Not too long ago, the New Jersey Devils had the best record in the Eastern Conference and were among the best teams in the NHL. They had just swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in a home-and-home series and appeared to be riding the momentum of last season’s playoff push. When Martin Brodeur was placed on IR, however, everything fell apart.
Johan Hedberg proved incapable of being anything more than a solid backup, the defense collapsed without an anchor, and the offense went cold. Line changes failed to stimulate a slumping offense, and the Devils were suddenly on the outside of the playoff picture.
With Brodeur back in the starting lineup, however, the they seem poised to make a stretch run.
Before the season began, the Devils looked like they might take a small step back from their 100-point, sixth place finish in the Eastern Conference the year before. They lost captain Zach Parise, but returned most of the rest of their Stanley Cup roster. After a hot start to the 2013 NHL season, however, the Devils looked like they wouldn’t miss the unrequited departure of Parise’s offensive contributions.
New Jersey looked like a playoff-bubble team before the season began, then a Stanley Cup contender, then a tremendous disappointment, and now they appear to be back in the middle of the playoffs. Their inconsistency makes it difficult to predict exactly where the Devils will finish this year.
With a healthy Brodeur back in action, it is finally possible to evaluate who the Devils really are. The offense is starting to click, and goaltending, like every year for the past two decades, is once again a strength. On the other hand, the defense is mediocre at best, the Devils lack top-six depth, and they’re certainly not dominating with an aggressive forecheck like they did last season.
With the roster as it is currently constructed, the Devils are a 6-8 seed in the playoffs if they continue to play well. If they get hot at the right time and Brodeur finishes the season healthy, the Devils are certainly capable of another deep run in the playoffs.
I think this is a playoff team, especially now that a healthy Brodeur is back in net. I do not think the Devils can win the division or get home ice advantage in the playoffs, however, unless they make a big move at the trade deadline. There are too many weaknesses on defense that the offense cannot make up for without another big-time scorer.