September 18, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Fourth in the Eastern Conference (46-29-7, 99 points). I write this preview as a lifelong New Jersey Devils fan, which is no secret if you're a frequent reader of this blog (and if you are, thanks again). I say this up front because it adds clarity and context to the following assessment of the Devils' conference quarterfinals loss to the New York Rangers:
It was a punch to the nuts.
Sitting in that beautiful new arena in Newark (seriously, logos on the urinal flushers!) and having it invaded by swaggering, taunting and louder-than-we'll-ever-be Rangers fans took me back to those days before the Devils won their first of three Stanley Cup in 1995. Those days when you felt like a second-class citizen in your own building. When you felt like your guys were working hard, but just didn't have whatever it was that made the Rangers that much better in these games.
What made this loss feel much more dire was the way Martin Brodeur came unraveled thanks to that scurrilous Sean Avery and his dancing monkey routine in front of the crease. Brodeur's temperament has always been as valuable as his puck-handling skills. He lost his mental edge in this series. I've seen the man rebound from giving up a Toskala-like goal in the Stanley Cup finals, but he couldn't handle Avery and the media storm that followed their feud. His stats told the story.
Brodeur will turn 37 this season, assuming the Devils are playing in May. The window of opportunity is closing to win that fourth ring, so he and Patrick Roy can have matching hands. Will it happen this season?
Homecoming King (Top Player): Since most of the Devils' offensive players have the consistency of the current Dow Jones average, and the defense is as thin as its been in two decades, Brodeur is the obvious and only choice here.
Love him, hate him, believe him to be the beneficiary of a defensive system ... there's no denying his place among the NHL's goaltending immortals. Not with four Vezina Trophies. Not with becoming only the second goalie with 500 career wins, and poised to pass Roy for the all-time mark. And not when he's just eight shutouts away from shattering Terry Sawchuk's seemingly unbreakable record of 103.
Does he have more average nights than he did five years ago? Yes, but he can still win a game on his own -- although rest up for the postseason, will you please? Even Leno takes a night off here or there.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Patrik Elias has had three middling seasons since his outstanding season of 38 goals and 81 points. The addition of Brian Rolston (more on him later) dramatically decreases the pressure on Elias as a offensive player and should also help his power-play numbers, which slipped by 12 points last season. Expect Elias to return to the ranks of offensive leaders this season ... although his numbers will never be high enough to quiet critics of his elephantine contract.
If nothing else, Elias gives perhaps the greatest rationale for players to skip the KHL ... after contracted the Hep while playing in Russia during the lockout: "I would suggest that guys that go there get vaccinations ... You never know. I guess you can get sick anywhere, but maybe you are more susceptible there." Yikes!
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Sergei Brylin's was a bittersweet farewell, because he had been with the team for three Stanley Cups and tossed around his body like a ragdoll for 13 seasons. But his productivity dropped to 16 points last season on a team that needs offense from every forward in the lineup. It was time to move on.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): The signing of Brian Rolston to a four-year, $20 million UFA contract was one of the greatest coups of the off-season for any team in the NHL. It's a nearly perfect fit: A former Devil who adds a veteran offensive presence without any defensive liability. The most pressing issue will be whether Rolston is used at center or on the wing. If he becomes a top line center for the Devils, this signing just gets even better.
The return of Bobby Holik to the Devils ... it's a bit of a head-scratcher. There aren't many players who have been embraced (as a member of the Crash Line) and criticized (as a failed offensive player) and then reviled (leaving for the Rangers as a free agent), and then returned for another tour of duty. Strategically, he adds a defensive pivot that can take some of the pressure off of John Madden. Realistically, he'll be 38 this season and his ice time continues to dwindle.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): The Devils said goodbye to brawler Arron Asham, but have two pugilists on the roster that can also play a little hockey: Forward David Clarkson and defenseman Sheldon Brookbank. The Devils had 46 fights last season; Clarkson had 21 of them.
Teacher of the Year: Brent Sutter's first season behind the bench was an unqualified success, because Lamoriello didn't fire him with a week to go before the playoffs. Sadly, that's where the bar is as a Devils coach.
Sutter deserves a ton of credit for taking what looked like at times to be a patchwork of players and figuring out a way to challenge for a division title. He, and the team, lost their wits in the postseason. But with a year under his belt, it's exciting to see what a coach like Sutter can accomplish in Year 2.
Critical factor: Finding a way to bring the transition offense he was touted as teaching to a team that struggles like Colin White in a spelling bee to score goals. Because a little more offensive excitement would go a long way in selling a few more seats in Newark. Unfortunately, they're the Devils. Excitement is a well-orchestrated line change for defensive purposes ...
The Custodians (Goalies): Brodeur is rumored to be in better shape heading into camp than he's been in for the last couple of seasons, which is really going to cut into our cache of dependable fat-joke candidates in the NHL. Until he proves he can't post a 2.17 GAA and a .920 save percentage behind even this defense, Brodeur is probably still the best goalie in hockey. By far, the heart and soul of this team.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): It speaks both to Brodeur and the defensive responsibility of the forwards that this Devils team was fifth in the NHL for goals against last season. Because it's not due to this defense. Colin White is the most physical presence here, and when healthy he's a game-changer. Paul Martin had a rebound season offensively, but still can't get much going on the power play like Brian Rafalski did in a similar role. Johnny Oduya scored a Bobby Orr-like goal last season, but is inconsistent at best. Bryce Salvador, Mike Mottau, Andy Greene, Brookbank and players like Matthew Corrente, Tyler Eckford and Jay Leach are in the mix.
Five years ago, Ken Daneyko was a fifth defenseman on the Devils; those days are long gone.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): I continue to find the length of Dainius Zubrus's contract to be as disturbing as his completely ill-fitting role on this team. You want to believe he'll be better than 13 goals and 38 points. I'm just not sure how or where or why he'll be better.
Zach Parise is on a fast-track to stardom. Travis Zajac failed to take the next step in his sophomore season, but will get back to his offensive game in Year 3. But the offensive player I'd be most concerned about is Brian Gionta. Those 48 goals and 89 points three years ago feel like they happened 80 years ago. Last year's numbers might just be what Gio gives you, and if that's the case then he's not a top line player for this team.
AV Club (Media): Stan Fischler finds us uproarious.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): It's been offense since about the 2001 season, and it'll continue to be offense. The team has some talent up front, some questions up the middle and a power play that scares you like a teddy bear with a heart-shaped balloon. You know what Parise gives you. Elias, I expect a rebound. And Rolston is solid. But Jamie Langenbrunner, Gionta, Zajac, Zubrus, Madden ... these are the depth players whose offense has always meant the difference between a Lamoriello team that goes out in one round and one that goes all the way.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B-
Prom Theme: Bruce's "Glory Days." Because they'll pass you buy, and Marty isn't playing until he's 50. Oh, and because he's Jersey.
Expected Graduation: There was a pessimistic hesitation on my part this off-season in which I believed for a moment this team would miss the playoffs. That's passed. The Devils are in the toughest division in hockey (Islanders aside), but it's also a division that sent four teams to the playoffs last year and likely will do so again. The defense and goaltending is too good to assume this team won't finish second or third in the Atlantic.
Of course, one key, insurmountable injury to an aging, overworked veteran goalie could undue all of it. And I'm not talking about Kevin Weekes ...