The idea of the New Jersey Devils missing the playoffs a year removed from an Eastern Conference Championship is starting to gain traction. Given how the team has played, that comes as no surprise.
The Devils have lost nine of their last ten games, and an injury to Martin Brodeur leaves a slumping Johan Hedberg taking loss after loss. Despite their struggles, the Devils have still accumulated 27 points, good for 8th in the conference. If the season ended today, the team would make the NHL playoffs.
The idea that the downward spiral continuing long enough to take the Devils from first in the conference to ninth or worse is a panicked response to a lengthy stretch of bad play. There is no reason to think they will continue to play this poorly – even if Brodeur remains on IR going forward. Several teams are creeping up the standings, and the Devils are on the brink of falling out of the top eight, but there is still reason to believe this is a playoff team.
The offense has finally broken through, scoring 13 goals in their last five games, including consecutive games with three goals. Players like Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique have ended the lengthy scoring droughts that characterized their nearly-historic losing streak of six games. More importantly, the Devils are getting production from their special teams, scoring with regularity on both the power play and the penalty kill. If the offense continues to play this well, it’s only a matter of time before defense and goaltending catch up – particularly if Martin Brodeur comes off IR quickly.
Johan Hedberg has shown flashes of brilliance, despite allowing soft goals throughout his tenure as the starter in the absence of Brodeur. As the team begins to come together, Hedberg has played better. The defense is to blame for much of his play, though it would be nice if he could make a big save on occasion to keep the team in games. With Brodeur’s return on the horizon, Hedberg simply needs a few solid starts to keep the Devils in playoff position so that Brodeur can carry them on another stretch run.
Perhaps most disappointing during the losing streak is the decision-making of Head Coach Peter DeBoer. He continues to overwork a goaltender that is not used to playing this many minutes, while his rotation of defensemen in front of him fail to play cohesively for a full game. By frequently changing the defensive pairings and starters, DeBoer does his team a disservice. Adam Larsson should not have been a healthy scratch six times in the first 25 games. On the other side of the ice, DeBoer sticks with offensive line combination that don’t work, while breaking up effective combinations with in-game maneuvers that rarely work. The first line has squandered Ilya Kovalchuk‘s ability to be dominant, and the team isn’t clicking. This losing streak is on DeBoer more than anyone.
With that said, the lines are starting to click at last and the offense is producing. If the defense can find chemistry and Hedberg can find a way to be just mediocre enough until Martin Brodeur returns, the New Jersey Devils will win games again. This is a playoff team.