

    The trend continued last night with a commanding win for the Devils. The teams go back at it in Philadelphia on Friday night. New Jersey will be eager to sweep the back to back. 

    They seem to emerging out of the funk that dropped them from first place in the conference to seventh. They have won three of four, albeit two of the wins coming via the shootout. 

    A 1-6-2 record between February 15th and March 5th tempered a phenomenal start to the season. The stretch of poor play highlighted a few chinks in the armor and exacerbated some preseason concerns. 

    As the Devils sprint to the finish line in the second half of this shortened season there are questions both on and off the ice. Let's address them in order of importance. 

Does Stefan Matteau Have a Role on This Team?

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    The nurturing of young Stefan Matteau has been befuddling so far in 2013. 

    The 19-year-old had a strong training camp and started the season with the big club. It was not a big deal at the time; conventional wisdom suggested he would be optioned back to the OHL before he hit his six-game limit and triggered the start of his rookie contract. 

    But Pete DeBoer and Lou Lamoriello elected to hold onto him. He has shown streaks of great talent. Matteau is a big, strong kid with a bright future. Instead of letting him ride the wave and learn from his mistakes, the decision-makers have intermittently benched him, only to dress him again a few games later. 

    Matteau last played Saturday, March 9th in Carolina. He didn't dress against the Jets or the Flyers this week. 

    It is hard to understand. If they wanted him to contribute with New Jersey this year, then they should let him play with the growing pains. For a rookie to get better he needs to play in games, not watch from the press box. 

Will Lou Attempt to Extend Elias or Clarkson?

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    The Devils have several key players entering free agency this offseason. Among them are David Clarkson and Patrik Elias. 

    After recording the first 30-goal season of his career last year, David Clarkson began 2013 on a tear, scoring 10 goals in the team's first 14 games. But in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fashion, the man affectionately known as "Clarkie" has been held scoreless in the last 13. His drought is part of the team-wide deficiency on offense the past few weeks. 

    Despite his recent slump, Clarkson is still a key cog in the Devils offense, and his toughness and grit fit well with the organization's character. 

    Patrik Elias is the franchise leader in points and goals. He has played his entire 15-year career in New Jersey. It is hard to imagine him playing elsewhere. 

    Between Elias, Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus and Marek Zidlicky, all free agents according to capgeek, New Jersey is not likely to retain all four. It could be wise to get a head start on things and try and extend Clarkson, the youngest of them all, and Elias, a franchise icon with plenty left in the tank (he currently leads the team in points).

    We'll have to wait and see whether Lou Lamoriello thinks it's wise. 

Is Pete DeBoer Ever Going to Find the Line Combinations He Is Looking For?

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    After a postseason highlighted by chemistry and a forecheck that was so organic playing together, Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier are all on different lines. 

    After signing an extension that promoted him as the team's No. 1 center, Travis Zajac is playing on the third line right now. 

    And two out of three first liners weren't in the organization at the beginning of the season.

    Pete DeBoer likes to change the line combinations often. The only trio that has consistently stayed together as of late is Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Andrei Loktionov, who scored a great goal against the Flyers Wednesday. 

    The next three lines are mixed and matched like a salad at an all-you-can-eat buffet. 

    DeBoer has no problem doing this. It was his formula all of last year as well and we saw how that turned out in the end. So we are left to ponder who is going to be the 2013 version of the Carter-Gionta-Bernier line with the magic touch. 

Will the Penalty Kill Improve?

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    Last season New Jersey led the league in penalty kill percentage. This season they are 22nd in the NHL and it has fans and coaches scratching their heads. 

    It's tough to figure this drop off. It can't be the loss of Zach Parise. Killing penalties is not about personnel, but more about effort and discipline. 

    Will a major strength of last year's team even out, or continue to falter? It could be a determining factor in where New Jersey finishes in the standings. 

Will the Devils Make Another Trade?

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    Lou Lamoriello has acted with a sense of urgency in this shortened season. Barely two weeks into play he acquired Andrei Loktionov from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round draft pick, and it looks to be paying off. Loktionov has seven points in 12 games.

    Not long after that he brought back in a familiar face, Alexei Ponikarovsky. The Devils traded for him in the middle of last season but saw him walk during free agency, only to acquire him again

    Still, the offense has struggled at times, especially during the recent slide. This team clearly lacks scoring depth and has yet to find an answer to the loss of Zach Parise. It is puzzling that they have not even put a call in to Petr Sykora who, after scoring 21 goals in a Devil uniform last year, remains unsigned. 

    The trade deadline is April 3. New Jersey is still $12 million under the salary cap according to capgeek. Despite the open space, a blockbuster addition is not likely. If anything, look for another under-the-radar- move like Andrei Loktionov. Those types of deals are more of Lamoriello's specialty. 

What Is the Status of Martin Brodeur's Injury?

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    The biggest question in the Devils' universe is undoubtedly the health of a certain 40-year-old goaltender. 

    Martin Brodeur has not played since February 21. His lower back tightened up during pregame warm ups a few days later and the Devils have been sweating ever since. 

    Mum remains the word. Brodeur did skate Thursday morning, but he will not travel with the team to Philadelphia for Friday's game and there is no immediate timetable for his return, as reported by Tom Gulitti's Fire and Ice blog.

    Johan Hedberg has struggled as the starter. And although he seems to be regaining his confidence, he can not be the starting goaltender for a team that considers itself a Stanley Cup contender. 

    New Jersey can make the playoffs without him, but they will not go very far if Brodeur is not between the pipes. One has to wonder how bad that back really is. He has yet to practice with the team. 

    This question in itself raises questions. If Brodeur is going to be out a while longer, will he regain his form in time for a playoff run? Will a bad back signal this as the last year of his career?

    The simplest concern of them all for the Devils is whether Brodeur will be back at all. If he is not, you can kiss a return to the Stanley Cup finals goodbye.