Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Devils begin preseason with both optomism and questions

After being in Turkey for two weeks and arriving home just yesterday, it's nice to actually have NHL hockey to watch tonight, much to my surprise since usually the Devils only get one preseason telecast a year. Apparently we're getting at least three of our six preseason games on TV this year - both Ranger/Devil tilts tonight (in Albany) and Friday as well as one of the Flyer games on VERSUS, who's actually telecasting preseason hockey this year! As negative as I've been about the Devils' chances at times during this offseason you pretty much can't help but look at the sunny side this time of year.

And make no mistake, there is a lot to look forward to in this Devils season. Young players such as Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, Alexander Urbom and Mark Fayne got invaluable experience last year and should continue to grow with more playing time this year. Yet, none of those kids come with the buzz of this year's fourth overall pick, defenseman Adam Larsson - who's already been turning heads in camp, and got his preseason off to a fine start with an assist in the first period tonight on a goal by Petr Sykora (yes that Petr Sykora, but I'll get to him later).

You have to have vets to supplement the kids though, and the Devils have that starting with their 'seasoned' goaltending tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg, both of whom played unbelievably in the Devils' second half surge last year. Of course you have $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuk, the ultimate pro in Patrik Elias and UFA-to be (?) Zach Parise spearheading an attack up front that has nowhere to go but up after a franchise-worst goal total last year. In the back you have recent UFA signings Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, as well as Andy Greene and possibly even Bryce Salvador (attempting to return after missing an entire season with inner-ear problems) providing the vet leadership on defense.

Apart from the core vets and kids, you need role players and we still have those in abundance, including tough guy Eric Boulton, grinder David Clarkson , faceoff man Dave Steckel and versatile Danius Zubrus, a RW'er by trade but a candidate to shift over to center with the offseason injury to Travis Zajac leaving a hole in the middle.

Finally, you have the camp stories - longshot prospects that make a name for themselves, or vet tryouts looking for one more chance. In that vein, GM Lou Lamoriello decided to help fill his ex-Devil quota by bringing in former A-line standout Sykora for a tryout, as well as one-time Jackets defenseman Anton Stralman (a power play specialist) and forward Steve Bernier, a former first-rounder who could be another intriguing project.

Surely, the return of Sykora was as newsworthy as anything the Devils did while I was away though, especially given the cloud under which his first tenure ended with the Devils after he didn't play Game 5 of a 2002 first-round playoff series against the Hurricanes with a leg bruise. Soon after the Devils lost to the Canes, Sykora was shipped out of town after having great success in the prior few seasons as a member of the A-line with Elias and fellow two-time Devil Jason Arnott. Pity that Sykora didn't get the tryout last year, we could have at least seen the A-line together again. Early on in camp, he looks hungry though, scoring a hat trick in a scrimmage yesterday and getting the first goal tonight.

Of course, the Devils have plenty of questions to answer and camp will only start to sort those out. How many of the kids will make the big-league roster? Will Parise and especially Salvador be able to come back from serious injuries? Can new coach Pete DeBoer strike a balance between offense and defense that's been missing in recent years? Do the Devils attempt to replace Zajac (out around half the season) with kids Josefson and Adam Henrique or go outside of the organization to make a trade? And is the franchise really in financial trouble, as has been speculated ad nauseum including by the Post a week or so back? Honestly I don't believe either the Devils' vehement denials or the wild Post speculation on that issue, most likely the answer's somewhere in between the extremes but it's hard to trust the Devils after already hearing this song and dance from the Mets about how they had no financial issues.

What does seem obvious is that financial concerns at least played a role in the inability to sign Parise long-term this offseason, and the earliest he can extend his deal with the Devils now is in January. And it's unlike Lou to just give away players the way he did this offseason by jettisoning Brian Rolston and Colin White, essentially for salary and cap relief. Of course it's possible those moves were also about changing the culture in a locker room that fractured in 2010, as well as the trades of Arnott and former captain Jamie Langenbrunner during last season.

Either way, the off-ice concerns are secondary at this point...except perhaps for being able to see my new seats on Friday. That'll be a treat, especially assuming Larsson plays in front of the home fans that night as well.

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