Although the Devils’ losing streak came to an end on Thursday night, it is hard to blame fans for losing faith in their team that started off the season atop the Atlantic Division and has since fallen into seventh place in the Eastern Conference. While the team searches for answers, it is very easy for fans to throw around wild accusations of poor play, mismanagement, lack of talent, etc. I’ve tried to remain positive with the belief that this scoring and power play drought will eventually turn around and our ageless wonder, Martin Brodeur, will soon provide a slight boost of stability to a floundering Devils team. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Devils have a serious issue that came into question before the season even started: leadership.
I will start by identifying one of the most obvious candidates, Devils captain Bryce Salvador. Many have been harsh critics of the 37-year-old defenseman during his four seasons in New Jersey. I’ve always viewed him as a steady, “stay-at-home” defenseman that provided us size and steady play in front of our own net. He even had a memorable, fluke goal in the Stanley Cup Finals. Despite this positive opinion, even I found myself scratching my head when New Jersey named Salvador the 10th captain in the team’s history. While I’ve read he possesses leadership qualities, particularly in the locker room, his on ice performance has left much to be desired. In 24 games this season, the Devils captain has only one point and minus-5 rating. He has admitted, during the recent losing streak, that his play has fallen off and it showed again on Thursday night as he let Thomas Vanek walk into the slot alone and score. Poor play is understandable at times, particularly when the team is playing five games in seven nights, but he has been out of position on multiple occasions recently. This is unacceptable for a captain of a team approaching a franchise-record losing streak; a player that teammates and fans look to, to lead by example. He is not the type of player to get physical and mix things up on the ice, either, so he isn’t making up for it by being a catalyst-type player. Salvador needs to turn it around, particularly while Hedberg is in goal, or the Devils will continue to lose and he will continue to be a questionable captain in the eyes of the fans.
The second player that has stuck out lately is Ilya Kovalchuk. The “One-Hundred Million Dollar Man” has hardly earned his contract lately, although I don’t attribute all of that to him. I think a lot of Kovalchuk’s struggles lately are stemming from mismanagement. He is a high energy player that is being asked to play almost 26 minutes per game, which is over 3 minutes longer than the second hardest working forward in the league. In the beginning of the season, this seemed to make sense as he was already in mid-season form from playing in Russia; he could handle those minutes as his teammates got back into playing form. In fact, he was playing even more at the beginning, averaging almost 27 minutes per game at one point. However, to sustain his high-energy type of play, he can’t be asked to shoulder so much of the load. He has looked sluggish, relative to what he is capable of, and that must stem from being overworked. The heavy workload has also been combined with an extremely inconsistent line up for the Devils, as coach Peter DeBoer has made too many line changes to count. With such a high amount of ice time and little consistency in his surroundings, it looks like “Kovy” is having a hard time finding his groove. As a high paid, highly skilled player on an offensively challenged team, Kovalchuk has to step up and lead by example for the Devils to snap out of their scoring funk and power play woes.
Fun Fact: The New Jersey Devils have only won two games, this season, during which neither David Clarkson nor Ilya Kovalchuk scored a goal.
While it pains me to do so, I have to put a little of the blame on Patrik Elias. It is quite easy to see Elias’ frustration when it comes to scoring, this season. I’m sure many will disagree with me, as Elias is leading the Devils with 24 points this season. However, there are few who have seemed to get so many scoring chances and failed to put them in the back of the net. He shot the puck right back into James Reimer on a two-on-one opportunity late in the game against Toronto; a goal that would have made it a 3-3 game and perhaps prevented the Toronto goal that came soon afterwards and put the game out of reach for the Devils. He missed another golden opportunity with most of the net uncovered by Jonas Enroth in the game against the Buffalo Sabres, this Thursday. He later made up for it by scoring the tying goal with one minute remaining, but that doesn’t change the fact that Elias has struggled to finish this year. Regardless of his production this season, the golden opportunities that Elias has continuously missed throught this season seem to perfectly describe the fate of the team; great play with “bad luck” and an inability to score. Elias is a former captain of the Devils, and a highly respected veteran player. He needs to start making the most of his scoring chances, not just his playmaking opportunities, if the Devils are going to start winning games.
While many may think it odd that I’ve singled out two of the most productive players on the Devils, it seems clear to me that the old level of production in New Jersey is no longer acceptable. With Martin Brodeur out for an undetermined amount of time, we are all getting a glimpse of life without “Marty” and it hasn’t looked good. Hedberg has been much better than he has been given credit for, while the Devils have continued to struggle to score as they always have. If our defensemen are being switched around ever night, in front of a 39-year-old goaltender who is left with little scoring support from his teammates, how can this team hope to win games? The scoring must pick up for the Devils to be taken seriously again, and that starts with steady play in their own zone followed up with capitalizing on their scoring opportunities. It’s time for the leaders to lead or for changes to be made.
Honorable Mention: Adam Henrique, Henrik Tallinder