Devils Struggling to Find Their Early-Season Identity

Carl StoffersCorrespondent IIFebruary 4, 2013

The Devils are struggling to find post-Zach Parise identity
The Devils are struggling to find post-Zach Parise identityJim McIsaac/Getty Images

A few days ago, the New Jersey Devils were mired in a winless streak and head coach Peter DeBoer was searching for someone to step up and fill the void left by Zach Parise's departure. Things were looking bleak in North Jersey, and the fanbase was grumbling about the revolving door at left wing on the top line, the slot occupied by Parise until he bolted for Minnesota in July. A solid victory over the New York Islanders on Sunday has Devils fans temporarily putting away their bottles of antacid, but the question remains: What is this club made of?

The "glass-half-full" crowd will point to New Jersey's one regulation loss in nine games as proof that this team has the potential to repeat as Eastern Conference champions. Indeed, if the playoffs started today, their 11 points would be good for the fifth seed in the conference. Their penalty kill, which set a modern NHL record last season (89.6 percent), is ranked fifth in the conference with a respectable 85 percent, and the geriatric combination of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg has combined to surrender just 2.25 goals per game, third best in the East.

Those with a more pessimistic outlook will point to the fact that new Jersey have lost four of five games and were thoroughly outclassed on Saturday in Pittsburgh.

"We're not looking for excuses...we didn't come out ready to go. [Pittsburgh is] a very good team," said Devils forward David Clarkson after New Jersey rebounded with a win on Sunday on Long Island.

After Sunday's win, Clarkson rooted himself firmly in the "optimist" camp, stating:

"This is a short season, we know that, and we've only lost one game in regulation right now, so we're going to keep rolling."

Regardless of the optimism of the players (which is practically a requirement of professional athletes), this year's team has shown vulnerability and weakness not seen since the dark days of the John MacLean Experiment. Their power play stands at a pedestrian 14.7 percent, in the bottom third of the NHL, and they rank 27th in the NHL in shots per game (a paltry 26.9).

Most troubling have been the slow starts the Devils have gotten off to. They have yet to come back and win a game after falling behind, and their poor play in the first period has been well documented.

So, is this incarnation of the New Jersey Devils going to contend for a Stanley Cup again, or will they revert to their 2010-11 form and fail to make the playoffs? The jury is still out, but the coming weeks, with matchups against the Rangers and Atlantic Division-leading Pittsburgh, should prove whether the Devils are contenders or not.