With perhaps the most complete team in the NHL, and a team anyone who knows anything about the NHL, penciled inked into the top five teams in the league back in September, one must wonder how we all got it so, so wrong.
Is it Marty? Is Sean Avery’s favorite goalie melting down faster than Mel Gibson? While it’s true that his .901 SV% is not just the lowest of any full season in his career, but is well below his .914 average, and his 2.74 GAA is .40 higher than his career average, he’s not the only goalie who has flown high who is now looking up at the pack. Hiller, Khababulin, Kiprusoff and Anderson all have a worse GAA than Broduer. His SV% is exactly what Jeff Deslauriers finished last season with. True, we’re a mere seventeen games into Broduers season, and we don’t really expect the guy at the top of the goalie stats to stay there, so maybe, MB30 will climb back into familiar territory.
Is it Ilya Kovalchuk? The $100,000,000.00 man is also, hands down having the worst season of his career. In twenty five games this year, he’s got a line of 5-6-11 -15, after his arrival in New Jersey last year he played twenty seven games and had a line of 10-17-27 +9. In his career he’s averaged 3.65 shots on goal per game. This season, the Tver Russia native is down to 2.96 shots per game.
What about Langenbrunner? The 35 year old team Captain is on pace for just 11 goals, not surprisingly this would be the least goals he’s scored since the lockout. In fact to find a goal total lower than that you have to go back all the way to 2003-4 season where he scored just to in 53 games. He’s also got the worst plus minus of his career a -12, of the teams forwards only Kovalchuck is worse. This is a shocking development in a guy who last year was a plus six, and the year before was a +25 to go along with a career +60.
What about the defense you say? Well, that’s just ugly. As if Broduer’s slippage wasn’t enough, bearing in mind that he’s played just half their games, and has more shutouts and a better GAA than either man to substitute for him, it isn’t terribly surprising to learn that the Devils have allowed a sixth worst 2.96 GAA on the season. Even allowing for the turnover, and better goalie play in Boston this year as a team they went from 2.27 GAA defense to 2.96 seemingly overnight.
At least the offense is pitching in right? Um, if by pitching in you mean contributing to their chances of taking the first overall pick in the upcoming NHL entry draft, you’d be right. As of today, they have a 1.78 GF/G average, lower than 29th place by about a third of a goal per game.
Has anyone been injured? At this point it is probably just as sensible to ask who hasn’t been injured. Of the 29 skaters to suit up for the Devils this season, in just 27 games, only seven have played all 27 games. Among those to miss time are defensive defenseman Anton Volchenkov, Langenbrunner, Parise, Fraser, Rolston. When you consider that Volchnkov was brought into be their defensive workhorse and is tied for the team lead +/- with a +2, you have to wonder how much less bad the team would be had he been on the ice all season. Not to be overlooked is that the Devils have played nine rookies to date this season.
If all those things are so bad sure it’s gotta be the coach! Ah, well maybe not. True John MacLean‘s a first year coach who’s only previous head coaching experience was as head coach of the New Jersey Devils AHL affiliate. It’s interesting to note that the then Lowell and now Albany Devils had both their longest losing streak, and their best points total in his season as head coach. One factor working against the coach is how different his style is from both the previous coach of the Devils, and that of the coaches of the off season and trade deadline acquisitions not to mention rookies making the double adjustment of new team and minor or amateur ranks to the NHL.
With all these factors playing a part of the huge equation that is the success, or lack their of, of a NHL team, there is one huge integer, or possibly exponent that I’ve not seen covered anywhere. Buried under all these injuries, and worst seasons ever, and first seasons ever is the fact that there has been a lot of turnover not just on the roster, but in team philosophy. Since the year started about half the roster has turned over, much of it on defense. On top of that there has been a redefining of roles among the forwards and team as a whole.
Prior to this season, when all else failed, when the opposition beat five skates dead to rights and came to the crease with blood in their eye, Martin Broduer could be counted on to stonewall them at a ridiculous rate. Before this spring Zach Parise as the guy who scored goals when you needed them. Langenbrunner was the leader. Zajac was the well rounded forward who did what was asked in all three zones. With the acquisition of Kovalchuk before the trade deadline, you get a guy who was team captain for years, has had a better goal scoring career than any of his new teammates, and who knew his job was to get open and bury the puck. That’s it, two jobs, no backchecking, no looking off the defense with a pass to someone else who owned a legitimate scoring shot, no plays drawn up on the board that didn’t feature use as the primary weapon in the powerplay.
As respected as Zajac, Parise, and Langenbrunner were, none of them has ever been a superstar. If they had been the face of the Atlanta Thrashers in Kovalchuks place, the team would have been packed off to Winnepeg, Quebec City, Ontario or parts unknown years ago (assuming the ownership group could agree on the color of money) and they’d probably have been scapegoated. MB30 has been the face of the New Jersey Devils, even he is overshadowed by Kovalchuk. Number 17 even has his own feud going with Elisha Cuthbert’s most pesky ex. When you look at the top performers in the NHL, every single one of them, regardless of their position knows the style of play expected of them, and where they are supposed to be on the ice and what they are supposed to be doing there. Draw up any play, in any situation you like, abduct Mike Babcock and staff from behind the Red Wings bench, and I’ll bet you Oprah-bucks that Lidstrom, Rafalski, Datsuyk, all know which X is them without anyone saying a word. Hop on I-94, rinse and repeat with Toews, and Keith and get the same result.
While it’s certainly not the only problem, I think giving the team time to settle into place after the roster and religious upheaval of the last season or so is only reasonable. Take a look at last seasons Montreal Canadiens, everyone laughed themselves sick at the assembly of Smurfs and the no-name defense lolling passively along behind them. Now (years too late for some) the entire NHL knows their names.