So the 2013-14 National Hockey League season has come to an end. I know it is a little cliché, but it seems like just yesterday training camp was opening for last year. With only about two and a half months until next season’s training camp and then the pre-season right around the corner, I feel now would be a great time to take a step back and kind of reflect on the 2013-14 season a little bit.
On the Devils front, one of the biggest surprises this season for the team (and the entire league, at that) was Jaromir Jagr, without a doubt. Jagr had a comeback season to say the least, finishing up with a team leading 82 games played, 24 goals and 43 assists for 67 points and a plus-16. His 43 helpers and 67 points also led the team, as did his plus/minus rating. The Devils wasted no time in resigning him once the season was over and Devils fans can look forward to another season of the hockey legend’s brilliance at The Rock in 2014-15.
Another revelation for the Devils was goaltender Cory Schneider; acquired at the Draft last year from Vancouver, Schneider looked to breakout for New Jersey. In the end, he finished with a less-than-stellar 16-15-12 record, which was more indicative of the play in front of him, as the team struggled early on giving him goal support. What was more showing of his play was his .921 save percentage and his 1.97 goals against average. Martin Brodeur, in what might have been his final season in a Devils uniform, finished with a 19-14-6 record and a .901 save percentage with a 2.51 goals against average. Brodeur’s future remains up in the air and fans will find out more come July 1, the first day of free agency. Brodeur has not, as of this time, announced if he will retire or will play another NHL season. If he does play, it will likely not be in New Jersey, as Schneider is ready to assume the mantle of full-time number one for the Devils.
The Devils were a strange animal in 2013-14, as, in all reality, the only thing keeping them out of a playoff spot were their shootout losses. Like penalty shots, shootouts cannot really be practiced. The shooter can study a goalie’s tendencies, as can a goalie study what a shooter is going to do. But sometimes teams will throw something completely new at a goalie (like the Islanders not-quite-within-the-rules back-to-back spin-o-ramas against Marty Brodeur) and it can throw them totally off of their game plan. I am sure the Devils themselves, as professional athletes, would not use or take any excuses in regards to their shootout futility, but bad luck certainly played a role here. Prior to this season, the Devils had been very successful in shootouts. This 180-degree turnaround could only be attributed to the fact that the team desperately needs a goal-scorer to replace Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Hopefully that change comes this July when free agency opens.
For most NHL analysts, the Western Conference looked to be where the eventual Stanley Cup champions would emerge from. Sure the East had some mighty challengers in the Pittsburgh Penguins (who ended up running away with the newly-christened Metropolitan Division, of which the Devils are a member) and the Boston Bruins. But most experts seemed to be looking at perennial favorites like the Blackhawks, the Ducks, the Blues, the Sharks, or even the guys who would end up winning, the Kings as the team that would hoist the Cup come June.
What was a surprise come playoff time was the team that would challenge the West for the Stanley Cup. While some may have seen the Kings as a bit of an underdog (and they were not entirely wrong: they defeated San Jose in the first round after being down 3 games to none, beat Anaheim in the second round when they were down 3 games to two, and won the Conference championship from Chicago after being up 3 games to 1, blowing that and winning in overtime of game 7). The Kings may have had a tough road to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they would face the New York Rangers (who overcame the Flyers, Penguins and Canadiens on their journey to the Finals).
While it pains many Devils fans to say it, the Rangers did have a successful playoff. Overcoming Pittsburgh is especially no small feat. Henrik Lundqvist essentially carried the team on his back at times, mirroring the way Jonathan Quick brought the Kings to a Stanley Cup in 2012 (the year the Devils made their Cinderella run to the Cup Finals). Of course, Quick was no slouch this year either and ended up leading the Kings over “the King” in a five game Stanley Cup Final. The Cup-clinching game five itself was compelling hockey and really showcased the two goaltenders abilities. Going two overtimes and ending on Alec Martinez’ corralling of a Tyler Toffoli rebound off of Lundqvist’s blocker, that game was some of the best hockey ever seen in the Finals. The Kings kept things tight-checking, but there were still some amazing chances, most notably Rick Nash of the Rangers hitting the crossbar, a chance that could have sent the series back to Madison Square Garden in the first overtime. In the end, though, it was the Kings who reigned supreme. Justin Williams won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and, when Dustin Brown hoisted the Stanley Cup for LA for the second time in three years, it confirmed what many Devils fans knew in 2012: this team is good.
There is no doubt in many observers’ minds that the Kings will be an elite team for many years to come. That is not to downplay what the Rangers accomplished, as the Devils accomplishment from 2012 (which was a very similar run) should not be derided. The fact is, the Kings are for real and are worthy to be mentioned along with teams like Chicago, Anaheim and Boston when discussing some of the best in the NHL. They are good from their goaltending out and, from a Devils fan’s point of view, recall a lot about the 2000 and 2003 Stanley Cup champs. Congratulations to the Los Angeles Kings on winning the Stanley Cup. Congratulations to everyone from their players to their front office to their fans. These are great times for them, but they will likely be continuing for some time to come.