Wednesday night's 4-0 shutout over the Dallas Stars marked the official halfway point for the 2009-10 New Jersey Devils season. With 41 games in the books, it's time to take a look back at the season thus far.
As of the official halfway point in the season, the Devils' record stands at 30-10-1, good for first place in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, and two points back of the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks for best record in the NHL, with games in hand on both. Their 61 points at the 41 game mark are 10 better than last year's team--who finished at 106--and is officially the best first half in franchise history. And all this despite having yet to play a game with a complete roster.
1. The Kids. Perhaps the biggest reason the Devils are where they are is because of the play of the young players who have stepped in due to injuries over the course of the season. Vladimir Zharkov, Ilkka Pikkarainen, Mark Fraser, Matt Halischuk, Tyler Eckford, Tim Sestito, and Matt Corrente all had limited or no NHL experience entering this season, yet all have suited up for New Jersey at some point this season and none have disappointed given what was expected of them. Niclas Bergfors, meanwhile, seized the top-six forward spot that was his for the taking, and currently sits second in both goals and points to the Islanders' John Tavares among rookie scorers. The Devils' first round draft pick in 2005 is making the best of being an NHL regular, and finds himself on the short list of candidates for the Calder Trophy at the halfway point in the season.
2. The Free Agents. Though it would seem GM Lou Lamoriello knew what he had when he decided to make the team younger last season, he also felt adding a bit more balance to the equation could only help. There was criticism and confusion surrounding the signings of Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond, but both have surprised and contributed to the team's success.
3. The Coach. Success or failure in Jacques Lemaire's return to the Devils hinged on whether or not he would play to this team's strengths, keeping the offense intact while solidifying the defense. All in all, Lemaire has done a masterful job to this point, never allowing the team to get too high off a win or too low off a loss. Barring a drastic change, Lemaire should be in the running for another Jack Adams Award come season's end.
1. The Pairing of Colin White & Mike Mottau. Seperated, they are both capable defensemen who can get the job done. Together, they are an unstoppable force of bad positioning, turnovers, and scoring chances for the other team. Unfortunately, there's no way to back this point up statistically, but anyone who has watched the majority of Devils games this season, Jacques Lemaire included, has seen this.
2. The 60-Minute Efforts...Or Lack Thereof. It's difficult to drive this point home because even on nights when the Devils are flat, more often than not they've found ways to win. While this is a positive, it's almost frustrating to think that this team could be even better if they could put together more 60-minute efforts.
1. Andrew Peters. This is not a dig at his appearance, but at his play. He's been in the lineup for 20 games (well 19 unless you count the night he got ejected for not tying his jersey down after 13 seconds as a game) and has been virtually invisible. No one is expected him to put up points, but his role is to hit and fight, and he hasn't done much of either. Combine that with the fact that he skates like a third grader, and there you have a literal (and figurative) gigantic waste of space.
2. The Number of Games Played by Yann Danis. The answer is 4, only 3 of which he was meant to play in. Danis is 3-0-0 with a 2.00 GAA and .929 SV%. These numbers for such a small sample size are too good to not use Danis on a more regular basis, especially with the number of back-to-backs this season. The bad first period in Dallas on November 21st notwithstanding, the rest of the players haven't let up their game with Danis behind them. There is no reason he shouldn't be playing more. Marty isn't looking old or tired, but that doesn't matter; rest helps EVERYONE.
With that out of the way, it's time to hand out grades for the offense, defense, and goaltending. As a side note, I have not yet read the grading given out by this site so as not to influence mine, so if it turns out they're the same I apologize.
Zach Parise and Travis Zajac have gone on lengthy goal droughts, but Parise continued to rack up the assists during that time. We've also seen a bounce-back from Brian Rolston, Jamie Langenbrunner, while Patrik Elias has continued his brilliance and Niclas Bergfors has emerged with a standout rookie campaign. Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the Devils this year is their scoring depth; they don't have to rely on a handful of players to score in order to win games, because it seems as if a different player steps up every game and provides timely goals. The Devils could afford to score a bit more (currently ranked 16th in the NHL in Goals For with 117) but the depth they have shown goes a long way, especially when the goals aren't coming as much as they should.
The same top six that finished last season started this season, and has provided the same defense-by-committee. The Devils currently sit tied for first in the NHL for fewest goals allowed with 88, and a big reason for this is solid contributions from everyone on the blueline. The emergence of Mark Fraser has added some extra grit and only strengthened the foundation. The biggest surprise thus far has been Andy Greene, who has stepped up in a big way in the absence of Paul Martin. Greene has flourished under Lemaire, gaining tons of confidence and 23 points in the process, including 4 powerplay goals, and is in Lemaire's own words the team's best defenseman this year. Greene has also made-up one half of what has become an outstanding defensive tandem with Bryce Salvador. Clearing the net had previously been an area of weakness for the Devils, but they have more than corrected for this in recent games.
Aside from giving up the occasional soft goal, there's not much other than good things to say about Martin Brodeur this season. Through 41 games, Brodeur is 27-10-1, 2.14 GAA and .922 SV% with 5 shutouts, including the ones that tied and broke Terry Sawchuk's long-standing record. Brodeur is now also the all-time leader in minutes played, just another record and just another outstanding season in a Hall-of-Fame career. At times, Brodeur has looked as good as he's ever been, and has shown no signs of slowing down. This, combined with the strong play of Danis, limited though it has been, has the Devils looking good in net, as always.
While there have been a lot of positives to the 2009-10 season so far, it's important to remember that we are only halfway home. A lot can happen between now and the offseason, and the Devils are as much in the hunt for the Stanley Cup as anyone. So while it's been a great first half of memories, it will be the second half of the season that's going to determine just how memorable the 2009-10 season ultimately becomes.