As promised, here’s part two of my season preview for the New Jersey Devils. On a few quick notes before I get started, the Devils have invited right wing Marcus Nilson and center Adam Mair to their camp on a tryout basis. Nilson hasn’t played in the NHL since 2008 and has gone through stints in the KHL and Swedish Elite League. He played on the same team with prospect center Jacob Josefson, who he thinks very highly of. Should Nilson and Josefson both make the team, I can see Nilson serving as a serviceable third/fourth line winger that can serve as a mentor to Josefson and make his adjustment process to the NHL level easier. As Lamoriello summed him, Adam Mair, a long time veteran of the Buffalo Sabres, is an energetic center that gives the Devils more depth and flexibility up front. He looks like he can sustain a fourth line role and has amounted a good number of penalty minutes throughout his career. Both players seem like your typical “Lou-type” moves. Should be fun to see how they fare.
As long as Martin Brodeur remains healthy and active, there’s no discussion as to who the Devil’s starting net minder will be. In what could be the most skilled and reliable backup he’s ever had, Johan “Moose” Hedberg is expected to take a chunk of Brodeur’s workload, whether it’s ten, fifteen, or twenty games (I’m going to predict he could start between 15-20). Overplaying Marty has been one of the team’s greatest concerns for years and has been a factor in the team’s recent late season slumps and early playoff exits that nobody within the Devil’s organization will admit. With an offense that’s further improved along with a beefed up defense, could it become a convenience for Brodeur if he ends up with his seventy plus starts or will we see more of the same? Last season, the Devil’s late season downward spiral arrived earlier than it did the past two seasons, causing the Devils to spend almost half the regular season in mediocrity, leading me to believe this team wouldn’t have made the playoffs had they started the season on that note. It’s somewhat of a taboo in Devil Land to say Brodeur undeniably under performed throughout that stretch and seemed to show premature signs of fatigue compared to recent years. Marty has phased out the pressure of continually having to prove himself, but as it stands, his struggled endured during the second half of last year’s season could be a mere speed bump in a glamorous career or something more sinister.
On Hedberg, what does he bring as a backup that past ones have lacked? For one, he has plenty of experience, which comes with his age (thirty-seven). Since 2005, Hedberg’s appeared in 156 games as a backup or splitting duties with another goalie, while between Brodeur’s past three backups (Weekes, Clemmensen, Danis), they’ve appeared in a combined 121 games as a backup or splitting goaltending duties (Clemmensen’s stretch of appearances in the 2008-2009 season weren’t considered). Although the statistical numbers of goals against and save percentage favor against Hedberg, we’ll use the excuse of him playing on low quality teams dampening his stats. Nonetheless, Hedberg’s regular season and playoff experience are two features that shouldn’t be overlooked and give the Devils little room for excuses in starting him over Brodeur on a night that’s needless for him to play.
Though it may sound ironic to many non-Devils fans, the team’s biggest strength right now looks to be their offense. With the off-season moves Lamoriello made, he’s given the Devils solidity on the wings and addressed the need of acquiring another skilled center, which I think it going to benefit the offense more than people think as it gives the team flexibility in the lineup and power play. On paper, most of their top nine are proven or capable of scoring at least twenty-five plus, but how these line combinations fare on the ice, combined with who Lou is forced to move to clear cap space remains to be seen.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding Brodeur after his skid last year that started mid-season and his playoff dysfunctions over the past few years, the Devils always have a shot with him in net going into the regular season. Long as his ego doesn’t get in the way of having the coaching staff handling him properly and integrating the usefulness of Hedberg when needed, his high quality play should remain consistent throughout the season, while ably keeping him fresh and poised to remain the backbone of this team as they aim for a long playoff run.
The additions of Volchenkov and Tallinder improved the defense immensely but only in one dimension. Overall, I’m not fully comfortable about the defense corps being well rounded due to the current absence of productive puck movers as I mentioned in Part One. The current group of Andy Greene, Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder, Colin White, Bryce Salvador, and Mark Fraser combined for goals last season what some defensemen had alone and although a defenseman’s priority is to prevent the puck from going in, the defense’s inability to do so could come back and bite them.
Over the past two seasons, the locker room has had issues staying fully healthy, a concern that’s deserving of acknowledgement in my opinion going into this season. Last season, the players on the current roster missed a combined 135 games, give or take a few mostly due to injury. Injuries can’t be prevented but depending on the players that the injury bug infects, the games they miss and contributions on and off the score sheet they could have made, along with the time it takes for them to get back into full form upon return will affect the team success and chemistry-wise, regardless of how the team performs.
Let them play…looking at the way this team is structured, I don’t see how a traditional Devils defense oriented system will do anything to help. Hopes are high that John MacLean will instill a system with a more offensive punch compared to what Jacques Lemaire had the players endure. Parise and Kovalchuk are capable of scoring fifty goals. Why hold them back?
Let them learn each other…Brent Sutter and Jacques Lemaire shared a highly noticeable habit of line shuffling that undoubtedly attributed to the team’s recent struggle patterns. MacLean seems to have assembled some pretty solid lines that are together for the first time and capable of compiling some consistent chemistry after they learn each other. If the Devils struggle a little to put the puck in the net at first, no need for him to freak out and change things like we’ve seen in the past three seasons.
Find a place for the kids…last year, Niclas Bergfors, Vladimir Zharkov, and Mark Fraser were having stellar productive seasons until Lemaire found what you can either call excuses or reasons to lower their ice time or appearances in games. Yes they weren’t perfect and made the occasional rookie mistakes but what rookies don’t? The kids won’t learn without playing time. I don’t want to see MacLean make the same mistake with rookie hopefuls such as Mattiad Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, Alexander Urbom, or Matt Corrente just to mention a few. If Johnny Mac believes they need a year or two in the minors, that’s a different story.
Overplay and overestimate…this is the central theme describing the Colin White/Mike Mottau pairing that may have been the most frustrating thing to watch in Devils hockey since Lemaire first instated his infamous neutral zone trap back in the early nineties. Regardless of who the “Devil-type” or “Lou-type” players are, MacLean has to know how to handle each player individually. A player like Colin White is still a regular but will best serve this team anchoring the third pair. Despite his gross salary, Brian Rolston doesn’t have a place in the top six anymore and no business quarterbacking the first power play unit.
Overlook the trade deadline…Bryce Salvador, Nicalas Havelid, and Martin Skoula have been the Devil’s three trade deadline pickups over the past three years and it’s got them no farther than the first round. In each of the past three trade deadlines, the Devils had the cap space and means to trade for more useful players that could at least temporarily fill their roster needs to better suit them for a playoff run. Yes I know frequent drinkers of the kool-aid have a lineup of excuses ready to deploy and contradict this, but when you look at the recent Stanley Cup champions over the past couple years, they’ve all dealt for players that served better roles on their team than depth purposes. It’s more about the principle of this “don’t”.
Give Kovalchuk the entire spotlight…yes I, along with several other Devils fans am very excited to see Kovalchuk commit himself to New Jersey for the rest of his career. Although he may currently be the best player on the team and give the Devil’s a dimension in marketing and publicity they may have never had before, he’s yet to prove himself worthy of so much being considered the face of the franchise. It’s Brodeur’s title long as he’s on the team and Zach Parise possesses all the qualities that define what the Devil’s organization and hockey are all about. Nothing against Kovalchuk or because Parise is entering a contract year, rather I’m looking at this from a moral standpoint.
Overall Outlook…I haven’t been very optimistic going into the past two, three regular season openings but I have a good feeling about this team. Whether that means I think they’re capable of breaking their first round curse or making a run to the Stanley Cup remains to be seen but one thing for sure is I believe this team should be counted in to compete for three things: A top four playoff spot, the top of the conference, and the division. From there, anything can happen.
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Written by Mike Luciano