Depth Will Be The Devils’ Downfall This Season

Corey Griffin

The Devils have suffered two significant injuries in the past 10 days, first losing Dainius Zubrus to wrist surgery and then Ryan Carter to a likely concussion. Zubrus is out at least another three weeks and possibly as much as five, while Carter is sidelined for at least this weekend. These injuries have led me to seriously reconsider the Devils’ realistic ceiling for this season because of one major problem.

They Devils are so frighteningly shallow up front they’re one injury away from struggling to ice 12 NHL forwards.

Don’t believe me? It’s true. With both Carter and Zubrus on the shelf, both Stefan Matteau and Krys Barch are in the lineup tonight and there is no extra forward. Seriously. Since the Devils continue to carry eight defensemen, Carter is the 13th forward. If any of the top 12 get hurt tonight, either Carter would have to go on injured reserve or one of the defensemen will have to go.

The Devils knew this was an option to start. They knew keeping eight D-men could end up coming back to bite them, but instead of dealing one of them for a depth forward, they’ve decided to tough it out. It’s worked for the most part all season and the Devils have played much better than anyone expected. I personally think they’re one of the three best teams in the East right now along with Pittsburgh and Boston (Side note: Not buying Montreal, yet.). But they are standing on such dangerously thin ice that it terrifies me — and it should scare you, too.

Think about this, even after trading for Alexei Ponikarovsky, the Devils’ next available callup is — Matt Anderson? Or maybe Jacob Josefson if he sorts things out in the AHL? But even then, both of those players would likely be playing out of position because Andrei Loktionov is going to get a run at fourth-line center. You could always send him down and call back up Josefson, but then you’re basically just swapping one set of limitations for another while not helping the depth issue at all. This isn’t me saying the Devils don’t have a solid to strong top 12 forwards when healthy, but that they don’t have anything beyond that. I like Stefan Matteau’s future as much as the next person, but I believe he’s better off spending the year in the AHL. I’d be willing to bet the Devils agree with that statement, but they have to keep him in the NHL because of a lack of immediate organizational depth.

As an example, through the first month of the season, the Devils have:

  1. Ping ponged their No. 1 draft pick from last June (Matteau) in and out of the lineup.
  2. Dressed an enforcer (Krys Barch) in 81 percent of their games despite that type of player growing more and more useless.
  3. Were forced to re-acquire Ponikarovsky just to account for losing Zubrus for a month.

This is not good, people. This is Lou Lamoriello playing with fire.

Obviously, some of this has to do with finances, since the Devils have roughly $12 million in available cap space. But with a goaltender in an aging Martin Brodeur, who is playing BRILLIANTLY in quite possibly in one of his two final NHL seasons, is it really too much to ask to deal Peter Harrold or Henrik Tallinder for another depth forward? The entire NHL is craving defensemen and maybe Lou is simply playing the waiting game, hoping this doesn’t blow up in his face and sitting by patiently while the price for his bottom-pairing defensemen reach absurd heights. Or maybe he expects Carter to return this weekend and everything will be right as rain. Except concussions head injuries are notoriously tricky and Carter could miss anywhere from two games to two weeks to two months. Even if he returns either Sunday or sometime next week, the Devils either will have to continue to play Barch or Matteau eight minutes a night on the fourth line, neither of which is a palatable option for the Devils’ short-term or long-term future.

Like I said above, I think the Devils are an incredibly dangerous team. The development of guys like Adam Larsson, Andy Greene and David Clarkson have made them far deeper than almost anyone thought they would be. But just because those guys have stepped up and played major roles doesn’t mean you can avoid finding guys to chip in with lesser minutes. After last year’s Cup run, the Devils know as well as any team that a balanced and trustworthy bottom six forwards is a key part of any successful playoff push. If the Devils don’t add at least one more forward, the injuries will find them and they will cost them a chance at repeating last year’s success.