Two years ago this past February 4th, the New Jersey Devils made a huge unexpected splash in the trade market, acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers in a move that took much of the National Hockey League by surprise. After all, Kovalchuk was considered a big flashy, free wheeling offensive player and the consensus was he would have a hard time fitting in with the more structured Devils franchise. Along with Kovalchuk, the Devils received a second round pick and Anssi Salmela in return for Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, Niklas Bergfors, and a first and second round pick.
It was quite a story around the league and rightfully so, as one of the most talented players in the league changed hands that day. We can (and probably will) debate the impact of the trade over the long haul for the Devils, but for purposes of immediate dividends, this deal did not have a quick return, as the Devils flamed out in the first round, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games that spring.
Sometimes, its the under-the-radar type of acquisition that gains less headlines and has less star power, but helps impact a team greatly. The Devils have a history of this type of acquisition, bringing in players like Neal Broten and Shawn Chambers in 1995, Vladmir Malakhov in 2000 and Grant Marshall in 2003. All of these guys led directly to a Stanley Cup title.
Even trade acquisitions like Stephane Richer, Claude Lemieux, Bobby Holik, Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner and Jeff Friesen all ended up making larger impacts than originally anticipated by many. GM Lou Lamoriello seems to have the knack for making the right moves more often than not. For every move like Ken Klee that didn’t pan out, there’s always an under the radar Bob Corkum or Turner Stevenson-type of acquisition that shows how usually in touch with his team Lamoriello often is.
This year has proven to be no different, as Lamoriello has added three pieces so far all of which have paid immediate dividends. On December 12th, the Devils acquired Kurtis Foster from the Anaheim Ducks in a four-player deal (and draft pick) that has given the Devils some needed help on the power play. Last month, Lamoriello followed it up with another solid move, picking up Alexei Ponikarovsky from the Carolina Hurricanes in return for a minor leaguer and a draft pick. Ponikarovsky has also paid immediate dividends, giving the Devils much needed size and production on the third line. He’s posted four goals and six assists in his 13 games with the Devils thus far, and has played at a +7 plus/minus, while adding making it tough on opponents, a dimension the Devils so desperately needed.
In addition, on January 30th, the Devils recalled Steve Bernier from their Albany team and slotted him in as the third line right wing. The combo of Ponikarovsky and Bernier has been outstanding for the Devils, as they have worked for the most part with Dainius Zubrus as their center and given the Devils not only some scoring production, but have done a lot of the “dirty work,” by physically draining their opponents along the boards and fighting for the puck. Quite frankly, the entire team has benefited from the third line production, and the depth should only be that much better if and when players like Travis Zajac return from injury and if Josef Josefson can progress.
Add it all up and the New Jersey Devils are playing like a team to be reckoned with as we begin the sprint towards the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With a 9-1-1 stretch during their last eleven games, the Devils have moved into potential striking distance of the top of the Eastern Conference. As I’ve said, sometimes it’s the smaller moves that don’t grab the headlines that can payoff the most at season’s end. The Devils and Lou Lamoriello have added Foster, Ponikarovsky and Bernier and it’s had a huge impact. Does Lamoriello have one or two more moves up his sleeve? We’ll know in the next few days, but it wouldn’t come as too surprising to see another defenseman added to the team and don’t get too concerned if it isn’t a big name, because Lamoriello and his track record have shown sometimes it’s the smaller names that will pay off with the biggest prize of all, a Stanley Cup championship.
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