If the New Jersey Devils
learned anything from their early exit in this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's that they need more reliable play from their back end, more scoring from their front end and less ice time from their 36-year-old goaltender.
The Devils' five-game elimination by the New York Rangers
highlighted deficiencies that had been camouflaged by Martin Brodeur
’s strong play throughout most of the 82-game regular season.
Most notably, the Devils need to upgrade their blue line, which was hit hard by the extended absence of Colin White
(eye) and exposed for 19 goals in five Playoff games. They also need to find a high-end goal scorer to help complement Zach Parise
, Brian Gionta
and Patrik Elias
. And they need to better utilize backup Kevin Weekes
, who was signed as a free agent last summer to help shoulder some of Brodeur’s workload.
Brodeur played the final 46 games for the Devils. His last day off came on Jan. 5.
"I think to some degree, as the series (against the Rangers) went on, he looked mentally tired," Devils coach Brent Sutter
said of Brodeur. "He did a lot for this team this year."
Including winning the Vezina Trophy.
It can be argued that after losing top-flight defenseman Brian Rafalski
and his 55 points and playmaking center Scott Gomez
and his 60 points, the Devils placed far too much pressure on Brodeur this season.
Clearly, the replacements for Rafalski and Gomez did not pan out as well as the Devils hoped. Defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski, who arrived from Nashville, finished the regular season with a minus-12 rating, while center Dainius Zubrus, who arrived from Washington, managed just 13 goals, including only one in the club's final 14 games, and just one assist in the Playoffs. Of course, it didn’t help matters that Gomez scorched his former team for seven points in five Playoff games.
But all was not lost for the Devils in a season that began with nine straight games on the road while their new home, the Prudential Center, was being completed.
Under Sutter, the Devils tried to employ an aggressive attacking system in the first month of the season, only to realize they didn’t have the thoroughbreds to pull it off while falling three games below .500.
After meeting with several of his veterans, Sutter tweaked his forechecking schemes and the Devils began looking like their former selves. They won nine in a row from mid-November through early December, allowing just 14 goals during the stretch, and climbed up the standings.
The Devils and Penguins spent the final month of the season battling for the division lead and with 32 games against Atlantic Division opponents, Sutter felt compelled to stick with Brodeur for the final half of the season.
Brodeur, who turned 36 last month, has played in 70 or more games in 10-straight seasons and few believe he can continue at the same pace.
"I don't think he lost confidence, but it looked like he didn't make the big saves like he used to," Rangers right wing Jaromir Jagr said of Brodeur's performance against New York. "It doesn't make him a bad goalie. For me, he is still the best ever."
Despite their postseason shortcomings, the Devils still have a strong nucleus of Parise (32 goals), Elias (55 points), Gionta (53 points), Jamie Langenbrunner (41 points) and White.
Although both struggled to score down the stretch, sophomore center Travis Zajac (14 goals) and rookie right wing David Clarkson are promising contributors up front and defensemen Johnny Oduya and Mike Mottau were pleasant surprises on the blue line.
The Devils have some work to do in the offseason, but Langenbrunner still believes the Devils had what it took to advance further in the playoffs than they did.
"It's definitely going to be a long offseason for us,” he said. “We expected to be playing in June. This is definitely tough. You work all year to get to the playoffs. We thought we would play for (the Stanley Cup) again. It's up for grabs and we liked our team. I feel we didn't reach our potential. That's frustrating."