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The New Jersey Devils' October 2009 in Review

With a 1-4 home record, with three of those losses ranking at the "very disappointing" level, would you believe the Devils achieved their best October record after some mixed results in the last 5 seasons?

The Devils achieved an 8-4 record based largely on the strength of excellent play on the road.  The road record is easy: 7.  That's 7 wins.   Moreover, they were mostly close games. Only two of them came with margins of victory greater than 1 goal; and three of them came through the shootout. 

That is impressive in of itself, but it's an even bigger accomplishment as the team became increasingly shorthanded throughout the month.  Going into the season, the Devils are still missing Patrik Elias, who still recovering from surgery that removed scar tissue from his groin.  Later in the month, Paul Martin and Jay Pandolfo both suffered significant injuries after a big win in Pittsburgh; and Johnny Oduya was recently added to the list of injured with a "lower body injury" in Boston.  With a depleted defense, an offense that has yet to truly reach its potential, an increasingly powerless power play (so what else is new), and such bad performances at home, that the Devils finished the month at 8-4 is amazing.

In my opinion, a lot of the credit for the team's success should go to Jacques Lemaire.  Yes, the Devils took far too many too many men on the ice penalties under Lemaire.  Yes, he constantly shuffles lines and sometimes resorts to line matching at any cost.  Yet, he has instilled a never-say-die attitude among the team that has saw them so much success on the road so far this season.  Moreover, he's quite candid on what he expects from the team and has a handle on who good this team could be.  As evidence of this as well as proof that he gives far better quotes than Brent Sutter ever did, Lemaire told Tom Gulitti after the Tampa Bay game exactly what he felt about the 7-0-0 road record:

"I’m not impressed because we can’t win at home," Lemaire said. "That’s why we’re lucky that we’re getting these wins here. The way we’re playing at home, we’ve got to play better. It’s that simple. If we would get our share of wins at home and do this, then it’s exciting. Right now, it’s not at all. We need these points because we’re going back home."

Too true.  The Devils need to improve themselves in all aspects when at the Rock.  At home, they have lost to Philadelphia 5-2 in their home opener, the Rangers 3-2 in the rivalry's first game this season, and gave up four goals in losses to both Atlanta (4-2) and Buffalo (4-1).   Even when you consider the team's lone home win, a 2-0 win against Carolina, the offense was stymied over and over again.  In the four losses, the defense made far too many critical mistakes.

The results on the road contrast this slightly.  Not that the Devils' offense has been world-beaters, they have been able to get the goals they need to - particularly in the third period - get points in each of their games.  Here's a list (and links to recaps) of all the road games where the Devils got a game tying or game winning goal in the third period: Tampa Bay in the Devils' first road game, at Florida, at Washington, at MSG where the Devils got some sweet revenge over the Rangers, and at Boston.   The most recent exception include last night's shootout win over Tampa Bay, where the Devils only got their goal in the second period.  The first exception was when the Devils played their best game all season in a 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, who then was enjoying a 9 game winning streak. 

The key for upcoming month will be continued improvement. With the Devils likely to be without Martin on defense, the rest of the blueline needs to improve their positional play.  Martin Brodeur has recovered from a slow start and given the close nature of the game of his 7 wins, I'm sure he'll be fine going forward.  But no goalie's numbers will if the defense collapses. Nevertheless, the Devils have only allowed an average 2.33 goals per game and that's not bad at all - it's the sixth best average in the league, actually.

Patrik Elias should return sometime in this month and even before then, the Devils would be wise to be more lethal with their scoring chances.   They've improved in getting more opportunities, even on the power play (well sometimes), with an average of 30.7 shots per game.  But they need to take it to the next level, if only so Brodeur and the defense doesn't have to manage one-goal leads in game after game.  The Devils, even without Elias, can do much better than averaging 2.33 goals for per game in my opinion.

Devil of the Month Honorable Mention: 

2009 - Zach Parise 12 6 8 14 7 4 1 0 0 0 59 10.2

So it's a bit ironic that my honorable mention and selection for Devil of the Month are both forwards.  Parise is a fine candidate to award Devil of the Month.  The left winger is a shot machine, as only Alexander Ovechkin has more shots on net than Parise this season (and he has 89, so AO will be in first for a while).  Parise also leads the team in assists, points, and plus/minus. Per Behind the Net's even strength on-ice/off-ice numbers, Parise's presence on the ice just leads to goals.  When Parise is off the ice, the Devils goals for per 60 is only 1.24, when he's on the ice, it rockets up to 4.08.   So, yeah, Parise had a very good month and based on (most) stats, he was the best Devil in October.  

But only one Devil impressed me more: Travis Zajac, the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for October 2009.

Back in July, as an restricted free agent, Travis Zajac signed a pretty sweet contract for a not-insignificant amount of money.  So far this season, Zajac has been clearly earning his money.  As Glenn "Chico" Resch said during the television broadcast of the Devils-Capitals game, when Zajac is on the ice, good things seem to happen.  He's completely right.  He plays with more strength, he's gotten a bit faster, and I've noticed that he's more confident with his passing.

The even-strength numbers at Behind the Net back up Resch's theory.  In even strength play, Zajac faces the third highest quality of competition among the whole team (and first among players who average more than 10 minutes a game) and has a remarkably high relative CORSI of 31.8.   When Zajac steps on the ice, the Devils' shots for per 60 shoots up from 23.7 to 36.4 and the goals for per 60 rise from 1.84 to 2.75.  The offense benefits greatly from Zajac's presence.   He's also a big help on defense when he's out there: the shots against per 60 drops from 24.9 to 23.7 and the goals against per 60 falls from 2.61 to (wait for it) 0.69.   I know he's largely an offensive player and the focus is usually on the opposition when he's in play, but 0.69 goals against per 60 minutes is simply too low of the number to just say that it's mere happenstance.  

Lemaire has noticed Zajac's skills and has been using him in all situations, leading him to play an average of 21:11 per game, the second most among forwards (Jamie Langenbrunner leads with 21:27).  Zajac has been the team's best center, leading the team with winning 54.1% of his faceoffs.  Zajac is also tied with Parise for the team lead in goals; and he has scored the most important goal of this past month - the last-second equalizer that gave the Devils the chance to win their first game of the season:



Travis Zajac has been enjoying his hockey and we should all certainly hope that he continues playing as well as he had in October.

Travis Zajac

#19 / Center / New Jersey Devils



May 13, 1985

October 2009 Devil of the Month

Monthly Stats: 12 GP, 6 G, 5 A, +6, 6 PIM, 36 SOG