New Jersey Devils goalie Johan Hedberg, right, defends the net against New York Rangers' Anton Stralman, of Sweden, during the second period of the NHL hockey game Saturday, April 27, 2013 at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
NEWARK, N.J. - There's little mystery why the New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs a year after facing the Los Angeles Kings for the Stanley Cup.
Key injuries to Marty Brodeur and Ilya Kovalchuk led to major slumps in the lockout-shortened 48-game season.
The players who needed to step up with the stars out didn't. The team played poorly in overtime, and the penalty kill slipped from the best in the league to 20th overall.
So despite an Eastern Conference-best 8-1-3 start, the Devils will watch the playoffs on television.
Being a couple of wins away from a fourth championship in franchise history 10 months ago meant nothing Monday. Players stuffed their gear into travel bags, shook hands and said goodbye.
Changes will be made, but coach Pete DeBoer will stay, according to president and general manager Lou Lamoriello.
This is the second time in three seasons New Jersey has missed the playoffs. The recent slip follows a run of 13 straight post-season appearances.
"I think we could have been in it this year," Lamoriello said. "Unfortunately we are not. We didn't get it done. You never look for excuses but could this team have been playing? Absolutely."
Lamoriello, who lost offensive catalyst Zach Parise to free agency after last season, faces far more decisions this season.
Forwards Patrik Elias, David Clarkson, Steve Sullivan, Dainius Zubrus, Alexei Ponikarovsky and defencemen Marek Zidlicky and Peter Harrold are all unrestricted free agents. Elias led the team in scoring with 14 goals and 22 assists and Clarkson had a team-high 15 goals, although only six came in the final 36 games.
"There is always turnover and there are always things that happen," said Devils captain Bryce Salvador, who missed the final 2 1/2 weeks with a wrist injury.
No matter what happens on the free agency front, DeBoer believes the Devils have the right systems in place and they play the right way most nights.
"Knowing what Lou is all about, he going to try to get some things for us to get back into the playoffs," said the 40-year-old Brodeur, who believes he has a couple of more years left to play.
The bottom line this year was the Devils didn't come up big when their top players went down.
Brodeur developed a neck injury in February and missed almost a month. Johan Hedberg took over and the team went 3-8-2.
When Kovalchuk suffered a shoulder injury against Florida on March 23, he missed 11 games. New Jersey lost the first 10 (0-6-4) to fall out of a playoff position for the first time all season.
During that 11-game absence, the team scored 19 goals. Elias, Clarkson, Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique—the players one who expect to step up—each had just one goal.
The penalty kill, which allowed only 27 goals in 82 games last season, allowed 32 in 48 games this season.
Overtime was also a killer for New Jersey. It went 3-10 in the extra session, including just 2-7 in the shootout.
A year ago, the Devils were 12-4 in shootouts.
A quick look at the standings shows the Devils were seven points behind the eighth-place New York Islanders. A couple of more points in overtime, or simply holding leads late in games—they blew third-period leads to Tampa Bay and Florida late in the season en route to losses—might have been the difference.
"It's a disappointing time, there is no doubt about that," said Brodeur, who will be in the final year of his contract next season. "I think it hits you more when you start thinking about what is going to happen in the playoffs with the matchup among the teams that are playing. You realize it's a missed opportunity, and for me, not having many left, it's a disappointment not playing in the post-season."
Two days after losing their season finale to the Rangers, most of the Devils felt they could have made another run in the playoffs if they had just qualified.
"We just didn't do enough to pick up those extra points to get us in," said Zajac, who had a disappointing year with seven goals. "I still enjoy playoff hockey and watching it, but it's tough not being there."
Kovalchuk, who had 11 goals and 20 assists in 37 games. said all the Devils can do now is work to be better next season. He didn't want to hear or make excuses. Every team had injuries and were unlucky at times, he said.
"At the end of the day, we're still not there and nobody will feel sorry for us," he said.
Lamoriello was already focused on next season. There was no doubt, however, that he wasn't thrilled discussing this season in late April.
"I don't like standing here today and talking about this, not playing. That's an understatement," he said.
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