Article written collaboratively by Mike Luci and Tommy Zilinski
With the quarter-mark of the season fast approaching, the New Jersey Devils have emerged as one of the season’s most pleasant surprises. While they shouldn’t be considered a powerhouse, they’ve certainly played much better than advertised after starting the season 0-3-1. They’ve since gone 10-3 and currently occupy an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
The Devils’ early success has been impressive and exciting, but shouldn’t make us overlook the apparent fact that this team has some glaring shortcomings that could catch up to them over the final three quarters of the 2015-2016 season. One such roster flaw lies in their offense. While the Devils are getting significant contributions from their first and second lines, there’s a steep drop off afterwards in regards to goals and points.
Out of New Jersey’s 44 goals scored thus far, their offense has accounted for 36 of them. Only nine Devils forwards have succeeded in scoring goals this year, and out of the 36 goals this group has, 30 came from only five players. Adam Henrique (8) Mike Cammalleri, Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri (6 apiece), and Lee Stempniak (4) have spearheaded the Devils’ offensive production this season, and all five players make up 83% of the Devils’ first and second lines.
There are six Devils forwards who’ve played at least 14 or more games this year, and have two or less goals. Sergey Kalinin scored twice in his last four games, Jordin Tootoo and Jiri Tlusty have on each, while Stephen Gionta, Jacob Josefson, and Brian O’Neill have yet to find the back of the net. With the exception of Kalinin, who’s been playing left wing on the second line with Zajac and Palmieri, all the aforementioned players above comprise the Devils’ third and fourth lines.
The six players that primarily make up New Jersey’s bottom six have combined for just four goals this season, which is a trend you don’t see on any other team currently occupying a playoff spot. While the Devils’ surprising success this season has overshadowed their shortcomings, their impotent production coming from their third and fourth lines will eventually catch up to them. Even if just one of those goal-less players were replaced with a forward capable of helping form a third scoring unit, New Jersey would be in an even better position than they currently are. The good news is that the Devils could possess the means of making this potentially necessary roster adjustment.
Enter Patrik Elias. The Devils legend has been out since before training camp with a knee injury, and just recently began practicing with the team as an extra. Elias has 1,033 points in 1,386 career games, all of which in a Devils sweater. The 39-year-old Czech forward is renowned for his playmaking abilities and is capable of logging big minutes in any situation, making him an important asset for New Jersey when he returns. He’s been a top-6 forward for nearly the entirety of his career, but after missing the first 20 or so games and with age inevitably catching up with him, where will Elias fit in the Devils’ lineup?
It would appear likely that Elias will not center one of the Devils’ four lines at this point in time, barring an injury to Henrique, Zajac, Josefson or Gionta, which means that he will likely be on the left wing. It’s also safe to assume that Elias will not crack the top line of Cammalleri-Henrique-Stempniak, and it is even unlikely that he could push Kalinin from the left wing of the second line, who has been playing well in that role and just recently started finding the back of the net.
The most appropriate spot for Elias, at least when he returns, is the left wing of the third line. Tlusty currently occupies that spot, but has not shined as some may have hoped that he would so far in this young season. Elias could be placed on a line with Josefson at center and Tootoo at the right wing, unless Coach Hynes tries Elias’ fellow countrymen Tlusty on the right side.
Elias has not been a speed demon in recent years, especially now as he is nearing age 40. Combining Elias’ playmaking abilities with two speedy players in Josefson and Tootoo/Tlusty could complete the Devils’ third scoring line, and help all three players find the score sheet more frequently than they’ve been since the season started. Elias would be able to spring one of his two line mates for fast breaks or even breakaways and could come as a late trailer for many plays. If he has room near the top of the circles, Elias could beat most goaltenders if he is given space and time to use his lethal accurate wrist shot. Bump Tlusty or Tootoo down to the fourth line and relegate O’neill to the press box, since he’s yet to register a point this year, let alone score a goal.
When Elias returns, and barring any other injuries, the Devils’ forward lines could look like this:
Extras: Matteau, O’Neill