September 18, 2009
NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy (See also Devils Eulogy): Third in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division champions (51-27-4, 106 points), eliminated by the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the conference playoffs, 4-3.
For the second straight year, the results from the Stanley Cup playoffs went down about as well as a Fat Darrell in a hangover belly at the Grease Trucks near Rutgers. (Just in case you wondering in which state the author of this post was born. Hint: It's called the Garden State, even though there aren't any.)
After the New York Rangers dumped the Devils in the infamous Sean Avery(notes) Rule series two years ago, the Hurricanes rallied with wins in Game 6 and a waking-nightmare-of-a-Game 7 for Devils fans.
After the season, Coach Brent Sutter stepped down to move closer to home, which the Calgary Flames' coaches' office technically is. Devils overlord Lou Lamoriello scrambled to find a suitable replacement for a team whose window of opportunity is closing every year Brodeur gets older. In the end, he made former Devils Stanley Cup winner and Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire an offer he couldn't refuse. And by that we mean "employment."
The Devils were a surprise last season, playing stellar hockey after Brodeur's injury to win a division title. The surprises will have to continue for a team that will have to commit to the system (again) to overcome their offensive and defensive deficiencies. Anything can happen with Marty Brodeur between the pipes, but these Devils aren't a lock for the playoffs.
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): Uh ... yeah. Goalie Yann Danis(notes) will likely replace both 2008-09 savior Scott Clemmensen(notes) and Kevin Weekes(notes) as Brodeur's backup. Defenseman Cory Murphy(notes) was signed from Tampa. Forward Ilkka Pikkarainen(notes) is the latest guy from Europe no one's ever heard of that Lou Lamoriello drafts, eventually signs and then inevitably becomes a contributor on the NHL level.
Other than that, nada, zippy, zilch, zero. New coach and the hand he's dealt.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): The loss of John Madden(notes) to the Chicago Blackhawks is an end-of-an-era moment for the Devils; not in the sense that, at this stage of his career, he was irreplaceable, but that one of the foundational players for the team's defensive success over the last decade has moved on. No more Madden and Jay Pandolfo(notes) shutting down top lines together. No more "Mad Dog" taking key draws. The two-time Cup champ is gone, and it'll be up to Rod Pelley(notes) (2-4-6 in 58 games) to take over as the primary defensive center.
Brian Gionta's(notes) (20-40-60) departure for the Montreal Canadiens leaves a significant hole on the team's second scoring line, even if the Devils weren't going to match the dollars or term of his deal. Clemmenen (Panthers), Mike Rupp (Penguins), Niclas Havelid(notes) (Sweden) and Barry Tallackson(notes) (St. Louis) also departed.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): Zach Parise(notes) has a distinct advantage over other players because
his dimples distract opposing goalies he's a tenacious player in the corners with the offensive skills to finish his chances. Parise's star-making season saw him make several dozen Jersey puck bunnies swoon score 94 points and 45 goals -- nearly topping the Devils' all-time highs for both. There's every reason to expect he'll be back on a line with Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) (29-40-69) and Travis Zajac(notes) (20-42-62); which means there's every reason to expect Parise will infect the NHL with a serious case of the adoreables continue to grow into one of the League's most lethal offensive players, even in Lemaire's system.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): David Clarkson(notes) is a brawling penalty-minute machine who just happens to be blossoming into a solid offensive contributor. He went from nine to 17 goals last season, and would appear primed for more responsibility and minutes should Lemaire give it to him. Devils fans remember a guy by the name of Randy McKay who had a similar trajectory, and he managed 24 goals under Lemaire in 1997-98.
Only downside: Basically has one good move in the wraparound, and does it all the time. Seriously, it's like playing Mortal Kombat in the arcade with a kid who only uses Scorpion and only knows how to throw the "get over here!" spear.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): Paul Martin(notes) led the Devils D-men in time on ice (24:22) and average shifts per game (27.4), and it wasn't even close. He doesn't get the press the Scotts or Brian Rafalski(notes) received before him, but Martin's the most important defenseman on the team; a two-way player who also added in 33 points last season.
Second-most important? It still has to be hulking Colin White(notes), a physical defenseman who had his second-best offensive season (18 points) and played to a plus-18 last year. He played a more disciplined brand hockey than in years past, and was effective.
The real surprise last season for Jersey was Martin's partner, Johnny Oduya(notes), who re-signed with the Devils in the summer. Oduya had 29 points and played solid two-way hockey for a player many had tabbed as simply a puck-mover. He was a vital signing for the Devils, if only for his occasional Bobby Orr impressions.
Bryce Salvador(notes) has some moments of good physical play last season. Mike Mottau(notes), Andy Greene(notes), Jay Leach(notes), Murphy and potentially rookie Alexander Urbom(notes) will contend for time.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies):
Brodeur played in 10 games before his injury, returning to appear in 21 more during the regular season. He posted a 2.42 GAA with a .916 save percentage, finally setting the NHL's all-time wins record for goalies that Wayne Gretzky of all people said is probably unbreakable.
In the playoffs ... well, to put it in Brodeur-ian terms, it was like a trip to the Sizzler buffet: The good was familiar and tasty, the bad was stomach-churning. He posted a brilliant 44-save shutout in the game following the Jokinen goal, but he gave up four-spots in both Game 6 and 7. Blame the offense, blame the defense, blame whomever -- that's the best goalie in the world with eight goals on his record in two elimination games.
The usual debates will stir again about whether a goalie who is 38 in May should play 70 games. It's a bit moot after he played 31 and still had inconsistency in the postseason. If the Devils make the playoffs again, it'll be on Brodeur's shoulders. But it's now safe to say that all bets are off about the legendary keeper once they're in.
And Now, a Short Message From David Clarkson:
The Inventor (The Coach): Jacques Lemaire returns to the franchise that he helped lead into over a decade of successful hockey ... and one where his style also wore out its welcome. His Minnesota Wild teams were, near the end, playing desperate, tedious trap hockey to compete. But Lemaire told Fire & Ice that the days of sitting on a third period lead for dear life, which basically won the Devils their first Cup, are over:
"It's over. That was the time of the good defensive team and that is gone. Not that the teams are not good defensively. It's the offense that is in the league, the parity that is in the league. That's why you go back on games and you see teams, they dominate for a period and then it switches to the other team and then it switches again. As soon as there's a little drop in the intensity, anything that your team is doing well, as soon as there's a little drop, the other team takes over."
Yes, we'll believe it when we see it. But no matter the style, Lemaire remains one of the NHL's top coaches and shouldn't be underestimated.
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: C- (Power play didn't scare anyone, and the 21st ranked kill loses Madden.)
Management: A- (As they say: In Lou we trust.)
"After yet another stunningly humiliating playoff flameout, we were thrilled to see some roster churn from the Devils, but the offseason's biggest move leaves us cold. Our response is best put in haiku:
Fast players slow down
Talented forwards run dry
Head coach Jacques Lemaire
We expect from this season what we've gotten from every Devils season since the lockout. They'll be an underappreciated team during the regular season, with enough flashes of brilliance that we'll believe they're capable of making some noise in the playoffs. But then, come late April or early May, we'll find ourselves wondering why we fell for it again."
"While the entire Atlantic Division got bigger and faster with more talent this offseason, look for the Devils' biggest acquisition, Jacques Lemaire's defensive system, to help slow things down and bring team discipline. The Devils have enough talent, but the big question mark is: Will they be good enough defensively to close out leads?"
"The New Jersey Devils have been the second best team in the NHL since 1993-94.* With one sole exception, the Devils have made the playoffs and won the Atlantic Division 8 times. With a healthy Martin Brodeur, a returning defense, a rising star in Zach Parise, and"new" head coach Jacques Lemaire planning to just tweak Brent Sutter's system**, you can count on another playoff appearance and the Devils to be a tough opponent in April - and beyond."
*Proof - in case you want to call me out.
**Gulitti's reported quotes from Lemaire saying that he's looking for a little more offense than Sutter's team last season - and the players are responding in the affirmative.
Don Draper Says ...
"I leave the Prudential Center, I don't care where I'm going. I just want to see the city disappearing behind me."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team):
Is there enough scoring here? There are those who believe Lemaire's system will benefit players like Zach Parise and Brian Rolston(notes) on the offensive side of the ice. There are also those who believe that the Devils simply don't have the offensive punch to continually win tight games, with the loss of Gionta and with Patrik Elias(notes) (31-47-78) already battling through injuries.
It's a new coach, which means new tensions with players about roles: See Langenbrunner's frustration this preseason. Lemaire was the perfect coach for this team 14 years ago. But that was 14 years ago.
Warranty Expires (Prediction): We've underestimated the Devils before, and then they've held a parade in a parking lot at the end of the season. Losing the way they did to Carolina, you'd have thought Lamoriello would have revamped the roster a bit. Instead, he let veterans skate away, installed Lemaire for Part Deux after Sutter bolted and hoped some younger role players could develop down in the lineup.
Maybe he feels the veteran core has one good run left in it with Jacques behind the pine. But in that division, and in this conference, the current configuration of the New Jersey Devils is going to have a hell of a fight to make the playoffs. Even with Brodeur healthy and Lemaire back, nothing is predestined this season. They could finish out of the money for the first time since 1996.