Devils Advocate

Jersey Score

Brian, our Devils correspondent comes to us by way off Jeff, our Wings man.

Zach is back!

Brian delivered what could best be described as a treatise. Or maybe it’s a dissertation. No matter what we call his thorough and in-depth analysis of the New Jersey’s upcoming season, it’s amazing. Brian dissects the front office, all four lines, the D pairings and the goalies. Lou may want to put this guy on his speed-dial.

Brian also earned extra credit for clever Hollywood metaphors and some good old-fashioned Rangers hating. He’s a welcome addition to the team and a force to be reckoned with in the Atlantic Division.  We think Vinny may need a restraining order. -Craig

“Before looking ahead to the 2011-2012 season, I wanted to take a quick look back on something from last season, but I won’t dwell too much, as I’ve already cried enough tears over the 2011 Devils.

Good Riddance, Captain America,  The Numbers:
10-28-2 (.275 Winning Percentage)
28-11-3 (.702 Winning Percentage)

These are not the Devils with and without John MacLean behind the bench. Let there be no doubt, John MacLean did not excel in his stint as head coach.  There were tactical errors, conditioning issues, no goal-scoring and uninspired play, but the above numbers are before and after the departure of Devils’ Captain Jamie Langenbrunner. I say that Langenbrunner had as negative an impact on last year’s squad as MacLean, if not more.”

“Langenbrunner’s relationship with management went south after the Kovalchuk trade in 2010 and just got worse after the 2010 Olympic Games.  Langenbrunner was upset that he wasn’t on the point on the power play anymore and that his ice time had suffered.  He had a (somewhat) public spat when Lemaire held him out of a game at the end of the 2010 season and stopped talking to the media for a while.  Through all of this, his on-ice effort and (of course) point production plummeted.

Things got even worse in the 2010-2011 campaign when Jamie’s linemate and close friend, Zach Parise, was hobbled to start the season, then lost for the season (save 1 game in April) after just 13 games. 

Langenbrunner’s play continued to suffer and his attitude continued to infect the locker room and the ice.  I’m grateful for his efforts as a Devil (and as Captain of the US Hockey Team in Vancouver), but the numbers don’t lie – the Devils were a much, much better team without him last year.

So if you wanted to know why I think the Devils will have a better start than last year (not that that’s saying much) and will make the playoffs this season, it’s because Langenbrunner’s attitude is in St. Louis now, and it’s been replaced by youth and some cautious optimism. Now if only youth and cautious optimism could score us some goals. Which brings us to the upcoming season. 

The 2011-2012 Devils: We Can’t Be That Bad Again

I mean, we can’t right?  In what’s becoming an annual rite of passage, the Devils have a new head coach to start the season.  Peter DeBoer joins the Devils following a two year stint with Florida. 

DeBoer doesn’t look to reinvent the wheel in New Jersey, preaching defensive responsibility, but hopes that more aggressive play from the defense and on the forecheck lead to more goals.  We shall see.

While DeBoer is going to be under a magnifying glass in his first season at The Rock, the person truly on the hot seat may be long time Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello

Lou’s made a bunch of questionable high profile moves in recent years (the Kovy trade, the Kovy re-signing debacle, the Rolston contract) and one very high profile non-move (the inability to come to terms with Parise on a long-term contract this summer).  If the Devils fail to make the playoffs and provide a more entertaining brand of hockey for fans to come out and see, this might be the year that Lou is fired or re-assigned.

Fortunately for DeBoer and Lamoriello, there appear to be reasons for optimism in Newark. Some of the more interesting stories to follow this season:

The Defense: The Kid Stays In The Picture. For Now.

To nobody’s surprise, this year’s top draft pick, defenseman Adam Larsson (fourth overall), is going to make the Opening Night roster, and I don’t think this is one of those deals where he plays nine games and then gets sent to Albany for the rest of the year.  I think he stays and plays top four minutes this season, and (hopefully) top two minutes for the next ten seasons.

Larsson isn’t the second coming of Paul Coffey, or maybe even Scott Neidermayer, but for a kid who doesn’t turn 19 until November, he has the calm demeanor and smart decision-making of a veteran. 

He provides size (6’3”), strong passing in all three zones, and a right-handed shot to compliment Kovy on the power play.  DeBoer’s said that he’s going to limit Larsson’s time on the PK for now, so as not to pile too much pressure on Adam’s big shoulders too soon.  It speaks volumes that in the Devils last preseason game (vs the Flyers), Larsson led all skaters in TOI.  It probably won’t be the last time that happens this season.

Tallinder

Larsson will be paired with either the re-signed Andy Greene or Henrik Tallinder (whose performance last season mirrored the team’s; He was dreadful in the first half but exceptional in the second half). 

The team’s hoping for a healthier, more effective year from big-hitting defender Anton Volchenkov

Salvador

Speaking of healthier, the Devils are thrilled to have Bryce Salvador back on the blueline, after the big veteran missed all last season with a concussion. 

The hope is that he can return and be the strong, stable defensive presence he was before the injury.  Rounding out the top six is second-year player Mark Fayne, who showed himself to be a capable D in his rookie season, posting a team-high +10 rating.

The Forwards: Time After Time

In 2000-2001, the Devils lost the Stanley Cup to Ray Bourque’s Colorado Avalanche.  And the Avs totally deserved it, they didn’t win because the NHL rigged it so that Bourque could finally win a Cup.  (Seriously, I’m not bitter about it.  Come on, it’s been ten years – how could I still be bitter about that?  What’s that you say?  Bourque’s kid made the Rangers?  Grudge RENEWED!  I hate you AND your progeny, Mr. Bourque!)

Patrik Elias

Where was I?  Oh right – that high octane Devils team (Seriously – they led the league in goals) was propelled by a top line of Patrik Elias, Jason Arnott, and Petr Sykora.  Elias was third in the NHL with 96 points that season.

In a fit of nostalgia, Lou brought back Arnott last season with mixed results. 

Arnott was gone at the trading deadline for David Steckel [Ed. note: Hi Stecks!] and a draft pick. 

Petr Sykora

As I’m writing this preview, Lou has now traded Steckel to Toronto for a pick, which paves the way for Petr Sykora, who’s been in camp on a tryout, to make the team. 

Lou does love his alumni. 

As of this writing, Sykora’s just signed a contract.  I expect he’ll play the right side with Parise on the left and Elias in the middle on what’s more or less the top line. 

Travis Zajac

If you’ve watched any of the Devils preseason games where Sykora played, you’d know that there was no way he wasn’t making the team.  This is a squad that couldn’t score worth a damn last year, and Sykora seemed to rediscover his chemistry with Elias in the first game. 

Add to that Parise, who’s looking to regain his scoring touch after last season’s injury, now without familiar linemates Langenbruner (see above) and top pivot Travis Zajac, who’s out of the lineup until December-January after Achilles surgery.  I have a good feeling about these three.  Elias was, night in and night out, the best player on the Devils last season, Sykora’s skills are still there and he’s looking for a last hurrah, and Parise is playing to show he’s worth a franchise player-type of deal.

Nick Palmieri

With regards to the second line, there’s no beating around the bush.  Kovalchuk needs to score more than last year’s 31 goals for this team to make the playoffs.  He takes up so much prime ice time, handles the puck so much, that he has to be more productive. 

Helping him in this endeavor are linemates Dainius Zubrus ($3.4m is a bit much for 13 goals, isn’t it?) and Nick Palmieri, who chipped in 17 points in a half a season and, if the power forward can get things going with Kovalchuk, could threaten 45 points this season.

Adam Henrique

The third line could feature any number of young players.  The likely center is second-year man Jacob Josefson, whose two-way skills might make him New Jersey’s next John Madden.  From practice reports I’ve seen, his current partners are rookie Adam Henrique and veteran David Clarkson

Henrique put up 25 goals in the AHL last season and is probably good for 10-15 with the big club if he gets the chance to skate with one of the top two lines.  Clarkson had a good preseason, scoring a couple of power play goals.  He also scored a convincing victory in a fight in one of the preseason games.  He’ll need to continue to do both when the games actually count to earn his contract ($3m this season).

Mattias Tedenby

The fourth line in practice Monday was newly-signed tough guy Eric Boulton, with 28 year-old rookie Brad Mills at center, and second-year player Mattias Tedenby on the right wing.  This combination perplexes me.  I hope it’s not what DeBoer goes with in the regular season.  Tedenby (a first-rounder in 2008) is probably the fastest skater on the team and is an electric presence on the forecheck, a buzzing pest to defenders trying to move the puck.  He’s also capable of highlight reel goals – he scored eight times in his rookie season. 

So what’s he doing with two players who can’t keep up with him OR provide him the puck service he’ll require to make use of his considerable offensive skills?  I hope there’s some other plan for Teddy – we need him to double (or better) his goal output this season, and there’s no way he’s doing it with Boulton and Mills.  And no, I absolutely did not draft Teddy in my fantasy hockey league in the last round because I wanted a Devil on my team.  Nope.  No way.

The Goalies: This Could Be The Last Time

The greatest goalie in the history of creation is entering the final year of his contract with the New Jersey Devils.  And it’s anyone’s guess what happens with Martin Brodeur this season, and even more up in the air what happens in the offseason.

Marty has looked good in the preseason, and one can only hope he’s got 60-65 games of that quality in him.  He’s missed significant time in two of the last three seasons and posted the lowest save percentage (.903) of his post-lockout career. 

He’s stickhandling a little less than he used to (I thought they were getting rid of that blasted trapezoid!), which further dents his value. 

That said, on the nights when he’s on, he’s still among the best in the NHL, and even on the other nights, he’s better than most.

He’s backed up by the sturdy Moose, Johan Hedberg, whose coming off a strong season backing Marty up.  At one point during the Devils scorching second half, Moose started over Marty because of the quality of his play.  Should be more of the same from the veteran this season.

Odds and Ends: The Other Stuff To Worry About

The Parise (and, to a lesser extent, Brodeur) contract situations are going to be a storyline all season.  If the Devils stumble through the first half of the season again, there’s going to be a lot of talk about a Parise trade.  January 1st, 2012, is the first day that Parise can sign a new deal, and if one isn’t signed in that first week of January, the trade talk is going to reach a fever pitch.  Right now, Zach is saying all the right things about staying in New Jersey, but let’s see if that continues if the team struggles. 

Brodeur’s situation is a bit different – he’s not going to be traded midseason to sign a multi-year extension and be some team’s goalie of the future, but there’s always a chance that a contender will want him to provide goaltending options for a deep playoff run (Chicago Blackhawks, maybe?).  Brodeur is precisely the type of player (and personality) a playoff team wants, on and off the ice.  My personal preference is that the playoff team that he backstops is the New Jersey Devils.

Wrapup: A World Of Ifs

Every season of Devils hockey boils down to a series of “If/Then” propositions.  In previous seasons, the “Then” parts would sound something like “Then the Devils can win the Cup” or “Then Niedermayer will finally win the Norris Trophy”.  This year’s list is much more modest.  It looks something like this…

IF the team comes out of October .500 or better and
IF Kovy and Zach combine for 75 goals and
IF Brodeur can play an effective 65 games and
IF the team can avoid the major injuries of last season and
IF the Swedes (Tedenby, Josefson) combine for 30+ goals and
IF DeBoer can find line combinations that click and
IF the younger D-men (Larsson, Fayne) play like veterans
THEN the Devils will make the playoffs.

I’m an optimist.  I think all those things are attainable.  I’m thinking maybe a six seed in the Eastern Conference, with the potential to upset their first round opponent.”

You can follow Brian on Twitter @trot71

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6 Responses to Devils Advocate

  1. david says:

    if peter deboer cant/doesnt teach ilya kovalchuk how to back-check effectively, jacques lemaire will be the head coach again.. prolly before the all-star break…
    just sayin….

    ~ cheers…

    • I don’t think Lemaire comes back in any scenario. He’s said that he’s too old for the rigors of coaching. If DeBoer fails, it’s probably Lou, or Larry Robinson.
      That said – I think DeBoer does a good job here.
      As for Kovy, when I watched him last season, I’d get frustrated about the blind passes and the turnovers in the neutral zone or at the opposing blue line, but I never felt he wasn’t giving a good effort, even on the back-check. As for how effective he is, I’ll just say that he definitely gives a good effort…

  2. I bear no ill will towards these Devils of New Jersey. They know, as we do, that The Rangers Suck.

  3. Andrew says:

    I’ve been curious about Brodeur for a while myself. Interesting to see how it pans out exactly.

  4. GayCanuck says:

    The Devil is in the details! And you sure covered them all, Brian, nice dissertation.

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