The last time the New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs in two of three consecutive seasons, Brendan Shanahan was a 20-year-old NHL sophomore on their roster.
So it’s been a while.
But it’s happened again, for the first time in 24 years, as the New York Rangers ended the Devils’ misery with a victory at MSG on Sunday. New Jersey becomes the first team since the 2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers to make the Stanley Cup Final and miss the playoffs in the following season.
It’s also the second time in franchise history the Devils have done this, having missed in 1996 after making winning the Cup in the lockout-shortened season of 1995. (Lockout seasons giveth and taketh away, apparently.)
As Marty Brodeur told Fire & Ice:
“It’s difficult to take,” Broduer said. “We have a great hockey team and we competed real hard all year. We followed the coach’s system all year. At the end of the day, when you don’t score goals or you don’t score them timely anyway and when you do, you don’t score many, it’s going to hurt you. Especially in a short season, I think it’s going to be magnified and injuries kind of got to us a little bit.Yeah, about that goal-scoring: The Devils are 28th in the NHL at 2.31 goals per game, after finishing ninth last season at 2.50 and going at a 2.42 clip in their run to the Final.
“You don’t like to make any excuses, but there’s a lot of different reasons why we’re not there. There’s better teams than us that are going to be competing for the Stanley Cup.”
What went wrong? Injuries. Departures. And a terrible offense.
1. The Ilya Kovalchuk Injury Exposed The Offense
It’s the most depressing Hart Trophy argument ever made.
Kovalchuk (28 points in 34 games) left the Devils’ lineup after a March 23 win over the Florida Panthers, undergoing shoulder surgery. You know the rest of the story: 1-6-4 in his absence, mustering two goals or less in eight of those games.
It exposed the lineup’s lack of punch, especially when combined with David Clarkson producing a single goal during that stretch. Dainius Zubrus missed all but 19 games on the season. Travis Zajac was underwhelming. The rest of the lineup could muck and grind but couldn’t find the net. (Save for Patrik Elias and his 33 points in 45 games.)
Seriously, here are the Devils’ goal-scoring forwards after the Big Four (Kovalchuk, Elias, Clarkson, Adam Henrique):
Due respect to that checking line, but should Steve Bernier be the fifth-leading scorer on any NHL team?
One injury is no excuse for a 10-game losing streak, but it was undoubtedly the catalyst.
2. Johan Hedberg Became a Sieve
Kovalchuk’s injury made the biggest waves, as evidenced by the Devils’ epic losing streak. But don’t ignore Brodeur’s injury, which kept him out from Feb. 24 to March 21.
During his absence, backup goalie Johan Hedberg failed to give the team the type of solid, consistent starts they expected in the past from the 39-year-old netminder. He went 3-7-2 during that stretch, although he finally found his form a few games before Brodeur’s return.
Overall on the season, Hedberg is 5-9-3 with a .886 save percentage. It's the first time he's finished under .500 since 2008 with the Thrashers.
3. They Never Replaced Parise
As Lou Lamoriello said when Zach Parise left for the Minnesota Wild as a free agent, he’s not a player you can simply replace in your lineup. But the Devils’ attempts to patch over that loss of offense produced middling results.
As Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record wrote:
Brodeur pointed to Zach Parise’s departure to Minnesota via free agency last summer as the biggest difference between this team and the one that went to the Finals. General manager Lou Lamoriello tried adding several depth players, but never brought in anyone capable of filling the void created by Parise’s absence.Parise was the Devils’ captain for a reason: His tenacious, full-throttle-every-shift style of play would produce offensive pressure and timely goals (at least in the regular season).
“That’s a top 3 forward we never got back. It’s tough,” Brodeur said. “We felt we played extremely good for a long part (of the season), but at the end it came back and when Kovy went down, it made a big difference in not having another top guy.” That was probably the big difference that you see.”
Between Parise (31 goals) and Petr Sykora (21 goals) not being re-signed, the Devils lost 52 goals a team that scored 216 goals in 82 games last season. The Devils have scored only 104 in 45 games so far this season. That projects to 190 goals over a full 82-game schedule.
He wanted to play closer to home, and there wasn’t really anything the Devils could do to keep him. But the impact was greatly during Kovalchuk's absence.
4. The Departure of Larry Robinson and Adam Oates
Outside of Parise, these were the two most significant losses for the Devils last offseason. Robinson left to become an assistant with the San Jose Sharks; Oates is now head coach of the Washington Capitals. Both were primary reasons why the Devils were able to find such incredible chemistry during their unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
Oates was credited with the Devils’ special teams prowess. Their power play last season: 17.2 percent. Their power play this season: 15.2 percent, although the loss of Kovalchuk obviously plays a role here. Their penalty kill last season: 89.6 percent, best in the NHL. This season: 80.8 percent and 18th in the NHL, although both the Kovalchuk and Brodeur injuries factor into that.
Robinson helped turn the Devils’ defense into a formidable unit last season, but the blueline wasn’t the same asset in 2013. More than anything else, his role as a communicator and respected veteran voice was missed.
5. Live By The Shootout, Die By The Shootout
The Devils had an NHL-best 12 shootout wins last season, going 12-4. This season produced the opposite effect: Their seven shootout losses were the highest in the NHL, against just two wins. They missed Parise’s prowess, while Ilya Kovalchuk wasn’t nearly as effective as he was last season.
The Devils still picked up their share of charity points: 10 of them, highest in the NHL. But with more success in the shootout, they’re not eliminated on Sunday.
(Hedberg, by the way, accounts for three of the seven losses.)
• • • Lamoriello did as Lamoriello does in times of strife for the Devils: He played it safe, went with what he knew, despite last year’s run having been lightning in a bottle carried by a Hall of Fame goalie’s last great ride.
He re-signed Bryce Salvador. Alexei Ponikarovsky, former Devil, was the big early season acquisition. Steve Sullivan, former Devil, was the deadline move. There was no dramatic trade, no emphatic move to help fill the significant hole left by Parise. Just hope that the Devils system could squeeze out another playoff berth.
It might have, had it not been for the injuries, but the injuries showed what a thin margin for error this roster had.
Have the Devils finally arrived at the transition from the Brodeur Years to whatever comes next? He’ll be back next season, but could be playing behind a significantly different team: Eight UFAs and four RFAs.
They have a farm system rich on defense but thin elsewhere. They have a lottery pick this season they can keep or sacrifice for the Kovalchuk contract punishment.
Lamoriello is credited with being one of the NHL’s elite team builders, thanks to the sustained success of the Devils and five Final appearances in 18 years.
The essential question he needs to answer, and the one that could define the next several years of Devils hockey:
Retool or rebuild?