Yes, they've got probably the most complete player in the game in Zach Parise (definitely the most underpaid at $3,000,000 per year). Yes, they have the goaltender with the most wins and shutouts in National Hockey League history in Martin Brodeur. Yes, they have just acquired one of the top ten best active players in Ilya Kovalchuk. And, yes, they have won before with a similar core of players. Still, there's something missing, something that will prevent the New Jersey Devils from winning the Stanley Cup this June… five things, actually:
5) Team chemistry: While the Devils are 1-1 since the Kovalchuk trade, that one win should have an asterisk besides it, not only because it came against the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs, but because it came with just over three minutes remaining in the third period, when, trailing 3-1, the Devils scored three quick goals to embarrass the Leafs. Make no mistake, that victory was more about the Leafs losing than it was about the Devils being able to pull one out of the fire, so to speak.
Chemistry can be fixed, no doubt, and there were signs of problems before the trade, with the Devils being shut out by those same Leafs the game before 3-0, but to insert a player of Kovalchuk's caliber into a new lineup, let alone on a team entrenched in a defensive mindset, let alone on a team that already has a go-to-guy in Parise, is to play with fire (last cliché, I promise).
I'm not saying I wouldn't like to have Kovalchuk on my team, but I am saying there is an adjustment period to be expected and it remains to be seen whether or not the Devils can hold off the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Atlantic division lead long enough for them to find their way.
4) Scoring: Over two-thirds of the teams in the league have scored more goals than the Devils, and, while Kovalchuk may help matters, there's little guarantee that his scoring won't go down and that he'll somehow be able to spark the rest of the lineup into scoring more. Besides, he'll likely be playing with Parise, Travis Zajac, Jamie Langebrunner, or Patrik Elias, the players who aren't having trouble putting the puck in the net right now (relatively speaking).
It's when you start to travel down the lineup that you see just how lacking in offensive depth the Devils are. And in the playoffs, it's generally the contributions from those role-player types that get you far. Without those odd goals and the opposition's defense clinging to your stars like that two-sided tape to Jennifer Lopez wearing that dress a decade ago (don't pretend like you don't know which one), you risk being shut out every second game instead of winning those 2-1 and 3-2 games.
On paper, they admittedly look pretty good, but Brian Rolston, Dainius Zubrus, and Rob Niedermayer don't have the offensive ability they could lay claim to earlier in their careers (in Niedermayer's case, one 60-point season points to an exception and not the rule).
Also, David Clarkson, who can be relied upon to drop the gloves and be able to keep them on while stickhandling the puck past opposing goaltenders is hurt. It's a common trend in this year's edition of the Devils.
3) Defense: Defense wins championships. The Devils themselves are proof of that, so why think this year will be any different? Power-play quarterback Paul Martin has been injured since God knows when (October, actually) and maaaay be back early next month, but don't hold your breath as he had been hoping to be back in December from his forearm injury.
Meanwhile, general manager Lou Lamiorello traded away fellow d-man Johnny Oduya in the Kovalchuk trade. So, who's left?
Going by +/- rating, New Jersey's best defenseman is Andy Greene, who has never played an entire 82-game campaign with the Devils. The closest he came was 59 games in 2007-2008. Currently, he's played in 54 of 57 games for the Devils, so it's easy to give him the benefit of the doubt, but, still… a defensive corps made up of Greene, Bryce Salvador, Colin White, Mike Mottau, Anssi Salmela, and Mark Fraser hardly screams championship contender.
2) An aging Brodeur: It's been said year after year, and, year after year, Brodeur finds a way to pull a rabbit out of his hat in the regular season… but stumble in the playoffs.
Look to last year against Carolina, when he and the Devils had a series win against the Carolina Hurricanes in the bag, before they gave up two late goals in game seven to lose. Don't neglect to remember how Eric Staal's series winner was a relative softy that Brodeur should have had.
In 2007-2008's first round, the Devils lost to the New York Rangers, a five-game series in which Brodeur had only one good game in game two, and the Devils still managed to lose. He allowed four goals in games four and five to help the Rangers get the series win.
Needless to say, similar disappointments and slip-ups are prevalent in Brodeur's playoff career dating back to the Devil's last Stanley Cup win in 2002-2003 against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks (when they were still the Mighty Ducks). Maybe that is the last Cup the Devils are destined to win… at least with Brodeur playing, because, should he falter, whoever has the unenviable task (besides the million-dollar salary, of course) of being Brodeur's back-up (Yann Danis) doesn't fit Brodeur's mold of his being able to carry a team the way he did in his prime.
Last year's Scott Clemmensen, to which his current 3.53 goals against average will attest, was, like Niedermayer's 60-point season with the Florida Panthers, the exception and not the rule.
1) The other teams: Yes, Kovalchuk adds another dimension to the Devils's attack and to the team as a whole, but if one takes a look at the other favored teams, the Devils actually have no clear-cut advantage. The San Jose Sharks, Washington Capitals, and Chicago Blackhawks each have superstar talent up the wazoo (it's a word… check it out on wwww.dictionary.com). And the smart money says any of those has a better chance of getting further in the playoffs than New Jersey.
Some may argue that the Devils are the best team in the league right now, but some others may argue that they're not even the best team in their division with the Penguins just a couple of points behind them and over 20 games left in the regular season. And, those very same Penguins? Not only do they have that aforementioned up-the-wazoo superstar talent, but they've also been to the championship before, twice, in fact, in the past two years. Winning it last year, why bet against them getting there again? It just makes sense.
Yes, the Devils may win the Cup. Stranger things have happened, but the deck is still stacked against them. While there are probably more reasons as to why they won't than will, there's every reason to applaud Lamoriello for trading for Kovalchuk and giving his team more of a chance.
Kudos to him, and double kudos for giving up as little as he arguably did. The first-round pick speaks for itself, while prospect Patrice Cormier may end up out of the lineup more often than in due to suspension if recent incidents in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the World Junior Championships are anything to go by (that wasn't meant to kick a guy when he's down, but it is important to keep things in perspective and call a spade a spade here). Furthermore, Oduya is a solid defenseman, but his decent offensive output the past few years (26 and 29 points) is somewhat negated by his four in 40 games this season.
In addition, it's important to note that Niclas Bergfors has played like everything from a top-line winger to a checking-line one this year for the Devils, so the Atlanta Thrashers may have indeed traded for a diamond in the rough, or fool's gold. Only time will tell, just as it will where Kovalchuk will end up next year.
All signs point to Kovalchuk choosing to pursue unrestricted free agency this offseason, so the Devils are hoping his brief stint in Jersey will lead to something great. All the same, however, all signs point to it not happening.