It is very frustrating in New Jersey these days.
An organization that is accustomed to success is having anything but success lately. Gone are the legendary icons of Devils past; Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko are now retired.
Even the "younger guys" like Scott Niedermayer, Scott Gomez, and Brian Rafalski, all of whom contributed to the team's past success (i.e. three Stanley Cup championships, one Stanley Cup runner-up) are gone from New Jersey, along with role players like Sergei Brylin, Tommy Albelin and Randy McKay who are also missed.
This year the problem has been taken to a whole new level. Injuries have practically brought the Devils to their proverbial knees. Unfortunately, one of the best goaltenders of all-time, Martin Brodeur will be out for three to four months due to a torn bicep tendon.
Additionally, injuries to those like Brian Rolston (ankle), Bobby Holik (finger), Andy Greene (hand), and Paul Martin (upper body soreness) have added to the major struggles of the hockey club.
The question that jumps to the forefront is, what can be done to "right the ship?"
Here are some suggestions I will throw out there for GM Lou Lamoriello and Coach Brent Sutter to consider:
1. Stop playing the checking line concept. Until Jay Pandolfo and John Madden show any signs of defending like they used to, the two J's should be taking no more than a regular shift. Add Jamie Langenbrunner to this line, and you may as well call it the Underachieving Line.
Langenbrunner's best play as a Devil was when he was combined with Pandolfo and Madden on the same unit to help them win the Stanley Cup in 2003. Maybe reuniting them again can bring them to the level of play they once had. It is hard to believe all three players could suddenly see their skills and effectiveness evaporate overnight.
2. Play the kids. Obviously, some mistakes will be made. However, why are players like Nicklas Bergfors and Petr Vrana continuing to see little ice time? Let's see what we have here and decide if these kids have a future in this organization. Playing them four to eight minutes a night is not going to help us find out that answer.
Anssi Salmela has stepped up his role lately, and while he's made some mistakes, he has been much needed help to the blue line. Let's see if Bergfors and/or Vrana can add something similar to the forwards. If not, we'll know they should stay in Lowell.
3. Waive Sheldon Brookbank/Send him to the minors. It is quite unfair to single out one player because the entire team, besides Zach Parise, has let the team down at one point or another this year. Unfortunately, Brookbank has shown he is not capable of being a legitimate top six NHL defenseman either; one only needed to see the third goal last night against the Rangers to witness this.
He is constantly chasing the play, is prone to mistakes, and outside of some occasional toughness, doesn't offer a whole lot else to the mix. Sending Brookbank to the minors will also send a signal to the rest of the roster that they must perform to remain with the team.
4. Have the line combinations make sense. Patrik Elias, while being a sound defensive player, should not be paired with two predominant checkers. Pair Elias with the players who have more skill in the offensive zone. In my opinion, there are six forwards that fit best on the top two scoring lines: five of them being Elias, Parise, Travis Zajac, Brian Gionta, and Dainius Zubrus.
Additionally, Brian Rolston would be N.6 when he returns from injury. In the meantime, look at N.2 above and play either Vrana or Bergfors on the top two lines and give them a legitimate shot to show what they can do.
5. Get Healthy, Hold players accountable and roll four lines. Forget about playing the match-ups, that hasn't worked lately. Roll the four lines like it was done back in the mid 1990's and see where it takes them. You can use the top six forwards for primary offense, use the checking line for solid defense, and use a fourth line to spice things up like the Crash Line did back in 1995.
Reward the guys who give 100 percent maximum effort with some extra double shifts and show the pine to the guys who don't sell themselves out for the team. This has been the biggest dynamic this team has lost in recent years, again, besides Zach Parise. Also, staying out of the infirmary would greatly help matters and give the team a chance of becoming a more cohesive unit.
6. Play nasty. Become the team that opponents hate to play. That was always the case in past years and opponents knew they were going to get hit and bumped around for 60 minutes when they came to play the Devils.
Guys like Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Randy McKay, and Bobby Holik would make you earn your night of pay. On today's team, the banging in the corners and tough checking is practically non-existent. That simply must change immediately.
Add it all up, and without any trades, this team can restore itself to a contender. It just needs to start with effective veteran leadership and coaching staff. Otherwise, it may be a very long season in New Jersey.
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