Tuesday, November 08, 2005

First Month Analysis

Now that the first month of the “new” NHL is under our belt, it’s a perfect time for some evaluation. Here’s what I’m thinking about the new rules:

Goalie Trap Zone: Most insanely stupid concept in all of professional sports. I’ve vented my frustration towards this rule before, but it continues to blow my mind every time I watch a game. Only allowing goalies to handle the puck in a trapezoid is like telling NFL quarterbacks they can only scramble as long as they stay between the hash-marks. Since about 50% of what makes Martin Brodeur the best goalie in the game is his stick-handling ability, the NHL should refund the Devils half of his pay and only count the other half towards the team’s salary cap.

Obstruction: Scoring is inflated beyond Gary Bettman’s wildest dreams. If the NHL wanted to increase scoring, then mission accomplished. But if they were trying to make the game more exciting, they failed. No one wants to see players skate around untouched… a part of what makes hockey so appealing is the physical aspect of the game. Hockey fans like seeing their players fight though checks and work hard to score. That’s what makes hockey such a blue-collar game. Unfortunately, right now we have basketball on ice. Not only do we have thrilling dump-and-chase hockey on our hands (hint sarcasm), but fighting has been reduced almost to nonexistence. Again, if the league wants to increase excitement, fights are the LAST thing they should be trying to deter. Ask anyone who has ever attended a game what happens when two players drop the gloves.

Elimination of the Two Line Pass: Now here’s something that has actually helped the game. Being able to pass from goal line to blue line has made the game much more wide open and has created creativity from offensive players. If only us Devils fans had the luxury of watching Brodeur spring one of those passes from his corner…

Offsides Tag-Up: Finally, it’s back and it’s helping the flow of the game. It won’t increase goals, but it creates less faceoffs and more excitement.

Icing: Penalizing the team guilty of icing by not allowing them to change lines is brilliant. Now if the league will get rid of the icing touch up, the rule will be perfect.

Rules aren’t the only thing different in the NHL this year. The Devils are drastically different from the team we’ve grown used to over the past decade. So far, the season has been a tale of two teams… one that plays hard and one that barely shows up. With that in mind, here are some first-month awards:

Team MVP: Brian Gionta. He leads the team in goals and is the only guy who seems like he’s going all-out from start to finish of every game. Our record would be comparable to Pittsburgh’s if it wasn’t for Gio.

Team Underachiever: tie between Dan McGillis and Vladimir Malakhov. McGillis has finally started to throw his weight around the way he was expected to from the start, but no one takes more stupid penalties at inopportune times than McGillis. Malakhov, on the other hand, might be completely worthless. He turns the puck over in his own end, has absolutely no physical presence at all, and has been so disappointing lately that he’s spent some time on the team’s third defensive pairing (paired with none other than Mr. McGillis).

Most Pleasant Surprise: Sean Brown. When Colin White went down with a groin injury for several weeks, Brown not only filled his skates, but worked his way to the team’s top defensive pairing. He absolutely kills skaters entering the zone, plays responsibly down low, and every now and then blasts his way into the offensive zone with a scoring chance. His point shot is like a cannon and that has earned him some power play time. When Colin White came back for the last game against the Rangers, Brown stayed in the lineup and McGillis was a healthy scratch.

Waiting to Break Out: Scott Gomez. He skates like the wind through the neutral zone, makes opposing defensemen miss him along the boards, and makes nice plays out of nothing. But without Patrik Elias, Gomez has seemed like a puppy with no one to play with. As soon as someone steps up as a so-to scorer (and at times Gionta has), expect Gomez’s numbers to blow up.

Changing His Game: Alexander Mogilny. This isn’t the Almo we came to know in 2000-01. He’s no longer the fast-as-the-wind sniper with a laser beam shot, waiting to tear goalies a new one. More than anything, he’s playing almost Mario-like hockey. He uses his presence to shift defenses and sends accurate passes to his linemates. He does still have a great shot (which he doesn’t use enough) but his playmaking ability has definitely improved. With his increasing age and bad hip, maybe he had to make a change. So far it’s working because he leads the team in points.

Best Worst Player: Viktor Kozlov. Most nights this guy is brilliant. No one else in a Devils sweater can fight off defenders along the boards better than Kozzy. His passes are perfect and his shot is heavy. Unfortunately, this Kozlov doesn’t show up every night. On those nights, he’s lethargic and seems like he’d rather be somewhere else. If he can get his head and heart into every game, he’ll be unstoppable.

Next Team Captain: Your guess is as good as mine. Rafalski seems like he’s doing the job now. He plays hard every night and definitely leads by example. He’s even the one who does the most jawing with the refs. But there’s something in Madden’s game that makes me think it could be him. He’s not in the box nearly as much as he was at the start of the season, which is a definite plus given his incomparable skill as a penalty killer. Both Madden and Rafalski were undrafted, but New Jersey’s scouting staff found them and gave them jobs, so they both have loyalty to this team beyond comprehension. But, then again, maybe the team is just waiting for Elias to come back. Time will tell.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

BRODEUR HURT!

It's not as bad as it looked last night. Team doctors are saying that it isn't a serious injury. Today he will undergo an MRI on his knee to see just how serious it really is.

That said, the Devils looked like crap again last night. They played for only one period and coasted for the rest of the game. My theory that Stevens' absense would force someone to step up has been proven wrong thus far. Let's see if Brodeur's absense will force the team to start playing defense and stop turning the puck over 50 times per period.

Scott Clemmensen was scheduled to get a start this week before the injury every happened to give Marty some time off. It looks like he might have to start more than one now.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Update

Well, the Devils stink again. Another tough loss highlighted by bang! bang! goals and suspect defense has this team looking less like the Devils and more like a minor league team.

Darren Elliot from SI.com has a great story on how the NHL has basically turned its back on the Devils. By eliminating Martin Brodeur from his third-defenseman role, the NHL has forced the Devils -- one of the most dominant teams over the past decade -- to trash the team concept that has made it successful and learn a brand new game. Personally, I couldn't agree more. I find it hard to believe that if, for example, Brodeur was drafted by Montreal and his stickhandling prowess put the Habs back on the map as a dynasty, that the NHL would have made the same rules punishing goaltenders for developing new skills. Watching the Monday Night Football game last night, I wondered if the NFL would ever ban quarterbacks from running the ball like Michael Vick does. The answer is no, because the NFL isn't as stupid as the NHL is. Why are Brodeur and his teammates forced to learn a new game that doesn't play to their skills? I'm still waiting for a good answer to that one.

On another note, the salary trimming has begun. Krzysztof Oliwa has been waived. This means that he's been sent to Albany, and if he is recalled at any time, another team can pick him up and the Devs would be stuck with half of his $836k salary. In other words, Oliwa isn't likely to play another game in the NHL this season barring a miracle move pulled off by Lou. Darren Langdon ($450k) will be taking his place in the lineup since he's healthy now.

Elias has been skating, but not with the team yet. It could be a while before we see him play.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Devils finally play like... well... the Devils!

Talk about night-and-day differences! Tonight's Devils (who won 4-3 over Florida) looked nothing like the team that got smoked two games in a row. They passed well. They got good shots off. They were responsible in their own end. They only went to the box ONCE! But most importantly, they played for a full 60 minutes.

Tonight I found myself saying "Damn he's good!" on more than one occasion. I said it whenever Marty reminded me why he's the best... by not just stopping shots, but kicking them to teammates or directing them to the corner (a far cry from Roberto Luongo's butterfly). I said it when Paul Martin (who was sorely missed in the team's last two games) jumped into the play on offense and created something out of nothing -- his development makes the loss of Niedermayer survivable. I said it Zach Parise made a play or when Alex Mogilny singlehandedly controlled the offensive zone. I said it when Scott Gomez skated through four players, end to end, en route to making a play. I said it when Richard Matvichuk absolutely killed people in the defensive end. I said it when Vik Kozlov handled the puck with seeming ease when two or three Panthers tried to stick/bodycheck him.

In short, they all looked really good tonight.

Larry Robinson changed the lines up. Gomez had Gionta and Brylin on his wings, and Parise played with Kozlov and Mogilny. Gomez had an assist and Mogilny threw in two assists and the game-winning goal. White was a scratch and Sean Brown filled in admirably. I still think he's better than McGillis, altough Dan had a less crappy performance tonight. Rasmussen, who has looked really good this season, also sat out. Without him, the checkers still played well... Marshall had a great interception just inside the blue line that created a well thought out play for Rheaume. Even Oliwa had moments where he looked like more than just a goon.

Marty still didn't look as brilliant as we're used to. Twice he had trouble getting back to his skates after going down, and one goal was scored on such a play. Another Florida goal was scored from behind the net... it was banked off Marty's left pad and into the cage. The first one was the result of a Mogilny turnover inside the defensive end. All of the goals could be considered "flukes."

This was the first game I've been able to see on Center Ice with the Devils home commentators calling the action. It's great to hear Doc and Chico again. Something that Chico pointed out that I didn't know was a loophole in the goalie trap-zone rule. It turns out that a goalie IS allowed to poke at a puck in the no-no-zone (as I like to call it) as long as he has one skate in the crease. It's not much, but it is a rule that not many people know about... but Marty does! Keep an eye out for that.

The next game is Thursday in Pittsburgh. The Pens have yet to win a game, yet they still have four points because they've gone to OT so often. Look for a team with as much to prove as the Devils had tonight. It should be a great game.

On another note... I was able to catch most of the ceremony the Oilers put together retiring Paul Coffey's #7. The video introduction was exceptionally done... it dragged on a bit too much (showing his number of 90 point seasons, then 70 point seasons, then 50 point seasons, then 30 point seasons), but it was very well done nonetheless. The nicest touch was that, after the video, Coffey came out in his full 80s Oilers uniform, skates, pads, and all, and skated a lap around the ice while the crowd went nuts. I switched back to the Devils game at that point, and 20 minutes later the ceremony was still going on. Again, it seems like it dragged a bit, but overkill in this situation would be better than not giving a player his rightful due.

This got me thinking about what the Devils should do when Stevens finally has his night. Will the Devils finally start raising numbers to the rafters? Will Stevens get a better ceremony than Daneyko did? Will we possibly see him charge out of the locker room one last time in full gear (just thinking about it gives me chills)?

All Oilers players wore an orange #7 on the right side of their chests. That also got me thinking about what should happen for Stevens. As of now, the Devils are a team of multiple alternates and no single captain. How cool would it be if, instead of anyone wearing an A or a C, the whole team wore a #4 where such letters would normally be? I doubt it would ever happen, but a fan can dream, can't he?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Batting .500

Well, the Devils are 2-2. They lost their last one to the Rangers in the Garden. This was the first time since Jacques Lemaire was coaching the Devs that they didn't get at least one point out of a visit to the "world's most famous arena." Needless to say, at this early point in the season, the Devils have been disappointing.

There are a number of reasons attributing to their subpar start. For starters, they cannot stay out of the box. Checking forwards like John Madden and Jamie Langenbrunner have prided themselves on being stellar defensive forwards as well as being disciplined players. So far this season, they don't seem like they've gotten a grasp on what they can and can't do. Madden and Brunner aren't the only guilty parties... it seems like the entire Devils team can't stay out of the box. They're averaging almost eight penalty kills per game this season... a far cry from the team they've been for the past decade.

Another problem has been the unusually inconsistent play of Martin Brodeur. To be fair, Marty has been absolutely incredible in the two games the Devils won. Without him in net, they'd be 0-4 right now. Also in his defense, he's had to endure endless penalty kills. But he wasn't himself in Philly and he had a terrible start to the last game in New York.

The scoring has also been inconsistent. With Elias out, no one has yet stepped up as the go-to guy. Alexander Mogilny has been great when he shoots, but he hasn't gotten as many scoring opportunities as he should. Gomez hasn't been his brilliant playmaking self yet. Aside from those two guys, no one else on the roster has ever been relied upon as a consistent goal scorer in the NHL before. Scorers need to step up.

By their own admission, Jersey has yet to put together a full 60-minute effort. I get the feeling that this can be attributed to a lack of leadership. In short, this team misses Scott Stevens sorely. No one has stepped up and led by example the way #4 did. That's not to say the whole team has been slacking. I've said it before and I'll say it again... Brian Rafalski is the best player on the team right now. This team needs to have a leader, someone that they can look to when they're down, someone who will always bring his A-game and play hard no matter what the score or what period it is. The C belongs on Rafalski's chest, in my opinion.

As far as these problems go, I confident they will get sorted out. Guys like Madden and Langenbrunner are among the hardest workers in the game... if anyone can dedicate themselves to studying film and mastering the new rules, it's these guys. And the same can be said of the rest of the team too.

As for Marty... well, he's Marty. He's the best in the business and he'll play like it.

Goals will come with time. This team's second scoring line can only get better... Kozlov has been playing like Jason Arnott did in his NJ days, Gionta plays with the heart of a man twice his size, and Parise is only going to improve.

The biggest concern of mine is the identity of the team. Stevens is gone and won't come back... these guys need get over that. The physical aspect of the game is still there and still dominant. Eric Rasmussen has been awesome so far, and Richard Matvichuk is finally getting his legs back. If McGillis can become the hitter he was brought here to be and Oliwa cracks the lineup, this can be a downright nasty team to face. More than anything, the Devils need to get their killer instinct back. When that happens, they will return to the top.

Tonight the Devs take on the Hurricanes. Let's see which Devils show up for this one.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Devils vs. Rangers

After a rough loss to the Flyers, the Devils bounced back with a big overtime win against the Rangers.

Jersey managed only one shot in the entire first period, but it found its way into the back of the net. Despite being embarassingly outshot, they were able to go to the first intermission tied. The second period didn't start out a whole lot better. In fact, it seemed like the Devs didn't even show up until midway through the game.

Once again, it was Matrin Brodeur keeping New Jersey in a game they should have lost. His performance throughout the entire game was nothing less than stellar.

Something that was bothersome for the Devils and their fans were the penalties. It seemed like the Devs were going to the box every couple minutes. According to the Star-Ledger, I wasn't the only one in the arena who thought so. Jamie Langenbrunner got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the second. While fans in my section, Devils and Rangers fans alike, wondered what possibly could be considered "unsportsmanlike" in a rivalry such as this, it turns out Brunner was boxed for asking the refs why the penalties were 15-0 at that point. Maybe the point got across because the Rangers actually started to go to the box in the third period.

More shaky officiating took place when the Devils second goal was disallowed. Mogilny had his rebound goal taken away because Sergei Brylin was in the crease and interfered with goalie Henrik Lundqvust. First of all, when did that stupid crease rule come back? Second of all, if Brylin was guilty of goaltender interference, why wasn't he sent to the box? I'm not one to say the refs were paid off, but the only way I could see that call making sense is if the ref saw it from the Rangers' pocket.

Nonetheless, the Devils found a way to get back into the game. After being thoroughly outplayed in the first two periods, the Devils came back in the third flying and hitting. Rasmussen had one huge shift, landing two crunching hits that rattled throughout the arena. Richard Matvichuk followed up by nailing Rangers forwards in the Devils defensive zone. The offense seemed to react by throwing the puck at the net more, and it worked. They mustered enough offense to tie the game and send it to overtime.

Before the puck was even dropped for the extra period, the whole Meadowlands was buzzing with the thought of a shootout. Even friends of mine who were totally against the shootout concept found themselves swept up in the emotion of the possibility of seeing breakaway afer breakaway... Jagr against Brodeur... Mogilny against an unproven rookie. Alas, we wouldn't get to see a shootout because Brian Rafalski scored the only pretty goal of the game on a one-timer from Viktor Kozlov. The Devils played only about a period and a half of real, hard hockey and came away with two points.

The Devils are 25-3-13 against the Rangers since 1997.

Some thoughts on the players:

Viktor Kozlov is impressing me so far. He's got a couple points already this season and has been playing pretty clutch hockey. The Devils sorely need his size on offense. Any line he's on is completely different from their other scoring lines... he's actually able to hold off two defenders at a time while controlling the puck and making plays.

Dan McGillis, on the other hand, has been very unimpressive. He's taken a lot of penalties, hasn't really been landing any of the hits that he was signed to make, and handles the puck with hands of stone. David Hale or Sean Brown could do the job McGillis is doing for a heck of a lot less money.

The Devils still need to clear cap space before Elias can come back. I don't see Brylin moving, and no longer see Kozlov as being the same incompetent player he was last time he played. McGillis looks, so far, like a leading candidate to be moved. But, that's just my opinion.

Brian Rafalski has been playing like he wants the C on his chest. He takes the body in his own end more often than he did earlier, and has been an invaluable asset to the offense. He has developed into a tremendous two-way player. He'll never hit like Stevens or skate like Niedermayer, but I like with Raf is doing. I've read that the Devils might be waiting to give the C to someone until Elias comes back, but right now it looks like it would fit real nice on the front of Rafalski's sweater.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Devils open season with big win

The Devils started their season impressively with a 5-1 win over the Penguins. Thanks to the Center Ice digital cable package, I was able to watch the game here in the Dirty Dirty South Jersey. Here are some impressions I got from the game.

First of all, almost half of the first period was spent killing penalties. To be honest, it looked like the Penguins were getting away with a lot of diving. I think Eddie Olczyk was employing the Gordon Bombay theory of hockey: Take the fall... Act hurt... Get indignant!! But the Devils were guilty of putting themselves in bad positions and taking bad penalties. If it wasn't for Marty absolutely standing on his head, the Devils would have been down 3-0 after the first 10 minutes. Surviving that early onslaught was a momentum builder for New Jersey and a killer for Pittsburgh.

Brylin and Gionta both scored two goals and Zach Parise added one of his own. Gio's second goal was beautiful... for a short guy, he had incredible reach. He got his own rebound on a great one-man rush and roofed it over Jocelyn Thibault.

My top players for the game would be, in this order, Martin Brodeur, Brian Gionta, Zach Parise, Sergei Brylin, Brian Rafalski, and John Madden.

Rafalski seemed to thrive as the #1 defenseman. He not only created offensive opportunities (including a great scoring chance from the slot on an odd-man rush), but was solid in his own end. He was taking the body well for a player of his size, and stick checked like a fiend.

Madden's speed was explosive in this new era of hockey where skating is almost impossible to impede. There were a few occasions where he just flat out burned everyone around him and created opportunities. Him and Pandolfo almost hooked up a few times on the early PKs. Pando had an impressive game as well.

Mogilny DID play, although his ice time was limited and so was his output. He skated gingerly and rarely made physical challenges for the puck. Hopefully his hip will feel better as time goes on.

Dan McGillis was absolutely awful on the point during powerplays. In a span of about 30 seconds, be managed to fail at retrieving passes, holding clearing attempts, and completing passes of his own at least a half dozen times. Malakhov was impressive with the puck, as was Paul Martin. But for the love of puck, I hope Robinson keeps McGillis away from the PP.

The game was much more wide open than I anticipated. The Devils did not sit on their lead as they have in the past. I'm not sure if that is because of the new rules or if it is more of a Larry Robinson thing, but either way it was refreshing to see. Both teams exploited the lack of a 2-line pass rule several times often. Marty seemed especially prone to making very impressive tape-to-tape passes. He also had a very good grasp on the new "Marty Rule."

When all is said and done, Brodeur won this game for New Jersey. He is, without a singular doubt, the greatest goaltender in the game today. Here's hoping he can keep up this pace.

As far as Sid the Kid goes, he played very well. He had at least 3 or 4 really good scoring chances, but Marty slammed the door on him every time. He did manage to set up the Penguins only goal, scored by Mark Recchi. This kid is the real deal. But on the night, Zach Parise was the more impressive rookie. I stick by my prediction that he will be a legitimate threat for the Calder this year.

Wearing the As for the Devils were Rafalski, Madden, and Mogilny.

The game was a sellout for New Jersey. I know because I tried to get tickets but couldn't get any. It was good to hear "MAR-TIN" and at least three "RANGERS SUCK" chants throughout the game (they even threw in an "OVER-RATED" chant towards the end whenever Sid touched the puck)... some things never change. The fans are back and in full voice!

In other news, the Flyers fell flat on their faces tonight. They blew a 3-2 lead to fall to the Rags 5-3. I'll be at the Devils vs. Rangers game on Saturday and cannot wait to see a game in person.