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A Decade of Necessary Changes Part 3: The 2011-12 New Jersey Devils

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The 2010s are ending and so will end a decade of New Jersey Devils hockey where past glories ended and difficult necessary changes were to be made. This part summarizes the 2011-12 season: where Adam Henrique immortalized himself to the fans and the Devils made a run to the Cup.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils - Game Six
The peak of the 2010s for the New Jersey Devils
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The 2010s will end on January 1, 2020. It was a tumultuous ten years for the New Jersey Devils franchise. Big trades, a player controversy, and massive changes in ownership, management, coaches, and players surround seasons where the Devils fell from past glories. It is not a decade that will be fondly remembered with some exceptions. It is a decade that forced the Devils to make some difficult, messy, and necessary changes. And as this decade closes, we can only hope that the changes that continue to be made will lead the Devils back to making the playoffs regularly, challenging for Stanley Cups, and perhaps being the model franchise for others once again. Before it ends, let us look back one more time at the 2010s with a mostly daily (one day coming up will have two) series of posts summarizing each of the previous ten seasons up to New Year’s Day.

In the third part of this series, this post will summarize the 2011-12 season. To say this was a bounce back from 2010-11 would be an understatement. The Devils went back to being a super-stingy team that did not score or create much on offense and made sure their opponents would do even less. After several years of the team not going deep in the playoffs, the 2011-12 team went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. And they knocked off Our Hated Rivals in the process; an apex in Devils history for this entire decade and a moment of greatness for a new generation of Devils fans. A lot of people look back on this season fondly and understandably so.

This is meant to be an overview of that season and the resulting offseason. I hope to capture all of the major events. And if you feel there were things I missed or there was someone or something that you really liked (or disliked) that should have been highlighted, then feel free to share it in the comments.


The 2011-12 Season

The Record: 48-28-6, 102 points, Fourth in the Atlantic Division (Source: Hockey-Reference)

The Head Coach: Peter DeBoer

The Team Captain: Zach Parise

The Top Scorer: Ilya Kovalchuk - 37 goals, 46 assists, 310 shots, 83 points

The ILWT Season Preview: Yes, we did a full set of posts previewing the team for the season similar to how we do it today. Here are the predictions from the staff, which links back to the other posts in that preview.

The Biggest In-Season Move: As tempting as it would be to claim Petr Sykora being signed out of training camp in October 2011, Ryan Carter being claimed on waivers in late October, or the Alexei Ponikarovsky deal in January 2012 as the biggest in-season move, my choice is the largest deal in the season. On February 24, 2012 the Devils sent Kurtis Foster, Nick Palmieri, Stephane Veilleux, a second round pick in 2012 (which originally belonged to Washington), and a conditional third rounder in 2013 (which was met) for defenseman Marek Zidlicky. I was skittish on the deal, but it turned out to be a big one. Zidlicky seemingly took an optional approach to playing defense at times and was no stranger to taking risks on offense. Overall it worked well and he was leaned on quite a bit. He immediately averaged over 20 minutes per game when he joined New Jersey and led the Devils skaters in average ice time per game in the postseason.

Zidlicky would remain with the Devils for multiple seasons. So New Jersey would get value (and sometimes frustration since, again, Zidlicky sometimes played like defense was optional) on their end. The cost was minimal. As it turned out, the three players would not stick around in the NHL for long. Palmieri was really not missed despite whatever he showed in 2010-11. The picks never amounted to much. So this was a big move in terms of quantity and it played a role in the playoff run that would happen two months after this deal was made.

Playoffs?: Yes. It was a magical run to experience live and I feel a warm wave of nostalgia when I think about it today. It also deserves an extensive section.

The 2012 Playoff Run: While the Devils finished fourth in the Atlantic, that division was utterly stacked. The division winners were Our Hated Rivals, who won 51 games and earned 109 points. Pittsburgh finished behind them by just one point and also won 51 games. Philadelphia earned 103 points. The Devils managed to have the ninth best record in the East. But since the division winners were guaranteed the top three spots in the conference, the Devils ended up sixth and would face Florida in the first round.

On paper, it looked like an easy match-up as Florida earned just 94 points with 38 wins. They had a negative goal differential. In reality, it was anything but. They split the first two games; NJ won Game 1 and Florida won Game 2. The Devils fell behind the series in Game 3, but tied it up in Game 4. The Devils put themselves on the brink of elimination in Game 5 with a shutout loss. They pulled it back together and Travis Zajac would be the first of several heroic Devils on this playoff run with an OT winner in Game 6. It would all come down to Game 7. This was tight. This put all of the fans on edge. Even the Florida fans stood throughout both overtimes. And Adam Henrique would become the hero of that game. He scored in double-overtime for his first of two series-winning goals in 2012. Right from the high slot on a broken play. Everyone remembers the second one; but the first one made it possible for there to be even be a second one. The Devils won their first playoff series since 2007.

Their next opponents was the same team who eliminated them in short order in 2010: the Philadelphia Flyers. The first game of the series was rough and the Devils were edged by the Flyers in OT. Also, Ilya Kovalchuk was injured around this time and I was probably the only one who argued against it. My bad. I was wrong. I was also wrong to doubt the Devils’ chances in this one because the next four games would be like a blur. Peter DeBoer seemingly coached Peter Laviolette out of his shoes in these games. Game 2 was a decisive Devils win. It was closer in Game 3 but the Devils prevailed in OT thanks to Alexei Ponikarovsky following up his shot and putting the puck in the back of the net. Game 4 was all about Swarming It Up - the Devils’ “catchphrase” for the playoffs - and they won easily. In Game 5, the Devils eliminated Philadelphia with a 3-1 win most notable for a misplay by Ilya Byrzgalov right to David Clarkson for the game’s first goal that set a tone that Philly was going to lose this one. The Devils exacted revenge for 2010 and were onto their first Eastern Conference Finals since 2003.

In order to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals, they would need to face Our Hated Rivals. As much as it is true that they inherently suck, they objectively did not in 2011-12. They won the division. Henrik Lundqvist was a top goalie in the world. They had all of the pieces plus home-ice throughout the East and they knocked off Washington. The rivalry would reach an epic high in this one.

The start of the series was bad. Lundqvist was perfect and the Devils were shutout in Game 1. The Devils would respond with a 3-2 comeback win in New York in Game 2, with Clarkson providing the game-breaking deflection. In Game 3, the series went to Newark and Lundqvist again shut out the Devils in a loss. The Devils responded by just dominating Our Hated Rivals in a 4-1 win to tie up the series. Unlike the Florida series, the win would not be traded for a loss. In Game 5, the Devils prevailed 5-3 with the game deciding goal from Ryan Carter almost being missed by the camera angle on the live broadcast. The Devils were one game away from sending Our Hated Rivals to the golf course and heading to the Stanley Cup Finals. In Game 6, the Devils went up early. Our Hated Rivals responded. The game needed overtime. Tensions were high. About 1:03 into overtime, three Devils out worked five Rangers on the play. Adam Henrique became a legend in the history of the New Jersey Devils. He tucked in a loose puck between Lundqvist’s pads into an empty net. The Rock erupted in total elation. Doc gave the perfect call: “Henrique! It’s Over!” Devils fans all around the world were jubilant. The Devils won Game 6, 3-2, and would go on to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in nearly a decade. They survived a scare from the Southeast Division winning Florida Panthers, they put down a Philly team that took them out early in 2010, and they eliminated Our Hated Rivals to earn seemingly infinite bragging rights and the right to go on to play for the greatest trophy in professional sports: The Stanley Cup.

The Western Conference champions were the Los Angeles Kings. Their season had struggled but when they put it all together, they went through opponents like a buzzsaw going through wooden planks. They had plenty of offensive skill, led by Slovenia’s answer to Pavel Datsyuk, Anze Kopitar. They had a dominant defense led by Drew Doughty who could easily play over 25 minutes per game if he had to. Jonathan Quick was great in the net and incredibly hot in the postseason. The Kings went 8-0 on the road as they smashed their way to the Finals. This would be a remarkable challenge for the Devils.

Game 1 was a tightly checked affair with each team not wanting to make the crucial mistake that would cost them the game. Alas, the Kings would prevail in overtime to take the first game. Game 2 was more of the same. It also went to overtime and suffered a second heartbreaking 1-2 loss to Los Angeles. The Devils were in a deep hole as the series went to California. Game 3 saw the Kings just dominate the game and shutout the Devils. The Devils were on the verge of being swept. Surely the 2012 playoff run could not end like this. It did not. The Devils managed to win 3-1 in Game 4 to keep the series alive and send it back to New Jersey. In Game 5, Martin Brodeur put in arguably his last masterpiece in the crease for the Devils as New Jersey won 2-1. The Kings finally lost a road game in the playoffs. The Devils were following the cliche of “one game at a time” to a ‘T.’ All the Devils needed to do was pull out another win in Game 6 and force an epic Game 7 at the Rock. It did not happen. Los Angeles came out flying. When Steve Bernier boarded Rob Scuderi past the halfway mark of the first period, the hit drew blood. That made it a major penalty and the Kings scored three on the resulting power play. The Kings just ruled all over the Devils for the remainder of the game. The Devils were eliminated in a 1-6 loss as the Kings won their first ever Stanley Cup.

Some fans still wonder what if Bernier never boarded Scuderi or if a penalty was called earlier on that play for Kovalchuk being literally hugged into the sideboards in the neutral zone. I remember people being angry as the Kings scored those 3 PPGs. I was resigned to it all. I knew full well that a comeback from a 0-3 series deficit was rare and the Devils were fortunate to make it 2-3. If we’re going to talk about what ifs, what if Mark Fayne finished a chance with half of the net empty in the third period in Game 1? Or what if Dainius Zubrus not turn the puck over in the second OT that led to the Kings taking it? Or what if Quick actually cooled off and returned to Earth? I firmly believe to this day that if the Devils somehow miraculously won Game 6, they would win the Cup in Game 7. I have had daydreams about writing about that Cup win for a year or so after the run. But it was not to be. The truth is that Los Angeles was the hotter team, the better team, and they out-performed the Devils. They earned the Cup.

This is not to say the Devils did not earn their way to the Cup. They absolutely did. They did so in a manner that few fans could ever complain about. It had thrilling overtime wins. It had clutch moments. The team’s two biggest rivals were eliminated on this run. Lamenting the Stanley Cup Finals is less about thinking the team blew it - they really didn’t, they fell behind in the series - and more about how it would have been the perfect ending to a playoff run not seen in New Jersey in nearly a decade. My thoughts in 2012 at the time in review of the playoffs are here. To this day in 2019, I focus on the good memories from the many goals by Kovalchuk and Parise; Bryce Salvador somehow racking up the points (14 in 23 games!); Travis Zajac returning from injury to be an effective center; Andy Greene and Mark Fayne shutting opponents down over and over; the CBGB line (a term coined by radio broadcaster Sherry Ross) being an effective fourth line; the last hurrah for Brodeur in a long career full of them; and Henrique etching his name in franchise history. I hope one day in the future, there will be a team like this one to make another deep run. There was nothing like the feeling of being at the Rock in May and June knowing that the team could achieve the highest glory possible.

The Months in Review: Here is a link to each of the Months in Review for the season - which includes the Devil of the Month (DotM).

  • October 2011 - DotM Honorable Mention - Patrik Elias; ILWT DotM - Johan Hedberg
  • November 2011 - DotM Honorable Mention - Adam Henrique; ILWT DotM - Patrik Elias
  • December 2011 - DotM Honorable Mention - Ilya Kovalchuk; ILWT DotM - Zach Parise
  • January 2012 -DotM Honorable Mention - Ilya Kovalchuk; ILWT DotM - Patrik Elias
  • February 2012 - DotM Honorable Mention - Martin Brodeur; ILWT DotM - Ilya Kovalchuk
  • March 2012 - DotM Honorable Mention - Ilya Kovalchuk; ILWT DotM - Martin Brodeur

I did not do one in April since it was so short of a month. It was kind of silly to summarize a handful of games. So it goes.

The Number Retirement: The Devils retired three numbers in the 2010s. The first one was for Scott Niedermayer. His #27 was raised to the rafters of the Rock on December 16, 2011. He was and is still the only Devil to have ever won the Norris Trophy. Here is my post summarizing his career and why he was a Devils legend. The Devils played Dallas that night and crushed them 6-3.

The Player Awards by the Blog: We were still ILWT back then - In Lou We Trust - and here were our choices for player awards for the regular season.

  • MVP: Patrik Elias
  • Best Defenseman: Mark Fayne
  • Best Goaltender: Johan Hedberg
  • Best Rookie: Adam Henrique
  • Best Defensive Forward: Patrik Elias
  • Best Offensive Forward (new in 2012): Ilya Kovalchuk
  • The Sergei Brylin Award for Versatility: Dainius Zubrus

The 2011-12 Season Stats: This is similar to the charts in the By the Numbers sections in the current month in reviews. For this series, I put 5-on-5 stats, expected goals for 5-on-5 and all situations, power play, and penalty kill stats all in one chart for the season. Rankings in green were top ten in the league in 2011-12; red is for stats in the bottom ten. The stats primarily come from Natural Stat Trick with special teams stats being pulled from NHL.com.

2011-12 New Jersey Devils Stats and NHL Ranks
2011-12 New Jersey Devils Stats and NHL Ranks
Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com

2019 Thoughts About the 2011-12 Season: I gave my thoughts about the playoffs earlier, so this will be more about the season as a whole. First, it is stunning in retrospect how the Devils were as stingy and conservative under Peter DeBoer as they were under Jacques Lemaire. The stats show that have took the template to a further extreme. The Devils were often near the bottom of the league in creating shots, attempts, chances, and goals. However, they allowed so few shots, attempts, chances, and goals that they still came out ahead in 5-on-5 play regularly. And the defense was even more outstanding on the penalty kill. Look at all of the rate stats and the near 90% success rate. It is best penalty killing season in the entire decade, which had multiple great seasons on the PK. The difference between this season and the ones to come (and 2009-10) was that the Devils had more fire power up front.

This season was originally going to be the season of Parise-Zajac-Kovalchuk. Parise needed to show he was 100% after missing most of 2010-11, and he did. Kovalchuk was an offensive force with plenty to prove given his massive contract. Zajac was the Devils’ answer to Toews. A less-offensive Toews, but Toews nonetheless. He was ruled out for a majority of the 2011-12 regular season. It was a big question as to who should center these two dynamic wingers. Patrik Elias could play center. DeBoer went in a different direction: rookie Adam Henrique.

It was a bold move that paid off almost instantly. It really does not take long at all for a line or a defensive pairing to show whether they click or not. Henrique absolutely did. More than just hanging with them, he was contributing plenty to the offense and two-way play himself. His 51 points as a rookie is still his single-season high as per Hockey-Reference. While Henrique will be most fondly remembered for his 2012 playoff heroics, he emerged to be a center of the future for this team in the regular season.

The Devils also benefited from a breakout season by David Clarkson. He put up 30 goals - a career high for him. I reviewed all of those goals in the 2012 offseason and found that the majority of them were legitimate. At the time, it was a joy to watch this “tough guy” just beat down opponents with scores instead of his fists. It would not last in New Jersey - or in his career, but it was a highlight in 2011-12. He added a lot to a secondary scoring group that got good contributions from Petr Sykora with 21 goals, and over 40 points again from Zubrus.

It was also a highlight to see Patrik Elias continue to be a great forward. We named him the MVP of the season. He put up over 50 assists while bossing the run of play. With Zajac out and a rookie with the top wingers, Elias had to take on a lot of tough minutes and difficult assignments. Over all of them, he passed with flying colors while producing a whole lot.

Given how the defensive effort was so strong, it must be noted that it was a team effort. The blueline had part of a season of Henrik Tallinder - he lost several weeks due to injury, a returning Bryce Salvador from an injury few thought he could come back from at all, Andy Greene, a young Mark Fayne, and a rookie named Adam Larsson. Adding Zidlicky was needed to solidify the group. Even so, this was the group that was good in their end? Yes. Greene-Fayne would become a real force. Salvador and Zidlicky played off each other well. Larsson got better over time. Tallinder was good when he did play. Most of all, the forwards actually helped out and supported their defenders as needed. I do not know if this kind of performance is possible in 2019-20, but it would not hurt Nasreddine to take a little time and watch some tape from this season. Because DeBoer and Robinson had this on lockdown.

So much so that the Devils could afford to have not as impressive goaltending in 5-on-5 play. I can say now that Brodeur was really declining in terms of performance. He was 39 by season’s end so it is not exactly a controversial statement. To me, it kind of was since I grew up with his career and he was and is one of my favorite Devils ever. But it was true and even we noted it then by giving our best goalie award to Hedberg - who was also old at 38. The tandem was not so problematic to hold the team back. And in the playoffs, Brodeur raised his game to his usual excellence. Alas, for the final time in his illustrious career.

As a final point, while the 2009-10 team won the division, I think this team is better. They did earn almost as many points (102) as the 2009-10 team (103). They had top level production despite a team not creating a lot as a whole. Their against-rates were eye-poppingly low as the defensive effort was as strong as ever. There were plenty of likable parts to this team. From stars like Parise and Kovalchuk to emerging players like Henrique and Fayne to the Salvador comeback to the return of Sykora to legends like Elias and Brodeur still being crucial to the team’s performance. It really looked like DeBoer was the right hire to follow Lemaire (and that awful MacLean era). The Cup run validated the idea that the Devils were back to being contenders.

Looking back, I know better now. They would not remain as contenders. This was the last hurrah. The final warm day before Fall really sets in. I look at the team much more positively because of the Cup run and because the following seasons were just such a drop off in disappointment. Future posts in those series will cover those. It was a great season to be a fan in 2011-12. And I totally understand why so many people became new fans in that season and during the playoffs. It was almost like a party at the Rock with each game going into the season and especially during the playoffs. Tense, nerve-wracking, but with the feeling that you were going to see something great on any given night. There were a lot of great nights in 2011-12. Especially in the Spring of 2012. Unfortunately, they were about to be over soon.

The 2012 Offseason

There is quite a lot to go over in a somewhat truncated offseason. Going to the Stanley Cup Finals will do that, but here are the main points:

The 2012 NHL Draft: This was the draft where plenty of fans scratched their head as to why Lou kept this first rounder since it would be 29th overall. This was the draft where that first rounder was used on Stefan Matteau. The son of Stephane Matteau, the Devil’s heartbreaker from 1994. In retrospect, perhaps the Devils should have gave up this pick. It was not clear that Matteau was projected to be a significant player and he would go onto have an interesting but not all that successful of a career.

The real star of the draft class came in the second round. At 60th overall, the Devils picked defenseman Damon Severson. Like him or not, he would become a staple on the blueline for the remainder of the decade - and beyond since he is young and signed through 2022-23. He added to the growing hype among Devils fans about a future blueline led by Adam Larsson and supported by Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, Brandon Burlon, and then Severson. Only two of them really turned into significant players and only one of them is with the Devils now. The rest of the 2012 class went as follows: Ben Johnson, Ben Thomson, Graham Black, Alex Kerfoot, and Artur Gavrus. Only Kerfoot stuck around in the NHL for sometime outside of Severson. My initial thoughts on the draft class at the time are here. In retrospect, Severson was a big win, Kerfoot at least made it, Matteau was rushed and not developed enough, and the rest did not do much. It was not a great class overall and this would catch up to the Devils in time.

Site Notes and Etc.

A lot happened in the 2012 offseason for the site itself.

In the Summer, I put out another call for voluntary writers. Audition posts went up through the end of July and into August. Out of this round of auditions, Jerry Tierney and Karen Meilands were selected. Both Jerry and Karen were excellent for the site. they were also resilient as they joined the site not long before there would be no Devils hockey to write about several months. Their arrivals were necessary as Tom would leave the site in September. I thank them both for their great work for multiple seasons. I also thank everyone else who volunteered for the position. Due to other changes with the new links, I needed a new person for that too. Nathan Pilling offered to help with Devils in the Details. Ever since 2012, he is still with us. Thank you to Nate for taking care of the every-other-day postings as they have grown to be a catch-all for any hockey-related stories people want to talk about without discussing it as off-topic things in other posts. I am grateful to have Nate with us at ILWT/AAtJ.

SB Nation itself underwent a massive change in its platform. SB Nation United officially launched on September 24, which led to a format in posts more similar to what they are now as well as a more vibrant layout function. United bridged the gap between the original style of ILWT from 2008-2011 to what we have today. In the lead up to the launching of United across the network, all of the blogs received new logos. The previous square with the NJHC over some flames was gone. In its place is the current, circular logo, which was publicly presented on the site on September 7.

We also started the first Top 25 Under 25 for the site. In 2012, we kept the rankings internal to the writing staff that participated. Adam Henrique became the inaugural T25U25 leader. We have changed the format since then, most notably to include your collective votes. It has become an annual offseason tradition at the site.

A Short Preview of Part 4, the 2013 Devils: Streaks, streaks, wait, no playoffs?


Thank you for reading. Part 4 will be up tomorrow as the series continues.