BY SAM HITCHCOCK
A few weeks ago, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher said that he believes the basis for a good NHL team is its defensemen. “You can have all the top offense you want, but it’s about your defense and top four. We didn’t have a top four last year.” But a recent game against the Devils shows that a lot of other factors can come into play.
Boucher exploded (as his team imploded) when his Lightning got consecutive penalties on Thursday night. It was late in the third period of a 2-1 (Devils) contest, and a prolonged 5-on-3 (thanks to Boucher adding an unsportsmanlike conduct from the bench) led to Tampa Bay’s demise.
It was an unfortunate case of a coach unable to contain his pejorative feelings about the referees’ calls, and the Devils went on to score twice on that power play to win 4-2.
Despite his unraveling, Boucher is a very good coach and a smart man, and his revelation about hockey’s current game being built on defense is a good place to begin when evaluating the Devils after their first ten games.
The Devils are built on defense, and are third in the East because of their top four and a few unexpected surprises.
THE NEW JERSEY DEVILS AFTER TEN GAMES:
The Biggest Surprise
In the Devils’ young season, this has to be the line that has outperformed all expectations. The team’s most effective line thus far has been Travis Zajac at center, with wingers Patrik Elias and David Clarkson aligned with him. This is an astounding fact when remembering that Illya Kovalchuk plays on the Devils offense. But these three forwards have been working together in perfect harmony.
Clarkson has shown the most progress of the three, and what he has accomplished since being an undrafted forward is remarkable. Clarkson entered the NHL with the qualifier of being a sandpaper-grit player. He appeared in only seven games in the 2007 NHL season at the late-blooming age of 23, but in that small sample size potted three goals.
This was enough for a promotion to a full season in 2008, where Clarkson recorded nine goals and 13 assists with 183 penalty minutes. He was a player with a lot of heart who skated not-so-gracefully, but worked as hard as anyone and protected his teammates.
Last year, Clarkson saw his goal total jump from 12 in 2011 to 30 in 2012, and a lot of it was attributed to the work he put into his shot and his improved skating ability. Since he was built around a limited skill set, it seemed very conceivable that 30 was his career year and he would regress in 2013, even with being placed in a more prominent role due to other forwards leaving (most notably Zach Parise).
This could not be further from what has happened. Clarkson currently leads the Devils with 41 shots on goal. He is absolutely DOMINATING beneath the opposing goal line, using his strength to fend off defensemen, similarly to how former Boston Celtics great Bill Russell used to box out defenders for rebounds.
Clarkson now exhibits outstanding balance and body control, and his tenacity is unmatched. He wins all the battles in the corners and propels the puck towards the front of the net so Elias, Zajac, Adam Henrique or any forward out there will have a scoring opportunity. If the front of the net is clogged with defenders, he will make a cross-ice diagonal pass to the defenseman at the point, leading to more goal chances.
To extend the basketball analogy, the same way that Russell would get his team extra scoring possession with his extraordinary rebounding skills, so does Clarkson with his ability to manhandle anyone who challenges him along the corner boards. The Devils play a chip-and-chase forecheck, and no one does it better than Clarkson. He is the best power forward in the game that no one knows about.
At his side is Elias, and there is something cathartic about watching him play, even at the age of 36. He is so wily with the puck that the Devils’ broadcasting team is left in awe sometimes. Elias uses his body as a sleight of hand, shifting and turning one way (to gain the opponents’ and goalies’ attentions) while guiding the puck in an opposite direction towards one of his charging teammates.
He is always in the right place at the right time, and his knowledge of where to place himself on the ice is unparalleled. He has adopted the Gretzky-ism of knowing not where his teammates are, but where they are going.
Elias’s biggest flaw is his quest to be James Abbott McNeill Whistler, always seeking the aesthetically beautiful goal. This can be infuriating because he will turn down a shot opportunity in the slot for the more decadent perfect pass, and it will be that extra split second that the defense needed to adjust and disrupt the chance.
It is like what Red said in Shawshank Redemption, “I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone.” Elias is in the end stages of his career; when he retires, I think every Devils fan will viscerally understand this.
In my Devils preview I criticized the Zajac signing for $5.75 million a year. It may have been a bit harsh, but his two goals and one assist thus far support the assertion I was making. They were giving a B/B+ player A-type money.
To clarify, Zajac is a very good player. On a team woeful at faceoffs (more on that later), he is boasting a win percentage of 60%. He has good size, balance, and strength, and plays big minutes on special teams. He is playing around the same amount of minutes as superstars John Tavares and Steven Stamkos (approximately 21:50 a game).
But Zajac has not scored a goal since the second game of the season. His last point was an assist in January (the Devils have played four games in February). He had an Achilles injury that sidelined him for 67 regular season games last season, and reports are that he “tweaked something” Saturday against the Islanders (per Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record). New Jersey lost Zach Parise in free agency and panicked, signing their center to an expensive, lengthy contract. (I did not say No. 1 center because it is possible that Adam Henrique, four years younger, will overtake Zajac as New Jersey’s top center.)
After watching the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens subsequently sign Michael Del Zotto and P.K. Subban to two-year bridge contracts, Zajac’s terms are even tougher to swallow. Granted, those players are significantly younger, but the Rangers and Habs played hardball with them and benefited with a favorable contract of $2.55 million. GM Lou Lamoriello is a huge proponent of patience, but here he seemed to act out of desperation.
The Best of the Rest:
Starting with the most polarizing Devils player, Kovy needs to shoot more. A lot more. He will happily rip a shot on the power play and penalty kill, but, bizarrely, at even-strength he has shown an aversion to shooting when entering the slot. There is no denying New Jersey is a structure-oriented, egalitarian franchise, but for Lord’s sake he is not Joe Thornton or born to assist like State Farm’s Chris Paul. The guy has a bomb for a shot, but too often he is deferring to the cutting linemate.
Recollecting his Atlanta days, this would seem inconceivable, almost like the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant trying to establish himself as a facilitator! Oh wait, poor example.
Last year, when Kovy had a meager 12 goals through 2011, and I predicted he would get 25 in 2012 because he was getting bad puck luck. That prediction ended up coming to fruition, but I would never make that prognostication in this truncated schedule because he is not firing enough rubber at the net.
Kovy is such an enormous talent (and contract) that he attracts a lot of attention, and my favorite example from this season of Good Kovy and Bad Kovy is from the Devils’ last two games against the New York Islanders.
During the Devils’ 5-4 OT loss on January 31st and their February 3rd 3-0 win, Kovy made two gigantic plays around the same time in the game (although oddly neither affected the outcome). Midway through the third period in the January loss, during a New York line change, Kovy curled towards the Devils blue line and made a spectacular stretch pass to a cutting Clarkson. Clarkson received the puck in stride and went full speed for the breakaway, but unfortunately for New Jersey, Islanders’ Casey Czikas made a gorgeous diving sweep to clear the puck away from Clarkson and prevent the goal.
It was the prettiest outlet pass I had seen all season, and showed Kovy at his fullest talents (plus, coming on a Devils power play, it showcased what a weapon Kovy is on special teams).
During the Devils power play in their win in February, the score was tied 0-0 when Kovy made a no-look, turnaround pass across the ice. The blind pass was stolen by Islanders’ speedster Michael Grabner for a breakaway, but Devils goaltender Johan Hedberg made an incredible save, and helped mitigate the mistake. This was also midway through the third period in a deadlocked game, against the same opponent. Kovy is as skilled as they come, but he can be a rollercoaster ride.
Rollercoaster ride is a perfect lead-in to the Devils player who should definitely be sponsored by Tums or Pepcid AC: Marek Zidlicky. There is no questioning his skating, offensive creativity, and deft passing ability. Zidlicky was acquired by New Jersey from Minnesota because he has a strong offensive game and would improve their power play. However, he was readily available because he fell out of favor with the Wild’s head coach, and there are times when it is very apparent why.
Often it seems like playing defense is second priority for Zidlicky. Opposing attackers beat him to a desired ice space and capitalize on his turnovers with odd-man rushes and scoring opportunities. I have never seen a defenseman make a less inspired effort to block a crucial shot, and some of that may be due to his advancing age. He is an important weapon on the power play, providing an alternative to Kovy’s big one-timer, but often one is left to wonder at what cost?
On the flipside, Andy Greene has established himself through ten games to be the Devils’ best defenseman. He is a fluid skater, has great instincts, is a good passer in the transition game and in tight areas, and is showing an offensive dimension with two goals on the season.
For both goals, he jumped into the play on a pinch, and one time he displayed a well-placed shot, and the other some very soft hands. I love head coach Peter DeBoer’s pairing of the young-gun Adam Larsson with Greene, because they are the smoothest skaters on the team and both have similar games. Larsson is a young 20 and is blessed with the full-package of tools, but Greene, while smaller and not as naturally gifted, has a comfort for the NHL game that will grow on Larsson.
Greene plays and carries himself like the seasoned veteran he is, and will help alleviate Larsson’s biggest weaknesses -- getting stronger on the puck and in front of the net, and inconsistent focus. Greene is savvy and excels in both of these areas (and his strength on the puck is especially impressive given his diminutive size). If Larsson can soak up Greene’s knowledge, he will benefit greatly.
Bryce Salvador has looked good at times, but it is clear his age has led to decreased lateral movement, which allows a player to elude him when driving to net. (The most obvious offender is Tavares, who has gotten the better of the captain a few times.) Still, he is a big body who is also strong on the puck, has a very high hockey IQ, and with the new “C” stitched to his jersey, has shown the will to do anything to win. He leads by example and it is palpable.
A Few Extra Thoughts:
Like a surgeon’s hand, Mark Fayne is always steady. Adam Henrique is a great return for the Devils, and has looked strong on faceoffs, puck deflections, and using his long reach to score and pass at a very high level. It is a big plus for New Jersey to have him back.
Jacob Josefson is carrying the puck with much more confidence, and seems more poised. He is showing the ability to create, but is also susceptible to breakdowns, like the puck bouncing off/skipping over his stick.
Here are a few lingering questions going forward. Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg have been superb so far, but they are also not spring chickens, so will they hold up? Additionally, the Devils are 28th out of 30 NHL teams in faceoff win percentage (14th in the Eastern Conference).
Anyone who watches hockey knows the importance of puck possession (and advanced metrics augment the value of it), so if the Devils are in the bottom third in the NHL in faceoff-win percentage, will they be able to survive?
Continuing with advanced metrics concerns, so far New Jersey has enjoyed a solid PDO (the sum of “On-Ice Shooting Percentage” and “On-Ice Save Percentage”). If that regresses, will they be able to register enough goals? Also, Kovy is the only forward in the top ten (again) in Time On Ice, with 26:02 per game. Will his legs be fresh in the closing stretch? Will the less durable Zajac be able to sustain his ramped up ice time?
DeBoer is a great coach, and even with the departure of great assistant coaches and a franchise player, the Devils still maintain the identity and culture that Lamoriello created. There are austere warnings for the future 38 games but, as always with the Devils, never count them out.