Commentary

Point Shots: Devils' line changes paying dividends

Updated: December 11, 2008, 2:00 PM ET
By Jim Wilkie | Special to ESPN.com

A dramatic change is taking place in New Jersey this season, giving fantasy owners reason to value certain Devils players higher than in the past.

Devils coach Brent Sutter has stopped using defensive specialists John Madden and Jay Pandolfo to shadow opponents' top players.

It's no indictment of Madden or Pandolfo but rather a 21st-century reality and an attempt to get more ice time for skilled players such as Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

"I'm not saying [the old way] was flawed. It's just the way it is," Sutter told the Star-Ledger. "Look at Travis [Zajac] and Zach and the way they are now as players, the way that line is playing and how [Dainius Zubrus] has come in and played down the middle. And Brian [Gionta] and [Elias], the level of their game has gone to a different level. I think the overall play of your top six forwards as a 'sixsome' is at a different level."

The "sixsome," which has included Jamie Langenbrunner on the Zajac-Parise line, has been making the most of its additional ice time while leading the Devils to an 8-1 mark in their past nine games, including a 4-1 home victory over the Penguins on Wednesday night. The fantasy impact figures to result in big numbers for Parise and Elias, with Zajac, Gionta and Zubrus riding their coattails with respectable contributions.

Parise, 24, is on pace to become the franchise's first 50-goal scorer and to register the most points by a Devils player since Elias set a club record with 96 in 2000-01. Parise scored for the third consecutive game Wednesday, giving him 16 goals and 13 assists through 25 games and putting him on pace for 95 points. That would be quite a jump from last season, when he led the Devils with 65 points (32 goals, 33 assists) in 81 games.

Travis Zajac
Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty ImagesThe 23-year-old Travis Zajac has been on a productive line with Parise.
As the team's leader in shots (112, sixth in the NHL) and ice time (19:52) per game among forwards, Parise will be threatening Gionta's club-record 48 goals scored in 2005-06. Meanwhile, Zajac's 19:53 in ice time is second among forwards, and his chemistry with Parise should translate into a career year for the 23-year-old first-round pick (20th overall in 2004). Zajac, who scored a goal Wednesday, has 10 points (four goals, six assists) in his past 13 games.

Langenbrunner's two goals and eight assists in the past nine games make a strong case for the captain to remain with Parise and Zajac. But he likely will be replaced eventually by Brian Rolston, who has played three games since returning from an ankle injury, once Rolston gets back up to speed.

Elias also had a goal against Pittsburgh, giving him 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in his past 10 games and 11 goals and 14 assists on the season. Continuing his point-a-game pace would factor out to his best season since he had 81 points in 2003-04. Elias had 55 points in 74 games last season.

Gionta and Zubrus, Elias' linemates, have chipped in five goals apiece in the past nine games.

It's worth noting, however, that Madden, Pandolfo and Rolston were frequently matched up against Sidney Crosby's line with Miroslav Satan and Pascal Dupuis on Wednesday night, so Sutter hasn't completely removed GM Lou Lamoriello's Kool-Aid from the Devils' cooler.

"It's certainly different. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't odd. I've done the same thing for the last nine years, and things have changed," Madden told the Star-Ledger on Monday. "We don't check anymore. We play against different lines, not always the top line on the other team. That's the obvious thing that has changed the most. As long as we're winning, it's for the better."

Martin Brodeur's elbow injury probably has played a psychological, if not strategic, factor in the Devils' offensive outburst. The Devils had scored 2.77 goals per game before Brodeur was injured, and they have netted 2.89 per game since then with Scott Clemmensen and Kevin Weekes between the pipes.

Fleury getting closer to return

It was fun while it lasted, but fantasy owners who rode the surprising Dany Sabourin train will have to look at other options soon because Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury might be back as early as Dec. 18.

Penguins coach Michel Therrien told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Fleury won't be back this week from his groin injury, but Pittsburgh's No. 1 goalie told the paper he has medical clearance to play.

Fleury, who has reportedly been battling a groin injury, has been practicing but has missed the past 11 games. Pittsburgh fans likely will be happy to see him back after Sabourin allowed 10 goals during the Penguins' current three-game losing streak.

Giguere's heavy heart

Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere is back with the Ducks, but his mind is understandably on his ailing father in Montreal.

He stopped 26 of 28 shots in a 4-2 victory Wednesday night over the Blues in his third start since returning from tending to his gravely ill father, Claude.

"It hasn't been easy in any way," Giguere told The Orange County Register. "Life continues. I know for a fact that my dad wants me to be successful at work. Whenever I play, he asks about me. It's the least I can do for him when I come to the rink."

The Register quoted Ducks coach Randy Carlyle as saying his goaltender "still [had] some anguish."

Kovalchuk staying put

Ilya Kovalchuk
Scott Cunningham/NHLI/Getty ImagesDon't look for Ilya Kovalchuk to be traded from (get out of?) Atlanta anytime soon.
Good news for Thrashers fans but disappointing for Ilya Kovalchuk owners was news from Atlanta that GM Don Waddell is denying an attempt to trade his superstar sniper.

"We haven't spoken to one team about trading him," Waddell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We don't plan on speaking to any team about trading him. He's the cornerstone of this franchise. He's not going anywhere.

"We're going to do everything in our power, when we have that opportunity to sign him [beginning July 1, 2009], we're going to try to do that. I've stated it numerous times. We're not trading Ilya Kovalchuk."

Kovalchuk scored his 10th goal of the season in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers despite skating alongside checkers Marty Reasoner and Chris Thorburn. Standup fellas, sure, but they're not the caliber of talent Kovalchuk deserves to line up with.

Kovalchuk, who can be an unrestricted free agent after next season, has seven goals and 14 assists in his past 16 games.

Faith in Krejci

Bruins center David Krejci has been streaky this season, but Boston coach Claude Julien's support has never wavered.

"He's a pretty reliable individual as far as being hard on himself and expecting more," Julien told the Boston Herald. "Even last year, when we sent him down, he knew he deserved it in his mind. He had to find his game, his confidence, and there was no second-guessing, so he's pretty good that way. And even though he wasn't getting the points early on that he's getting now, we still saw him playing pretty good hockey. I've been happy with him since the start of the year.

"It was just a matter of things falling into place -- new linemates and getting used to them and getting a little bit of chemistry," Julien added. "He's shifted linemates at times, but he's been able to find chemistry with all of them, and that's a sign of a good hockey player."

Krejci has five goals and 10 assists in his past 10 games, is third in scoring on the Bruins with 24 points and is plus-14 through 28 games. He saw his nine-game point streak end Wednesday night in the Bruins' 3-1 loss to the Capitals.

"I've got to learn to play not just the center man's spot but also on the right side or the left side," Krejci, who is owned in 43.1 percent of ESPN leagues, told the Herald. "I've got to block shots and win the battles on the boards, all the little things."

Hudler a hidden gem among Detroit's jewels

One intriguing statistic that shows a player's true talents and value to a team is goals per minutes played.

Detroit forward Jiri Hudler, for example, was scoring a goal every 28 minutes per game heading into Wednesday, beating out better-known teammates Marian Hossa (a goal every 32 minutes), Johan Franzen (one every 35 minutes), Henrik Zetterberg (a marker every 41 minutes) and Pavel Datsyuk (every 64 minutes).

"He's never going to be a speedster, but he's very, very intelligent," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told the Detroit News about the 5-foot-9, 178-pound Hudler. "He's way tougher pound-for-pound than people would give him credit for. He's hard on the puck, steals pucks off guys. He's great around the net.

"A lot of guys won't go near the net. They don't have courage to do that. He's always at the net. [Tomas Kopecky's] at the net, [Tomas Holmstrom's] at the net, [Johan Franzen's] at the net, [Dan] Cleary's at the net. The next guy at the net the most for us on this team is Hudler. That's the facts. And he gets the pucks back. He's magic with it. All the power to him."

Playing on the second power-play unit with Zetterberg and Franzen, Hudler has scored four of his 12 goals with the man advantage. But otherwise he's usually a third-liner, and he's owned in just 41.8 percent of ESPN leagues.

"This is a great team," Hudler, who has 24 points in 27 games, told the News. "We've got great players all around. I'm trying every shift to play hard and do the little things."

Jim Wilkie is a former NHL editor and writer for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him at espnpucks@comcast.net.

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