New Jersey Devils first half report card: Offense

The New Jersey Devils will play their final game of 2013 calendar year tomorrow afternoon against the Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins.  It will also be the Devils’ 41st game of the year, marking the exact halfway point of the season.  They have earned 40 points, which has them in a three-way tie for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.

I have evaluated the three major components of the team as a whole, and given out grades on how I feel they have performed up to this point in the season.  Here is my grade for the New Jersey Devils’ offense.

Final Grade: C

Coming into the season, the obvious weakness for Devils was their ability to score goals.  It’s hard to fault them too much, given that they lost three of their most productive goal scorers (Parise, Kovalchuk, and Clarkson) over the past two seasons.

The stats support what most people predicted from this offense, as they are currently ranked 23rd in goals per game at 2.38.  There have been a number of games where this team has played well enough to earn at least a point, but the offense failed to produce more than a single goal.

However, the Devils have shown signs of turning the corner recently.  They have scored three goals or more in 6 of their 13 games played in December, and the pressure they have sustained in the offensive zone has been dominant at times.  The players, especially the new acquisitions, seem to be finding their groove in the offensive system.  It’s just a matter of burying scoring chances around the net, not a complete lack of offensive ability- which was the case earlier in the season.

Jaromir Jagr (Associated Press)

Jaromir Jagr (Associated Press)

The biggest free agent signings to fill the void of the recent offensive departures were Jaromir Jagr, Damien Brunner, Michael Ryder, and Ryane Clowe.  Jagr has been simply outstanding as a member of New Jersey.  He leads the team in goals (13) and points (34), as well as adding a playmaking ability that no one else on the team possesses besides Patrik Elias.  Brunner and Ryder both have shown flashes of being the offensive contributors that the team had anticipated.  Both players have the ability to put the puck in the back of the net, combining for 19 goals, but each has been extremely streaky this season.  Brunner specifically had a 17 game goalless stretch during November and December.  Consistent contributions from Brunner and Ryder will help the Devils out immensely as they make a push for the playoffs in the second half of the year.  It’s too early to tell how much of an impact Ryane Clowe has had this season, as he missed significant time with a concussion and has only played in eight games this year.

Two other key pieces in the second half of the season will be Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac.  They each struggled to begin the year, and have totaled eight and seven goals respectively.  Henrique has stepped up his play of late, scoring in each of his last two games, and has clearly been playing with more confidence on both ends of the ice.  Zajac is one of the most important forwards on the Devils.  He is consistently dependable in the defensive end of the ice and regularly plays against the opposing team’s top scoring line. He is also the team’s leader in face-offs at 52.8 percent.

Despite his stellar play in the defensive zone, the fact that Zajac plays on the top line with Jagr and Zubrus means that he must find a way to contribute more offensively.  He sees too much ice time with quality offensive talent to not be producing, and his play will be key for this team going forward.

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The X-factor of the offense is rookie Reid Boucher.  The 20-year-old Boucher came into this season with a lot of hype, after scoring 62 goals for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, breaking the single season goal record previously held by Steven Stamkos.  Since his call up in early December, Boucher has played in 12 games and recorded four points (1 goal, 2 assists).

Despite not having a huge point total, it is apparent that Boucher has the skills to be a very good player at the NHL level.  I have continued to be impressed by his on ice vision and poise on a nightly basis.  He has also been a lot stronger on the puck than I expected him to be at this point in the season, especially below the goal line. If he can become more comfortable as he continues to gain experience in the final 41 games of the season, he has the ability to add an offensive element that the Devils have been desperately missing: a highly skilled, young goal scorer.

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