With the Devils in a serious tailspin, SNYDevils contributor Pat Pickens emailed me this morning with a simple question: Do you think the Devils are in trouble? He doesn't think they are, but I disagree. What follows is an actual email exchange between Pat and I discussing the state of the Devils, how they can fix it and whether they should blow up the system and go for a Stanley Cup this season.
From: Corey Griffin
To: Pat Pickens
The Devils have lost six straight and eight out of their last nine. Coach Pete DeBoer said last night he hopes this is "rock bottom," so the team can begin to pick itself up off the mat and get back on track. All of this after a start that had them atop the Eastern Conference at one point. Their top players are struggling to score, Martin Brodeur is still on injured reserve and the defense looks slow and outclassed on a lot of nights. So I'll ask you, Pat, are the Devils in trouble?
From: Pat Pickens
Plus, Brodeur will be back soon. New Jersey's PK is playing much better, and the Devils' D can't really play worse than it has right?
Corey, what do you think?
Corey: If this isn't trouble, then I'm not quite sure what is. They've lost six straight and eight of their last nine -- most of those to non-playoff teams or teams they'll be competing against for the final playoff positions. Their starting goalie and franchise player is sidelined and no one really seems to know for how long. Meanwhile, his backup, Johan Hedberg, looks completely done and is playing behind a defensive corps that's both slow and suddenly playing very sloppy in its own zone. At least three times last night, Bryce Salvador gave up position to chase the puck and because he didn't have the speed to keep up, Salvador exposed partner Mark Fayne. On all three of those plays, the Lightning scored and went up 3-0. The Devils on the whole are sloppy with the puck in their own zone, which leads to a lot of turnovers and thus a lot of running around by a slow-footed defense -- which exposes a backup goalie for what he is: a backup goalie.
But that's all part of a larger problem. The Devils aren't just losing because they can't score (which they can't), they're losing because they can't play DeBoer's system for more than 10 minutes at a time. It was unrealistic to think the Devils were going to finish with East's best record as David Clarkson scored 40 goals, but the Devils were playing within a system earlier this season that allowed them to mask their own flaws by putting pressure on the other team, particularly with an aggressive forecheck. Where has that forecheck gone? Where has that pressure gone? The Lightning (of all teams, the Lightning!) kept the Devils on the outside of the offensive zone for 70 percent of last night's game. This team needs that forecheck, that offensive possession below the other team's goal line to not only generate chances, but to tilt the ice in their favor. I understand this is a system that's hard to duplicate every night, but they haven't done it for most of the season except in stretches or for a period here and there.
The forecheck and solid goaltending were the Devils' bread and butter late last season and in the playoffs and Marty's early-season play helped the Devils get off to a very strong start. But right now that start is the only thing keeping them in the playoff picture at the halfway point. That seems like trouble to me, don't you think? Do you really think everything will go back to the way it was once Marty's back?
Pat: I think Brodeur's prowess can cover up some of the Devils' defensive lapses. He certainly can't be worse than Hedberg's been.I agree with you about the startling defensive woes. Marek Zidlicky's been terrible, Henrik Tallinder's been worse, and Salvador's play has been baffling -- he's a minus-4 this year.
But remember also, the Devils were just 12-10-1 through 23 games a year ago. So they have the same number of points this year as last. The problem is, this season is a sprint, 48 games, not the marathon 82 that last year's was.
I think we all can agree that Lou Lamoriello knows when to push the trade button, and I believe we'll see some Lou-esque deal coming in the next few weeks. Corey, put on your GM hat here for a minute: what do you think the Devils need most?
Corey: The comparison to last year's season is flawed because of, like you said, the shortened schedule. Whereas last year's team had December and January to sort out their issues and figure out responsibilities, there's no such time this year. We're already at the halfway point, which is a scary thought in itself. The other issue comparing last season to this one is the trade market. Look at how many teams are still realistically within reach of the playoff picture and then tell me who's selling. It's an incredibly difficult question to answer. Will the Flames deal Jarome Igilna? Can the Ducks part with either Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry when Anaheim might be the second-best team in the West? As difficult as it is to work out the kinks and find the holes on your roster, it might be even harder to fill those spots with NHL-caliber players this season.Ideally, if I were Lou, and judging by my ring collection I am sadly not, I think the obvious target is scoring help on the wings. Do you really want to rely on Dainius Zubrus as one of your top two left wingers? He's a nice luxury player, but he, like Alexei Ponikarovsky, are better suited for bottom six roles on a team built like the Devils. If DeBoer wants to keep Elias with Clarkson in the long term, then the Devils are going to need finally find someone who can stick on the wing opposite Ilya Kovalchuk at some point. Would Iginla fit? Yeah, he would, but that would force DeBoer to either bump Clarkson to the third line or play Kovy out of position and it still wouldn't solve the issue of left wing on the first line.
Also, you have to keep in mind what trading for a high-profile player like Iginla would cost. Would Lou be willing to sacrifice the young defensive depth the Devils have on the cusp in exchange for one more shot with Marty? How about parting with high-scoring prospect Reid Boucher, as well? Also, keep in mind that the Devils have to give up their first-round pick in one of the next two drafts, so if you trade this year's first rounder instead of a prospect, the Devils will be without a first-round pick in two straight drafts. Let's also not forget that the Devils are hosting this year's draft and have already traded away their third-, fifth- and seventh-round picks in June's draft.
All of this puts the Devils in a situation where there is no quick fix in the system, on the bench or in the trade market. How does a team bounce back from that?
Pat: I think Lamoriello has to mortgage his future for a Cup run this year. Simply put, the Devils' window is closing. Brodeur is 40 -- he'll be 41 in May. And what the last 10 years has taught me is: Cup runs don't happen every year. Why can't the Devils win the East this year? They've proven -- as they're built right now -- they can beat Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the Rangers.The Devils are missing the grit and tenacity Zach Parise brought to the rink every night. Parise's motor was non-stop, and New Jersey has played very lax over this stretch.
The season is only half-old, and a trade would spark the club. Anaheim won't trade Perry or Getzlaf, but San Jose's Ryane Clowe's name is suddenly being floated-- he's a Clarkson type. Gritty and can score goals, Iginla can be gotten-- he'd certainly provide grit and goal scoring, as he's suddenly gotten hot.
The Devils have youngsters to part with. Tedenby, if he ever gets healthy, would likely flourish out west, plus Peter Harrold is just sitting there waiting for playing time if New Jersey wants to part with a 'D.'
Brodeur still has next year on his deal, but after that it's over. He's no longer your goaltender. The Devils have this year AND next to send him out a champion. Corey, they have to do everything they can to make that happen, right?
Corey: When the topic of "going for it" comes up, I like to bring up the cautionary tale Danny Ainge weaves about the Boston Celtics. Whenever Ainge, now the team's general manager, was asked over the past two years about splitting up "The Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, he would tell a story about when he was playing for the Celtics in the 1990's. Ainge, as the story goes, was sitting with legendary Celtics GM/President Red Auerbach and Auerbach told him that there were trade offers on the table for the aging Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, the centerpieces of Boston's dynasty. Ainge says he was stunned when Auerbach declined to trade the players for sizable returns because of their connections to the franchise. Bird eventually broke down and retired not long after that, while McHale left Boston as a free agent. The Celtics got nothing and spent years in the NBA's cellar trying to rebuild after sticking with their aging stars. It shaped Ainge as an executive. He had no notions about holding onto aging players and "going for it" simply because of their connection to the franchise.
I use this as an example not because I think the Devils should tear it down, trade Brodeur and Patrik Elias and the slow veteran defensemen who might help another contender. No, I use this to point out the fallacies associated with going all in for one last run at a title built around an aging player. Like you said, Brodeur will turn 41 in May, right in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs. I'm sure he would like to make another run or two at the Cup and it's possible they could do that if the cards sprung right and they ended up with the perfect path the Devils were handed last season. But a good, let alone great, GM has to look beyond this year, beyond Marty Brodeur. If Lou wants to sink everything he has into one last run with a flawed team, then that is his right and chances are he'll find a deal that represents a strong value for the franchise. But know this -- there is no guarantee of a title, not with this team. There is no one-player fix. Iginla, no matter how gritty and desperate for a ring he might be, will not fix all that ails this team. The only guarantee is that the Devils will pay for it down the line. No matter who they trade for, even if it's someone like Clowe (who will be a free agent after this season), will leave the Devils' already-shallow system in even worse shape for when Brodeur and Elias aren't there to be counted on. Peter Harrold? Mattias Tedenby? Those types of players aren't going to get you Perry, Getzlaf, Iginla or Clowe. If they can't crack the Devils' roster, what makes you think someone else will trade an All-Star for them? Kyle Quincey and Paul Gaustad went for first-round picks at last year's deadline. No one is trading anyone of significance for Tedenby or Harrold. No, you're looking at trading guys like Jon Merrill, Stefan Matteau and Boucher -- players that will be counted on to replace veterans currently on the roster. Part of the reason losing Parise hurt this team so much was the lack of any real internal replacement and trying to find one on the trade market may get you an extra playoff win or even an extra series win, but it will cost you immeasurably down the line.
The Devils should sit tight, evaluate what values are available between now and the deadline and hope Brodeur can stay healthy down the stretch. If Kovy gets hot and Brodeur is healthy, who knows? Maybe the Devils sneak into the playoffs, get the right draw and make some noise. But you can't just blow up the future for one last shot at a ring with a goalie who already has three Cup titles to his name. This isn't some quest to get the franchise icon a ring before he rides off into the sunset. This is still a playoff team, but the best thing the Devils can do is be patient, wait to get healthy and understand that one player will not fix the flaws in this team.
Pat: I suppose we can agree that this team, as built, is capable of greatness. Now, New Jersey just needs to prove it on the ice.