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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Stanley Cup Playoffs...in October?

NHL fans, pundits, players and management alike have watched the unfolding trainwreck that is the 2010-2011 New Jersey Devils with a mixture of horror and fascination (and if you're a Rangers fan, amusement). While some might've suspected the Devils would struggle a bit as they adjusted to a new style of play, nobody could've predicted New Jersey's 2-6-1 start to the season, much less an NHL-worst goal differential of -15. Around the league, people want to know: What's happening in Newark?

As an amused observer (Let's Go Rangers!), I have my own take on the situation: The Devils' transition away from the Trap and towards a more up-tempo, attacking style of play is a direct result of signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15-year, $100mil deal over the summer. Kovy is an offensive dynamo, but defensively disinterested. Looking at it through the lens of Devils management, if I'm going to make such a hefty long-term investment, I'm going to make sure I get my money's worth. Kovalchuk consistently put up All-Star-level numbers in Atlanta, where he was (essentially) a one-man band; just imagine what he could do when surrounded by New Jersey's talented supporting cast (some of whom are stars in their own right).

Clearly, though, the Russian star couldn't reach his full potential while playing the Trap. Thus, the Devils had to change their style of play. Enter new head coach John MacLean. "Die Hard" was designated to lead (coach) New Jersey to the offensive Promised Land. The result thus far? Well, check the standings...the bottom of the standings. Why are the Devils struggling to adapt to the new system? I have a couple of thoughts:

First, Coach MacLean is tasked with teaching old dogs new tricks. By that, I mean the Devils roster contains six forwards and three defensemen over the age of 30...and let us not forget their 38-year-old future Hall of Famer goalie, who has spent his entire NHL career playing in a Trap-type system. Simply put, old habits die hard.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the New Jersey defensive corps suffers from a desperate lack of players named Rafalski or Niedermayer - in other words, swift-skating and experienced offensive defensemen. Cap constraints have forced the Devils to lean heavily on youngsters who must now learn on the job.

What does it all mean? John MacLean's tenure as head coach is the subject of league-wide speculation. Given the teams' struggles and GM Lou's hair-trigger track record, the speculation is understandable. From where I sit, however, "Die Hard" is safe (for now), as management seems to be taking the long view at this time. They have to take the long view: they've got Kovalchuk for the next fifteen years.

In the short term, however, tonight's game at San Jose could very well have playoff implications for the Devils. Here at On Goal Analysis, we know that every point counts, and teams must play along or above the Playoff Qualifying Curve (PQC) in order to remain in contention for a playoff berth. New Jersey is in grave danger of falling so far below the PQC that they can be called at "Tee Time" - that is, eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In October? Yes, in October. While we won't come right out and say tonight's game against the Sharks is a "Must-Win" for the Devils, the OGA Boys will say this: Two points sure couldn't hurt.

Take me back to On Goal Analysis.

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