Top Shelf: Lamoriello believes in struggling Devils
By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Ever since Ilya Kovalchuk dropped a bombshell by announcing his retirement from the NHL back in July, there has been a cloud hanging over the New Jersey Devils.
With their top offensive weapon lost to the Kontinental Hockey League, it always appeared the Devils would have an uphill battle to make the playoffs in 2013-14. They have done little to change that perception going six games into the season without a win. However, despite his club's 0-3-3 start to the season, don't count Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello among the people ready to press the panic button.
"It doesn't take hindsight to know that we have three points in six games; yet we also know we've only played six games," Lamoriello told NHL.com.
Of course, the Hall of Fame GM isn't going to slam his own team in the press, at least not this early into the season, but it's hard to take him at his word. Lamoriello had to worry about his team's playoff chances heading into this season and the fact that the winless club has been outscored by a 21-11 margin in the early going shouldn't increase his confidence.
With former Devils sniper Zach Parise leaving the club for free agency in the summer of 2012 and Kovalchuk departing this offseason, the team was expected to be offensively challenged once again in 2013-14. After all, New Jersey's offense has been on the decline over the last few seasons and the loss of Kovy wasn't expected to help.
So, what we've seen this season is an offense that is decidedly less scary than the one that finished 28th in the NHL in scoring last season. The Devils averaged 2.29 goals per contest during last season's lockout-shortened campaign and they've only managed 11 goals in six games (1.83 gpg) through the first six games of 2013-14.
While there may be a lack of talent up front, where the club is depending on elder statesmen like Patrik Elias and Jaromir Jagr to carry the load, Lamoriello has not been disappointed in his team's effort. He just thinks the club needs to figure out how to go from staying in games late to actually doing what it takes to win.
"Heading into the third period in five of those games we had every chance to win and that's what we have to look at," Lamoriello said. "What made it go from one way to the other way in the third period?"
The offense was always going to be a trouble spot for the Devils this season, but even more concerning is the team's issues in its own end. Despite adding goaltender Cory Schneider to help Martin Brodeur shoulder the load in the crease, the club has been yielding an average of 3.17 goals per contest, a far cry from the stingy Devils' teams Lamoriello was known for a large part of his two-plus decades with the club.
However, goaltending may not be at the heart of New Jersey's defensive woes. Of the seven defensemen the club has used this season, only Marek Zidlicky is boasting a plus rating and there seems to be an overall talent dearth at the back end.
Adam Larsson has become the poster boy for New Jersey's blue line problems and his minus-four rating in five games this year has hardly helped restore his reputation. Larsson, who is a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday, was the fourth overall pick of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft but he has yet to deliver on his potential.
For Lamoriello, however, it's too soon to call Larsson a bust and he doesn't want to play the blame game with the young Swede.
"He'll be fine," the GM told the Newark Star-Ledger about Larsson. "We have to have patience with the young players. I'm a believer in that. Over the big picture, he'll be where he should be. Whenever the defense has problems, it's a team game. There is no one to blame here. Yes, there have been a couple mistakes that have been costly. That's part of the game."
If you're looking for good news, there are some silver linings for the Devils. First of all, despite being winless, the club is still ahead of two teams -- the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers -- in the Metropolitan Division standings. So, things definitely could be worse.
The fact that New Jersey has played five of its six games on the road is another reason to be patient with the Devils. Losing Kovalchuk meant this team had to find a new identity, and that task has proven difficult during a road- heavy schedule in the early going. Getting to play consistently on home ice could help the team jell over the coming weeks. Then again, if playing more games at Prudential Center doesn't help the club improve, it really would be time to worry.
Although Lamoriello is preaching patience, it will be interesting to see how long that extends to head coach Peter DeBoer. The head coach is probably not on the hot seat yet thanks to his role in leading the club to a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, but if things continue heading in the same direction they've been going, then DeBoer could begin to feel the pressure.
"Right now we have to take a step back, evaluate where we're at," Lamoriello said. "I have confidence in this group and coaching staff. You can't overreact at this point.
Lamoriello is buying time for his struggling team right now, but he knows he can't paint a rosy picture for much longer if the Devils remain in their early season funk.
If the positives don't start outweighing the negatives soon, it could be a long season in Newark.