By Ryan Jahnke
We’re coming up on the end of our second week of play in the 2013 season. In these past six games we’ve seen the debut of an 18 year-old rookie in Stefan Matteau and a 30 year-old rookie in Matt Anderson. Vaunted prospect Mattias Tedenby was sent down to the AHL, again, while fellow Swedish ace Adam Larsson made his long-awaited return to the lineup in last night’s overtime loss against the Islanders. Even mainstays like Jacob Josefson are going through the process of Coach Pete DeBoer’s experiments, having played on three different lines so far, at both center and left wing.
It’s not easy to keep up with all this movement. It tends to leave everyone on the outside with far more questions than answers, questions that are even harder to figure out when talking about so many young and inexperienced players.
Look no further than the case of Larsson. Larsson was marked as one of the keys to success for the Devils before this season started, making his initial absence from the starting six even more of a story. People couldn’t help but wonder why Larsson was the odd man out, particularly in a defensive corps that was slowly losing some of its luster. After zero appearances in the first five games, it took a minor arm injury to starter Mark Fayne to get the young defender onto the ice.
Larsson seemed comfortable finally getting back in front of the Prudential Center crowd, logging nearly 18 minutes of ice time and finishing the night at +1, despite an error that turned a potential blocked shot into deflected goal for the Islanders. His ease and fluidity of play leads us all to wonder what it was that was holding Larsson back, a question that is also being asked of offseason acquisition, Bobby Butler.
With the recent demotion of Tedenby, it seemed all but certain that Butler, who leads the Albany Devils with 16 goals, would be the one to get the call up to the big club. However, when the decision came down from Lou Lamoriello, it was decided that club veteran Anderson would finally be getting his chance to play in the NHL. Anderson certainly deserved this chance. After all his AHL stats were impressive (7-G, 14-A) and he had certainly paid his dues, but it was still strange to think that someone performing as well as Butler wasn’t the next in line.
In the end, this might just be another case of the Devils’ Army needing to have some faith in Lou, just like the situation involving last year’s top pick; Matteau. The Devils have to decide before he plays one more game whether or not it’s worth it to keep him with the team, and start the clock on his arbitration eligibility, or send him back down to juniors. What is best for Matteau? What is best for the Devils? For all we know, Lou feels it’s worthwhile to keep him sitting in the skybox and practicing with the pro team rather than playing a season in juniors.
It’s going to be interesting to see where they go with all the young talent they have going, but you do have to wonder how quickly these guys can really be expected to contribute. While the younger guys have been playing since mid-October, not even that kind of head start can prepare them for the speed of an NHL game. Without being able to establish some consistency in the lineup so that the newer players can get a feel for timing, positioning, etc., you have to wonder if the Devils are asking them to learn too much on the run.
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. With the shortened season, they need to establish their very best lineups quickly in order to get some stability out there and start figuring out what lines they’ll be taking down the stretch. On the other hand, they might be going so quickly and erratically that they’re preventing any stability from forming, and compromising the ability of these prospects to contribute at the NHL level.
Quick Looks Back and Forward…
While last week was all about unbridled excitement, the theme of this week is more cautious optimism. The Devils fell a bit short of the high expectations that their first few games inspired, following six quick points with three straight gut-wrenching extra-session losses.
Pinpointing where they went wrong in these games isn’t all that easy either, since each game gave us a peek at yet another weakness. The game against Montreal, for example, showed off the Devils’ big guns with points coming from Elias, Clarkson, and Zubrus with Fayne and Kovalchuk contributing assists. The defense, however, was another story, leaving far too many holes and leaving Brodeur blindsided. Those defensive weaknesses were solidified against Boston, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of offensive drive, wasting an excellent performance by Johan Hedberg. This all came to a head in Thursday’s loss to the Islanders, where failures in net and on special teams left New Jersey on the losing end despite getting four goals from sources other than Kovy, Patty, or Clarky. In fact all four scorers on Thursday recorded their first goals of the season.
Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot to be excited about. Larsson came into the lineup and looked pretty good, while Adam Henrique came back from injury and looked pretty great, recording the goal that sent the game into overtime. The clutch line of Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier, and Stephen Gionta made their biggest impact on the season thus far, and Travis Zajac continued to show why he is one of the better two-way centers in the game.
To turn things back around this weekend against the Penguins and Islanders, they’ll need to put it all together. They’ll need great performances in net against these high-scoring division opponents, regardless of who gets the start. Most importantly, they’ll need to control the special teams’ situations. They cannot get shut out on the power play, and no Devils team has ever won without a firm penalty kill. That’s what New Jersey needs to get back on track this weekend to make sure that the great start that they built up doesn’t go to waste.