Even before the season began, many so-called hockey experts said the New Jersey Devils would not even make the playoffs. When star goalie Martin Brodeur went down with a torn bi-cep tendon that would keep him out until March, everyone rode the Devils off and had them start looking to next year. Everyone that is except for the New Jersey Devils and their die hard fans.
Over the past 13 seasons, the New Jersey Devils have won three Stanley Cups, only the Detriot Red Wings have won more in that time. The Devils have made the playoffs 11 consecutive seasons and had 11 consecutive 40-plus win seasons, never finishing with less than 95 points and breaking the 100 point barrier in nine of those eleven seasons. So why would everyone doubt one of the most successful franchises in sports over the past 15 years? You gt me!
The Devils will return from the All-Star break sitting atop the Atlantic Division with 61 points (29-15-3), one point ahead of the New York Rangers and two points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers. The Devils have been able to achieved this, despite being without Martin Brodeur for 37 games and free agent signings Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik for 18 games a piece. So here is a look back at the first half and how the Devils have gotten to where they are?
MVP: Zach Parise / Patrick Elias
Zach Parise has become a bona fide NHL star and Patrick Elias has once again become one of the NHL elite players. For the first time, maybe ever, their could be two Devils who finish the year in the top 10 in scoring in the league.
Parise, whose 28 goals ranks him 3rd behind Ovechkin and Carter, is currently 7th in the league with 55 points, while Elias ranks 9th with 54 points. The best part is they play on different lines, giving the other teams fits and the Devils two scoring lines.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Travis Zajac
Zajac's 15 goals and 21 assists already surpass his numbers from last season and with 35 games remaining he should easily break his career high of 42 points. Of late, Zajac has been the hot stick for the Devils as he has 5 goals and 3 assists in the past 7 games. Best of all has been his improvement on defense playing at a plus-19 compared to last seasons minus-11 rating.
BIGGEST SUPRISE: Scott Clemmensen
When the season started Scott Clemmensen was barely on the Devils radar. He would be headed to Lowell and spend time there all season and be an insurance policy. Well the Devils cashed in that insurance policy and more than they expected.
Not only has Clemmensen come in and held down the fort, he has asserted his presence. The Devils goal, who may have been snubbed for a trip to the All-Star game, has put up Brodeurian numbers in the absence of the star goaltender. Clemmensen is 7th in the league in wins (19), 6th in Goal-Against-Average (2.29) and 8th in save percentage (.922).
Now the big questions are, can he keep it up and what will the Devils do once Marty comes back at the end of February? Who will go and who will stay? One thing is for certain, Clemmensen will see a nice pay day from some team next season.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Jay Pandolfo
The long time Devil signed a three year 7.5M dollar contract over the summer and now with the signing of Brendan Shanahan, Pandolfo is watching the games from the press box.
He and long time linemate, John Madden, have been separated for most of the season and when he has played of late he has only seen time of late on the fourth line. There has been speculation of trading Pandolfo, but he will be difficult to move in the salary cap era.
TRADE DEADLINE: To Trade or not to trade, that is the question?
The Devils added Brendan Shanahan and may be happy with the depth they now have at the forward position. The defense has been underrated all year, but their solid play has the Devils ranked 5th in the league on defense. But GM Lou Lamiriello has been known to always add a veteran to the mix at the trade deadline. Looking back Lamiriello has brought in defenseman like Bryce Salvador, Jason Weimer, Phil Housley, Shawn Chambers and Vladmir Malakhov at the dealine and I would expect him to do the same. Except for Malakhov, there is one thing that ties all these players together. Lou got them for cheap and without breaking up the current roster.
THE FUTURE: Five things to look out for in the second half
Here are a few things to look out for after the all-star break:
1) Can John Madden keep it going? The Devils center has struggled all year and has been rumored in trades for a few weeks. Since Shanahan has joined the team, Madden has 1 goal,6 assists and a plus-6 rating in the past five games. Now can he keep playing the way he has of late, or will the Devils look to move him at the trade deadline?
2) Will Parise be the first Devil to score 50 goals in a season and will he or Elias break the 100 point plateau? Parise is on pace for 95 points and 48 goals, just short of the two marks.
3) How much of a difference will Shanahan make? He scored in his first game, but his presence may be felt far more than just on the score sheet.
4) Will Lou stand still or make a move? As we already stated, will Lou add a veteran blueliner or will he look for a 3rd line centerman to play with his wingers Rolston, Shanahan and Clarkson.
5) How will Brodeur play when he returns? He has never been out of the line-up for this long in his career. Will the rest help him and have him fresh for the playoffs or will he come back not in top form and send the Devils into a funk.
WHAT IS UP NEXT: The homestretch begins.
The Devils will come back from the all-star break with two road games at Ottawa and Boston and then play seven of eight on home ice. Scott Clemmensen and the Devils will need to try and put some distance between them and the Rangers and Flyers, while they await the return of Brodeur between February 26th and March 7th.
With 35 games remaining the Devils have nine divisional games left, including three against the Islanders and two against the Flyers, Rangers and Penguins. The Devils will not be doing much traveling the remainder of the season, as their furthest trip is a game at Chicago on March 27th. Besides that game every game will be played in the eastern time zone.