Devils didn't have depth to survive two key injuries
The New Jersey Devils have gone from being Eastern Conference champions in 2012 to hoping luck is on their side in the 2013 NHL Draft Lottery.
The Devils were eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday with a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. It came exactly 316 days after the Los Angeles Kings stopped New Jersey's 2012 postseason run in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
How did the Devils go from championship contender last season to a team that has to play three meaningless games at the end of this season?
As much as teams and players don't like to use excuses, there's just no way around this one.
Brodeur missed 12 games with a sore back from Feb. 24-March 19 and the Devils were 3-7-2 without him. Kovalchuk missed 11 games from March 25-April 18 and New Jersey went 1-6-4 in those games, averaged 1.73 goals per game and had a power play that went 3-for-40.
Losing Brodeur for an extended period of time was one thing and the Devils, after a poor start with Johan Hedberg in net, were at least able to stay in the hunt by the time Brodeur got back.
They couldn't survive without Kovalchuk, who got hurt just when it appeared the Devils were starting to pick up their game again with Brodeur back in net. The Devils went 0-6-4 in the first 10 games without Kovalchuk.
Part of the reason the Devils couldn't survive after Kovalchuk went down with his shoulder injury is they didn't have another premium scorer like Parise to take over.
Parise left in July to sign a 13-year, $98 million contract with the Minnesota Wild. The Devils made a fair offer to Parise but it wasn't enough to change his mind about the Wild and returning home to Minnesota.
Once Parise was gone, the Devils never did anything that came close to replacing his offense and his leadership, and they got burned because of it once Kovalchuk was injured.
"It's a top-three forward that we never got back," Brodeur said. "We felt we played extremely good for a long part, but when Kovy went down it made a big difference. Not having another top guy, that's probably the biggest difference."
3. Not enough offense from Clarkson, Zajac
Right Wing - NJD
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 23
SOG: 173 | +/-: -6
With Parise gone, the Devils needed Travis Zajac to step up and David Clarkson to once again show he can be a premium scorer in the NHL.
Neither happened and that's another reason why the Devils are 28th in the NHL in offense with 2.31 goals-per-game.
Zajac never found his game. He scored in each of the first two games, but then had just six points over the next 27 games. He had one three-game hot streak in the middle of March, but followed with two points during the 10-game winless streak that coincided with Kovalchuk's injury.
He has 18 points in 45 games.
Clarkson was on fire to start the season, with 10 goals in the first 14 games. He was on pace for a second straight 30-goal season despite the fact he only had 48 games to do it this year as opposed to 82 last year.
But Clarkson went the next 13 games without a goal. He has scored four goals in the past 35 games.
4. Elias' late-season swoon
Just when the Devils needed Patrik Elias to step up, his production disappeared.
Elias has four goals and two assists in the past 18 games after scoring nine goals and dishing out 18 assists for 27 points in the first 27 games.
The Devils were 13-9-5 when Elias' swoon began; they've gone 4-9-5 since.
When you add Elias' slump with Kovalchuk's absence and the lack of scoring from both Clarkson and Zajac, it's easy to see why the Devils struggled to win games in the second half of this season.
The guys they needed to score were not scoring, and one of them wasn't even playing.
"When you do play and the team is struggling and losing the games, that's when you try a little more and you dig the hole even bigger," Kovalchuk said. "It's not easy, but what are you going to do? Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We have to look and see what can we do better."
5. What happened to their resilience?
Part of the Devils' charm last season was their ability to bounce back after giving up the first goal in a game. They never felt like they were out of it and proved that by winning 16 of the 38 games in which they gave up the first goal and 10 of the 26 games in which they trailed after the first period.
They were in the top 10 in the NHL in both categories.
This season, the Devils have given up the first goal in 27 games and have managed to win four times, for a .138 winning percentage. They've trailed after the first period in 15 games and have managed to win three of those games for a .188 winning percentage.
"We've struggled with that," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said of giving up the first goal. "That's been our Achilles the last 25 games and we have a hard time responding to that."
On the other hand, here are three reasons for optimism in Newark:
1. Up-and-comer on defense
Devils defenseman Adam Larsson continued to show promise this season, and coach Peter DeBoer thinks the 21-year-old Swede will soon be a star blueliner in the NHL. Larsson will be entering his third season in the League and should have most of the ins and outs figured by now. He was the No. 4 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft and he seems to be on pace with his development. The Devils will, or at least should think of Larsson as a top-four defenseman heading into next season. He can be a cornerstone guy for them.
2. A solid draft selection
New Jersey has to forfeit its first-round pick either this year or in 2014 as part of the penalty it is paying for trying to circumvent the salary cap by attempting to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to a heavily front-loaded 17-year, $102 million contract in 2010. However, this year's draft is in Newark and the Devils will have a lottery pick, so it would be quite a shock if they decided to forfeit the pick this year. They will likely be adding what could be a top-10 or higher pick to a young group that already includes Larsson, Adam Henrique, Stefan Matteau and Jon Merrill.
3. Stability behind the bench
Even through all the losing, the injuries and his team's inability to cash in on scoring opportunities, DeBoer kept his composure, spoke positively and all in all kept a level head. He undid some of that by bickering with the officials in the loss to the Rangers on Sunday, bickering that eventually led to his early departure with 16 seconds left in the 4-1 loss. However, the Devils have responded well to DeBoer in his two years behind their bench. They never lost faith in his systems despite going 7-15-6 over the past 28 games. That's a good sign for his future in New Jersey.