The New Jersey Devils were a playoff-caliber hockey team this year when the season opened. After returning the vast majority of the roster that made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year, the Devils roared to the top of the conference and appeared to feed off the momentum of last season’s run. Then, in a shortened season, the Devils’ season went to hell.
The first sign of trouble came when Martin Brodeur suffered an injury that would keep him out of the lineup for a key stretch in the middle of a shortened year. His injury led to the overuse of Johan Hedberg, who failed miserably in a starting role. The Devils would go on a lengthy losing streak that would see one of the best teams in conference plummet from their perch atop the East. As goaltending faltered and the offense couldn’t keep up, the Devils struggled to grind out points.
When Brodeur finally returned to the lineup, the Devils had exhausted their playoff cushion. Thrust squarely into the battle for the final few spots in the Eastern Conference, New Jersey responded. Brodeur cruised to his 666th career victory and the team around him seemed inspired. The offense was clicking, and Brodeur was picking up the slack for a mediocre group of defensemen that had let down Hedberg.
Just as the Devils seemed poised for a push into the postseason, the player New Jersey ran its power-play offense through, and by far their greatest offensive weapon, went crashing into the boards. Ilya Kovalchuk‘s shoulder injury sealed New Jersey’s fate, as they slumbered through the rest of the season. In an instant, New Jersey’s top line became one of the weakest in hockey, the power play lost its zip, and the offense went into its deepest slump of the year. Even a rejuvenated Brodeur couldn’t carry the Devils without Kovalchuk.
In the end, it’s impossible to ignore that when fully healthy, the New Jersey Devils were a Stanley Cup contender. Without their top goalie and top forward, the season collapsed down the stretch. A variety of factors, such as lack of depth and poor coaching, certainly contributed to New Jersey’s collapse. Still, with Brodeur and Kovalchuk healthy, the Devils looked like a team that should still be playing hockey.