For Devils fans like me, who basically started following the team when Marty was a rookie, these are uncharted waters. An extended period of time where the Devils will play hockey without Martin Brodeur as goaltender is all new to fans like me. It's basically a taste of the inevitable occurring about 3-5 years from now. The simple fact that Martin Brodeur won't be the main goaltender for the New Jersey Devils. If you're not familiar with his importance to the team, then I don't think you really know anything about the Devils since 1994. He is an absolute cornerstone to the franchise in their past, present, and continued successes. And now he's going to be gone until March, assuming everything goes well. That's well over half of the season.
That's well over half of the season where Kevin Weekes will have to reprise his role as a starting goaltender. The last time he was the definitive #1 on a team, it was on Carolina in 2003-2004. Weekes is a talented keeper, but he's clearly a drop off from Martin Brodeur. He's not going to play every night, so expect and learn to hope Scott Clemmensen can play like a NHL goalie on the nights where he's playing. He's a butterfly goaltender, meaning that Weekes' needs to pay special attention as to when he drops into that position. He's not like Marty where Brodeur will tell defenders to let him see the open shot, the defense will have to be more willing to sacrifice their bodies and sticks for blocks. He's not as quick to smother up pucks or as talented to limit rebounds, so he needs to work on both while the defense needs to play with more awareness around the slot in front of Weekes. I'm not trying to pick on Weekes, but he's definitely a drop off from Brodeur in terms of quality in net. We, as a fanbase, need to accept this and support Weekes even when he's not at his best (like, say, last night
). He has the unenviable position of having to pick up after one of the greatest goaltenders in the history of the NHL, a player that the Devils have built entire teams and seasons around, and keep some level of consistency in net. He doesn't need any additional pressure.
Let's focus on the other guys on the Devils. The defense has done a great job in terms of playing much better than they look individually on paper. Credit for that goes to the players and the coaching staff for figuring out what they are good at. Now more than ever, they will need to limit opposing offenses to fewer than 30 shots per game. They cannot afford to be as passive, they will have to be more willing to get into the other team's faces outside of the boards, keep them away from Weekes' field of vision, and pick up the flanking players. I do think they will play more aggressively to help Weekes' out in these terms, as well as putting them into more positions to block shots and force bad passes. Of course, this comes with a higher risk of being burned by more skilled players or being caught on crafty plays. In summary, they need to become stingy-er as well as more stable in their own end. Nights where they get rolled in a period or they spend much of their defensive game chasing people need to end for the Devils to remain successful.
And to be successful in hockey, you need to have goals scored. The Devils can't just score 1 or 2 goals, try to get more, but be able to ward off the other team with strong defense and excellent performances from Brodeur in case that they don't. Again, it is foolish to expect Weekes to play like Brodeur so it would be foolish if they played like Brodeur was in net. That extra level of comfort, confidence, whatever you call it isn't a constant anymore. The Devils skaters need to score more goals. It can come from guys who have been doing it (Zach Parise), guys who can do it but need to do it more (Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta), guys who have the potential of doing it (Travis Zajac, Dainius Zubrus), and guys whose role may not be scoring but can definitely provide help should they light the lamp more often (John Madden, Jamie Langenbrunner, David Clarkson, etc.) They need to take advantage of power plays - nights where they go 0 for 7 are inexcusable regardless of who is in net. They need demonstrate better discipline to stop committing as many penalties as they do to prevent the other team from scoring goals. And if the other team figures out a constant move when attacking - dumping it in the boards, looking for a man in the slot, etc. - the Devils (the coach or the players) need to realize this and adjust their tactics to keep the opposition honest.
As much as this has been despairing and lecturing and ranting and writing poor sentences, I honestly do believe the season is not lost. Nothing has been decided. Am I as confident in this team without Marty as I was when Marty was here? No. I don't think many fans are. But I sincerely think they have the talent to still be one of the best teams in the East. The Devils have skilled forwards up top such as Parise, Elias, Zajac, and Gionta. They have checking forwards who are a pain to play against from ace defenders John Madden and Jay Pandolfo to grinders like David Clarkson. They have forwards who do a bit of both in Jamie Langenbrunner and Dainius Zubrus. They even have some rookies with potential in Petr Vrana and Nicklas Bergfors. And when Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik come back, the group will be that much better. On defense, you may not think much of a unit featuring Paul Martin (get better soon, please), Colin White, Johnny Oduya, Anssi Salmela, Mike Mottau, and Sheldon Brookbank. But these guys got the job done last season with little fanfare and if they can at least do that, it should be enough. And, hey, Kevin Weekes is a pretty good goaltender. Don't forget that Brent Sutter is in control of this team and Lou Lamoriello is the best general manager in sports.
I'm not going to lie; the season just got a lot more difficult. But there is reason to be hopeful. Hopeful that this team can still win tough hockey games. Hopeful that this team can still keep up in a very tight Eastern Conference. Hopeful that when Marty does return, he doesn't have to put on a Superman cape and try to single-handedly carry the team to the playoffs. They have the players, they have done more with less in the past (thanks to Marty, admittedly); but the players, the coaches, the trainers, and the organization has to step it up and do more with what they have. I think they can still at least make the playoffs and cause a lot of other teams problems. I do not know whether the Devils think that, but it's what I think. But it will be far from easy.
Now, more than ever, we must support Jersey's team - we must support the Devils. I sincerely hope that Marty's surgery is successful and he makes a proper and complete recovery. But the sun will still come up, the night will still come upon us, and there are hockey games to play - and they can be won. Let's go, Devils.
Labels: 2008-09 Season, Devils Analysis, Devils Issues, Devils Legends