Aside from actually posting news in a quiet offseason for the Devils so far (other than my four-day vacation in upstate NY where Lou Lamoriello decided to hire a coach and trade for yet another former star player) and the occasional comments after Derek's blogs, I haven't been very motivated to post here. Between the Flyers' Cinderella run in the playoffs which rendered them almost unwatchable for this Devils fan, the soccer World Cup over the last few weeks and enjoying the summer weather, it was time for me to take a break from hockey. Especially after a season which quite frankly was unenjoyable for almost all of 2010, in spite of another division title - one that was won mostly based on 2009 - I needed a break from this team far more than from the actual sport itself.
That said, now it's time to jump back in the pool - literally and figuratively. With the schedule having just come out, UFA looming next Thursday and the draft going on as I type (with the Devils' lack of a pick in the first round, this is as good a time as any to write out a blog), the preamble to the 2010-11 season is well underway now. Especially with other teams making moves left and right as documented in another recent blog by Derek.
First, the schedule...like most Devils fans I was dissapointed we didn't get a home game for the third straight year on St. Patrick's Day. While our sellouts the last two years were basically flukes - one was based on Martin Brodeur getting the all-time wins record and the other was a matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champs on throwback jersey night - it did seem like a nice little tradition that was starting, with many fans getting sauced in the multitude of bars throughout the pregame and then being rowdy (though not to an incorrigible extent thankfully) during the game. Still, one thing that came out of last year was that our green jerseys were such a success Lou's already committed to having the team wear them again this year at a yet to be determined date.
Other schedule notes include our opener at home on Friday, October 8 against the Stars. For the third straight year in fact, the Stars are one of the three teams we play twice in the Western Conference. Earth to Gary Bettman, the Devils and Stars aren't rivals anymore! It's been half a generation since 2000 and most of those players are gone, even if ex-Star/Devil Joe Nieuwendyk is in the Dallas front office these days. I was happy to see the Wings were one of the other two Western teams we get twice (with the Sharks being the third), especially since I'd waited three years to see Detroit come into Jersey only to come down with the flu the week of our home tilt last year so now I'll finally get to see the Winged Wheel again.
I could also do without the second game of the season being an afternoon matchup with the Penguins on a Columbus Day holiday which I don't get off for but so be it, at least we don't have to wait much longer to get a crack at Brent Sutter and his second-division Flames team since they come into the Prudential Center on the eve before Thanksgiving. Ironically that's the only weekday game that begins at 7:30 as opposed to 7, excepting the New Year's Eve game against the Thrashers at 5 PM which should be interesting - especially with former Devils Nicklas Bergfors and Johnny Oduya on an improving Thrasher roster that's already been supplemented by one of my faves, playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien.
As far as the draft goes, I do miss the draft party this year. It's usually a staple of all NHL teams with a first-round pick (of which we don't have one) to have the telecast of the draft go on at the same time as other activities in the team's arena. Oh sure the Devils are having an equipment sale tomorrow at the Rock but I have no interest in that, even if it would be kinda cute to see Grant Marshall and Bruce Driver square off in Family Feud lol...or to see new coach Johnny MacLean who will be on hand for autographs. Generally the equipment sale - which is a part of every draft party - consists of hundreds of people all raiding the sticks and other game-used stuff like it's going out of style and elongating the line for those of us who only want to look at the shirts, programs and other knick-nacks.
Still, being with other fans while your team either gets another future star or makes a trade can be fun. Especially the one year at the Meadowlands where the Devils kept trading down to the point where they had the last pick in the first round and by the time we finally picked, the VERSUS telecast went off the air in favor of bull riding I think it was. People were scrambling around trying to call on the phone to see who we picked, which turned out to be defenseman Matthew Corrente.
Oh, one other thing that I'm looking forward to this year is the Devils' farm team returning to Albany. Why we ever went to Lowell (my guess is a sweetheart lease) is beyond me seeing as it's Bruins country and there was literally no fanbase there for minor league hockey. It's a lot easier making a two-and-a-half hour trek on two highways to see our prospects as opposed to a four-hour marathon through a town and several highways plus Albany already had a good fanbase, even if they did get kicked in the teeth in our later years there by the Devils not doing as much to commit to the farm system. Too bad we didn't keep the River Rats name and logo, opting instead to make all our farm teams named the Devils with an A that has a tail and horns to signify Albany - does anyone else in hockey have both their AHL team and ECHL team named after the parent club?!
As far as UFA and our lack of activity (at least in terms of booting people out of here) on the trade market goes, I've been trying to avoid discussing an unhappy topic so far. While it was expected that Ilya Kovalchuk would get to UFA the recent news that Paul Martin will also test the market is troubling. After losing Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and seeing Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko retire can we take yet another key player defecting? Sure we won the Jennings trophy this year without Martin for the majority of the season but even with him the defense just wasn't good enough in the playoffs once again and losing him would just make a bad situation worse.
I don't expect to retain Kovalchuk, nor does Lou judging by recent comments where he claimed the priorities were re-signing Martin, restricted FA David Clarkson and (gak) fellow defenseman Mike Mottau. Still when it comes to our offense it's as much about what kind of system we play as it is about talent, plus I think we have young forwards that can step in if given the opportunity. And having a coach who was with our minor league team - albeit for a year - makes it more likely those young players will finally be given a fair chance the way they weren't under Sutter or Jacques Lemaire. Either way, it will be interesting to see what happens as more dominoes continue to fall tonight and before UFA.
In a closing thought, best of luck in retirement to Scott Niedermayer, who is a lock Hall of Famer and yet his career will probably be forever underrated outside of New Jersey and Anaheim given his lack of eye-popping statistics and 'only' one Norris Trophy. Still, he's won every major award possible from four Stanley Cups (including one as captain of the Ducks) to a couple of gold medals for Canada and the aformentioned trophy for best defenseman in the league during the 2003-04 season. Reading between the lines of a Lou interview in the wake of Nieds' retirement it seems all but certain that his number 27 will join Stevens's 4 and Daneyko's 3 in the rafters very soon, which would be richly deserved.