With five preseason games in the books now, tomorrow the Devils will play their final exhibition against the Flyers at the Prudential Center. However that's just an appetizer for the main course next Saturday, when the Devils open their season for real against the same Flyers in the same building. While decisions over who will stay and who will go haven't been made quite yet - perhaps they will after tonight since some of the borderline guys did play in the Devils' 1-0 win over the Isles - some parts of the team picture are beginning to clear.
Let's start with the obvious, Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg will be the goalies. There's two of the twenty-three roster spots. If the Devils do ice a full roster this year (and they have the cap space to do so), odds are they'll keep fourteen forwards and seven defensemen. About the only definites on defense are vets Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder and Andy Greene although coach Pete DeBoer might have spilled the beans about top pick Adam Larsson's chances of making the club with this quote after Thursday's preseason game in Philly talking about the minutes Larsson received in that game:
"It’s not optimal,” DeBoer said of those kind of minutes for an 18-year-old during the regular season. “But the kid has handled it so far no problem. We’ve been loading him up with the regular shift, penalty kill and power play to see where his strengths lie and where we think we’ll see him during the regular season. I’m not saying he’s no going to play 24 minutes a night. On some nights in the regular season, that’s a real possibility, but I don’t see that as an every-night thing. It’s been more a situation where we’re throwing everything at him and seeing what’s the best fit for him.”
Assuming Larsson does make the team - and he has impressed offensively and shown poise defensively, even if he is clearly going to make his mistakes in that end to start with - that makes four starters in the lineup. Among the other defensemen vying for the final two-three spots are vet Bryce Salvador, who's attempting to come back after a year on the shelf, last year's rookie revelation Mark Fayne and perennial seventh d-man Mark Fraser, a former captain of DeBoer's junior team. I'd say those three are the leaders in the clubhouse for spots 5-6-7 in that order.
Also in the mix are former Blue Jackets defenseman Anton Stralman, who has the offensive skills the team currently lacks on the blueline but has been scary defensively by all reports and even if he does manage to make the team it doesn't seem as if he'll be around very long. Matt Taormina came out of nowhere last season to begin 2010 as the team's power play quarterback but is beginning 2011 the way he ended last season - on the shelf with an injury. Former Kings defenseman Peter Harrold is also in the mix, but seems to have dropped a notch in the pecking order after a strong early start to camp. One-time first round pick Matt Corrente seems to be falling more off the radar by the year. And though he played tonight and got in several games for the Devils last year, it appears that Alexander Urbom still has more of an apprenticeship to serve in Albany.
At forward, the picture's also cloudy though there are several definites in star left wings Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, centers Patrik Elias and Jacob Josefson and right wingers David Clarkson and Danius Zubrus, though the latter may begin the season on the shelf since he hasn't played at all in the preseason with a 'lower body injury'. Mattais Tedenby is also a definite, but after playing right wing last year the diminutive Swede may be moving back to left wing this time around. Enforcer Eric Boulton and his multi-year, one-way contract will be here.
That leaves five more forward spots. After a strong camp and with an opening at center created by Travis Zajac's injury, it looks as if for now young Adam Henrique will be the one to fill it. He's been centering a third line with Tedenby and Clarkson for most of the preseason and been one of the bright spots so far. Perhaps former coach Jacques Lemaire was onto something when he said Henrique didn't look like a guy playing his first NHL game during the final game of 2011, when he was indeed debuting for the Devils. With Elias, Josefson and Henrique as the top three centers look for the dissapointing Dave Steckel to slot in on the fourth line. Steckel was brought in to win faceoffs but really hasn't done much of anything since being acquired for Jason Arnott last season. Still he's signed for multiple years and at $1.1 million a year so he'll get every opportunity to produce.
With Kovy, Parise, Tedenby and Boulton as the left wings that leaves right wing to discuss. Zubrus will slot in somewhere in the top six and Clarkson looks to be pegged for the third line but that still leaves a prime opening on the first or second line. Last year, Nick Palmeri rode shotgun with Kovy and Zajac but this preseason he's being pushed by this preseason's most intriguing storyline (other than Larsson) - Petr Sykora. Sykora's had a good camp so far, and god knows the team could use more offense from the right wing. Especially since none of the other candidates - Palmeri included - project as much more than 40-point player, if that. I could really see Sykora making the team and pushing Palmeri down to Albany, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. I don't see it as stunting Palmeri's development since based on his numbers last year and his lack of pedigree before being thrust onto the scene, I'm still not sure he's even in the long-term plans of the Devils.
Whether Sykora or Palmeri make the club as a top six RW, there's still an opening on the fourth line as well. By now, you know what you're getting from Vladimir Zharkov. Not much offense, but reliable defense and he'll do the 'little things' as well, such as play on the penalty kill and use his speed to draw penalties for his team. I kind of think we have to play Zharkov just for the former attribute alone, this team has a woeful lack of good penalty killing forwards without Zajac. Camp tryout Steve Bernier really hasn't impressed up to this point and I can't even see him making it as a spare forward. Although enforcer Cam Janssen remains a fan favorite, his two-way contract combined with the fact Boulton fills the enforcer role probably means he'll be ticketed for Albany.
Among the candidates for the depth forward positions are Rod Pelley, who's been hanging around a while but is just a little better than okay at faceoffs and penalty killing and doesn't add much else although he's shown a surprising ability to drop the gloves every once in a while. Probably better equipped for that role would be one-time ECHL forward Brad Mills. If one of the fourth-liners has done his best to stand out so far, it's been Mills - who endeared himself to a lot of people by fighting the Flyers' Zac Rinaldo Thursday after he took a run at Parise. Later on Mills would say this about his fight:
“I think standing up for my teammates is an important part of the role that I’m auditioning for, I guess you would say,” he said. “The fourth line needs to bring energy, but also some toughness and some grit and hold the other team accountable for what they’re doing out there.”
On the negative side, Mills has been overeager at times too, taking back to back penalties in the third period of the Devils' preseason game against the Rangers last Friday (and really he was lucky he didn't get whistled again later in the period). He was on the team for a few games last year and actually scored a game-winning goal against the Blackhawks in early November, but clearly he'll be here for grit as an occasional fill in, if anything. If I had to bet, I guess I'd pencil in Mills and Pelley as the extra forwards, with Mills as a center and Pelley on the wing.
Also unknown at this point is who the team's captain will be. DeBoer's said on more than one occasion that a captain will be named before the season starts so that'll be interesting. To me if it's anyone other than Parise, that's a severe red flag that he might not be long for this team. There's really no other reason overtly not to give it to him, he's supposed to be the face of the team (other than Brodeur) with Elias past his prime and Kovy not having been around as long and by all accounts sets a good example with his work ethic and atitude. If there was no contract situation, it would be a slam-dunk choice but some say that we should avoid giving him the C until he signs long-term. Nonsense, you pick the best person for the job and go from there. You don't use the C as an incentive to get a guy to sign a contract.
So my overall predictions are these:
Forwards (14) - Parise-Elias-Sykora, Kovy-Josefson-Palmeri (if Zubrus misses time), Tedenby-Henrique-Clarkson, Boulton-Steckel-Zharkov, Mills-Pelley (scratches)
Defense (7) - Volchenkov-Greene, Tallinder-Larsson, Salvador-Fayne, Fraser (scratch)
Goalies (2) - Brodeur-Hedberg
Captain - Parise, Assistants - Kovy, Elias
Guess we'll see how right these are soon enough, since the preseason ends tomorrow night.