|"Any time you're benched and not playing, you'll do anything to get back into the lineup" - Johnny Oduya
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Oduya, who was one of seven Devils to make their NHL debuts in 2006-07, learned that lesson after last season's playoffs when he was benched in the team's five-game loss to the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Although Oduya won't admit it, the benching had to be a tad surprising, considering he had played in 76 regular-season games. But the 26-year-old defenseman took the demotion as a lesson to be learned.
"Any time you're benched and not playing, you'll do anything to get back into the lineup," Oduya told NHL.com. "I don't know if that fueled something inside me for this year or not. I just wanted to play and I prepared as hard as I could over the summer. I wanted to come back in shape, ready from the get-go.
"After the benching, I just felt the need to take a step back in order to move forward," Oduya said. "I know it sounds weird, but as a young player, you tend to push and push because you want to impress. At some point, you have to kind of look at things in a different light, relax and remember to have some fun out there."
Oduya's defensive partner, Paul Martin, who is in his fourth NHL season, is proud of the way his teammate has rebounded this winter.
"Johnny was 100 percent right in stepping back and taking a look at the big picture," Martin told NHL.com. "I believe that's why he's finally figured it out this year. He's not as hard on himself and no longer burdens himself with added pressure. He knows it's just a game and when you're having fun, that's when you're able to play your best. Sometimes you get that feeling that if you mess up, you might not play the next night, but Johnny has done a good job of handling that type of emotion and he's certainly earned a spot in this lineup."
"I feel Johnny figured it out earlier than I did because I had leaders to look up to," Martin said. "In my first two years, it really wasn't up to me to do anything out of the ordinary, but today, we have a group of defensemen trying to chip in any way possible. I just try to offer encouragement. He knows what he's doing so I just wanted to make him feel comfortable. For me, this year has been the most fun."
Oduya admits having Martin by his side has been a tremendous aid.
"I've played with Paul most of the time and it's been great for me because he's such a smart player," Oduya said. "He's easy to read and we know each other well so that has helped in my development."
Indeed it has. Oduya is currently second in plus/minus (plus-21) to Zach Parise (plus-23) and has already surpassed last season's totals with 21 points (17 assists) in 62 games. Devil fans won't soon forget his coast-to-coast goal against the Carolina Hurricanes when he picked up a loose puck behind his goal line and skated up ice through the Hurricanes' defense before moving to his left and scoring on goalie Cam Ward to highlight a 6-1 victory on Feb. 9.
"I surprised myself with that one," Oduya said. "I expected someone to come at me. But those plays don't happen often, especially for me. So if I get the chance to do it, I'll try it. I want to continue skating hard on offense, but I know playing good defense is what will ultimately help our team win."
Martin said it won't be the first time Oduya showcases his ability to rush the puck end-to-end.
"I knew he had that in him," Martin said. "Ever since he scored that goal, he's been skating more confidently and making more moves. He's having fun out there and becoming more comfortable in making those decisions. He's stepping into a bigger role."
Martin, who leads all Devils' defensemen with 28 points (23 assists) through 69 games, can sense a new found confidence in Oduya.
"When any young player first enters the League, you're always worried about doing what (the coaches) want you to do instead of playing and skating the way you can," Martin said. "Johnny was obviously talented enough to make plays, but after being told that there's a certain way he had to play, it was hard for him to find a medium as far as doing what he was capable of doing in helping the team and doing what was asked of him. I think he's found that balance this season."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.