Every season they lose players. Every season they are picked to miss the playoffs. Every season they chug right along and find a way to get in regardless of who is on the team. That cannot be better proven than with these last three seasons. During that stretch they lost their best offensive center in Scott Gomez, best puck moving defenseman in Brian Rafalski, and just this off-season, they lose perennial twenty goal scorer Brian Gionta and defensive-forward specialist John Madden.
Yet two months into the 2009/10 season, the Devils sit atop the Atlantic Division and second overall in the east. It is still very early but this season has the makings of a championship campaign for the team from Newark. One must give credit to the genius and mastermind behind it all, Lou Lamoriello, who refuses to give in to his free agents and pay them exorbitant sums. Rather, he looks to his farm system and calls a player up, someone who all too often fits right in to whatever system the Devils are playing.
Many thought his hiring of Jacques Lemaire as head coach was a sign of senility in a once great general manager, but it is proving to be quite the contrary. The Devils, devoid of skill with the exceptions of Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, knew that in order to win they had to cut down on chances allowed in front of their aging goaltender and stick to playing the boring defensive hockey they were known for in the late 1990's and early 2000's (something that brought them three Stanley Cups, mind you). Fans made fun of the hiring while writers mocked it, but now it seems that Lemaire is getting the last laugh and is executing his system to near perfection.
It was a slow start for the Devils this season, but that soon would end with the team's subsequent success on the road, something which Lemaire's "trap" is perfect for. One must also acknowledge that the Devils really have not been as boring as originally thought. The game against the Nashville Predators the other night was very exciting, full of non-stop back and forth action for the entire game. It was a low scoring affair but excitement cannot be judged by the final score sheet alone.
New Jersey has also suffered a myriad of injuries, with their best defensemen Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya being out indefinitely. Defensive forwards Jay Pandolfo and Rob Niedermayer have also seen time on the sidelines while Patrik Elias has just returned after missing seventeen games because of an off-season surgery. All of this did not even hamper the Devils for one game, rather, it seems that they got even better as soon as the injuries started to mount. A nine game road winning streak is a testament to that and as of right now, the Devils sit first in the NHL in goals allowed, with a mere forty-three.
How is all of this possible? The answer is very simple, Jacques Lemaire. While coaching in Minnesota, he had only one superstar in all his years, and that was Marian Gaborik. Aside from him, there were no other skilled forwards and a no-name defense. Yet, the Wild remained competitive every year. This is almost parallel to this season with the Devils. Lemaire has a good habit of being able to make a mountain out of a molehill, and it is because of this that the Devils are my early favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
Just think about it, whenever a star gets injured, the Devils call up a replacement from Lowell and they fit right in, almost seamlessly. That is because Lemaire's system does not require the need for players to have skill. All a player needs to do is work hard, know how to back check, and be patient, and the defensive trap works. Goaltender Martin Brodeur, who is getting up their in age, no longer has to worry about facing thirty-five to forty shots a game. He will be able to play his seventy five games like he normally does, if that is his decision.
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