During the off-season, I’ll take a look at some of the biggest storylines from this past season. Some will be good, others bad, and some even ugly. I’ve already reviewed the Devils’ regular season performance, their play against the division, their lack of powerplay success, Martin Brodeur’s strong season, and the team’s acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk. Today, I’ll look at a line change which frustrated fans and players alike – the breakup of the ZZ Pops Line.
When Brent Sutter coached the Devils, he had a brilliant idea – to put Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner on a line together. The three players seemed to click, and the line quickly became popular among fans. The ZZ Pops line, with “Pops” being the elder Langenbrunner, produced last season. Parise put up 94 points in 2008-2009, tops among the team. Langenbrunner tallied 69 points, and Zajac totaled 62. The line always seemed to click, and they looked more comfortable as the season wore on. Coming into the 2009 – 2010 season, I thought we’d continue to see the emergence of this line as one of the greatest in the league. But coach Jacques Lemaire had other plans.
As was his policy throughout the regular season, Lemaire attempted to find offense from different line combinations. He constantly shifted players, looking for the right combination. This was evident in the second half, when the Devils began to struggle and play inconsistent hockey. The ZZ Pops line wasn’t immune to this, and Lemaire frequently broke up the pair. In an article on NHL.com, Lemaire explained his decision to break the line, saying:
You have to find ideas to get everyone to work. Work means: have success, work together. As soon as there’s a line that doesn’t have success… you don’t want to play with the one that’s had success, but you’ve got to try to find something that won’t interfere with the success of the other lines. Like changing one piece, maybe it’ll be fine if you change only one piece. Sometimes you have to change two.
I still don’t understand that logic. I realize the Devils, throughout the season, struggled offensively. But when you have a line that clicks, the line should stay together. Parise, Zajac and Langenbrunner were the top three scorers for the Devils, finishing with a combined 210 points. The line also played solid defensive hockey, and operated as one of the best forechecking lines of the team. Lemaire tried in vain to put players together, like putting Langenbrunner on the second line with Patrik Elias. These line combinations never seemed to work. Lemaire should have left the ZZ Pops line alone. When he broke up the line, I began to disagree with his coaching style.
Clearly, the ZZ Pops line was one of the top lines on the team. Dainius Zubrus played well with the both Zajac and Parise, but he couldn’t match the production Langenbrunner had with the line. With Parise, both Zajac and Langenbrunner had better Corsi numbers. It seemed like each player knew where the other was on the ice. Their chemistry was the best on the team. I understand searching for more offense, but that line could have sparked better play throughout the lineup.
While all three players thrived (including Zajac, who set a career high in goals), they could have done more as the ZZ Pops line. We’ll see if the next Devils’ coach decides to reunite the line.
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