Thursday, October 6, 2011

Devils' season begins Saturday amidst change and uncertainty

As a Devils fan over the last decade and a half, I've seldom gone into a season with outright pessimism. Perhaps I have to go all the way back to 1999, when Jacques Lemaire left (the first time) and there was a youth infusion to think of the last time I was this uncertain over where the franchise was headed. Although the Robbie Ftorek era was short and didn't end well, he did oversee the transition to the next generation of Devil stars - Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora, Scott Gomez , Brian Rafalski and John Madden infused the team with new blood over those years and ensured the Devils' run as a premier team in the league would not be short-lived.

In a similar way, I'm really uncertain over what lies ahead in 2011 and beyond for this current group of Devils. Elias is still here and Sykora's back, amazingly enough but they represent two of only three past Cup winners - with Martin Brodeur being the other - on the Opening Night roster. With the departure of vets such as Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Rolston and Colin White (also part of the '99-00 kiddie crop) come the opportunity for a new generation of Devils to make their mark. Naming Zach Parise captain is the strongest symbol of the changing of the guard yet. It'll be the first time the Devils haven't had a prior Cup winner as a captain since before Scott Stevens won the Cup for the first time in 1995.

Much like in '99-00, the Devils have an intriguing crop of kids just about ready to make an impact on the NHL level. Can the likes of Mattais Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, Adam Henrique, Mark Fayne and teen sensation Adam Larsson live up to the expectations of Devil fans and eventually be compared to guys like Elias, Madden, Rafalski and White? Is Pete DeBoer the right man to mold this group of prospects into the next generation of Devil stars? Will Parise be able to live up to the standard set by Stevens and become a great leader as well as a great player?

Our questions don't end with the youngest Devils by any stretch, but in a lot of ways the team's success this year will depend on just how fast the kids progress. Particularly Larsson, who's just eighteen years old but already has created a buzz. Brodeur compared him to Scott Niedermayer, who not-so-coincidentally was the Devils' last top five pick. Like Larsson this season, Nieds was thrown into the lineup as a teenager right away because of his great talent and in his case, it paid off as he became a Norris Trophy winner and a HOF defenseman. While it's early to project what kind of player Larsson will be this year or down the road, I like our chances to get the most out of him considering all the great defensive tutors we have in the organization.

Though Larsson's taking the spot (and number) of the departed White, the Devils will also need contributions from the other kids as well. Tedenby, Josefson and Nick Palmeri will be counted on to provide a scoring bump for a team that finished last in the NHL in goals for 2009-10. Henrique will be needed to help fill the void of the injured Travis Zajac and provide depth down the middle. Fayne will be looking to build on a solid rookie season, when he came out of seemingly nowhere to become a regular on the Devils' blueline.

Part of the reason the '99-00 kiddie corps grew up in a hurry is having a solid group of vets around to lean on. While the current group of vets isn't as accomplished as their predecessors when it comes to playoff success, there are still a lot of respected voices to listen to, starting with Parise. Even though his impending free agency is the most dire question surrounding this year's Devils team, there's still no better choice to lead this current group. Parise leads by example and is the hardest worker on the team, and that's a pretty good reason to name anyone captain but he also happens to be the best all-around player on the ice too. Perhaps a lot of people might have forgotten just how good of a player he is, considering he only played in one game after October last year thanks to a serious knee injury. Although the Devils were able to make a huge run in the second half without him, he was sorely missed when last season went down the drain in the early months.

Having Elias (a prior captain) in the room should also help Zach acclimate to his new role and provide more stability for the kids. While just about everyone else around him was having a career-worst season or mending on the injured list, Elias was a steady influence throught all of last season and is by far the most accomplished everyday skater on the team given he holds the team record for scoring and has won two Cups. Elias will be one of the assistant captains this year, and flashy Ilya Kovalchuk will be the other. It's really hard for me not to work $100 million man into a sentence with Kovalchuk in it, but after a rocky first half, the pricey left winger showed in the second half why the Devils committed so much money and so many years to him. He's the best pure scorer on the team - Parise included - and along with Brodeur and fellow goalie Johan Hedberg almost single-handedly kept the team alive with big goal after big goal through early March in their improbable playoff run.

Other vets up front include the well-traveled Danius Zubrus, who may be overpaid but still gets the most out of what he has and is versatile enough to play wing and center, Zajac (out till around the new year at least with a fluky offseason injury) and Sykora - whose return to the Devils was the most uplifting story of camp. After bouncing around the league in the few years following the lockout, he went overseas to play in the Czech league. At 34, getting a tryout with the Devils was his last chance at playing in the NHL and he made the most of it, showing the enthusiasm of a kid and scoring like the feared A-line member of old. Although he'll be wearing an unfamiliar number 15, he'll receive some of the loudest cheers on Opening Night.

If I've spent an inordinate amount of time on the forwards so far, it's because the defense (surprisingly) seems to be more of a known quantity at this point. Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder didn't get as much ink - or money - as fellow UFA signing Kovalchuk last offseason but they're almost as important to the success of the team. Volchenkov brings a physical, shot-blocking element the team hasn't had since the days of Stevens and Tallinder is a proven mentor and steady presence in the locker room. Ironically, he was paired with Tyler Myers in Buffalo when the latter was an eighteen-year old rookie wunderkid. Might a Tallinder-Larsson pairing be in the cards this year?

Though both Tallinder and Volchenkov struggled acclimating at times last year and Volchenkov got hurt early on as well, they'll be counted on to lead a defense that's been dramatically overhauled from just two seasons ago. Among the team's starting six defensemen in the 2009 playoffs, only Andy Greene remains, and he took less money to re-up as a free agent this offseason. Greene needs to improve tremendously on his -23 of last season, but when he's on his game he can be an upper-echelon defenseman. Although the team bought out White this offseason, they felt they had a reasonable facsimile already on the roster - Bryce Salvador. Yes, the same Salvador that missed an entire season with an inner ear infection and the resulting concussion-like symptoms is now healthy and cleared to play. At 35, he'll provide vet leadership and should be a servicable back-pairing defensemen but it's questionable as to just how effective he'll be, since it's been almost a year and a half from the time he last played a competitive NHL game (I'm not counting last preseason).

With the four vets sprinkled throughout the defense and Fayne at least being a semi-proven commodity the team feels it has a solid foundation for Larsson to grow and thrive. Yet, the team still has one big concern on defense - their lack of a right-handed shot on the point. While Larsson does give the team at least one this year, GM Lou Lamoriello was still trying to bring aboard former Blue Jackets defenseman Anton Stralman to provide another right-handed shot that can help offensively on the power play. As of now however, stay-at-home Mark Fraser will again be the seventh defenseman and Stralman remains lurking around in the shadows without a contract, like Adam Mair last year and Tommy Albelin several years ago.

In goal there are no questions about either Brodeur or Johan Hedberg despite their advanced age (39 and 38, respectively), particuarly after the second half last year when both were spectacular down the stretch. While the Devils' immediate future in net should be well-taken care of, their not-so-distant future is cloudy with both goalies only signed through this current season and only untested prospects on the horizon. In particular, the question of whether this season will be the legendary Brodeur's last in the NHL will hang over the team all year and create a greater 'win-now' urgency, since the future HOF'er won't commit to playing beyond this year.

Yet another big question surrounding the team is what kind of style will they play under yet another new coach? Nobody including me knew what kind of a system they tried to play under the ill-fated John MacLean last year and everyone knew what kind of system that Lemaire (who replaced MacLean just before Christmas) coached. New coach DeBoer has a close relationship with former Devil coach Brent Sutter, and from what I've seen in the preseason DeBoer believes in a lot of the same principles - maintaining a strong forecheck while still being defensively responsible. Previous attempts to go away from the Lemaire-style trap have been largely unsuccessful since the lockout but with a dramatically changed team, DeBoer may have the best chance of anyone including Sutter of overseeing a total culture change.

Part of that culture change seems to be how the fourth line has been constructed. Faceoff man Dave Steckel and penalty-killer extraordinare Vladimir Zharkov were both sent packing in camp, in favor of energy guy Brad Mills and returning fan favorite Cam Janssen - the 'backup enforcer' to FA signing Eric Boulton. While the fourth line's taken on a decidedly physical element, DeBoer's also moved Tedenby down to the fourth line in recent days to attempt to balance out scoring. I'm not sure how important actually winning faceoffs is, but to me having at least a couple forwards in your bottom two lines that can penalty kill is essential. Both because it saves the wear and tear on your top two lines and because, well you actually want guys that can penalty kill period. Especially with your key penalty-killer (Zajac) already on the shelf. It remains to be seen how well this team can win faceoffs or how the penalty kill will shake out.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the team - not to mention the ownership issues, which have only recently been resolved (for now) - it's really hard for me to get a picture of what kind of team this will be. Will they finish a surprising first the way they did in '99 under a new group? Or will they struggle to make the playoffs in a competitive Eastern Conference? Staying healthy will be a key, losing their most durable player and number one center in Zajac for such a long period surely doesn't help. And if there is one question about having the oldest goalie tandem in the league, it's their ability to stay healthy throughout. Though having either Brodeur or Hedberg go down wouldn't be so bad as long as the other was still around, having both go down could be crippling.

While we didn't make quite as many changes as another division rival did this offseason, the fact is only seven players - Elias, Kovy, Parise, Zubrus, Clarkson, Greene and Brodeur - from the last Devil playoff team just a year and a half ago will still be in the starting lineup this Opening Night. Throw in a new coach (again) and a lot of inexperienced players and you have a recipe for inconsistency. However, the x-factor is that this team will be about as motivated as anyone in the league this year. After what happened in the first half, they can no longer take the playoffs for granted and with Parise still unsigned long-term and Brodeur potentially in his last season anywhere, there's a further win-now urgency for this group. Given that and the talent on this team between the vets and the kids, I do see them making the playoffs. There isn't much room for error though, especiallly in hockey's toughest division. Another bad start could derail the good vibes of last season's inspiring finish rather quickly.

Prediction: 7th in the East, 95 points

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