Something is rotten in the state of New Jersey

By JAY BOEHMER
Senior Hockey Insider — jboehmer@highhopesblog.com
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Martin Broduer returns to the ice for the Flyers' division rival Devils, but could it already be too late to salvage an abismol season?

Last place in the division, last place in the conference. That is where the New Jersey Devils sit right now. The Flyers’ Delaware River rivals may just have to sell their souls to the Devil if they want to climb out of the basement this season, being among the worst teams to step on the ice so far this year.

Their troubles seem to have started when they traded for Ilya Kovalchuk in February of last year, giving up defenseman Johnny Oduya, talented rookie Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier, and a first round draft pick. Kovalchuk, a consistent point-producer for the last eight years or so, is seen as a dangerous offensive threat for sure, but his game simply didn’t mesh with the system the Devils’ employed.

Reliant on a team offense, with scoring lines that went about moving the puck around the opponents with a combination of crisp passes and a relentless forecheck, waiting for the scoring opportunity to arise before capitalizing, the Devils found themselves among the top teams in the league in the early Spring of 2010.

They made the playoffs as the second seed, and as any Philly fan would remember, seemingly collapsed in front of an all-around better, more hard working team in the Flyers. Kovalchuk produced a very quiet six points, with his only two goals coming as the lone tally in a 4-1 loss and an empty netter to polish off a 5-3 win – New Jersey’s only victory of the series. He’s better remembered for the snapping glove saves Leighton pulled on him and the often replayed clip of him punching the glass in frustration.

The fact is that Kovalchuk simply didn’t fit in. His game involves getting the puck, dancing, dangling, and skating around as many players as he can, and letting a shot rip. That “team offense” of the Devils’ cannot coexist with this. This is why it’s a mystery to myself and many others that they pushed so hard to pursue him in the offseason, eventually being punished for an attempt to circumvent the salary cap with a ludicrous 17 year, $102 million contract that has Kovalchuk playing until he’s almost 45 – with him possibly playing alongside his son, who would be draft eligible by that point. The team was punished with a $3 million fine and a loss of draft picks.

Eventually the team settled on a more tame 15 year, $100 million dollar deal. This still has them investing quite a lot in Kovalchuk, who until now has proven to be more trouble than he’s worth for this franchise. Their woes only continued to grow once the 2010-2011 season began.

With this contract tying up much of their cap space, the Devils were forced to field 15 skaters – the league minimum is 18 – after injuries to Anton Volchenkov and Brian Rolston coincided with a suspension to Pierre-Luc Leblond. Called “a joke” by many, this emergency situation is allowed by the NHL, but combined with their offseason mishaps with Kovalchuk, the Devils were immediately picked apart by minds surrounding hockey.

For years the New Jersey franchise has fallen a few thousand below the league average in attendance, and their embarrassing 4-10-2 start to this season has left even more empty seats in Newark’s Prudential Center. Filling up their home games to roughly 80% capacity (with the Flyers at 99.7% and the Penguins at 100.5%, for comparison), is terrible for a team that has been consistently competitive for years and finds itself located in such a popular region for hockey as the northern Atlantic coast.

Add to their troubles the fact that Zach Parise – who has missed a total of three games during his five year NHL career – has just undergone knee surgery that will keep him out of the lineup (and apparently in the care of his girlfriend) for up to three months.

Combine this loss with the lack of production from top line guys like Travis Zajac, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Patrick Elias, and you start to see why the Devils are dead last in the league in goals per game.

Injuries to big budget defenders Anton Volchenkov, another offseason pickup, and Bryce Salvador – who hasn’t played a game all season – have left them hurting on the defensive end as well. And let’s not forget the unremarkable play from future hall of famer Martin Brodeur, who finds himself at the bottom of the barrel in nearly all goaltending categories except losses, which he leads the league in. It’s no wonder why they’re pulling away from the pack in the race for the league’s worst goal differential at minus-24.

So while the Flyers enjoy riding their 6-0-1 streak into Thursday’s game at Carolina, let’s take a moment and count our blessings, because right next door are fans who are going to be stuck watching this for the next 15 years.

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