It’s that time of year again as we fans gear up and anticipate the dwindling time gap between the final days of the off-season and start of the upcoming NHL season. Hockey’s close but not close enough and with training camps opening this week for NHL teams and exhibition games starting shortly after, it gives us a preview of how our teams will look going into the coming NHL season. Bloggers and writers for newspapers and hockey web sites alike have begun previewing the teams they cover and I feel obliged to continue that trend for my New Jersey Devils.
48-27-7,103 pts, 1st Division, 2nd Conference
Points: Ilya Kovalchuk, 85
Goals: Ilya Kovalchuk, 41
Assists: Ilya Kovalchuk/Zach Parise, 44
Penalty Minutes: Andrew Peters, 93
Plus/Minus: Zach Parise, plus 24
Wins: Martin Brodeur, 45
GAA/SV: Martin Brodeur, 2.24, .916
Notable Additions: Anton Volchenkov(D), Henrik Tallinder(D), Johan Hedberg(D), Jason Arnott(C)
Notable Losses: Paul Martin(D), Mike Mottau(D), Yann Danis(G), Rob Niedermayer(C), Dean MacAmmond(C/LW)
Notable Refrains: Ilya Kovalchuk(LW), Mark Fraser(D), David Clarkson(RW)
Six Month Synopsis: The Devils stumbled into the playoffs for the third consecutive season and were eliminated in the first round yet again by the Philadelphia Flyers in a one-sided series that only lasted five games. Even with the mid-season addition of Ilya Kovalchuk, the only post-season accomplishment the Devils achieved was net a hat trick their first round exits. Surrounded by question marks heading into another early off-season, change was clearly inevitable, but ultimately uncertain as to what degree. It started when head coach Jacques Lemaire cut his second stint with the team short by announcing his retirement and was succeeded by John MacLean, who spent the season coaching the team’s AHL affiliate in Lowell, guiding them to their first playoff appearance in almost a decade. General manager Lou Lamoriello finally addressed the team’s lack of center depth and traded for Center Jason Arnott, who established a legacy on the Devils during his first stint by scoring the memorable cup clinching goal during double overtime in game six against the Dallas Stars. For Arnott, the Devils sent right wing Matt Halischuk and a 2011 second round pick to the Nashville Predators. After re-signing winger David Clarkson for three years and buying out the final years of forwards Andrew Peters and career Devil Jay Pandolfo’s contracts, they struck quickly on July first, signing goaltender Johan Hedberg to a one-year deal, defensemen Henrik Tallinder for four years and Anton Volchenkov for six. Although the Devils lost puck mover Paul Martin in the process, who signed a five-year deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, some argue his role as the defense’s alleged anchor was replaced by Volchenkov and was more so an improvement in that area.
Then came the second part of what I like to call the Kovalchuk Trilogy, whose decision on where to play seemingly kept all functions of the hockey world at bay. Over two weeks after the market opened, the Devils and Kovalchuk committed to each other for seventeen years, only for the deal to be rejected by the NHL and again in court after the NHLPA filed a grievance on behalf of Kovalchuk and the Devils. Part III of the Kovalchuk Trilogy carried on in the following weeks and concluded by the Devils getting a fifteen year-deal for $100 million “grandfathered” in after the NHL and NHLPA agreed on a new set of terms to govern long term deals. The Devil’s off-season might not be entirely over as the signing of Kovalchuk ($6.66 million cap hit) puts the Devils over $3 million above the NHL’s hard cap, which will require them to dump excess salary to get under the limit. A number of players have been rumored to have numbered days in New Jersey, but who the odd man or men out are is entirely uncertain until Lamoriello executes a deal. Until then, all we as fans can do is speculate.
I think it’s safe to say the Devils currently have one of the deepest and most talented group of forwards in the league and if John MacLean truly does instill a more offensive style of play to the Devil’s game as expected, he’ll surely get the most out of them. Fronted by superstars Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, the Devils have perhaps the best one-two punch at wing in the league and go into the season with solidity up the middle after reacquiring Jason Arnott for the first time since the days of Scott Gomez. As big of an “if” as this is, should Parise and Zajac continue what they’ve been doing and the Devils finally found their center for Elias in Arnott, chemistry should come naturally amongst the top six. I expect MacLean to reunite the ZZ-Pops line with Langenbrunner manning the right side, while Kovalchuk plays with the more experienced duo in Arnott and Elias. For the first time in a couple of seasons, I think we fans can go into training camp with a good idea on who’s going to play where in the lineup and roles they’ll have.
With Rob Niedermayer departing via free agency and no current replacement having been made, it appears the Devils are going to resort to their youth to occupy the third line center role. The team’s top two prospect centers going into training camp are Swede Jacob Josefson, and Adam Henrique, who enjoyed a solid breakout season with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL last year, playing with 2010 No. 1 overall draft pick Adam Hall at his side. Unless it’s believed both need a developmental season in Albany, Henrique and Josefson are the likely candidates for the job with Josefson appearing to have more faith put into to make this year’s team. How the rest of the third line fills out is uncertain as wingers David Clarkson, Brian Rolston, and Danius Zubrus, who can play center as well, come to mind. The Devil’s need to shed salary to get under the cap could resolve the matter, although I can see the trio making a suitable line with Zubrus at center should Josefson and Henrique fall through. Regardless of how the composition of the third line pans out, what’s encouraging is these three possess the skill to be a solid second line, which goes to show how deep the Devil’s offense has become. Between Rod Pelley, Pierre Luc-Letourneau Leblond, and Vladimir Zharkov, it gives the makings of a young but serviceable fourth line capable of a controlled amount of playing time throughout the season, which could increase if they prove trustworthy.
With training camp set to begin, Lamoriello mentioned there are a few slots available on the team for rookie hopefuls and coach MacLean has a few options to consider. Henrique and Josefson have been mentioned, but the Devils also have some solid wingers looking to have a strong chance of making the team such as 2008 first round pick Mattias Tedenby and prospect Nick Palmieri, who hit the twenty goal plateau in his rookie season in Lowell last year. Long shots to make the team include AHL veterans Patrick Davis and Alexander Vasyunov, both having improved over the years, but could be overlooked by the team’s faster maturing prospects, though both make solid backup plans should the Devils still look to inject a youthful presence in their roster.
Although they lost Paul Martin to free agency, some say the Devil’s improved their defense by signing Anton Volchenkov for six years. In addition, they brought in puck mover Henrik Tallinder, who I’d like to say is a wealthy man’s Mike Mottau as it seems his days in New Jersey are over, which most fans feel very fortunate about. In Volchenkov, the Devils get one of the top stay at home defensemen in the league, who’s known for his hard hitting and shot blocking skills that gives the Devils a presence on the blue line they’ve lacked since the days of Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko as said by Lamoriello. Although I wouldn’t mention Volchenkov’s name in the same sentence as Scott Stevens, there’s no doubt in my mind his addition improves this defense. Lamoriello noted Tallinder was brought in because he’s a player in his prime and for his mentoring skills as he showed with 2010 Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers.
Currently, Colin White and Bryce Salvador are shoe-ins to make the roster despite the buzz on rumor mill that Salvador could be a likely cap casualty. After a breakout year, the jury is still up on Andy Greene as to whether he’s fully matured at the NHL level or if last year was a one hit wonder. The fact he’s going into a contract year makes Greene’s situation all the more intriguing but there is unmentioned pressure on the defenseman to build off last year’s success and contribute to a blue line that’s still scarce in productive proven puck movers. If Salvador or White are moved to clear cap space, it should open at least two roster spots for a surplus of capable defensive prospects. Despite an admirable rookie campaign last year after getting the opportunity from the string of injuries that plagued the team, I can’t say Mark Fraser has a secure spot on the team although I think he has potential to develop into a gritty stay at home defenseman.
Even before Martin signed elsewhere, fans and analysts pointed out the team’s need for another puck mover, which Lamoriello and MacLean seem to be hoping could come out of their prospect pool unless a trade of some kind occurs in the unforeseen future. Rookie hopefuls Tyler Eckford and Matt Taormina had promising years in Lowell last year, fit the profiles of an offensive defenseman, and have had a good number of years to develop. Both prospects played through college, continually improved in back to back years in the AHL and could be given a long look by MacLean, who coached them in Lowell last year. There’s a lot of hype surrounding 2006 first round pick Matthew Corrente and 2008 second round pick Alexander Urbom. Corrente has ben penned as a gritty, physical, stay at home defenseman that can contribute offensively if needed and has developed nicely over the past four years. Urbom was also tagged a defensive defenseman that transitioned nicely this year to the North American style of hockey and improved his offensive game immensely. Should Urbom make the team, it’d be uncharacteristic of the typical process Devils prospects go through since he’d skip an AHL stint. Despite the optimism surrounding Urbom, it’s wise not to rush the development of defensive prospects and like Henrique and Josefson, a year or two in Albany wouldn’t hurt the big young defenseman or affect his role in the team’s long term plans.
Part Two of the season preview will be up no later than this weekend and will analyze the Devil’s situation in net, the team’s current strengths and weaknesses, dos and don’ts, and my overall outlook on where the team could finish as it looks at the end of the regular season.
About the Author
Written by Mike Luciano