The New Jersey Devils lost a hard fought game to the Ottawa Senators on Presidents Day Monday afternoon, and have no one to blame but themselves. In a vacuum, the loss is a result of a few unfortunate circumstances, and all things considered, the Devils should go home with a point and be happy. It is certainly fair, though, to examine the potential for this game to loom large over the rest of the Devils season.
Three major occurrences contributed to the Devils downfall against Ottawa:
1. The injury to Ryan Carter
2. The misconduct penalty levied on David Clarkson
3. Peter Deboer’s decision to put Ilya Kovalchuk first in the shootout
The injury to Carter has the most clear impact, as he has almost certainly sustained a concussion and may miss some time with the team. For a team that has already lost a top six forward, having to break up their most cohesive line can have a devastating effect on the third line’s effectiveness. Concussions are also one of the toughest injuries for a hockey player, where recovery is not exactly simple…..just ask Sidney Crosby. With enough luck, though, Carter can move past the injury and miss minimal time. The other two issues are much more worrying.
Clarkson has made his way though the early years of his career as a bruising, hot headed player who straddles the line between scoring forward and goon. He has obviously moved further toward the ‘scoring forward’ end of the spectrum with 10 goals in 16 games, but doing so with the same hard-nosed techniques of crashing the net and causing havoc in front of the goalie. He remains hot headed and somewhat reckless, with 35 PIM vs. a total 279 minutes on ice (breaks down to an average of one 2 minute minor penalty for every 16 minutes on ice, for a guy averaging 17:26 minutes per game).
He earned a game misconduct for getting a bit too testy in a scrum toward the end of regulation on Monday, causing him to miss the rest of the game (the 10 minute penalty was greater than both the 13 seconds remaining in regulation and the 5 minute overtime, eliminating him from shootout participation). Chris Neil faced the same fate, but Chris Neil is not his team’s most potent scorer. If Clarkson continues to take bad penalties and put himself in positions where teams can take advantage of his composure or lack thereof, he could create real problems for the team when they need offense.
Finally, the Ilya Kovalchuk conundrum. Kovalchuk has consistently led the Devils in ice time this season, as any $100 million man should. He takes the double shifts because he is the most effective player on the ice. But after playing the majority of the overtime period against the Senators, he could barely breathe. As time wore down and Pete DeBoer had to choose who would represent his Clarkson-and-Carter-less team in the shootout, he elected to put Kovalchuk up first, with Elias and former Senator Bobby Butler behind him.
The Butler decision is curious, but DeBoer defended himself saying it was a gut decision, which he is entitled to make. But to look at Kovalchuk panting on the bench and sending him right back out there to make a shot that requires a lot of focus is questionable, to say the least, and irresponsible at its worst. Nobody scored for the Devils, and one was enough as Jakob Silfverberg gave Ottawa a Family Day gift (Family Day is a Canadian holiday celebrated on Monday). Kovalchuk will continue to take the bulk of the extra shifts, duty that may increase as injuries pile up. Time will tell what that means to the Devils come playoff time, but it likely won’t be good.
Please don’t take this the wrong way: the Devils have played remarkably consistent hockey this season, Martin Brodeur continues to look incredible, and Andrei Loktionov enters today looking much better than he did Monday morning when Devils fans did not know what to expect. But these issues are staring the Devils in the face, and they may not be the most apparent, and they do not go away whether they win or lose this weekend in Washington.
Just some food for thought.