Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hey Lou, can you fit me under the cap now?

After an unplanned and elongated absence, I am ready to make my return at last! Between computer issues caused by a phone line that was out of whack for almost two weeks and a family vacation to New Hampshire for the last four days I've missed the last two Devils games entirely, and haven't been around to blog much at all in the last couple of weeks other than some brief thoughts before the home opener last Friday.

Since I haven't been around at all this week I might as well start with where I left off with...Opening Night against the Stars. I admit, when Travis Zajac and Zach Parise scored in the first several minutes against Dallas - causing coach Marc Crawford to use a timeout - I figured we were gonna have an easy night against a supposedly inferior team. Maybe we would have if Ilya Kovalchuk's shot soon after went the other way after ringing off the post, but it didn't and the Devils suffered an annoying meltdown, first losing the 2-0 lead, then a 3-2 lead before finally losing the game in overtime moments after I predicted to my friend sitting next to me that it would be a quick OT with how bad both defenses were.
As annoying as that was - especially with our upcoming schedule - at least we got a point, I got to spend time with a couple of good friends Friday and the crowd was electric (unlike Monday, which I'll get to soon enough). I had no such consolation Saturday when we got smoked in Washington and I was at home watching on TV while packing for my trip. Admittedly I figured a 6-2, 6-3 type beatdown was coming given our defensive woes the night before, with a hungry President's Trophy winner playing its home opener after a shocking loss in Atlanta the night before. And that was even before Anton Volchenkov left the game early after a scary facial injury caused by a shot from Nicklas Backstrom that broke his nose. So from that standpoint I wasn't surprised by our 7-2 loss, even if it was a bit dissapointing to completely melt down after having a 2-1 lead halfway through.

What did bother me though, was our gooning it up for no apparent reason late. Surprisingly, it all started with Kovalchuk and Caps' star defenseman Mike Green throwing down in the undercard, with the $100 million man getting the better of it. That was bad enough but it turned out it was only the first of no fewer than five unneccesary fights in the third period with the game out of hand, culminating in Pierre Luc-Letourneau Leblond picking up an instigator in the final five minutes and triggering an automatic one-game suspension that compromised our roster even further.

I don't know what - if anything - the staff said about our extracurricular activities down five goals in the third period, but GM Lou Lamoriello couldn't have been pleased about Leblond's brain cramp, for the enforcer was immediately placed on waivers even before serving his suspension, although Lou denied that was the reason there was definitely a message in that action imo. As bad as what Leblond did was, I wasn't thrilled with any of the nonsense in the third. Some people may call that toughness, but it's not toughness when you randomly pick fights for no reason just because you're getting your butt whipped on the scoreboard. It's just stupidity and selfishness, and that includes the beloved Kovy, who set the tone for the latter stages of the third.

Even with me being away starting Sunday morning, I had somewhat of an idea what was in store for us Monday between Volchenkov's injury, Leblond's suspension and Brian Rolston's mysterious lower-body injury which caused him to miss some of the Caps game. Of course, none were available on Monday, meaning the Devils played with just fifteen skaters as Derek pointed out in his recap. Six defensemen to be sure, but three of them were rookies so that's a problem in and of itself. Having just nine forwards dress is almost unheard of though, as is a 15-man roster on the whole. Astonishingly, the Don Fehr-led NHLPA made noise about investigating us. As if any team would actually want to field such a depleted roster!

Having fewer skaters didn't exactly give us a competitive advantage in a 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh capped off by Paul Martin's empty-net goal to seal things up for his new team in his old home. As Martin Brodeur mused, what was the NHL going to do, take away the two points we didn't get for playing 15 skaters? I was wondering what the crowd would be given the weird holiday start time (memo to the NHL: only government employees and kids get off Columbus Day) and even after seeing a few crowd shots during the highlights it was actually worse than I feared, as we had just over 12,000 show up for a rivalry game and marquee matchup that sold out all three times last year. Just imagine how bad it might have been if the time wasn't switched from 1 PM to 4 PM?

Of course I knew none of this - other than the score of the Pens-Devils game - till yesterday, when I was finally able to get some computer time at the hotel I was staying. In the few minutes that I was online I found out about that laughably short roster, Rolston's mysterious lower-body injury being identified as a sports hernia, which would lead to Rolston being placed on LTIR and out 4-6 weeks, thereby giving us major cap relief! (as the rest of the league either mutters about our dumb luck or somehow thinks that Lou was able to pull another fast one)

For the record, I can't say I blame anyone for wanting to invent a conspiracy theory given the fortuitous timing of the injury as well as the player afflicted by it having an otherwise unmovable $5 million cap hit. That said, you can't invent a surgery and Rolston had an outside second opinion as well (and after our misdiagnoses with Martin, Patrik Elias and David Clarkson last year one can hardly blame him) which confirmed the initial diagnosis. Placing Rolston on LTIR means we suddenly can go another $5 million over the cap to fill out our roster.

However, Rolston's LTIR status didn't affect last night's game, in which we also iced a short roster of sixteen players. Our only addition between Monday and Wednesday was finally inking ex-Sabre Adam Mair to a one-year, $510k contract after Leblond was placed on waivers. Even with that, the Devils came up with a big road victory in which Kovalchuk scored the only goal in a 1-0 road win against the Sabres, which gave coach Johnny MacLean his first victory behind the bench, surprisingly effective rookie d-man Matt Taormina his first NHL point on the assist and Kovy his first true defining Devils moment. Though Kovy averaged almost a point a game after his trade from Atlanta last year and was one of our best players in the playoffs, he really hadn't had that statement big goal yet - but his OT winner on a one-timer just may have been that.

Most importantly, the win last night got the Devils off the schnied and was their best overall performance of the season from what I heard. So now we go back home Friday night to play the improving Avs with a full roster at last, after calling up defenseman Matt Corrente and forwards Jacob Josefson and Tim Sestito, though Volchenkov will certainly miss that game as well plus now fellow defenseman Mark Fraser is also going to be out for an extended period with a fractured right hand. What the lines and d-pairings will be tomorrow is anyone's guess.

About all that we do know is once again Brodeur will be starting in net, his fifth game in eight days (and this one against a non-conference team) followed almost no doubt by another start Saturday against the Bruins for six in nine. So much for Johan Hedberg being here to provide Brodeur with more rest, I think we all know his real purpose was as part of a de facto package deal with Kovy, as well as merely an expensive insurance policy for the 38-year old Brodeur - although he didn't do himself any favors by allowing a bizarre goal within minutes of entering the Caps game in relief of Brodeur for the third period.

Perhaps the best thing about the events of the last few days is now we finally have some room to breathe (for at least a couple months) without worrying about a short roster, although when Rolston and defenseman Bryce Salvador are ready to come off LTIR it might cause another problem. Or maybe not, as the NHL CBA - admittedly a worthless document after the NHL took a **** on it during the summer - clearly states that you can't take a player off of LTIR even when healthy if you don't have the cap space to fit him in.

It's a little-known provision that the Devils no doubt exploited once before, when they kept Richard Matvichuk on IR indefinitely a few seasons ago until he mysteriously got better on the eve of the playoffs. Given that, the Devils could probably keep Rolston and/or Salvador on IR indefinitely, unless the league steps in and changes the CBA once again or the player files a grievance. Admittedly that's another loophole I'm not too crazy about, but how would it even be enforced? Even if that wasn't the case, with the amount of over-30 and over-35 players on our roster, it's a pretty reasonable bet that someone else'll wind up on IR at some point before the season's over anyway...and next time it might not be someone we can do without.

However, it looks like for the forseeable future our cap and roster issues have been solved with dumb luck...oh well, it beats no luck at all.

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