The New Jersey Devils’ gaping hole on the top line

It has been very well documented how the New Jersey Devils have struggled to score goals this season.  Their 7-1 victory last game against the St. Louis Blues was a positive sign that the team might be turning the corner, and a large part of that can be credited to Patrik Elias and Damien Brunner returning to the lineup from injuries.  The return of Elias and Brunner helps to solidify the overall depth of offense, but the fact remains that coach Pete DeBoer has been unable to find the right fit on the top line with Jaromir Jagr and Travis Zajac.

Individually, Jagr and Zajac have had very solid seasons.  Jagr leads the team in points with 40, and his 16 goals are tied for the lead with Michael Ryder.  Zajac has recorded 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists), but I have noted before that his game cannot be completely judged on his scoring totals alone.  His play in the defensive end and his ability to possess the puck in the offensive zone has certainly played a huge role in the season that Jagr has had.

Jaromir Jagr and Tavis Zajac (Ed Mulholland/USA Today Sports)

Jaromir Jagr and Tavis Zajac (Ed Mulholland/USA Today Sports)

So far this year the two players who have been used the most on the first line have been Dainius Zubrus and rookie Reid Boucher.  Zubrus fits in well on just about any line because of his ability to fore check and win puck battles below the goal line.  The problem with him playing alongside Jagr and Zajac is how similar his offensive game is to Zajac’s.  Both players’ games revolve around puck possession, and neither player has the true goal scoring ability that is needed to produce when they play alongside each other.  Consequently, these factors also mean that Zubrus slots in perfectly on a line with Elias and Brunner.  Reid Boucher is projected to be a player who will develop into a pure goal scorer, but he simply has not produced well enough in his brief stint in the NHL.  In 23 games this season he recorded 2 goals and 5 assists, and in many close games he was shifted off of the top line in the third period.  Boucher was assigned to Albany after the St. Louis game on Tuesday.  I predict that his stay in Albany will be short lived, as New Jersey probably wants to let him continue to play games during the two week Olympic break that begins on February 9th.  Boucher appeared to make strides in recent games, and he may very well get a second chance to play with the big club later in the year.

The latest player to get a chance playing on New Jersey’s top line will be rookie forward Joe Whitney, who will be making his NHL debut tonight against the Washington Capitals.  Whitney has been productive at the AHL level, scoring 16 goals and 36 points in 40 games this season.  It’s very easy to wonder why Pete DeBoer doesn’t just add a veteran forward to the top line.  The problem with that is when they’ve been healthy Elias and Brunner have shown great chemistry playing with each other, and as mentioned before, Zubrus compliments them extremely well.  Also, for the better part of the last month the line of Henrique-Clowe-Ryder has been the Devils’ best trio, so breaking them up at this point in time would be a huge mistake.

The fact of the matter is that if the Devils are not able to find a third forward to go with Jagr and Zajac, Lou Lamoriello must make an acquisition before the March 5th trade deadline.  There have been a number of players rumored to be potential trade targets for New Jersey, including Mike Cammalleri and Danny Briere.  Personally, I would be thrilled to see the Devils make a play for Buffalo Sabres forward Matt Moulson.  After being dealt from the Islanders to Buffalo earlier in the season, it is possible that the rebuilding Sabres may trade Moulson if they do not believe they can re-sign the 30 year old unrestricted free agent.  Moulson is a three time 30 goal scorer, and scored 15 goals in last year’s lockout shortened season.  He is the type of finisher that New Jersey has been missing this entire season, and playing with play-makers like Jagr and Zajac could lead to an offensive explosion down the final stretch of the season.

Matt Moulson would be a perfect addition to the New Jersey Devils. (AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)

Matt Moulson would be a perfect addition to the New Jersey Devils. (AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)

Another potential team who could be a match for a trade is the Edmonton Oilers.  Edmonton has a surplus of young talented forwards, but are sorely lacking on the defensive end.  The Devils have a lot of very good defensemen; both future prospects as well as NHL ready talent.  The biggest issue regarding a potential trade with the Oilers, or any team for that matter, is the Devils missing their first round pick in the 2014 NHL entry draft.  It can be assumed that another team competing for a certain players would be able to offer more in terms of draft pick compensation.  This would mean that they would have to add more players to a deal, and the front office may be unwilling to pull the trigger on a deal that involved a number of players from their minor league system, especially if the veteran scorer they are acquiring is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Only time will tell how this problem with the top line will be resolved.  Hopefully Joe Whitney, Reid Boucher, or another player from the system can step up and produce at a high enough level to improve the offense.  Lou Lamoriello has been known for making deadline deals in the past, and I strongly believe that is the path that the New Jersey Devils are going down.  The team’s play over the course of the next eight games leading up to the Olympic break will determine if that will happen sooner rather than later.

 

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