Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Devils season preview

(also posted at HockeyAnalysis.com)

Offense
Subtractions: So far, the only forwards to leave the swamp are Jan Hrdina and Jeff Friesen. Hrdina never seemed to fit in too well in New Jersey, and Friesen suffered from chronic underachieving. Friesen was a terrific playoff performer, however, and in that regard he will be sorely missed. Expect more forwards to leave in the next month to clear space in the cap-cramped Meadowlands. Patrik Elias signed a 1-year deal with the team, but will miss at least one month due to hepatitis recovery.
Additions: Alexander Mogilny is back in a Devils sweater. Last time he put one on, Larry Robinson was coach and he paired up with Scott Gomez… the end result was a 43 goal season for Almo. Well guess what... Robinson is behind the bench again and he’s back on a line with Gomez. His hip is an issue of concern, but everyone around him in confident that he will hold up. The only other forwards the Devils inked are tough-guys Darren Langdon and Krzysztof Oliwa.
Overall: This squad is very similar to the one that played last season. Madden, Brylin, Pandolfo, Gionta, and Gomez are still there. Langenbrunner continues to play like a grinder stuck in a scorer’s body, which fits perfectly in Jersey. Kozlov adds size up front to an otherwise small offense. Rasmussen and Marshall the other big forwards who are guaranteed regular ice time. One player to watch out for is Zach Parise, who may finally be ready to make his NHL debut. Veteran Pascal Rheaume and rookies Aleksander Suglobov and Adrian Foster will be ready to go from Albany if the Devs ever call upon them. This is among the deepest offensive units the Devils have had in recent years.

Defense
Subtractions:
Almost too monsterous to mention. Scott Niedermayer packed his bags and took a pay cut to play with his brother in Anaheim. Scott Stevens, the team’s leader in every sense of the word, has hung up his skates after a masterful career. Both of these guys played on all three Stanley Cup teams in New Jersey, and with them a ton of skill, heart, and experience has left.
Additions: Lou wasted no time filling in the holes, er, craters on D. Before the lockout started, Richard Matvichuk was signed. Within hours of Niedermayer’s departure, Brian Rafalski was re-signed and Vladimir Malakhov and Dan McGillis were brought in.
Overall: This ain’t your daddy’s Devils defense. But that’s not to say they aren’t good. This crew is still among the most solid in the East. The top six guys have a nice balance of size and puck-moving ability. Colin White, Dan McGillis, and Richard Matvichuk will provide the muscle, while Rafalski, Malakhov, and Martin will bring the skill. Martin’s game advanced very quickly in his rookie year, and he is expected to be even better this season. David Hale and Sean Brown are two solid D-men waiting in the wings if their services are needed.

Goaltending:
Martin Brodeur is still a Devil. ‘Nuff said.

The Big Picture:
The Devils not only lost their captain when Stevens retired, but a large piece of their identity. If this team can resolve its identity crisis quickly, they’ll be very good. The ’95 Cup team rallied around the team’s lifers… guys like John MacLean, Bruce Driver, and Ken Daneyko. The ’05 version has it’s own ensemble of lifers… guys like Colin White, Brian Rafalski, Scott Gomez, Patrik Elias, Sergei Brylin, John Madden, Jay Pandolfo, Brian Gionta, and of course Marty Brodeur. Lamoriello has done a fine job of assembling a solid core of guys who know no way other than the Devil way, and this group is as solid as any. Even the guys he brought in – Vladimir Malakhov and Alex Mogilny – have won a Stanley Cup in New Jersey before. Unfamiliarity shouldn’t be an issue here.

Back behind the bench is Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson. Last time he was here, he had a two year stint that featured two trips to the Cup Finals, and in his second season his team led the league in scoring. Vladimir Malakhov has said that he wouldn’t have returned to the NHL unless he could play for Robinson. The players love this guy, and a better man couldn’t have been picked to step up in the wake of Pat Burns’ battle with cancer.

On paper, the Devils have the makings of a top team. Their first line alone (as soon as Elias gets healthy) has the potential to put up monster numbers. Zach Parise has been dominant in the World Juniors, AHL, and pre-season… look for this kid to make a bid for the Calder in this, the year of Sid. Jamie Langenbrunner would be a second line scoring threat for a lot of teams, and even a first liner for some, but he will likely be a third liner for New Jersey… a testament to their depth at forward. Brian Gionta had a strong finish last season on the Deviled EGG line, look for him to pick up where he left off. Madden, Brylin, and Pandolfo are all best-known for their defensive abilities, but all of them have a scoring touch as well. Madden’s breakaway speed could help him have an offensive breakout year.

Finally, let’s not forget who’s in net here. Brodeur is arguably the best goaltender in the world right now. Any team with him in net has a chance to go the distance. There are only four goaltenders in the NHL right now whose names appear on the Cup. Unless you have a world-class netminder, consider your season done. The Devils will never have that problem with #30 between the pipes.

That said, the Devils will finish second in the Atlantic. Their blend of size, speed, youth, and veteran presence on D will be a nice fit in the new NHL. Their offense will surprise a lot of people this year, as it is loaded with speed and talent. When playoff time comes around, we’ll see if they can overcome their two big losses, but as far as the regular season goes, they should be fine.

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