The New Jersey Devils: January 2010 in Review

Last month, I commented that while the Devils got results, the 11-4 record hidden the fact that the team's performances in some of those games weren't exactly solid, much less dominating, efforts.    This month, however, the performances matched up with the results perfectly.  The Devils were inconsistent over the whole month, shifting into and out of a slump in the second half of January.   Whereas the Devils of the first three months would have found a way to win some of those games, the Devils of this past month struggled on multiple fronts - factors that were controllable (defensive breakdowns), somewhat controllable (offensive struggling to finish shots), and uncontrollable (goals given up due to screens and deflections). 

As a result, the Devils went 7-7-1.  They earned 15 of the possible 30 points.  Health remains an issue as Patrik Elias was literally knocked out due to a clean hit in the Colorado game, David Clarkson and Paul Martin are still out with their respective injuries, and Dainius Zubrus only returned within the last week of the month.   Martin has taken his name out of the Olympics, per this report by Gulitti; I suspect he needs the extra time to become healthy. Hopefully, Elias can be ready in February in advance of the Olympics, as he could be skating soon per Gulitti's report from Saturday (and Clarkson still needs more time to recover).  Once again, the team hasn't been at full strength, but based on the record, it could be that the injuries have taken their toll to a degree.  In their place, Patrick Davis and Nick Palmieri were called up as Ilkka Pikkarainen was assigned to the KHL after clearing waivers.  Both rookie wingers have showed promise, but only Davis currently remains with New Jersey until another forward becomes healthy.

Nevertheless, the Devils experienced all kinds of wins and losses but couldn't find much consistent success.   In fact, for the first time since the middle of November, the Devils lost consecutive games, endured their longest losing streak of 3 games, and were not only shutout for the first time this month, but then were shutout 8 days later.  Yet, they managed to shutout opponents three times, and remain at the top of the Atlantic Division despite their record from week-to-week.

In terms of where the team stands now statistically, the team stats have shifted in light of their struggles.  Due to a lack of scoring across several games in January, the goals for average has fallen to 2.59 per game (20th in NHL) and the power play has scored exactly five goals in the whole month, the conversion rate has dropped to 19.2% (tied for 9th somehow in NHL).  The problem hasn't been shooting, the team actually increased their shots per game average to 30.2 (tied for 12th in NHL).  Defensively, the numbers still look good: the goals against average has risen slightly to 2.22 per game (1st in NHL), the penalty killing success rate has been steady at 82.6% (13th in NHL), and the shots against average was also steady at 27.7 (2nd in NHL).   A look at the numbers alone can't explain the results, but a look at each game shows where it all went so wrong.

January Month in Review

I feel the best way to go over the month is to list the wins and losses separately, complete with a link to the recap and a short summary of what went on.

Wins

  • 1/2/2010 - Devils 5, Minnesota 3 - Offense carried the day, led by Jamie Langenbrunner's first career hat trick.  However, it was a bit of a scare for the Devils as the Wild managed to answer back to each of their first two goals off turnovers leading to end-to-end rushes as well as a bizarre bounce of Andrew Brunette's head. Still, the Devils got a win to kick off the month.
  • 1/5/2010 - Devils 4, Dallas 0 - A wonderful game for all (on New Jersey) involved!  No, really, it was a dominating performance by the Devils, featuring the return of Travis Zajac to scoring goals (and on the power play, too).
  • 1/9/2010 - Devils 2, Montreal 1 (OT) - In a tight, intense game right after the Devils had their 1/8 game with Tampa Bay postponed due to lighting issues, both Jaroslav Halak and Martin Brodeur weathered offensive storms all night long.  Zach Parise proved the difference maker on a dramatic breakaway, silencing the home fans.
  • 1/12/2010 - Devils 1, NY Rangers 0 (SO) - Both teams threw everything and the kitchen sink at both goaltenders (Brodeur for NJ, Henrik Lundqvist for NY) and they gave up nothing.  Not in regulation, not in overtime, and not even in the first three rounds of the shootout. A goaltenders' duel worthy of the adjective "epic." The rare double shutout was a joy to watch and made the shootout even so much more exciting, wondering which netminder would blink first.  Patrik Elias beat Lundqvist to be the only man who scored in Manhattan that night and get NJ a win over a hated rival. 
  • 1/20/2010 - Devils 2, Florida 0 - After a road trip featuring three straight losses, the Panthers come to the Rock and aren't able to do all that much to New Jersey.  Tomas Vokoun was arguably the only Florida player to bring his "A" game tonight and even then it wasn't enough, Travis Zajac fired a laser past him in the second period and it would be enough to seal the win. The team's third shutout win of the month.
  • 1/23/2010 - Devils 4, NY Islanders 2 - This game was sweet revenge and about a thousand times better than the 1/18 game between these two teams. The Devils were excellent in the first and third periods, miserable on offense in the second period with no direct shots on Rick DiPietro, survived a major penalty to Colin White with two goals given up on the ensuing power play, and Parise scored a power play goal by Freddy Meyer knocking a pass to the slot with his skate past the keeper.  At least it was a win, if not flawed.
  • 1/29/2010 - Devils 5, Toronto 4 (OT) - New Jersey threw out a new line of Zach Parise-Travis Zajac-Dainius Zubrus to see if the offense could be sparked.  Did it ever spark! This unit was responsible for three goals in regulation and the power play winner in OT.  That the game went to overtime at all was disappointing as the Devils were awful in the third period, put up little offensive pressure, and the Leafs made up a then-two goal lead thanks to a turnover right by Brodeur and a rebound right in the slot.  Like the first game of the month, the offense carried the Devils to victory in this one.

Losses

  • 1/8/2010 & 1/10/2010 - Devils 2, Tampa Bay 4 - On January 8, the Devils dominated possession, shot the puck more, and left Brodeur out to dry as three defensive breakdowns led to goals against. And then some lights went off and the game was postponed.   On January 10, the game picked up right where it left off (9:29 left in the second) and the Devils, pumped by their win in Montreal and seeing a chance to make up for their errors, began to bring it to the Lightning.  Only they couldn't score until halfway through the third and a poor pinch by Johnny Oduya plus Andy Greene being beaten to a loose puck deep led to a goal against that ensured the Lightning win.  The offense couldn't solve Mike Smith somehow, the three goal lead was too much to over come, and the defense made too many critical errors.
  • 1/14/2010 - Devils 3, Phoenix 4 - In the first of two Western Conference opponents on a road trip, the Devils didn't bring out a load of urgency but managed to out shoot the Coyotes and get more scoring chances.  Yet, the Coyotes struck on a deflection right in front and a breakaway allowed by Colin White for an early lead.  Despite the best efforts of Brian Rolston (2 goals), Mark Fraser managed to be the star of a third period collapse where he got stickchecked to put a puck past Brodeur's flank and then took a penalty after the goal that led to a power play goal through a screen.  The first of three straight losses to come.
  • 1/16/2010 - Devils 1, Colorado 3 - The Avalanche came out quick and scored two goals in the first period. They proceded to sit on that lead while allowing the Devils to shoot as many non-threatening shots as they'd like.  This was the game where Ryan Wilson hit Patrik Elias with a hard, clean hit, which led to Elias leaving the game (and has been out ever since).  In the third period, the Devils managed to pull one back and started really challenging Craig Anderson, but Anderson rose to the task and the Avs sealed the win with an empty net.  The loss was the first consecutive loss since November 19 (a shootout loss after a loss to Philadelphia).
  • 1/18/2010 - Devils 0, NY Islanders 4 - The Devils lost their third straight in a definitive, fall-flat-on-their-collective-face fashion on Long Island. The Islanders just steamrolled the Devils for 60 minutes and without Martin Brodeur or Yann Danis, the scoreline could have easily been much, much worse. Steve recapped the game perfectly with it's title: "Devils Play Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Game."  Of the three straight losses, this was easily the low point.
  • 1/22/2010 - Devils 1, Montreal 3 - If you haven't noticed by now, but the Devils have struggled to score in these losses.  In fact, since that 1/14 loss to Phoenix, the Devils haven't scored more than 2 non-empty net goals.  In this game, Jaroslav Halak bailed out his team with big save after big save, while Montreal cashed in a few glorious opportunities to score - which was all that was needed.
  • 1/26/2010 - Devils 0, Ottawa 3 - The Ottawa Senators were hot going into this game and remained hot afterward.  A well placed shot and two deflections right in front were all that Ottawa needed.  What was frustrating to watch was the lack of fire in the Devils.  Coming off a win on Long Island, the Devils didn't challenge Brian Elliott all that much.  It was a dreary game and the Senators didn't need to try hard after going up 3 goals.  Good for them, but hard to watch and quite disappointing.
  • 1/27/2010 - Devils 1, Buffalo 2 (SO) - In a stark contrast to the Ottawa game, the Devils played a solid 65 minutes in my opinion.  In another goaltender's duel this month, Ryan Miller and Brodeur stood tall facing shot after shot. The Devils had more shots and perhaps on another night, they would have gotten that extra one.  All the same, a poor attempt at a pokecheck by Brodeur in the shootout helped secure the win; but I can't say this one was bad.  The point was earned and the performance was an improvement.
  • 1/31/2010 - Devils 2, Los Angeles 3 - This loss hurt and I was angry that the Devils managed to blow leads in two consecutive games, with two goals late in the game that beat Brodeur who was screened by the same player (Ryan Smith). The Devils played well in this game, but it was those screened shots that really did the Devils in and shocked an entire fanbase/arena without how it all went down.

If you can figure out this team after reading all that, then do let me know what you think.  I have no idea of what to make of it all while knowing this team is in first place in the Atlantic Division and second in the Eastern Conference at the end of this month, honestly.

Devil of the Month

So who on this team can I honestly say was consistently excellent in January, a month defined by inconsistency for the Devils?  

Given that defensive breakdowns were a common factor in most losses (and some of the wins), I can't say any defender had a great month.  Among the six, I felt Bryce Salvador had the best month in terms of shutdown defensive play, but even he was prone to some fatal errors.  That turnover in the Toronto game alone was so bad, I couldn't even consider him for any special recognition.  Sure, James Mirtle found Salvador, Colin White, and Mike Mottau to be among the leagues' best defensive defensemen based on their stats this season; but no Devils fan would honestly say they had great months.   In fact, some of you are probably aghast at the notion that someone thinks White and Mottau are good.  I'd say White's been OK save for a few games, But, Mottau has been all over the place - when he's good, he's been acceptably quiet; but when he makes a mistake, it's really obvious and terrible.  Perhaps Mottau's defensive play from January was symbolic of the Devils' defense for the month?  Anyway, not even de facto #1 defenseman Andy Greene stood out, as his production dried up to a mere assist over the whole month. Even Salvador had more points in January with a goal (a game winner at that!) and two assists.

Some may conclude Martin Brodeur had a bad month, but when the opposition is scoring the majority of it's goals with deflections, off screens, and on the goalie's flank, that's not the fault of the goaltender or a sign that the goaltender has played badly.  A rested goalie doesn't make those saves.  That said, despite the three shutouts, I can't say that Brodeur had a great month either.   Not in a month when he was the starter in all 15 games, got pulled thrice to "provide a spark" (to no avail in either game), and the team went 7-7-1.  He didn't play bad, he wasn't at fault for a majority of those goals, but I cannot say he was consistently excellent either.

No, in a month where the Devils beyond the 4-0 Dallas win seemingly struggled to score goals, two players stuck out for their scoring.  The first is a name you're all familiar with.  He didn't have a good December at all with only 2 goals scored, but he definitely picked it up in January.

Devil of the Month Honorable Mention:


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
January 2009 - Zach Parise 15 8 7 15 6 6 1 0 1 20:15 68 11.7

Parise continued demonstrating to the league how dynamic, how dogged, how difficult he is to play against, and how determined he is to get points.  He swarms around the net for the loose puck, he's able to make plays as necessary, and he's able to create great chances.   Parise was strong on the forecheck and I can only name four games where he wasn't a factor: the first game of the month against Minnesota, the 3-1 loss to Colorado, and the two shutout losses where the whole team was not a factor.  Big moments from Parise included: (inadvertently) snapping a long PPG drought against the Islanders in that 4-2 win, scoring a glorious breakaway goal in overtime to win in Montreal, and tearing up the Toronto defense all night long for 2 goals, 2 assists, 9 shots, 2 goals robbed from him by the goalie, and one missed shot where he hit the post instead of the net for a hat trick.

In a month where scoring was lean (to put it nicely), Parise showed that he can be relied on for production. Yet, one Devil did more.  He wasn't always on the same line as Parise, but he was often there.  He snapped his own scoring slump early in the month in the 4-0 win over Dallas and just kept piling up the points, being involved in all kinds of goals.  He managed to outscore Parise, believe it or not, in points and nearly in goals.  He is the team's #1 center and the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for January 2010: Travis Zajac:


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
January 2009 - Travis Zajac 15 7 9 16 7 6 2 0 2 20:48 47 14.9

Zajac is becoming less and less of an underrated player in the league.  He put up a point-per-game pace to lead the team in scoring for the month.   Like Parise, he was only a non-factor in four games, but in all the others, he managed to make some noise.  The 4-0 loss to the Islanders was the only game where he had less than two shots on goal, he's been shooting more in general instead of just looking to pass it to Parise or some other winger. 

What I find impressive about Zajac is that his performances haven't necessarily dropped when he was centering completely different wingers than than Parise and Langenbrunner.   That tells me that he has continued to improve and not just be a good center for Parise.  Still, when Lemaire needs some offense, he's putting Parise and Zajac together.  The right winger can be Langenbrunner, Zubrus, or someone else; those two have proven this month that they can be a threat even when confidence among forwards seems low. 

His defensive play is even getting notice, as Mirtle's list of the top 30 defensive forwards based on the stats this season lists Zajac sixth overall and with the lowest even strength goals against per 60 value (1.22) among all the forwards listed.  Lemaire relies on Zajac in all situations and his ice time reflects how important he remains on the team. The only area where I'd like to see Zajac really improve in is on faceoffs.  Even then, in January, Zajac won 50% of his draws or more in 9 out of 15 games to take his season total to 51.1%.   Given that Zajac takes significantly more faceoffs than anyone else on the team, that's a lot of battles at the dot to win. That's not too bad and since that's my only big complaint for Zajac, I think it's clear that he's been the best player throughout the month:


Travis Zajac

#19 / Center / New Jersey Devils

6-2

200

May 13, 1985

January 2010 Devil of the Month

GP: 15, 7 G, 9 A, +7, 6 PIM, 47 SOG


For some, you may feel Parise was better in January; but I feel Zajac's contributions were just a little more than Parise's namely because, well, they were.  Of course, I think we all can agree that the Devils as a whole could have done much better than 7-7-1.  To do that, the offense will need to be more productive and the defense must do a better job preventing big errors in their own zone and defending the slot.  Otherwise, how is this team going to stay successful, nevermind do well in the playoffs?

Please leave your thoughts about how January 2010 went for the New Jersey Devils, the Devil of the Month, and anything related to that in the comments.

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