Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Can Devils Be Contenders in East?

By: Tim Brennan

For as long as anyone can remember, the New Jersey Devils have been a prime example of a solid franchise that amasses 100 points each season and usually claims the Atlantic Division crown. Along with that, the Devils earned 3 Stanley Cups in a 10 year period from 1993-94 to 2003-04. But lately these Devils succeed in the regular season only to disappoint in the post season. In a way, New Jersey has become the San Jose Sharks of the Eastern Conference.

The last three post seasons for the Devils have all ended the same way: an early first round exit at the hands of a team lower than them in the standings. Most recently, the Flyers polished off New Jersey in 5 games. The Devils were outscored by a margin of 15 to 9, which included a 3-0 series clinching victory by Philadelphia in Game 5. The Devils couldn't shut down the Flyers offense and looked even worse on the penalty kill where they gave up 8 goals on 29 opportunities. The team looked troubled throughout the series and wasn't able to overcome their lack of discipline and poor defensive play. In the end, New Jersey was outplayed and sent to the golf course early.

If anything, this Devils team needed some changes to shake them out of the current funk they seemed to have gotten themselves into. The first decision was the resignation of head coach Jacques Lemaire. Lemaire is the man responsible for the trap style that the Devils have cherished and have utilized for over two decades. Lemaire's first stint in New Jersey lasted five years and guided the team to it's first Stanley Cup victory in franchise history in 1995. The prodigal son returned last season after eight seasons in Minnesota due to Brent Sutter's resignation. New Jersey finished 1st in the Atlantic under his guidance but lost to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

The search for Lemaire's successor came down to a former Devil and the team's leading scorer of all time, John MacLean. Along with MacLean, the Devils hired former Devil shot caller Larry Robinson and future Hall of Famer Adam Oates to back him up on the bench.

Shortly thereafter, the Devils acquired a familiar face in Jason Arnott from the Nashville Predators. Arnott, most well known by Devils fans to have scored the Cup clinching goal in 2000, was brought back to provide secondary scoring that the team so desperately needs.

Prior to free agency, the Devils parted ways with long time Devil Jay Pandolfo by placing him on waivers and buying out his contract, making him a free agent. These looked to be the only moves Lou Lamoriello would make this off season.

Unknown to all of us, this was just the tip of the iceberg.

One of the Devils most highly coveted players, defenseman Paul Martin, couldn't agree to terms with the team the day before free agency started. As a result, Martin left town and signed on with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who started a defensive overhaul that also included Zbynek Michalek. The Devils needed to address the loss of Martin so names like Dan Hamhuis, Pavel Kubina and Joe Corvo came to mind to replace the 29 year old puck moving defenseman from Minneapolis.

Instead, the Devils surprised everyone by outbidding several teams to sign coveted defensive defenseman Anton Volchenkov to a 6 year deal. Lamoriello wanted to make clear that the team wanted to address their concern area of defense before anything else. Veteran defenseman Henrik Tallinder was also brought in to help establish a strong defensive presence on the blueline as well as providing leadership for youngsters Andy Greene, Anssi Salmela and Mark Fraser.

Amid the flurry of signings and trades, the Devils squeezed in one more deal on July 1st by picking up goaltender Johan Hedberg. Not only was this a smart move on Lamoriello's part, it was one that should have been made 3 seasons ago. A one year deal for a goalie who posted 21 victories for the Atlanta Thrashers last season and continues to prove his worth. Brodeur won't get dethroned by Hedberg, but he sure will help fill the void when Brodeur takes a seat on the bench. There's no doubt in my mind that Hedberg will get around 20-25 starts under new head coach John MacLean.

Then there's the Kovalchuk debacle that has the entire NHL off season on hiatus. After an initial contract of 17 years and 102 million dollars was inscribed, the NHL intervened and declared it null and void, stating that the contract circumvented the regulations under the salary cap. A rumored 15 year, $100 million contract for Kovalchuk has surfaced but no one has yet to make a comment on the proposal.

Now how does all of this fit it with the question stated in the title?

Well, the Devils made some changes in personnel and philosophy, which can mean either the team gels together as a cohesive unit or it crashes and burns under a new system (i.e. the Minnesota Wild last season). The Devils are primed to be a playoff team, no doubt about that. It all depends on whether the team can improve on it's 19th ranked offense last year and whether the new system implemented by John MacLean serves for the betterment of the franchise. Another issue that could lead the team down the wrong path is the Kovalchuk situation and whether a deal can be struck.

There are far too many stellar elements on this team for a regular season finish outside the top 8. The top line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner are the majority of the offense and set a pace during each game. Even though the line was brought about last year, at a glance it appears that they've played together for their entire lives. The speed, agility and quick shot of Parise helps put pucks in the net while Zajac makes plays with crisp passes and Langenbrunner gets into the dirty areas and battles along the boards. During the regular season, the ZZ Pops line combined for 82 goals accounting for 38% of the team's goals. In order for this team to succeed in the goal scoring department, the Devils need an all around effort so as to not depend on one particular line. Along with the first line, the Devils could have a deadly 1-2 punch if Kovalchuk gets under contract to join Patrik Elias and newly acquired Jason Arnott.

The defense looks alot better than last season, with strong pairings and great signings on the part of Lou Lamoriello. More than likely, Anton Volchenko a.k.a. "The A Train" will match up with the highly underrated replacement for Paul Martin, Andy Greene. Tallinder and Bryce Salvador could make an excellent shutdown pair but since Tallinder was brought in to mentor the Swedish defender will spend time with either Anssi Salmela or Mark Fraser while Salvador and Colin White join together.

And of course the goaltending situation is top notch with the two headed monster of future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur and veteran Johan Hedberg.

The only problems that this team will face are the lack of depth at forward and depending on rookies for offense. Outside of the top two lines, the Devils aren't going to get much help on the goal scoring front. Only Brian Rolston has been able to put up 20+ goals the past few seasons. Dainius Zubrus is a better playmaker than scorer and David Clarkson continues to struggle with finding his niche offensively. Newcomers Jacob Josefson, Vladimir Zharkov, Alexander Vasyunov and Mattias Tedenby will all battle for positions during training camp but the team can't force these youngsters to put up 10-15 goals. Zharkov has the best chance of giving the team good offensive numbers after posting 10 points in 40 games last year. If Kovalchuk isn't coming back, then the Devils will regret giving up promising winger Niclas Bergfors.

Also instead of depending on Parise and Zajac for special teams, maybe the team can look at someone like Rod Pelley to get more time on the penalty kill, or utilize Zubrus and Rolston in more situations than they were used under Lemaire.

Finally, the answer to the question is yes, the Devils can be contenders this season only if they improve on goal scoring, Parise continues his growth as an up and coming superstar, Brodeur doesn't falter come playoff time and gets more time off splitting time with Hedberg. My prediction for New Jersey is a 4th place finish during the regular season.

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