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The Pleasant Surprises that Helped Drive New Jersey Devils Back to the Playoffs

Pictured: Another goal by David Clarkson, furthering his comeback season - a pleasant surprise for the 2011-12 Devils.  Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE
Pictured: Another goal by David Clarkson, furthering his comeback season - a pleasant surprise for the 2011-12 Devils. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

On the latest episode of Talking Red, we got a question from a reader asking why this season's New Jersey Devils team has done so much more than last season's team. My answer was something along the lines of cohesion in that the team has been performing like a team and when one end struggles, someone else tries to pick it up in response. It was a cliché answer but I think there's some truth to it.

In the end of my spiel, I did note that the Devils have had better luck, which is closer to the truth upon further reflection. The biggest example in my opinion is the team's shooting percentage. Last season's team was shooting at 7.3% overall last season - the lowest by any team since the lockout. There were points during last season where they were well below 6%. Even if everything else about a team's performance does well, it's incredibly difficult to win a lot of games with such a low shooting percentage. With 207 goals - 15th most in the NHL - on 2177 shots for, the team's at a much better 9.5%. This turnaround alone has made a huge difference as to why the Devils are going back to the playoffs.

However, it's more than just riding a better percentage. The Devils have benefited from many other good breaks and pleasant surprises in 2011-12 season. Going into the season there were significant doubts and concerns about the roster that turned out for the better. Players who struggled last season had comeback years. There were even players who contributed beyond expectations. While the season isn't over just yet, now is a good as time as any to point the unexpected-prior-to-this-season that helped the Devils get back in the postseason.

The first pleasant surprise has to be the emergence of rookie center Adam Henrique. Let's take a step back into mid-October. Travis Zajac was injured during offseason training, creating a hole at center. While Henrique initially made the team out of training camp, he didn't do much in the first two games of the season. He was essentially shelved as Jacob Josefson had his shot to create his spot on the team. Unfortunately, Josefson broke his collarbone in the game against San Jose. Henrique returned to New Jersey, started getting 13-15 minute games, and showing his worth from November onward centering Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.

2011-12 - Adam Henrique 72 16 34 50 8 7 0 4 3 126 12.7

It took eight games before Matt Evans wrote that he's earned a full-time roster spot. It only took a few weeks to show that Henrique didn't just have a hot November (5 goals, 9 assists). Sure, one could argue that being placed in between Parise and Kovalchuk in November helped him out. I won't deny that. However, playing with top wingers with different preferences and styles is a challenge in of itself. It means playing against good opposition defensemen and forwards. The expectations are higher as the player needs to facilitate between the two wingers and help them get going. We can now say that Henrique has more than met any reasonable hopes placed upon them. Henrique fit in between the two star wingers very well, handled 17-19 minute games, beat his competition, and has been a significant producer on his own. After all, he is among rookie leaders in scoring with 16 goals and 34 assists as well as fourth on the Devils in scoring. Those points have also has eased the loss of Zajac and, to a lesser extent, Josefson for most of this season.

With Zajac back in action, Henrique is now centering a third line with Alexei Ponikarovsky and David Clarkson. It's a more appropriate role for a rookie as he won't be facing the other team's good-to-best players for 17-19 minutes. He can still kill penalties and seriously threaten on breakaways. He can still get slotted with Parise and/or Kovalchuk for a shift or two and play as if nothing changed. He could stand to improve on faceoffs and at creating his own shot. All the same, Henrique's emergence has strengthened the team down the middle when they needed it. Zajac was missed, but his absence didn't doom the team thanks in part to Henrique.

The second pleasant surprise has to be the massive comeback season by David Clarkson. Way back on February 19, 2011, I posed the question: Should the Devils trade David Clarkson? He was having a terrible year. His shooting percentage tanked to around 6%, and his poor play had him demoted to the fourth line where he was stuck with guys like Tim Sestito and Adam Mair. Clarkson couldn't catch a break and couldn't play his way up the lineup. It was a bad 2010-11.

2011=12 - David Clarkson 79 30 15 45 -9 138 8 0 7 226 13.3

In retrospect, I'm glad the team stuck with him because he's been far, far better in 2011-12. He's definitely a third line winger and his flaws have remained: too many penalties, elects to shoot more in situations where he probably should pass the puck, still fights. At the same time, he's been coming out ahead in his situations at even strength. He's set a new season high in shots on net (226 - yes, Clarkson never topped 200 until now), tied his season high in assists (15), and scored 30 goals. 30 goals! From Clarkson! That alone is a cause to smile. I don't think his shorter stick length helped as much as the fact that Peter DeBoer and Adam Oates have utilized him to his strengths. He sits in the middle of the first power play. While it's still a bit off-putting to see him take faceoffs, he's been effective at drawing defenders and still picking up eight power play goals and eight power play assists; he's third on the team in both.

I believe 2011-12 has been a "perfect storm" of areas coming together for Clarkson. He just turned 28 recently and this is his fifth season in the NHL. He had a horrid season shooting last season, whereas he's now at 13.3%, a career high. He's playing for a coach who's been familiar with him and has played him alongside actual NHL players for much of the season. He's in the peak of his career. When you put it all together, it's no surprise that Clarkson would do better this season than last season. That he's scored as much as he did that has been the real surprise. It's added to the team's depth in scoring and the power play to make the team that much better.

Third, the literal comeback season of Petr Sykora has been a pleasant surprise. User Alamoth noted that Sykora was predicted to be at the end of his career according to Scott Burnside in this FanPost. (Note: Alamoth also noted Henrique and Clarkson making the team that much deeper.) In fairness to the ESPN writer, I wouldn't have disagreed. I didn't think much of Sykora's chances to keep up prior to this season.

2011-12 - Petr Sykora 80 19 23 42 3 40 3 0 5 164 11.6

Well, Burnside and I were wrong. Sykora has come out ahead against tough competition for most of this season and could hit 20 goals by the end of this season. OK, it's true that Sykora isn't as fast as he once was. I also believe a big reason why his advanced numbers look good are because he was usually playing with Patrik Elias. Even then, he's had more than his fair share of games where he wouldn't do much. Yet, he still has his shot, he has remained healthy (he wasn't in his past few NHL seasons), and he's chipped in 19 goals on 164 shots along with 22 assists. Overall, he's been a useful secondary scoring winger. Considering he was brought into training camp on a tryout basis and the Devils signed him to only $650,000, I don't think we can say he hasn't earned his deal. His comeback season to the NHL should be seen as a success and it's helped out the Devils more than I thought. I'd say that's another pleasant surprise.

Fourth, there's the other big comeback season by defenseman Bryce Salvador. This was discussed on the last episode Talking Red. David Sarch summed it up well. He was out for all of last season and it wasn't even clear whether he could play hockey again. Salvador not only made it back on the blueline, but he's been a useful defensive defenseman. While he takes too many penalties for my liking, he's been a twenty-minute playing defensive defenseman that features on the best penalty kill in the NHL. No, he's not pushing the play forward; but he's not totally drowning either. He's helped pick up the slack left by the loss of Henrik Tallinder for most of this season. While he's not perfect (still slow, still has a temper, provides little on offense), he's been a top-four defender on one of the best shot-preventing teams in the NHL. That's excellent for someone whose career was in doubt a year ago.

Fifth, who would have thought Dave Barr would have made the impact he has on this team? He's credited for being the main man behind the Devils' penalty kill. If I were to tell you before this season that we would see Parise, Henrique, Kovalchuk, and Josefson take regular PK shifts, then you'd say I was being silly. If I were to tell you that a defensemen pairing of Salvador and Anton Volchenkov would take up the most time on the penalty kill, then you would be wondering if either somehow got faster to make it work. That's what Barr did and it's the most successful penalty kill in the NHL. The team even leads the NHL in shorthanded goals, and they have conceded only 26 power play goals. The underlying numbers at 4-on-5 have been great. The PK success has simply been fantastic. And the biggest surprise about it is that it has remained successful all season long. It's simply bewildering.

Sixth, the fact that Parise and Kovalchuk has both been successful on the same line should been a surprise to some. Last season, Parise, Kovalchuk, and Zajac played on the same line for about five games and didn't set the world on fire. The thought that Parise and Kovalchuk could not play together was strong; even to a point where Burnside mentioned that we won't see it again. As Alamoth pointed out, not only are we seeing it now but Parise and Kovalchuk have done very well together. Granted, Zajac has been out for a vast majority of this season so we could only see it now. But the feelings about how Kovalchuk shouldn't be moved to right wing from his natural left wing position were strong. Equally strong, especially during some games, was the feeling that Parise and Kovalchuk should be broken up.

2011-12 - Ilya Kovalchuk 75 35 46 81 -9 33 9 3 5 304 11.5
2011-12 - Zach Parise 79 31 37 68 -5 32 7 3 3 288 10.8

Yet, after 79 games, the numbers don't lie. The combination hasn't really hindered their shooting rates. Kovalchuk is third in the NHL in shots on net with 302 and Parise is sixth in the NHL at 284. Parise has had a good productive season with 31 goals and 35 assists, which places him tied for 28th in the NHL among all players in points before Tuesday's games. Kovalchuk has been even better with 34 goals and 46 assists; the 80 points places him tied for fifth in the NHL in scoring. For two guys who couldn't play with each other, they've been awfully productive and effective. I'd almost suggest that the two actually complement each other in some ways. What a happy result regardless of the criticisms - real and otherwise - offered about Peter DeBoer's decision to put them together earlier in the season.

I could go on further but I think these are the major ones that took me by surprise. From just thinking about it, I take two lessons from considering the good surprises for this season's team. The first is that I understand why pre-season or even in-season predictions are oft seen as "bland" or "safe." A more bold prediction - even with all kinds of evidence supporting it - runs a higher risk of being proven wrong by reality and being called out on it. Burnside should know that, I know it (I've admitted some of them), and some others know that too. So it goes and so it will probably continue. After all, who wants "bland" and "safe" predictions?

The second is that if you want a successful season, you need some luck to go your way. It's a mountain to climb when the percentages are against you. It's a big problem when an important player gets hurt and nobody actually fills in the vaccum left by their absence. It's a hinderance when a player doesn't rebound from a bad season. It's not helpful when a player brought back into the league either from injury or from being away from the league can/does not contribute at the NHL level. It really is a problem if the two most offensive players on your team can't coexist on the ice at the same time. Some of this or all of this could have happened to the Devils this season. It's unclear whether it would have meant the Devils would miss the playoffs; but the team would likely be poorer for it. They didn't and so the team succeeded at the level that they have this season.

How about you? How important do you think these pleasant surprises were for the Devils this season? Do you think they were surprises at all? What else happened during this season that surprised you and made a positive impact on the Devils this season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this matter in the comments. Thank you for reading.