Monday, June 25, 2012

Week two of the hot stove: Draft and schedule thoughts

With less than a week left before FA, you would think the last few days would be the calm before the storm.  Guess again, with the NHL schedule release last week and the draft taking place over the weekend, there's plenty to talk about in the hot stove.  Not to mention the announcement that next year's draft (2013) will be at the Prudential Center.  Hopefully we'll even have a first-round pick for the occasion, since it's our last chance to voluntarily forefit our first-rounder before the NHL does it for us in 2014.  It'll still be nice to have a chance to attend the draft next year, it doesn't come around a lot though East Coast fans certainly are having a field day with this year's draft in Pittsburgh and the 2014 draft slated for Philadelphia.

I couldn't watch the draft live Friday, since I was at Mets-Yankees waiting out pouring rain during a fifty-minute rain delay and then dodging raindrops all night, but I was following it on my phone as much as I could before the battery died.  During commercials, I found out about the big Jordan Staal trade barely twenty-four hours after it came out he turned down a ten-year extension to remain in Pittsburgh.  GM Ray Shero did both him and the team a favor by shipping him to Carolina, uniting him with brother Eric and getting back up-and-comer Brandon Sutter, the eighth overall pick in the draft (defenseman Derrick Pouliot) and another defensive prospect in Brian Dumolin.  That move, combined with Pittsburgh reuniting Zybanek Michalek and Phoenix for a fifth-round pick had the entire hockey world buzzing about the Pens' sudden cap space, and whether they would make a play for FA's to-be Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, or both.

Other interesting draft-day news included a trade the Isles did make - acquiring Lubomir Vishnovsky for a second-round pick next year, as well as one that was offered and refused...a rumored swap with Columbus where the Isles would give up their entire draft (including the #4 overall) just to move up two spots to #2 and select defenseman Ryan Murray.  If that deal was offered, and actually refused, that would tell you all you need to know about the current state of both franchises.  Among the biggest draft-day winners were the Caps, who worked out a trade to acquire talented Stars center Mike Ribeiro, then drafted highly-regarded Swedish center Filip Forsberg and winger Tom Wilson with their two first-rounders.  Other interesting draft picks include goaltending prospect Malcolm Subban going to the Bruins, where he'll get plenty of chances to see brother P.K on the other side of one of the fiercest rivalries in hockey.  Of course, Nail Yakupov went #1 to Edmonton, their third straight overall number one pick, and third straight forward drafted in that spot after Taylor Hall and Ryan-Nugent Hopkins.

And then there was the Devils' first-round pick.  Rumored to be selecting a goalie in many mocks due to the advanced age of Martin Brodeur, the Devils could only watch as Subban, and Russia's Andrei Vasilevsky (both graded as two of the top three goaltending prospects along with Sweden's Oscar Dansk) each went off the board way before the Devils' pick at #29.  After their contreversial decision to keep this year's first-rounder, the Devils made an even more eye-opening selection by drafting Stefan Matteau, son of former Ranger Stephane Matteau - best known around these parts for his two OT goals in the '94 Eastern Conference Finals against the Devils, including the double-OT winner in Game 7.  Ironically the Devils banished the Matteau ghost for good by winning this year's ECF against the Rangers, perhaps they don't make this pick otherwise since it would have been too painful a reminder.  Make no mistake though, the younger Matteau is a hockey player in his own right, projected to be a good two-way player with some 'sandpaper' to his game, leading all first-rounders in PIM's.

After selecting defensive prospect Damon Severson at the end of the second round, the Devils drafted exclusively forwards after that with their five remaining picks.  Size was the order of the day early with Matteau, Ben Johnson late in the third round and Ben Thomson early in the fourth, but the Devils rounded out their draft with smaller forwards in Graham Black, Alexander Kerfoot and Artur Gavrus.  In this case, drafting for need makes sense since the Devils' defensive cupboard seems pretty stocked right now, not so much up front though Calder finalist Adam Henrique certainly has a bright future ahead of him.  Apparently, the future goalie question will have to wait for another day and it will surely be a pivotal year for prospects like Scott Wedgewood and Keith Kinkaid.

As far as the schedule goes, the NHL season is scheduled (italicized for emphasis) to open on Thursday, October 11 with four games including Ottawa at Montreal and Boston at Philly as the first games at 7 PM.  All the local teams open the next night on the road, with the Isles at Pittsburgh, the Rangers at LA to witness the Kings' banner raising and the Devils at Washington.  Both the Devils and Isles play their home openers on the 13th, with the Isles hosting the Flyers and us hosting the Bruins, while the Rangers' home opener is...November 1 against the Stars after the second of three straight offseasons with major renovations taking place at MSG.

Major schedule notes for the Devils include their third game of the season on October 17, a Conference Finals rematch at the Rock against the Rangers.  Our first playoff rematches with the Flyers and Panthers both take place in early November (11/1 at Philly, 11/6 at home against Florida) while the SCF rematch will be on February 9, a Saturday afternoon visit by the Stanley Cup champs to New Jersey.  While seven of the Devils' first ten games will be at home, amazingly they will have only nineteen home games until February.  Twenty-three of our final thirty-seven games will be at home, including an eleven out of thirteen stretch from the end of January till the last week of February.

On the flip side, the Devils have a couple of long (in terms of mileage) road trips late in the season, with three games in four nights at Colorado, St. Louis and Dallas in early March as well as another three game in four day stretch in late March at Vancouver, San Jose and Anaheim.  Contrast that with this season, when the Devils only left the Eastern time zone once from mid-January until late May!  That is, of course presuming the season starts on time, which is certainly no guarantee with negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA slow to start and the looming lockout date of September 15, right when camps are scheduled to begin.

That's a worry for another day though, a more immediate concern for Devil fans is free agency.  Quite possibly at this very moment, Lou Lamoriello is in talks with Parise's agents hopeful of getting the captain locked up before the UFA clock strikes twelve on Sunday afternoon.  Parise's only the biggest question mark among several key FA's, as I highlighted in my previous blog.  I'm happy that I have the NHL Network this year to keep track of FA without constantly refreshing my computer or phone, but on the other hand I know now I'll be glued to the TV all day on what could very well be a beautiful weekend afternoon.  Oh well, at least it's better than having it on a weekday and not being able to keep track of it as much as I would want to, especially this year.  I can't remember a more critical FA period for this team, although surprisingly re-signing star winger Ilya Kovalchuk and also inking defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov turned into our most notable FA bounty two years ago.  It's one thing to bring in FA's though, it's another to prevent from losing them.

It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

BREAKING NEWS: And literally as I was typing this out before, the Devils announced that defenseman Mark Fayne would have wrist surgery and need approximately 3-4 months to rehab, though Lou claimed he would be back for the start of the season after playing through this injury during the playoffs.  Wonderful.  Oh well, at least that explains why Fayne's play dropped off in the Finals after three terrific rounds.

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