Sunday, September 26, 2010

After three preseason games, Devils still need to answer many questions

During the preseason a team's main priorites are finding out what players can potentially help out when the games start for real, and just flat-out staying healthy. Wins and losses are generally afterthoughts, although yes I would rather see the Devils actually win a preseason game at some point, since they've lost in overtime twice to the Rangers and in a shootout to the Flyers thus far. Scoring a power-play goal would also be nice, we've been shut out on that end during the preseason so far (after our hideous power play for the second half of last season) although Matt Taormina's nice one-timer in the second period last night came on a delayed call, so that's like half a power play goal.

At 0-0-3 with three preseason games left, my main concern right now is we're really no closer to finding out who the axe will drop on with cap d-day fast approaching, with rumors still swirling around just about everyone who makes over $2.5 million on the roster. Although with the instant chemistry that our Fantasy Line of Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac have shown so far, at least it should put the rest the insane Zajac trade rumors the Post has been trying to propogate.

Two of the players who have been discussed as possible cap casualties - captain Jamie Langenbrunner and defenseman Colin White - didn't play last night when the Rangers scored four, yes four power play goals against poor Johan Hedberg, who you could probably only fault on Matt Gilroy's goal that trickled through his pads early in the third period. There is a mindset with certain Devils fans that whatever we need to do to get under the cap doesn't really matter but when you consider that the captain and Whitey are usually key components on the penalty kill, and that PK looked awful last night it just shows that losing either player would in fact, be a detriment. And I have no use for the captain personally but he's still a top six winger, PK'er and for what it's worth he's taken ownership publicly of his struggles last year...which is at least a start toward penance.

On the other hand, another player who has been the most likely rumored out the door in Bryce Salvador has, by all accounts been terrible in his two preseason games. He didn't impress me much last night, and from reading accounts he was culpable on a couple of Flyer goals in our first preseason game as well. Could be the speculation's getting to him, as much as players say they block it out and it's only been a week since camp started, really this speculation's gone on all offseason. It wouldn't be human not to be affected by the constant uncertainty. Besides all that, Salvador at this point is really a low second pairing, high third pairing-tier defenseman. He still should have value to a lot of clubs, since there isn't exactly a glut of even those type of players and he's a solid vet who will do what it takes to help a team, but without a no-trade clause his time may well be up here.

Moving Salvador alone wouldn't be enough to get under the cap though, so it's a certainty two moves have to be made if Salvador's one of them. Just from a talent standpoint though, if you move Salvador and have a defense including Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder, Andy Greene and Whitey I think it's conceivable either two rookies can make the team or you sign a placeholder like Mike Mottau and take one youngster to Newark for Opening Night. Teen sensation Alexander Urbom has impressed so far during camp although he forgot to account for Ryan Callahan on the Rangers' tying goal in the first period last night. Matthew Corrente hasn't looked terrible either, and does have a few games of pro experience - even if as a forward. Even Taormina, who looked shaky the other night at the Garden, rebounded with a good performance last night. Another candidate to fill our offensive d-man role is Tyler Eckford but he hasn't played yet due to a death in the family just after camp started.

Long story short, there should be enough depth to replace one veteran defenseman at least...despite our twelve goals allowed in three preseason games. It does seem like most of our breakdowns have come either from the vets, or players not likely to make the team such as Taormina and young Eric Gelinas. And you'd figure the PK is fixable at some point, seeing as we've been near the top of the league for a while now, even after losing long-time mainstays like John Madden and Jay Pandolfo. On the whole we only allowed twenty shots on net last night, which isn't terrible but the fact that a lot of them were quality scoring chances needs to be rectified.

One reason we had so many penalties against us last night was - just like 2008 - the Devils got too caught up in trying to 'get' Sean Avery and instead get punk'd themselves by the end of the game as Avery caused penalties and was a screen in front on a couple of the goals. I swear, this guy's like a bizarro version of Alexei Morozov - the former Pen who only did damage against the Devils on the scoresheet and was invisible against anyone else. Maybe Derek will say different but it seems for a long time that the Devils are the only team who Avery really bothers enough to have an impact on a game. Clearly David Clarkson still hasn't got it through his thick skull that Avery is too cowardly to fight him, and was lucky to avoid expulsion in the second period for being third man in on an altercation between Avery and Kovalchuk (fighting a star player who doesn't fight a lot and avoiding a guy your own size who does? Real tacky).

Granted, I laughed as much as anyone else when I saw Kovy tell Avery to 'zip it' on the bench and since it's preseason it didn't really bother me that much that the Devils went overboard but it was definitely an unpleasant reminder of two years ago. Seeing as we have a lot of new players since then - including Kovy - they need to be indoctrinated to the fact that you can't go out of your way to get Avery, and the Devils largely did ignore him last year when they split the season series with the Rangers.

While clearly our special teams need work, as evidenced by the four power play goals against last night and none scored ourselves in the preseason, our five-on-five has been pretty good far, led by the Fantasy Line of Kovy, Zach and Zajac. There instant chemistry shouldn't be a total surprise since Parise and Zajac have spent much of the last couple years playing together but the instant meshing of Kovy with them - as a right-winger no less - has come as a pleasant surprise to this point. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing them as a line for a longer period, from what I've seen in these two games against the Rangers when they've combined for four goals and twelve points, factoring in every goal but one in these two games.

Of course the key to that is getting secondary scoring, and our second line - at least on paper so far - is intriguing, with Patrik Elias and Jason Arnott already reunited, and at the moment slotting in captain Langenbrunner as their RW'er. Even though they last played together eight years ago, you probably don't have to worry about chemistry between the still-good friends Elias and Arnott and from what I heard it seemed like they had a good game with Jamie when they were together during the first preseason game against the Flyers. Elias and Arnott didn't have as much of an impact with rookie Alexander Vasuynov on their line last night though. Plus you still have other forwards on the roster (at least as of now) that can help on the scoresheet like Clarkson, Danius Zubrus and the $5 million man Brian Rolston, who even had a breakaway goal last night, how about that?!

Probably one of those latter three are more likely to be moved than any of our top six at this point. Unlike Glen Sather who dropped a swift axe on Wade Redden, GM Lou Lamoriello hasn't tipped his hand yet, waiting for camp to play out and seeing what players fit in best with this current roster. One thing that does seem obvious right now is there aren't a lot of scoring fowards ready for the big club yet, Matthas Tedenby looks at least a year away and though Jacob Josefson has earned praise so far he, like Urbom is still a teenager so it's hard to really expect him to fill a third-line center position day-in and day-out. In fact, one of the forwards I've heard the most praise for is the unheralded Brad Mills, who played for John MacLean in Lowell last year and could definitely fill an energy role on the fourth line (perhaps cutting into Rod Pelley's playing time) if he sticks.

Given the fact there don't seem to be any forwards waiting in the wings to fill a top-three line spot, that would make Lou's decision even harder, assuming he had to get rid of a forward. Does he wave a magic wand and find someone to take the overpaid Rolston for the next two years, or does he drop a better role player and more moveable contract in Zubrus? I really don't see Lou favorite Clarkson being moved, as he has 20-goal talent and his 'overzealous' issues are fixable but since the player himself is aware of speculation surrounding him according to Tom Gulutti's latest Fire and Ice blog, I can't totally dismiss it as a possibility either.

One of the few things we know for certain at this point is that Cap D-day is fast approaching. We must be under the cap by the close of business on October 5, which gives Lou approximately ten days to do whatever he's going to do to put us in cap compliance. Between now and next Sunday there are three more preseason games for players to impress and win jobs, starting with Tuesday against the Flyers at the Rock - their first trip in since they knocked us out of the playoffs last year - followed by a home-and-home with the Islanders on Friday and Saturday. I suspect we'll hear no later than next Monday what moves will be done, if we wait until the end of the preseason and then spend a day to evaluate possibilities.

Unfortunately none of the preseason games remaining will be on television (thanks a lot Jimmy Dolan) but I could have enough time to at least go to Newark and catch part of Tuesday and Friday's home games. If anything these preseason games are far more interesting this year because of the uncertainty, and that might be evidenced by a stunning 13,000+ crowd at the Rock last night. I honestly can't remember the last time a preseason game drew much over 10,000 for us, but then again putting the Ranger game on Saturday - which turned out to be one of the nicest days of the year - I'm sure helped the number.

However, it's about high time this uncertainty ends. I will be looking forward to the day where whatever happens, this constant speculation is over and done with and we can just focus on our own team and Opening Night on October 8.

1 comment:

Derek Felix said...

Right on about Avery Has. Kinda what I implied in my column last night about the other 76. It'll be interesting to see what the Devs do to get down. I'd keep Zubrus, cut Salvador and not sure what else. Rolston's looked good.

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