Standing just on the inside of the playoff bubble are the New Jersey Devils—the most unpredictable team in the NHL.
When the Devils trusted their thirteen-year-playoff-appearance run to rookie coach and franchise legend John MacLean, the only word that does any justice describing the situation is "heartbreak."
During the 2010-11 season, the Devils were saved by former coach and Hall of Famer Jacques Lemaire. The Devils were the team nobody wanted to play because they won an astounding amount of games, many of which star sniper Ilya Kovalchuk's name on the game winning goal or assist.
This year is different than most for the Devils, as they are an aggressive team that has an excellent mix of youth and experience that melds well. Rookie of the Year candidates Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson are not only exceeding expectations, but the duo are looking like they will become the Devils' top center and number one defensemen in a very short time.
First is Adam Henrique, a third-round draft pick whom many believed to be the checking center of the future, someone to replace long-time, bottom-six forward and former Selke winner John Madden.
Henrique was projected as a 4th-line center for this year and possibly next before he could develop enough into the team's 3rd-line center and number one penalty kill man. Due to the injuries of centermen Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson, Henrique was allowed to get a taste at being the team's top center. Henrique took the opportunity and ran with it.
The young Ontario native was paired with team captain and Olympic hero Zach Parise on his left wing. Since Parise has moved back into his natural position with Henrique, the captain has been nothing short of amazing, scoring goal after goal and setting up scoring opportunities every time he steps on the ice.
On the right side of Henrique, coach Peter DeBoer placed Devil-for-life Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk switched from his normal position of left wing to right and has been a dominant force for the Devils since.
People were quick to call out Kovalchuk and his lengthy contract when he did not perform up to his own personal standards, but nobody is complaining about the Russian these days. Don't be surprised if these three receive a great nickname that ranks up there with the EGG, A, Crash, or ZZ Pops lines of old.
When Adam Larsson was drafted 4th overall in last year's rookie draft, people either assumed he'd play sparingly as the team's 6th defenseman or he would be sent back to Sweden to perfect his craft.
All in all, Larsson was not in the plans to be a big part of this Devils club.
Now that the season has progressed, the fact of the matter is that no other Devils defenseman plays or scores more than Adam Larsson. The young Swede has a great shot, above average two-way intelligence and play, and figures to be entrenched in the Devils' number one spot for as long as the front office can keep the paychecks coming.
The shorthanded Devils are one of the best kept secrets in the NHL. If you don't know already, the Devils kill an amazing NHL-leading, 92.7% of their penalties.If you have not watched them play this year, you absolutely must.
DeBoer's Devils are extremely aggressive being a man down, and it simply does not look like they are even trying to play like they are short handed. More often than not, the four penalty-killers on the ice will be on the attack, scoring a league leading seven short handed goals.
Just by watching the game one can tell that the head coaches' philosophy is this—yes we are shorthanded, but that doesn't mean whoever is one the ice can't score goals.
On the flip side of this is the shorthanded Devils' ugly cousin, the man-advantage Devils. Sitting very close to the bottom of the league, the Devils have only managed to convert on the powerplay a mere 13.7% of the time.
The other fact that people will find mind boggling is that nobody gets scored on more times shorthanded than the Devils. At a whopping 10 shorties allowed, the Devils are at the very top of the league in that category, quite far from a handful of other teams that have allowed half that amount in as many games.
Something just hasn't been clicking right for the Devils. There is good news though, the Devils traded for Anaheim Ducks defenseman Kurtis Foster who easily has the best shot from the blue line among Devils defensemen. With Foster and Kovalchuk playing the points, there is nowhere to go but up for the lowly New Jersey power play.
The roster has many bright spots, including elder statesman and multiple record-holder Patrik Elias leading the way in the Devils scoring with 30 points in 33 games.
Elias is looking like the Elias of old more recently—the Elias of the 2008-09 season where he thrived under coach Brent Sutter's high powered offensive system where Elias was a point-per-game player.
Elias has been paired with old teammate and fellow Czech friend Petr Sykora, who has been a complete surprise to the Devils, and, frankly, a joy to watch all season. Sykora is most likely going to notch a little above 20 goals, reminiscent of his days in Pittsburgh where he helped the Penguins win their first Crosby-era Cup.
New Jersey is also the only team to boast 5 double-digit goal scorers in Elias, Kovalchuk, Clarkson, Parise, and Zubrus. And rookie Adam Henrique is right on their tails with 9.
The goaltending, for the first time in a long time, is quite a situation in New Jersey.
Backup goalie Johan Hedberg is outperforming NHL legend Marty Brodeur every chance he gets. This isn't to say that Brodeur's play has been outright horrible, but you can see that the team even responds quite differently when Hedberg is between the pipes.
The Devils generally provide a greater amount of offense when Hedberg starts. When Brodeur plays, the amount of goal support he receives is generally around one or two goals per game. This means Brodeur must try to perform like he did all through his 20's and early-to-mid 30's.
There is too much expected of Brodeur. Hedberg sits nicely at a 10-5-1 record with two shutouts and a respectable .913 SV%. Meanwhile, Brodeur is 9-9 with a grisly .884 SV% along with no shutouts for the NHL's all time leader in that category.
Unfortunately for the Devils, even if Hedberg proves he is the better choice to be the starting goaltender and the Devils do indeed make the playoffs, Brodeur will get every nod that comes his way.
It is just the way things work in New Jersey.