When Zach Parise left the New Jersey Devils in the summer of 2012, the Devils lost skill, they lost youth, but most importantly, they lost their captain – the heart and soul of the team. Coach Peter DeBoer had to choose another man to wear the “C” and decided on a then-36 year old Bryce Salvador.
The Devils haven’t made the playoffs since that fateful decision – and yes, a lot of it can be attributed to the loss of key goal scorers (Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk), an aging group of veterans (Patrik Elias, Martin Brodeur) and the team’s hopes being put in the hands of streaky goal scorers (Michael Ryder, Ryane Clowe, Damien Brunner). But it’s worth considering how much the attitude of the team changed when the reigns were handed to Salvador – leading to the problems the team still faces today.
Look at the best teams in the NHL and they tend to have one thing in common: a captain who can change a game. And not necessarily with a highlight reel play – but with a hit, a block, or a moment when things aren’t going well and there is only one guy you want on the ice. You have your hot-shot captains in Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, and John Tavares; all guys who can change a score line by going coast to coast at any minute (although I would argue JT could be a lot more as the talent around him grows). You also have your Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber, and Henrik Zetterberg types who can contribute a key goal, play solid defense and – although they may be on the backside of their careers – have proven to be rocks within their organizations, still capable of making that game saving play. Finally, you have a crop of young, steady players who can do it all and, coincidentally, have all been Stanley Cup contenders or winners within the last couple years. Ryan Getzlaf, Jonathan Toews, Dustin Brown, and David Backes represent a group of players who rise to the occasion at the time of the game when their team needs it most.
Meanwhile, the Devils have dealt with an ever-slowing, turnover prone defenseman as their leader. The rare big hit is outweighed by failing to get the puck deep in the offensive zone, leaving himself out of position and unable to catch up (see last night’s goal for the Boston Bruins’ Seth Griffith). DeBoer has long been accused of giving veterans too long a leash, while the same mistakes made by Adam Larsson or Eric Gelinas result in healthy scratches or demotions to Albany. I have no doubt that Salvador is great in the locker room, but you have to wonder how much credibility he loses with each poor performance. Salvador is tied for a team-low -5 with his defense partner Marek Zidlicky – including two turnovers leading directly to Bruins goals last night. While Zidlicky is a known defensive liability, he has also contributed 8 pts, including 2 PP goals, through 15 games.
Salvador also lacks the presence on the ice to raise the emotion of his teammates. On a team without a true enforcer, Salvador has proven capable of dropping the gloves and creating a spark, but the decline in fighting means that spark often has to be generated elsewhere. During the 2012 run, Parise would be all over the ice, hustling, hitting, shooting, chirping and inspiring his teammates to match his energy. Lulls in energy, late period goals and incomplete efforts have plagued the Devils, especially this year, and Salvador has not stepped up to stop the bleeding. After missing the entire 2011 season with a concussion, Salvador rebounded in 2012, and supplied unexpected points during the Cup run which probably contributed to his selection as captain. However, that season has proven to be an outlier, and the Devils are stuck with a declining defenseman in a position to be a guaranteed starter for the remainder of his contract.
Now, it’s unfair to knock Salvador without providing a reasonable suggestion for the next Devils captain. Unfortunately, this roster isn’t overflowing with players who embody the soul the team is desperately missing – and who are also young enough to avoid the inevitable performance drop-off the team is dealing with now.
- Travis Zajac: Most likely a career Devil and while he’s consistent and reliable, he has never played with the energy or physicality needed to compensate for his lack of scoring.
- Patrik Elias: Has worn the “C” before but usually reluctantly – plus his career is winding down and the Devils need to look long term.
- Andy Greene: A popular choice among fans for who should have the “C”, he just signed a long term deal, is their top defenseman and adds a scoring touch. Although he’s a vocal leader and provides a good hip check now and then, he isn’t necessarily the driving force this team needs.
- Adam Henrique: Plays with the hustle and grit that Parise was known for. Though he doesn’t quite have the speed or offensive dominance to take over a game, he is certainly a viable candidate in the years to come.
- Jacob Josefson: No doubt a surprising pick, but he has raised his game this year. His hustle has kept him in the lineup, moving up from the 4th line and now getting consistent ice time. He needs to prove he can stay healthy – but somewhere in there is a first round pick who can (hopefully) put the puck in the net.
- Jon Merrill: While not being known for his physicality, Merrill can deliver a hit and has proven to be a top young defenseman with an offensive side. As he matures, he could turn into the rock that the Devils need on the blue line moving into the next generation.
- Mike Cammalleri: Has all of the characteristics of Zach Parise with his offensive threat, defensive commitment and peskiness. Being a first year Devil along with his age are the biggest knocks.
- Ryane Clowe: Has worn the “A” and is a gritty veteran who will drop the gloves. His future is uncertain with all the concussions – not sure you want him feeling the extra physical burden that comes with the captaincy.
- Jaromir Jagr: Hard not to consider #68. Clearly a vocal leader, hard worker and dominant on the ice. Logic tells you he can’t keep this pace up, but then again, he isn’t slowing down yet…
Salvador is on the last year of his deal and most certainly won’t be back next year. So who is your bet for next Devils captain? Someone listed above, or someone not on the roster? (Will DeBoer even be around to make that call?) Whoever it is, the Devils need a spark – and fast – as this season is quickly slipping away faster than you can say ‘pylon’.