By Dave Turner
Just a few quick hits before we get into the meat and potatoes.
Jon Merrill Signs
Devils former second round pick and University of Michigan defenseman Jon Merrill has decided to leave school and sign with the Devils. He will be playing on an amateur tryout contract for the rest of the year and then his entry-level contract will kick in next year. This means that he cannot play for the New Jersey Devils this year, he will be in Albany for the duration of their season.
This is a good move. It’s nice to get him some playing time now, just to judge where he is at. He was injured earlier in the year, as he suffered a cracked vertebra, but was able to return. Merrill is a talented prospect, but he comes with somewhat of a checkered past. He was suspended for a good portion of last season for an infraction that has not been named.
Perhaps an incident like that will only make him a smarter pro. If that sort of occurrence doesn’t make you grow up, I’m not sure what will. The fact is, this kid has a tremendous amount of potential. He’s a good two-way player who has size at 6’3” 209 lbs and is an above average skater as well. He is projected as someone who has the ability to be a power play quarterback.
The fact is, despite his past, he is probably the Devils second best prospect, if you want to rank Reid Boucher first at this point. He has a lot of upside and a chance for him to get his feet wet with pro-style hockey is a great thing. I think he will compete for a job in camp and if he doesn’t make the team outright, which could be difficult, I can see him being a call-up at some point next year.
– The good news is that the injuries that Bryce Salvador and Stephen Gionta don’t seem to be so bad. They both traveled with the team down to Florida. Seems like both are just suffering from “bumps and bruises”. The good thing is that it seems like both have a chance at playing this weekend. Having three days off definitely helps.
– It also seems like Alexei Ponikarovsky is on his way back too. According to Tom Gulitti, there is a chance he may even join the team down in Florida. While I don’t know if he’ll play, it seems like he should at least be back by next week.
– Dainius Zubrus has been skating, but it still seems like he’s about 10-14 days away from returning. I would assume he will be practicing when the team returns to New Jersey. He has been skating and shooting, but I would think he needs some time to get his stamina up and would need some practices under his belt. The reinforcements are coming, and it will be a HUGE lift while Ilya Kovalchuk is out.
The Playoff Picture
– The consensus is that in a 48-game season, 53-55 points will get you a playoff spot. The Devils are at 37, with 15 games to play. If they can win 6-7 games and get a 2-3 overtime losses that would put them right around that number. Really, the biggest thing is that they CANNOT afford any sort of pointless streak at this point. Even an OT/SO loss would be beneficial.
– I think at this point it’s okay to start assessing the other teams that are currently chasing the Devils. The one who seems to be fading the most is the Carolina Hurricanes. Though they have some great scoring up front, they have been struggling mightily lately. The Jets are running away with the division at this point, or so it would seem.
– The Washington Capitals have a chance of turning things up and making some noise. They have been hot and Alex Ovechkin is playing very well of late. They took a tough loss to the Islanders on Monday, but they’re still very much in the picture. The Caps are still six points behind the Devils with the same amount of games played (33).
– The team that scares me the most at this point is the New York Islanders. The Isles have been playing very well lately, and it has been in large part due to the play of Evgeni Nabakov. The Isles can score, that’s no secret, but it’s defense and goaltending that have hindered them. If Nabakov stays hot, they could be very dangerous. I picked this team to make the playoffs during the preseason and I think they still can.
– The Philadelphia Flyers took a crushing defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers last night. The Flyers are four games under .500 and have 29 points. Can they make up eight points on the Devils with one game at hand? I don’t think so. Nothing they’ve done all year gives you any indication that this team is any better than their current record.
– As far as the Rangers go, they’re probably a team that’s going to make it, so I don’t know if the Devils will need to concern themselves with the Rangers. If you pencil them in as the last team, it’s the other 3-4 that are hanging around that they have to stay ahead. The Devils play at Madison Square Garden twice over the last few games of the year, so if they need to pass the Rangers either for seeding, or just to make the playoffs, they’ll have their chance.
Why should we expect a playoff berth?
– The Devils have less to climb in order to stay in the hunt. Other teams need to get hot. Are some of the other clubs able to get something like 8 or 9 wins in the last 15 or so to make it? Not so sure.
– Martin Brodeur has been pretty solid since his return, save for his goal allowed against Florida on a bad play and the second goal to Ottawa that was off of a bad rebound. The fact is, without Kovy and the other injured players, this team is going to struggle to score. He MUST be good for the Devils to win some games here down the stretch.
– David Clarkson needs to be big in the last leg of the season. He was so hot to start the year, but hasn’t done much. With the injuries, he has to be someone that can score some big goals here. Considering he might be playing for some big money on a contract for next year, you have to expect that Clarkson will be playing hard. Part of the early season success was due to Clarkson’s play and without his production, the Devils have struggled even more to score.
– If I had to place a bet on it, I think the Devils will finish in eight place and face off against the Penguins in the first round. I don’t think they are going to fall off to the point where they’ll miss the playoffs.
– It’s time for Patrik Elias to carry this team. He’s a veteran who has been through so many of these tight races. With Kovalchuk out, he will need to be the guy that the team looks to for big points. If they are going to win some crucial games, he will need to be a guy who is averaging around a point per contest.
– This weekend is HUGE for this team. They’re playing two teams who are out of it for all intents and purposes. Anything less than three points would be a let-down. Tampa can score, but they’re not great defensively. The Panthers have been playing better, but they’re so ravaged by injuries.
– The fact is, you can’t understate what the playoff run from last year did for this team. For all of the players who were on last year’s team, they have the experience playing in big games. You have to expect that the last five or so games of this season are going to basically be playoff games. It’s all about just making it in. If you’re going to go anywhere, it doesn’t matter who you play. You have to beat the best to be the best.