The Devils have missed the playoffs for the second time in three years.
As I sit here hunting and pecking at the keyboard, the New Jersey Devils are ready to drop the puck against the Montreal Canadiens. The score of the game is of no importance. The game does not matter. The Canadiens are firmly entrenched in fourth place and the Devils, for the second time in three years, won't be attending the playoff party. The invitation was returned to sender.
Competing in pointless games is not a scenario this organization or its fan base is accustomed to. Prior to 2013 the Devils have missed the playoffs just twice since 1990. Backed by goaltender Martin Brodeur's illustrious career, New Jersey has been a playoff mainstay. The goal and expectations under ardent general manager Lou Lamoriello are to qualify and compete for a championship every year.
Two failures in three years has never happened in the Brodeur era. Before we consider if the magic is waning, let us look back at 2013 and analyze what went awry, and how the Devils got here and not where they wanted to go.
This unit took a major step backwards in 2013.
Last season the New Jersey Devils set a post-expansion record on the penalty kill with 89.6 percent effectiveness. It was a stingy unit that so well represented the organization's team-wide approach to defense. In terms of killing penalties, the "who" is not important. It is the "how." Effort, discipline and appropriate aggression determine success. The kill was a big reason New Jersey tallied over 100 points.
This year's shortcomings are hard to understand. The Devils' penalty-kill percentage dropped from first to 18th in one year. They allowed the 11th most power play goals in the league in 2013.
It may have to do with the fact that the Penguins, Flyers and Islanders share the same division with New Jersey. Those clubs are second, third and sixth in the NHL, respectively. But those three team's had similar success on the power play last season and the Devils managed to quell their efforts.
Again, it's not really about personnel. Even if it was, there would be no excuse. This roster is nearly the same as last season's. This year, they simply couldn't get the job done with the man down.
"Bobby, We'd appreciate it if you could turn into a 40-goal scorer"
So Zach Parise left. It was in the back of everybody's heads last year and fears came to fruition. He was the heart and soul of the team; a skilled scorer and playmaker who never got out-hustled. After only seven seasons in New Jersey, Parise is ninth all-time on the career points list.
You can't replace his production or intangibles. Not with one guy at least. But with a lot of cap room and a glaring lack of scoring punch, it would have been logical for Lou Lamoriello to counter with at least something. Or several little somethings. The move? Bobby Butler. A guy who had bounced between the Senators and Ottawa's AHL club. He never panned out, as predictable as it sounds. Butler had two points in 14 games before being released.
Andrei Loktionov and Matt D'Agostini were acquired early in the season for late-round draft picks. Loktionov has shown some skill (eight goals, four assists) and D'Agostini has a 20-goal season in his past. Thirty-eight-year-old Steve Sullivan came to the Devils on deadline day. But none of these players are top six forwards. They weren't enough.
It is easy to forget that Petr Sykora had 21 goals and 23 assists last season. The Devils chose not to bring him back, and the Czech didn't play in the NHL this season. Tough to figure.
So New Jersey will head into this offseason looking to add the top-six forward they have lacked all year.
Not the ideal sophomore season for the 23-year-old. A lockout didn't help.
Many in the Devils' universe consoled the loss of Zach Parise with the fact that New Jersey had a Calder Cup finalist on the roster. Adam Henrique was ready for launch. He seemed ready to accept the torch.
As a rookie last year, Henrique put up 16 goals and 35 assists. This year was rocky. Of course, the lockout disrupted the continuity a young player needs as well as took away 34 games. He also missed the beginning of the season with a broken thumb. From then on Henrique was streaky. He had just six points in the month of February and so far has just two in April.
He has two goals in his last 18 games, but what may be more concerning is Henrique's lack of facilitation. After 35 dimes in 74 games in 2011-2012, the Ontario native has just five in 40 games in 2013.
The obvious change to his environment? Losing Parise. A lot of those assists came from playing with Zach. So either he regressed in his second season or just benefited from playing with one of the league's best who is gone and never coming back. Neither is encouraging.
Dainius Zubrus is among others who had to elevate their game, and did not.
Henrique was the face of a group of players who needed to turn it up a notch for the Devils to succeed in 2013.
There is Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias. Guys who you knew would produce. David Clarkson can be included, too.
But those middle forwards, the second and third liners, had to score more. Dainius Zubrus was counted on to excel in his contract year. After getting first-line money, Travis Zajac was supposed to score like it. Jacob Josefson was finally supposed to establish himself as an NHL regular. The Carter-Gionta-Bernier line had to play like they did in the 2012 postseason.
These players, like Henrique, didn't take the leap forward the team needed them to. Travis Zajac has just six goals with two games left. Dainius Zubrus got hurt and missed much of the year. Josefson continues to straddle the NHL-AHL line, and last year's playoff heroes returned to their earthly, regular-season selves.
Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect established players to change their game. But that was the only plan the Devils had.
New Jersey couldn't sustain an injury to Kovalchuk, and that is ultimately why they missed the playoffs.
When wondering what went wrong in 2013, two cornerstone players missing considerable time is as close to a worst-case scenario as it gets.
Undoubtedly, Ilya Kovalchuk and Martin Brodeur are the two most important, valuable players on this Devils team. While Brodeur sat out with a pinched nerve for a full month the Devils went 3-9-1. After Ilya Kovalchuk hurt his shoulder on March 21 they lost the next 10 games without him.
These are not coincidences.
Brodeur is the backbone of the organization. He means everything to the Devils, on the ice and off. And the shallowness on offense is understood. What happens when the one dynamic forward goes down? The team stops scoring. They managed just 16 goals during the 10-game stretch of horror.
I am going to venture to say that if Kovalchuk had not gone down we would be talking about a playoff team right now.
But he did, and a team with one truly threatening scorer was left vulnerable. And they missed the playoffs for the second time in three years.
Getcha golf balls ready.