The New Jersey Devils don’t have a wing to play opposite Ilya Kovalchuk on their top line. The spot has been a revolving door of experimental disappointment with Dainius Zubrus coming closest to top-line productivity.
In nine games this season, Zubrus had four points while playing most of his minutes with Travis Zajac and Kovalchuk. Before his injury, Zubrus made his way to the top line as a physical presence with some scoring ability. Still, last season was the first time he cracked 40 points while with the Devils and even his best production is a precipitous drop off from former top-line winger Zach Parise.
It’s not so much that the Devils have failed to replace Parise’s scoring, but more that they haven’t been trying to do it at all. With the exception of their best two wingers, Patrik Elias and David Clarkson, the Devils have tried just about everyone on the top line with Kovalchuk from rookie Stefan Matteau before designating him as a healthy scratch to Mattias Tedenby hours before sending him down to the AHL.
Newly acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky finds himself on the top line now, but he’s probably best served on a grinding line at this stage in his career. He hasn’t deserved top-line minutes since his days in Toronto five seasons ago.
By leaving the top line without a full repertoire of legitimate top-six NHL talent, the Devils are hurting themselves by restricting the production of Kovalchuk and limiting one of the best scorers in hockey. Further, they slow down a line that was unstoppable all postseason.
The Devils have two options: make a move to bring in a legitimate top-line winger or bump one of the second line wings to the top line in order to truly unleash Kovalchuk’s scoring ability. He has just five goals this season and is taking heat for not producing, despite a point-per-game pace through 15 games. He had a five-game stretch without a point halfway through the year and five or more shots just four times this season. His relative offensive struggles come while manning the point on the power play for the full two minutes and playing more than half of two separate games this season.
Kovalchuk and Zajac need help and the lackluster play of the Devils over the last few games provides a perfect opportunity to shuffle the lines and play a full top line for once this year. Zubrus was never the answer, Ponikarovsky isn’t either and until the Devils solidify their top line, expect their streaky play to continue.