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Five Concerns over the New Jersey Devils' Start to the 2009-10 Season

For those who aren't aware, the New Jersey Devils didn't get off to a good start of the 2009-10 season.  They looked terrible against Philadelphia in the season opener, losing 5-2.  The Devils performed better but still lost to their most hated rivals, the Rangers, 3-2 just yesterday.    Both losses came at home, fans aren't happy with both losses, and we're left wondering went wrong.  

Well, truth be told, anyone who saw, heard, or followed the game - or even just read the recaps - knows what went wrong.  With the Devils going on a 3 game road trip at a record of 0-2-0, I think it's fair to discuss now how much of a concern are the various aspects of the Devils' failure to earn points to start the season.  Feel free to agree or disagree how much of a concern you feel these are in the comments, I'm basically offering opinions here.

Concern #1: Martin Brodeur Giving Up Soft Goals  For a goaltender who got work in the Team Canada Evaluation Camp in August and looked fairly solid in preseason, Brodeur has looked incredibly rusty.  Depending on who you ask, anywhere from 3 to 5 of the goals Brodeur gave up against Philly were quite stoppable.  Moreover, the eventual game winner by Matt Gilroy snuck through Brodeur's legs while he was attempting some weird one-knee stance.  It's not just those instances.  Steve Ovadia of Puck Update even noticed that his lateral movement is off, which is an astute observation. (hat-tip: Puck DaddyAccording to Lemaire via Gulitti, his confidence has taken a hit (does that lead to poor performances, which in turn hurt confidence further?) After 2 games, Brodeur has a very unusual GAA of 4.03 and a save percentage of 84.9%.   All of this leads me (and you) to ask, when will Brodeur be back to his normal self?

Level of Concern: Low  Based on historical evidence alone, Brodeur will eventually get it right and for that alone, I'm not concerned in the long term.  Also, Brodeur isn't completely alone in this situation as he isn't the only big-name goaltender struggling to start the season.  Roberto Luongo has amazingly been worse than Brodeur, posting a 4.55 GAA and a save percentage of 82% after two games. Recent big-extension signing Cam Ward has looked real bad with a GAA of 4.04 and a save percentage of 89.1%.  I think all three will bounce back and start playing dominant hockey in the net soon enough.

Concern #2: The Second Offensive Line ZZ Pops contributed it's first point on the power play - they represent 3/5ths of the first power play unit - against the Rangers, with a sweet pass by David Clarkson.  Yet, the New Jersey Devils' second line has yet to impress.  In the past two games, the unit was Dainius Zubrus centering Brian Rolston and rookie Niclas Bergfors.  While Rolston had a good camp, Zubrus was decent, and Bergfors had a real strong camp, they have yet to click with each other.  As a result, the Devils are seemingly a one line team on offense, with that one line still a bit rusty. While we know ZZ Pops will rise to the occassion, when will the second line show some consistency?

Level of Concern: Medium  Since the line is exactly two games old, time must be given to allow them to adapt with each other.  Yet, some are clearly playing better than others.  Specifically, Dainius Zubrus, who has been winning faceoffs (11 of 21), throwing his big frame around, and when he's on the ice, the shots for per 60 minutes jump from 21.5 to 27.2 according to Behind the Net.  Incidentally, Bergfors has similar numbers; but Rolston's is much lower.  Maybe it's Rolston not performing well on the line?  Then again, it is only after two games; but it's worth noting.  I openly wonder if it's a matter of usage of that line. 

Given Rolston's shot, Bergfors' agility, and Zubrus' size; you'd think their skillsets lead to a decent enough general approach.  For example, Zubrus can go and fight for the puck,  Bergfors can roam to keep the puck in Devils control, and look to feed Rolston for the big shot.  Yet, the threesome has looked disjointed on numerous shifts and nothing resembling a strong offensive chance hasn't happened yet. The Devils third line has been more successful at that. Maybe it's not usage and the three just aren't a good match?  Then what? Move David Clarkson up and hope Bergfors can play more defensive with Jay Pandolfo and Rob Niedermayer?  Move Rolston or Zubrus elsewhere?

With news that Patrik Elias is skating again, it could be that it is only a matter of time that the issue of offense behind ZZ Pops is addressed. It's why the concern isn't so high; but it really isn't low either because Elias isn't a guaranteed point machine right out of the gate.  Of course, even that may take time with Elias coming into the season sans a preseason to get him prepared.  Plus, his return raises the question of who to move around when does, but let's answer that some other time.  But why wait?  Lemaire and the Devils can figure out a second line behind ZZ Pops before Elias returns, they will only be helping themselves, really.

Concern #3: The Power Play  Three 5-on-3 chances, of which one was admittedly abbreviated to less than 30 seconds, in the last two games led to zero goals.  The Devils had 11 chances with a man advantage of sorts and scored a mere two goals across 11 shots.  Only 1 shot per power play isn't exactly threatening the opposition.   The first power play unit is Sutter-esque with ZZ Pops, Paul Martin, and David Clarkson filling in Elias' role from last season's unit.  Yet, they haven't really got much to write home about except for that sweet Zajac goal in the first period against the Rangers.

The second unit is still very much a work in progress, though it seems Brian Rolston and Dainius Zubrus will be mainstays on that unit.   Cory Murphy has yet to show any of the power play prowess he had in Tampa Bay last season.  Even Ilkka Pikkarainen and Matt Halischuk got some power play time in these two games, as Lemaire looks to see who can handle special teams to fill that second unit.  Overall, both units suffered from a lack of good puck movement (esp. in the first game) and a lack of strong shooting (esp. in the second game).

Level of Concern: High  Man advantages, by their nature, are opportunities to score.  Chances to get the puck to that one open man who can put home a good, clear shot on net.  Yet, the Devils clearly miss the additional play making of Elias on the first unit and they clearly need more players to step up on the second unit to make it viable.  In both losses, the lack of power play scoring at certain points in the game were game changers that benefited the opposition. That alone, to me, emphasizes how important a threatening - if not successful - power play is in a game.

Furthermore, so many questions surround the Devils power play that I can't help but think it's a big concern. Elias will be back, but how long will it take before he makes an impact?  ZZ Pops plus 2 can't move the puck well enough to set up a good shot more than once in a game?  What should be done about that second unit?  And will the defense help contribute more points?  This isn't 2003, you can't really be successful and waste opportunities on a regular basis in today's NHL.   In retrospect, I'm glad Lemaire worked on this on Sunday; but they really do need to work on it even further - even if the power play has a good night.

Concern #4: Defensemen Leading the Breakouts  I'll keep this brief.  The absolutely awful puck control really made breakouts by the Devils defense a real adventure against Philadelphia.  The puck handler just seemed so lost and just couldn't make a confident decision in what to do with it as the rout went on.  They were better against the Rangers, but they weren't very solid either - the most notable mistake being Mike Mottau going right in front of the net at a Rangers forechecker with the puck.   In the day prior to the Philly game, Gulitti reported that Lemaire was still instructing the defensemen on their options in a breakout.  So this is still something the Devils are still learning after training camp and preseason.

Level of Concern: Medium  As the Devils defensemen do more of this - in practice and in games - they will likely get more comfortable with moving up ice with the puck.  Under Sutter, the defensemen didn't carry the puck up to the blueline or further all that much with traffic ahead of them.    That's why I don't see it as something to lose a lot of sleep over. What is concerning is whether the Devils defensemen themselves are good enough to continually breakout the puck without conceding possession.  Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya, OK, I can see them doing it.  But Mike Mottau or the possibility of Colin White or Bryce Salvador moving it up initially? They don't really inspire confidence.  I hope Lemaire has a plan B in case the breakouts eventually stall the offense and hurt the Devils' cause more than anything else.

Concern #5: The Fourth Line  The Devils' fourth line hasn't contributed much on the ice in these two games. Rod Pelley has only won 5 of 14 faceoffs and hasn't looked anything like he was in 2007-08.  Andrew Peters, the "enforcer" on the line has 4 hits and only one notable "achievement" to his name so far; a double minor for roughing and unsportmanslike conduct that both earned him nothing but discipline from Lemaire.   The other winger has varied between Halischuk (a quiet night against Philadelphia) and Pikkarainen (a quiet game against the Rangers).  The line hasn't seen much more than 10 minutes in either game and at the same time, they've contributed very little.  Not really any energy, not any offense, and not much in terms of defense. It's been a line that has just been...there, for lack of better wording.

Level of Concern: Low  As under Sutter, early indications after two games show that the fourth line isn't going to be used all that much.  Yet, with Peters, Pikkarainen, and even Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond on the roster, you'd expect that fourth line to at least throw some more checks, crash the net a little bit, and modify the tempo of the game a little bit.   What else can it be used for, really?  Fortunately, I think this is easily correctable.  The fourth line just needs some encouragement, maybe clearer direction on their task, and they should be able to do just that.  Between that and the indication that the fourth line will only see limited minutes; I'm not really all that concerned about the fourth line play.  Unless, of course, they start taking far too many calls (which was what happened last season with Bobby Holik centering that line) or hurt the team in some other manner.

I'm sure there are many more concerns you may have with the Devils so far this season.  I think that quite a few of them will be corrected in due time to remove any rust in their game, like the performance of certain defensemen (Bryce Salvador, I'm looking at you), for example.  Please share them and let's discuss how much of a concern they really are as we await the Devils' first road game.