The New Jersey Devils started the 2009-10 regular season in an awful manner: losing miserably 5-2 to the Philadelphia Flyers and then not able to pull out a win against the Rangers two days later, losing 3-2. Both at home, both riddled with errors, and both leaving a bad taste in the mouths of Devils fans.
Yet, the Devils went on the road and did the unexpected - they earned 3 wins on the road in 3 games. They got a miracle equalizer against Tampa Bay and then won in the shootout; after which, they got a late power play goal to go up 3-2 on Florida in regulation; and then they came from behind in Washington to tie the Capitals, leading to an eventual shootout victory. Brodeur, for all intents and purposes is back; and the Devils displayed great heart all the way to the end of each game to earn all the points.
While the team can certainly improve in a variety of manners, a number of Devils have certainly impressed in the first 5 games of the season so far. In fact, I went ahead and made a "impressive so far" team. With a little break before the next home game, I think it's fair to give them credit for giving a good effort through the lows and highs of the young 2009-10 season.
My Early Impressive (So Far) Devils Unit
Rob Niedermayer-Travis Zajac-David Clarkson
Paul Martin-Andy Greene
Travis Zajac was finally held pointless after a three game point streak in last night against Washington, but that shouldn't diminish what he's done so far. He's won faceoffs, leading the team by winning 53.9% of his draws. He's taken plenty of shots, 18, and is the team's second most-prolific shooter behind Zach Parise's 26 shots on goal. He scored a last-second goal against Tampa Bay that could be seen as an early turning point of the season. He currently leads the Devils in goals (3), power play goals (2), and tied in points (5). While Zach Parise is bombing away with shots - and he'll get his points, oh yes, he will - Zajac has been the star of the first line and the first power play unit, making few mistakes so far this season. He's enjoying his hockey and I hope it continues.
Whereas Zajac's slot in the lineup has been secured, David Clarkson has been more in flux. He started on the second line as a winger, got shifted down to the third line and even the fourth in the Florida game, only to return to the second line. Why? It's not because Lemaire thinks Clarkson is playing poorly - he's not. It's because Clarkson has been productive on the ice and he wants to see who he meshes best with. One thing is for sure, he's great in front of the crease; having scored both of his goals from short-range. Moreover, he's been setting players up as well with 3 assists. All of this from a guy who has only averaged 14:02 a game so far? Wow. If he keeps this up, Clarkson will prove all of the previews calling him a "breakout player" absolutely right.
Among all the new signings the Devils made this summer, no one has impressed like Rob Niedermayer. Andrew Peters and Ilkka Pikkarainen have yet to do much of anything of note on the fourth line; Cory Murphy has looked too tentative to start the season; and Yann Danis hasn't even played a game. Niedermayer came into the Devils late, he didn't go through training camp, and yet he hasn't looked out of shape at all. His late addition hasn't caused any issues within the Devils; in fact, Brian Rolston has said he's been a "calming influence in the dressing room and on the ice." This defensive center has looked decent enough on a checking unit with rotating wingers and Jay Pandolfo, he hasn't been terrible (but not great) at faceoffs (48%), and he's made some big plays to have contributed 2 goals and 2 assists already. He's fitting in well and he has certainly done more than what I expected so far this season.
Defense in general hasn't been a strong point for the Devils, but I feel two defenders deserve some notice. Paul Martin went from poor to a force in the past few games - almost as good of an example of the Devils' fortunes. Yes, he's a -4. I say, so what? He's defused so many offensive rushes against, he's moving the puck with more confidence with each game, and he's returning to his form on defense. In even strength situations, the shots against per 60 minutes are at an amazing 21.2 according to Behind the Net. That is a 4 shot drop from the 25.2 shots/60 when he's not on the ice, proof of his strength on the ice. Once Johnny Oduya gets his issues sorted out and stops making mistakes at the wrong time, that minus will become a plus in due time.
Andy Greene has been the other impressive Devil defenseman in my opinion. After Cory Murphy was unimpressive in the first two games, Greene got his shot in the Tampa Bay game - and he made his mark. He was smart in his own end, assisted on Zajac's last-second equalizer, and his movement with the puck was great. Greene played so well, Lemaire gave him 21:18 of ice time and paired him with Martin by the end of the game. OK, Greene hasn't been a big stopper; as the shots against per 60 minutes has risen to 30.3 to when he's on the ice per Behind the Net. Only Murphy has been worse in that regard. On the flipside, when he's on the ice, the shots for per 60 minutes in even strength situations are also the highest on the team at 31.3. Icing on the cake, for Greene may have solidified his spot on the roster with the last three games.
Of course, it's early in the season. There's plenty of games left and who has impressed so far may play poorly later on. At the same time, this could be the start of a great season for any (or all, hopefully) of these players. Still, after 5 games, going from a low point to a relatively higher point in terms of team performance and results, these five have stuck out from what I've seen so far. And so, they deserve some credit for that.