It hasn't been pretty, and certainly hasn't been easy, but Peter DeBoer has done his job, two months into his first season as the New Jersey Devils head coach.
Playing somewhat short-handed for a good part of the first couple of months, DoBoer, has the Devils in fourth place in a very talented Atlantic division, with six points seperating the first-place Flyers and fourth-place Devils. The Rangers and Penguins, both sit handsomely in the middle, three points behind the Flyers and three points ahead of the Devils.
DeBoer has shifted his lines around all season, trying to find the right fit. The most productive player under him, thus far, has been Patrik Elias. Elias, who set the Devils franchise record with his 384th goal, Saturday, has moved from left wing to center, helping the Devils in a number of ways. His 29 points lead the team through Sunday, and his veteran leadership has helped DeBoer get a feel for his young team.
Adam Henrique has been a pleasant surprise for New Jersey as well, playing alongside captain Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, the youngster has notched eight goals and 17 assists, proving to be a huge plus-mark for the Devils.
Parise has hit some funks in his first season as a captain, but he has come on strong, one year after his knee surgery that sidelined him for six months last season.
Now, DeBoer and the Devils will get, perhaps, their most explosive weapon.
He may not be a scorer, but the Devils have missed Zajac's face-off abilities in a big way through the first few months. As a team, New Jersey is losing more than half of their face-offs, with a 46.8%, and, with no true centermen getting a good number of face-offs -- with the exception of Dainus Zubrus -- they should benefit immediately from Zajac's return.
Parise and Zajac will look forward to playing together on a consistent basis for the first time in over a year. The duo were linemates at the University of North Dakota, and, early on in their careers have proven to carry over their chemistry to the NHL.
Last season, it took three months for the Devils to register ten wins. Firing Johnny MaClean, and re-hiring Jacques Lemaire, they were able to pull off a miracle run, and nearly qualify for the playoffs.
This season, the motive around the team in clearly different.
Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg have split starts all season. Hedberg has made 18 starts, compared to Brodeur's 17, combined with Brodeur's arm injury early in the season. Both goalies have been good enough on most nights to give New Jersey a chance to win.
As the Devils approach 2012, their play within the division will be crucial. Likely, the Flyers, Penguins, Devils and Rangers will all make the playoffs this year, but a lot can change from now through April. In the current standings, those four teams sit in the top six places in the Eastern Conference, easily becoming the toughest division in the East.
As long as the players that the Devils need to continue to produce, and, with the help of role players, New Jersey could make a run towards the top of the division and conference, and, once May roles around, who knows what could happen.