Since first making the playoffs in the 1987-88 season, the New Jersey Devils have only missed the playoffs two times, with one of those times being the following season in 1989. The Devils have shown themselves to be one of the most consistent franchises in sports. Over this past summer, the Devils were involved in the running to sign heralded free agent Ilya Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk is a rare player and a pure scorer. Any team would have wanted him, but his steep price narrowed it down to only the Devils, Islanders and Kings. He initially signed a deal with the Devils that the NHL deemed circumvented the salary cap. Long story short, the Devils resigned Kovalchuk for a deal that is really quite similar to the disallowed contract.
Through 52 games, the Devils are 18-30-4 and on their way to being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. With the team on their way to the lowest win percentage in almost two decades, is Kovalchuk the problem?
Excluding his first year when he only played four games, Martin Brodeur is in the midst of his worst season, according to GAA and Save Percentage. It hasn't helped that Brodeur missed a decent amount of time due to injury. They did lose Paul Martin, but they brought in Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder to shore up the defense.
Brodeur should still be considered an elite goalie, but it does seem like he has been letting in more soft goals than in the past. The Devils have been able to rely on Brodeur to steal games for the past decade and it does not seem like they were prepared for a drop of in his play this year.
Nobody really wants to admit that Brodeur is a shadow of his formal self, but at the age of 38, it is no surprise that time is catching up to him.
It is never a good sign when your captain gets traded away midseason. His salary cap hit of $2.8 million was probably the main force that caused him to be traded away. Lemaire has not yet named a new captain and does not plan to because he feels that it is an unnecessary position.
It's certainly not typical of current teams, but maybe he has a valid point. Regardless, when a player is in a position of authority, and looked upon as a leader of his peers, I cannot see it making for a happy locker room when that person is traded away. Can you imagine if Ovechkin, Nash, Lidstrom, Toews, Staal or Chara were traded away during the season?
Craig Rivet, the Sabres captain, is too slow and old to still be playing in the NHL, but the Sabres have kept him around purely because of his captaincy.
The Devils' team MVP for the past two years injured his knee in early November and had to undergo surgery that forced him to miss three to four months. Parise is the perfect prototype for a Devils player. He is a great two-way player with the ability to score and play defensive against the opposing team's best offensive line.
If the Devils do name a captain, I would place my bet on Parise being the choice. While Elias has the experience and proven ability to be a captain, NHL teams seem to be giving the C to younger players recently.
John MacLean ended his time as head coach of the Devils with a record of 9-22-2, causing New Jersey to sit in last place of the Eastern Conference. The team lost all of their confidence and any momentum that they could have had before the season. MacLean did an awful job of managing a team with as much talent as the Devils had.
Bringing back Jacques Lemaire was a great decision. The players trust him and from what I have heard, he has done a great job of beginning to turn Kovalchuk into a two-way player that can be put on the ice at any time during the game.
Kovalchuk could have made more money and played for any team of his choosing if he had gone to the KHL. For Kovy, it is about winning and doing whatever he has to in order to help the team win a Stanley Cup. Ilya is a pure scorer, that is something that you cannot teach.
You know what you can teach? Defense.
Kovalchuk wants to learn to be a two-way player and Lemaire is the kind of coach who can help Kovalchuk become one of the best players in the league. Kovalchuk does not tolerate losing, that is why he left Atlanta. You can count on him turning the Devils around this year and making the playoffs next year. As for his own stats, he's going to start lighting that lamp.
Martin Brodeur cannot play a full season next year. He needs to split time with another capable goalie. Someone like Nabokov would have been perfect, but that situation is a little complicated to predict. Since the Devils are staying so close to the cap, they need to stay healthy, especially Parise, Kovalchuk and Volchenkov.
Hopefully, Lemaire will be back at the head coach position so he can take the team back to their defensive ways. Kovalchuk can play in such a system because he wants to win. The Devils do not need to go into rebuilding mode.
This year is a fluke and next year will prove that.