There are several words to describe the New Jersey Devils season thus far. Inconsistent, lethargic, or terrible can all sum up the Devils' season-long struggles.
But one word perfectly captures the Devils play this season: unexpected.
New Jersey enters the halfway point of the season at 11-29-2 and dead last in the entire league. They rank last in their division, eight points behind the New York Islanders. New Jersey sits 25 points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, effectively eliminating them from playoff contention.
The Devils' fall from grace has been both sudden and unexpected. This summer, general manager Lou Lamoriello was active in the free-agent market, attempting to bolster the blueline with Anton Volchenkov (six years, $25.5 million) and Henrik Tallinder (four years, $13.5 million). The Devils' GM also brought back Jason Arnott, acquiring the center for Matt Halischuk and a draft pick.
The relatively smooth offseason took a bumpy ride when the team attempted to re-sign Ilya Kovalchuk. After flirting with the Los Angeles Kings, Kovalchuk and the Devils agreed to a 17-year, $102 million contract. That contract, however, was denied by the league for "circumventing the cap." An independent arbitrator upheld the decision, leaving the Devils and Kovalchuk to re-structure the deal. The "Kovalchuk Saga" ended in September, when the Devils signed the left-winger to a 15-year, $100 million contract. The league required amendments to the CBA to pass the deal, disallowing these long-term contracts.
The signing left the team in cap trouble. With Kovalchuk signed, the Devils sat around $5 million above the cap. Instead of trading players, Lamoriello decided to use long-term injured reserve and other ineffective methods. While it wouldn't affect the team during training camp, it would rear its ugly head during the season.
After the long offseason, the Devils began camp under new coach John MacLean. The rookie head coach, who enjoyed a successful career with the Devils, decided to create a "super-line", playing Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac and Zach Parise on the same line. Under MacLean, the Devils expected to be a more up-tempo, puck control team. And when the puck dropped to start the season, New Jersey looked like a changed team.
In the first 7:13 against the Dallas Stars, the Devils held a 2-0 lead and were threatening to blow the game open. Parise and Zajac already scored, and their line looked unstoppable. Kovalchuk rang a shot off the post, missing a chance to extend the lead to 3-0. And it seemed to submarine the season.
The Devils dropped their opener, 4-3, in overtime. It took the Devils until October 13 against the Buffalo Sabres for the Devils to record their first win, a 1-0 overtime win. But a disturbing trend was forming - the inability to score goals. New Jersey managed to score two-plus goals only six of their first 12 games.
As the offense continued to struggle, the Devils injuries piled up. Bryce Salvador, who sustained a concussion, hadn't been cleared to work out. Brian Rolston sustained a sports hernia in the team's second game and underwent surgery. Eventually, Parise underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus, eliminating one of the Devils' biggest offensive weapons.
The Devils suffered through several low points this season, including:
- Losing to the Washington Capitals, 7-2, and allowing five goals in the second period.
- Dressing only 18 skaters for a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on October 11. The NHLPA investigated the decision to determine if the Devils' were circumventing the cap
- The firing of John MacLean on December 23 after recording a 9-22-2 record. The Devils hired Jacques Lemaire on an interim basis for the season.
- Three straight losses in December - to the Atlanta Thrashers, Capitals, and New York Islanders - where the Devils were outscored, 17-3.
Every single Devil has suffered through slumps this season. Scorers, like Kovalchuk and Arnott, haven't lit the lamp much this season. The defense has been shredded time and time again. Martin Brodeur, despite battling a sore right elbow injury, is in line for one of his worst seasons ever.
The Devils' callups haven't performed to their abilities either. Last season, New Jersey saw rookies seamlessly transition into the lineup for injured veterans and play well. But the rookies have struggled this season. They haven't made much of an impact on either side of the puck. Their inconsistency, combined with that of the veterans, didn't help the team, especially in the defensive zone. Sometimes starting as many as three rookie defenders, the Devils looked overmatched in their own zone for much of the season.
Despite all the negatives, there are a few positives from the Devils' first half. Patrik Elias leads the team in points (30) and looks like the Elias of old. Johan Hedberg, expected to see little regular season duty, played well during the first half of the season. His play provided the Devils with solid goaltending, something they didn't receive from Brodeur. Some of the rookies, including Mattias Tedenby and Matt Taormina, showed both potential and promise.
The Devils, unaccustomed to losing, will probably miss the playoffs this season. This season's team is threatening to be one of the worst in Devils' history, joining the 1982-83 (17-49-14) and 1983-84 (17-56-7) teams as models of futility. With the roster and players this team has, the Devils last-place standing continues to surprise everyone. It's been an unexpected fall from grace for one of the league's most consistent franchises.