September 17, 2011
It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
In Summer 2010, New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello made a splash in free agency, signing defensemen Anton Volchenkov(notes) (6 years, $25.5 million) and Henrik Tallinder(notes) (4 years, $13.5 million) before officially bringing back Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) for 15 years and $100 million, which he signed after the NHL cancelled a 17-year deal for cap circumvention.
Expectations were high for the Devils and rookie coach John MacLean.
Lemaire famously went 29-17-3 after taking over, putting the Devils back in the playoff conversation before they trailed off, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996 with a 38-39-5 record and 81 points.
Lemaire announced he wouldn't come back to coach the team, so Lamoriello tapped former Florida Panthers head coach Pete DeBoer.
The most significant addition to the Devils is also their youngest addition: Adam Larsson(notes), the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft and a rookie defenseman who could slide right into the New Jersey blue line. Which speaks volumes about both his abilities and the wafer-thin depth of the Devils' quality puck-moving defense.
While the rest of the NHL debates the virtues of enforcers, the Devils signed both Cam Janssen(notes) (1 year) and Eric Boulton(notes) (2 years) during the summer. Stephane Veilleux(notes), formerly of Tampa Bay, and Peter Harrold(notes), formerly of the Kings, were also signed.
Veteran defenseman Colin White(notes), who skated on the Devils' 2003 Cup championship team, was bought out and then signed with San Jose. Brian Rolston(notes) survived the buy out but was traded to the New York Islanders in a salary dump. Winger Alexander Vasyunov(notes) was killed in that tragic plane crash after signing in the KHL.
At forward, the Devils will attempt to have natural left wings Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias(notes) and Zach Parise all co-exist on the same roster, something they were unable to do under MacLean last season.
Kovalchuk finished with 31 goals and 29 assists for 60 points and a minus-26 — by far his worst season in the NHL, coming after he signed a 15-year, $100-million contract. He spent the majority of his time with right wing Nick Palmieri(notes), who tallied 17 points in 43 games as a rookie, and center Travis Zajac(notes), who had 44 points in 82 games and will miss between 3-4 months after undergoing left Achilles tendon surgery in August. His consecutive games-played streak ends at 401.
His injury likely means Patrik Elias will be back as center again, having tallied 62 points last season playing with the now-departed Rolston and Dainius Zubrus(notes) (30 points in 79 games, minus-11).
Parise was limited to 13 games after suffering a knee injury in Nov. 2010. He's two years removed from a 45-goal, 94-point season that showed his potential as an elite goal-scorer. He avoided arbitration with the Devils by signing a 1-year, $6-million contract. He won't avoid 'round the clock speculation about his future, as Parise faces unrestricted free agency next summer and the Devils attempt to lock him up before that.
Other Devils to watch include David Steckel, faceoff ace and Crosby concusser; hard-working Tim Sestito(notes), Rod Pelley(notes) and Adam Mair(notes); Vladimir Zharkov(notes), who had 2 goals in 38 games last season; and Janssen, in his second stint with the Devils as a pugnacious forward.
Speaking of return engagements: Petr Sykora, a Stanley Cup winner for the Devils in 2000, is trying out for the team having last played in the NHL during 2009-10 with Minnesota.
On defense, the Devils re-signed Andy Greene(notes) to a 4-year, $12 million after a season in which his point totals declined by 14 and he was a minus-23. But he remains one of their best puck-moving options on the blue line.
Four veteran defensemen are set for the Devils: Greene, Henrik Tallinder (16 points, minus-6), Anton Volchenkov (125 hits in 57 games during an injury-shortened season) and Bryce Salvador(notes), who has overcome an inner ear ailment and is expected to be back after missing all of 2010-11.
After them are a slew of young players (Alex Urbom, Matt Corrente, Peter Harrold), a camp tryout in Anton Stralman (formerly of the Blue Jackets) and one fascinating rookie: No. 4 overall pick Larsson, trying to become the first 18 year old player to make the Devils from the draft since Petr Skyora.
In goal, the Martin Brodeur will celebrate his 40th birthday next May, entering a season with plenty of questions. Is he still elite and a Vezina contender? Can he still be a workhorse? Can he bring the Devils to the playoffs, and then excel there? Most of all: Is this the last ride for one of the greatest goalies in NHL history?
"The Devil's Own." Miscast, high-salaried, awkward, disappointing and achingly tedious. And then there's this movie called "The Devil's Own" …
Lou Lamoriello spent a lot of money on free agents in 2010, only to watch Kovalchuk struggle and the team epically fail under MacLean. His teams haven't gotten past the opening round of the playoffs in five of the last seven years, including last season's non-playoff year. As it stands, the team he's constructed for this season still appears to be an ill-fitting collection of interesting parts. The pending free agency for Parise and the team's ownership issues will overshadow the campaign.
Give Pete DeBoer this: He knew Lamoriello's penchant for firing coaches nearly annually before signing on. In Florida, he said he learned that "you have to have the horses to be successful in this league." He has a few in New Jersey; let's see how hard he can ride Kovalchuk, who has only played good two-way hockey for Bob Hartley and Jacques Lemaire in his career.
Jacob Josefson got his skates wet last season in 28 games for the Devils as a 19-year-old. With Travis Zajac out for a bit, he could see increased ice time and responsibilities at center. One of several interesting young players to fill out the roster.
"It's OK, Eel-eee-yah; you asked for $100 million and didn't get a playoff spot. I asked for $100 billion and didn't get a single frickin' shark with a frickin' laser beam on its frickin' head."
Andy Greene wasn't going to be Paul Martin(notes), much like Paul Martin was never going to be Brian Rafalski(notes). Now, instead of playing in those shadows, he's got the expectations of a 4-year commitment from the team to play under. He's a serviceable defenseman; but is he closer to last year's pitiful numbers or the previous season's offensive revelation (37 points)?
Could it be anything but Zach Parise's ode to 1970s detective shows?
If the trinity of Elias, Kovalchuk and Parise find a way to co-exist and help this team overcome the loss of Travis Zajac and the question marks down the lineup offensively. Should that happen, the Devils will hang tough.
The loss of Zajac, and the team's inability to adequately address that loss, has us worried that it could be another slow start in New Jersey. If DeBoer can get them playing offensively and the blue line plays stout defense in front of Brodeur, they can get back into the playoffs. More realistically: They'll finish behind the Penguins, Rangers and Flyers in their own division and be squarely on the bubble. If we had to make a bet … no playoffs.