Can the NJ Devils Still Make the Playoffs Without a Major Acquisition?

Terence McGinleyContributor IIIApril 4, 2013

Sullivan returns to the team that drafted him, but is the 38-year-old enough?
Sullivan returns to the team that drafted him, but is the 38-year-old enough?Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The trade deadline has come and gone, and NHL teams know which horses they are riding to the finish line. The New Jersey Devils are teetering on the brink of playoff position; they are currently in eighth place but virtually tied in points with the New York Islanders and New York Rangers, with the surging Washington Capitals not far in the distance. 

Yesterday's deadline was the last opportunity to improve personnel, and if the Rangers made waves, then New Jersey made ripples. The Devils acquired Steve Sullivan, originally a draft pick of the theirs in 1994, from the Phoenix Coyotes. Sullivan is a veteran with over 1,000 games of experience, but is this the impact move a struggling team needed to stay afloat? Does a 38-year-old, undersized winger with 12 points this season really solidify New Jersey as a playoff team?

New Jersey is 6-10-6 in the past six weeks. They have been a subpar team for a while now. Injuries have been a major part of that, but so has the lack of scoring depth.

After 10 goals in the team's first 14 games, David Clarkson has been ice-cold with just one goal and two assists in the last 22 games. After showing great playmaking ability in his rookie campaign, Adam Henrique has just four assists in 2013. Travis Zajac has just 14 points and has not elevated his offensive game in light of the max contract he signed prior to the season. These numbers are troubling.

So the conventional wisdom said that New Jersey needed a top-six forward with the raw talent to put the puck in the net. Barring a renaissance, Steve Sullivan is not that guy. Last season he produced 48 points in 79 games for Pittsburgh, but he was probably a beneficiary of the offensive capabilities of the Pens as a whole. The previous seven seasons, he was riddled with injuries in Nashville and averaged 28 points a year.

To be fair, Sullivan has hardly been the only move Lou Lamoriello has made this season. Early on, the Devils GM re-traded for Alexei Ponikarovsky and threw a late-round pick at Los Angeles for Andrei Loktionov, who has played well. Matt D’Agostini, a 20-goal scorer a few years ago, was acquired from St. Louis. The roster is certainly different than it was before the season. It’s just on a deadline: When the teams they are fighting get better, the Sullivan trade seems anticlimactic.

The New York Rangers were busier than anybody else. They surprised many by trading Marian Gaborik to Columbus. Why would a team with the fewest goals in the league trade away one of their most talented scorers? It seems like the Rangers want to return to last year’s identity, that is a grind-it-out, chemistry-driven team. They received Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore in return for Gaborik. Dorsett is out with a broken collarbone. But Moore and Brassard wasted no time contributing in their first game with the Blueshirts, with Moore scoring a goal and Brassard adding three assists to a goal of his own.

New York also acquired Ryane Clowe from San Jose, a tough winger who struggled offensively in 2013 and hadn't scored a goal for San Jose. What did he do in his first game? Two goals and one assist. That all adds up to four goals and four assists for the Rangers newcomers in a romp of Pittsburgh.

Washington, a team trending upwards, added Martin Erat, a veteran with four goals and 17 assists with Nashville. The Caps proved how seriously they are taking this playoff push by parting ways with their top prospect, Filip Forsberg.

For the Devils, at least the Islanders didn’t do anything.

Perhaps joining a team in the playoff hunt will galvanize Sullivan. It’s certainly what Lamoriello is hoping for. Sullivan could elevate his play with the team that drafted him 19 years ago, bringing his career “full circle,” as he put it in Tom Gulitti’s “Fire and Ice” blog.

He’ll need to contribute immediately. The Devils are lacking Ilya Kovalchuk’s presence as a constant scoring threat, and the Russian’s return is not imminent.

The Rangers, Islanders, Devils and now the Capitals are fighting for two spots over the final 12 games. New Jersey is in Boston tonight, fighting a Bruins team they have struggled to beat recently. If they lose and the Islanders win, the Devils could be out of the top eight for the first time all season.

The Islanders are a young, inexperienced team. They are surging, but will that inexperience fail them in the heat of the moment down this final stretch? One thing the players on this New Jersey team don’t lack is big-game, pressurized experience. As for Washington, they have played two more games than the Devils. That is emphasized when all games are played in-conference. It might be too late for the Caps; the terrible start will burn them.

I think the Devils will squeak in. Any coach loves to have a player like Steve Sullivan on the team. But if Jason Pominville and Martin Erat were available, why couldn’t Lamoriello up the ante and go that route? This could be the last go-around with Martin Brodeur between the pipes, and the team has not come close to replacing Zach Parise’s scoring ability.

New Jersey has to hope Sullivan gets a boost of energy from this trade and pray a certain shoulder heals quickly.