Every Monday during the season two of our hockey writers will debate one topic. It's the 2-on-1. This week, Tom Mantzouranis, our resident Devils fan, and Adam Gretz talk about how the New Jersey Devils are once again near the top of the Eastern Conference despite low expectations coming into the season.
Tom Mantzouranis: The first couple of years after the Devils' last Stanley Cup in 2003, the team got the benefit of the doubt that comes with being a consistent contender. But as the first- and second-round losses have piled up and the dynasty's core players have departed, confidence in the Devils has progressively declined, to a low point this season as people stared at their roster and wondered how they wouldn't get buried alive in the Atlantic. Yet here they are this season, pretty similar to the rest -- first in the East, first in the Atlantic, first in the league in goals against average.
Gretz, you've seen the Devils post a pair of 4-1 wins on your Penguins so far this year ... what's up with this team?
Adam Gretz: They look like the same old Devils to me: impossible to score on. I'm looking at their results from the current eight-game winning streak, and here's the goal totals they've allowed during each game: 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2. You're going to win a lot of games like that.
I guess my question for you is, what has the return of Jacques Lemaire meant to this team? A couple of weeks ago I took a look at how his exit may have hurt Minnesota, and I haven't had a chance to take a similar look at the impact he may have had on the Devils yet, but they have the lowest goals against average in the league (2.03) and the second-best team (Buffalo) isn't really all that close to them (2.15).
Mantzouranis: Without the aid of the excellent research you put together for the piece on the Wild, I would say Lemaire is doing what he did in his first stint in New Jersey -- obsessing over positioning, always meticulously teaching, and imparting the nuances of the game on a fairly young roster.
I think the strength of the defense (one that, mind you, is missing Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya) is due to a few factors -- the emergence of Andy Greene, Rob Niedermayer stepping right in and playing the John Madden role so naturally, finding the right way to use Dainius Zubrus (something Brent Sutter never could do), and Martin Brodeur is still playing like Martin Brodeur.
Speaking of John Madden, he was one of the two high-profile departures this offseason, the other being Brian Gionta. Fans wondered how the Devils would replace Gionta's 20 goals a year at right wing on the second line. Rookie Nicklas Bergfors is on pace for 23 and 64 points. His 14 points are fifth in the league for rookies, and he's coming on lately. Do you see him being a contender for the Calder?
Gretz: The fact the Devils are shutting teams down like this without Martin and Oduya is just scary. Thanks for reminding me. As for Bergfors ... the few times I've seen him play this year I've been very impressed, but he's going to have some major competition for the Calder, and he's probably not going to get the great PR that guys like John Tavares, Victor Hedman and even Michael Del Zotto are going to get as either: recent top-two picks, or in the case of Del Zotto, a member of the New York Rangers. It's unfortunate for him and Devils fans, but it's probably true. And that's not even taking into account guys like James van Riemsdyk, Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane who are also having outstanding rookie campaigns.
Still, it appears as if Lou and his staff managed to get themselves another excellent hockey player despite never picking at the top of the draft. That's looking like quite a three-year run with Zach Parise going No. 20 in 2003, Travis Zajac No. 17 in 2004 and Bergfors No. 24 in 2005.
Speaking of Parise, I have to be honest, whether it was justified or not, my first thought when the Devils brought back Lemaire was "what's that going to do to Parise's production?" He scored 45 goals a year ago, and in Lemaire's NHL coaching career he's only ever had six guys that ever scored 30 goals in a single season, let alone 40. Well, so far, my concerns appeared to have been unwarranted. Through 18 games: Parise is on a pace for 46 goals and 100 points.
Mantzouranis: I had the same concern about Parise, I even told our colleague Bruce Ciskie that I would eat crow and admit being misguided with my displeasure for the Lemaire hire if he could get the Devils into the playoffs and coach Parise to 35+ goals. That looks like it's going to happen. Parise is just so good, and he's taken a large stake in this team. When talking about the decision of a few players to surprise Lou Lamoriello in Toronto for his Hall of Fame induction, Brodeur explained Parise's presence by remarking that he's "the future captain." It's widely assumed that he's the next for that role. In Lou Lamoriello's stingy organization, that's high praise.
So that's all of the good, but here's the bad.
This IS like every other year, in that the Devils are fighting for position atop the conference. But what has that gotten them in the last few years? Is there really any value in being near the top of your conference in November? What's to stop this team from falling apart in the last 10 games of the season and getting bounced in the first round, just like the last two years?
This team still has holes in its roster, even when Martin and Oduya return and Patrik Elias begins to get regular minutes again. They're not skilled enough to keep up with Pittsburgh and Washington when those teams are on, not physical enough to withstand a series with Philadelphia. And if Brodeur winds up playing another 70-75 games this year, what's he going to look like in the playoffs? He's lost his playoff mystique; even after missing four months last year and entering the playoffs relatively fresh, he looked very mortal.
Gretz: So, where do you see this team going this season? And, perhaps even more important, what do you expect from this team the rest of the way? I think your concerns are valid: not being able to keep up with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington when all three teams are at 100 percent and clicking, Brodeur wearing down in the postseason, etc. etc. etc.. But, on the other hand, I'm still not ready to bet against Brodeur in a seven-game playoff series, even with his recent postseason struggles and age, and it's not like the Devils are lacking high-end talent of their own.
What does this team have to accomplish this season to make you say, "OK, I'm satisfied with that."
Just a playoff berth will satisfy me as of now. That being said, though, it wouldn't surprise me to see them sneak into the No. 4 or 5 seed.
How about you? Where did you have them in our predictions? And where do you think the Devils land in the East standings when the season is all over?
Gretz: I also had the Devils out of the playoffs (and I had the Hurricanes as a top-five seed ... oops) before the season started. Looking at it right now, I think they're looking like a pretty strong lock for the postseason. Where they fall into the seedings is anybody's guess, however. Obviously, if they win the division again they're in the top-three ... but if they don't, and with as tight as the Atlantic Division is, and the Eastern Conference as a whole, they could be anywhere between 4 and 8. I know, I know, that's not exactly a bold prediction to say they could finish anywhere between 3 and 8, but, hell, that's just the nature of the NHL this season.
Mantzouranis: OK, last question: what makes Lou Lamoriello so smart? My guess: stealing souls from the weak.