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It's Our Day Now; FanSided's 30 In 30 NHL Previews: NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Hopefully, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate in New Jersey this season (Image courtesy NorthJersey.com)

Well, the day has finally come.  The day when Pucks and Pitchforks proudly presents your New Jersey Devils 2011-2012 season preview (sorry if I got you too excited over that)!  In case you didn’t know, the Devils are 17th out of 30 teams in alphabetical order- allright, I’ll stop wasting your time now.  Please read on for an outlook of what should be an intriguing year, to say the least.

Last season was one of the most peculiar I have ever seen in my years as a sports fan.  Going into 2010-2011, I was convinced this Devils team would compete for a Stanley Cup.  With two straight division titles (in what I believed to be the best division in hockey), a new contract for star left winger Ilya Kovalchuk, and a new, more offensive-minded coach than we’ve had in past seasons (we all know how that turned out), it seemed as though the Devils had a great chance to win, at the least, one or two playoff series.  Instead, not only were the Devils not the division leaders after half the season, not only were they not a top six seed, not only were they not even in the playoffs, not only were they not even bordering a playoff spot, but the Devils, the team who had made the playoffs in 13 straight seasons, were an absolutely putrid 10-29-2, those 24 points earning them a spot in the NHL’s basement after 41 games.

At this point, Jacques Lemaire had already been in charge for a handful of games; however, as the second half began, something changed.  All of a sudden, the Devils went from playing like a true NHL basement-dweller to looking like one of the NHL’s elite.  As the days went by, the ‘Devs kept on winning, an incredible run that would unbelievably, at one point, take them within four points of a playoff spot.  However, the horrors of the first half proved to be too much to overcome, as the team missed the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons.

So, what exactly did change; how was a run like this even possible?  In my opinion, this question might be unanswerable; we could say that almost every player on the roster began to pick up their game, but trying to explain how their incredible turnaround came to fruition is seemingly impossible.  Now, the question becomes whether the Devils can, technically, “continue” on their run since the start of the second half last season.  We cannot be sure whether any momentum at all could carry over from then; however, that run gave the team and the fanbase something to be proud of from what was a very disappointing season.  Now, the Devils will be looking to start on a new playoff streak as the 2011-2012 season opens.

Another Year, Another New Coach: Seriously, even if you hadn’t watched the Devils since the end of the 2009-2010 playoffs, would you really be surprised by this title?  This time, Peter DeBoer is the new man in charge, and while some would understandably question this move, it is clear what the organization’s motive was.  With the disaster they witnessed on the ice in front of John MacLean for the first 32 games of last season, the front office decided to forget about looking internally for a head coach, and went to the former Panthers’ coach as their latest hire.  After a nice surprise in his first season in Florida, DeBoer’s last two seasons were certainly subpar, despite a less-than-superb lineup put out each night by the Panthers.  How will he fare in New Jersey?  That’s anyone’s guess; regardless, he deserves a fair chance, as he has, at least, proven he can coach in this league.

Player to Watch: I can go further than stating that I am really, really excited to watch right wing Mattias Tedenby continue to progress this season.  How?  By admitting that I am more excited to watch him than any player on this roster.  After a solid rookie campaign, Tedenby looks to follow up with an increase in production on what should be one of the Devils’ top two lines.  And while I don’t want to go too far with this, the Swede reminds me of a young Zach Parise; all the speed a forward could need, a knack for moving the puck, and a developing scoring touch.  Plus, what is really exciting about Tedenby is that he is only 21, and figures to be a quality forward in the Devils’ lineup already.

Player the Devils Need to Step Up: He has always been around, almost always on the second or third lines, shifting in between all three forward positions; this year, however, especially with the loss of Travis Zajac for what could be a while, forward Dainius Zubrus will probably be counted on much more heavily as the season begins.  If the Devils put him at center, he could easily find himself, in fact, on the team’s first line, as he would be the most reliable one to start the season in the lineup (unless the ‘Devs do the same with Patrik Elias).  We know Zubrus is familiar with most of the roster by now; this season, the Devils could really use an increase in production from the former Capital.

Man Under Fire: We all thought the powerplay had to improve in 2010-2011; after all, it couldn’t get much worse from the end of the previous year.  Even after losing Zach Parise very early in the season, however, finishing 28th in the NHL in PP% is downright inexcusable.  Assistant coach Adam Oates was brought in by the Devils so the team could improve in this regard, and with his remaining on the staff through this offseason, he will get another chance to prove he can turn around this team’s performance with the man advantage.  If the ‘Devs struggle on the powerplay out of the gate, however, his time in New Jersey could (and should, really) be limited.

Those are just some items I wanted to discuss previous to looking at the roster for next season; now, let’s do just that.

Forwards:

Additions: LW Eric Boulton, RW Cam Janssen

Subtractions: LW Brian Rolston, LW Pierre-Luc-Letorneau-Leblond

The loss of Travis Zajac (for what could be longer than we previously anticipated) puts a huge burden on this forward group.  Is Zajac an elite forward in this league?  Absolutely not.  However, he is the ideal first-line center in New Jersey, and his chemistry with Zach Parise has brought his game a long way (and Zach’s as well, although to a lesser extent).  Now, the Devils will have to replace his presence on the first line, which should prove to be a tough task for the coaching staff.

Well, we already discussed Dainius Zubrus as a potential replacement.  But how about the rest of the field?  Regardless of what lines they play on, the Devils will need some extra production out of the likes of Jacob Josefson, Rod Pelley (assuming he makes the roster), and, especially (amongst these three), David Steckel, who came to New Jersey as the top faceoff man in the NHL last season.  Out of these three, Josefson surely has the best scoring touch; however, at the ripe age of 20, it will be tough to expect so much out of him this season.

With this being said, how about the wingers this team has to offer?  Zach Parise is finally back (it felt like forever, at least), and should be ready to pile up the points for the Devils once again this season.  Right behind him is Ilya Kovalchuk on the depth chart, assuming the Devils don’t make the same mistake of placing the two on the same line (don’t even get me started on this…) this season.  If the Devils can get the star production that both of these left wings can provide, it will give them a humongous boost on two lines with questions at the center position at the moment.

How about the best two listed right wingers on this team; would you believe me if I said neither would be over 22 by the end of next season?  Nick Palmieri and the aforementioned Mattias Tedenby have a chance to be the opening night right wings on the top two lines this season, and one has to be excited for the future when looking at these two youngsters.  Both were plus-forwards last season, and have shown such great ability to light the lamp at such a young age.  If the Devils do decide to go with Elias as a top-six center without Zajac in the lineup, Palmeri and Tedenby could play alongside Parise and Kovalchuk, respectively.  Nonetheless, both will be counted on for production that the Devils’ brass knows they can surely provide this season.

Then there’s two NHL veterans, with the experience at all three forward slots necessary to be able to produce at any of them, in Patrik Elias and the aforementioned Dainius Zubrus.  The Devils’ all-time points leader (whose #26 will one day hang from the rafters, without a doubt), will give the coaching staff a top-six forward who can be flexible in their lineup.  Don’t expect Patty, however, to be at his more familiar left wing this season, as with Parise and Kovalchuk in front of him, the Devils will need him at center or right wing much more.  Pretty much the same story with Zubrus, although the ‘Devs could reasonably feature him on their third line, most likely, if so, alongside right wing David Clarkson.

So, what about Clarkson, eh?  The Toronto native had a poor 2010-2011 campaign, and despite being a fan favorite in New Jersey, trade rumors whirled regarding the Devils’ right winger this offseason.  For now, it appears Clarkson is staying put; this being said, he will need to show he can produce the way he has in the past; while his numbers were never extraordinary, he has provided nice production on the third line in previous years.  If he struggles once again, however, the Devils may question his need in the lineup, especially with the additions of enforcers Boulton and Janssen (welcome back!) this offseason.

As for these two, I have stated in the past that, while I expect the Devils to carry both Boulton and Janssen with the team, I do not expect both to be in the lineup (at the same time) every game.  In my mind, Boulton is the better of the two, and should get the majority of these starts if the ‘Devs agree with my “plan”.  Right wing Vladimir Zharkov has a good chance to earn more starts than either of these two; however, he will need to show that he can provide more production than his two goals in a career 78 games have shown so far (his luck, to say the least, has not been great; if you’ve watched him like I have, you know what I mean).

With all this being said, I will try to put together four makeshift lines.  If I am wrong on any of these (and I really do not anticipate getting these completely right), please avoid rubbing it in my face!

Parise-Elias-Palmieri

Kovy-Josefson-Tedenby

Zubrus-Steckel-Clarkson

Boulton/Janssen(RW)-Pelley-Zharkov (LW in Janssen starts)

So, there you have it.  I will avoid too lengthy an explination, but I feel those first two lines are well-balanced, although I wanted to avoid placing Parise and Elias on the same unit.  That second line, if those three do actually play together, should be pretty exciting to watch.  The third unit provides steady backchecking with the potential for some decent production, and the fourth does pretty much the same.

Defensemen:

Additions: Peter Harrold

Subtractions: Colin White

Right off the bat on this one, I will name what I consider to be a nearly set-in-stone first two defensive lines.  These four defensemen (as I have discussed in previous posts) surely have their spots on the roster secured.

Greene-Volchenkov

Fayne-Tallinder

Let’s discuss this first unit before diving too deep.  As I have said in the past, I truly believe Andy Greene was the most disappointing Devil in what was a very disappointing 2010-2011 season in New Jersey.  Greene was a putrid -23 last season; however, based on the defensemen the Devils know he can be, they handed him a four-year, $12 million contract this offseason, with the hopes he would return to his former self.  If he does play like he has in the past, Greene deserves to start on the top line.  If not, however, Lou and company may be wishing they had his $3 million a year back in their payroll to spend elsewhere.

Perhaps playing alongside stalwart Anton Volchenkov could help Greene’s game next season.  I have raved about Volchenkov’s defensive ability since he signed in New Jersey last offseason, and although he only played in 58 games last year, the “A-Train” showed why his reputation is so great around the league.  The former Senator is undoubtedly, at the moment, the most reliable defenseman on the team, and should be out there to face the best of the opposition all season.

Then, there’s Mark Fayne.  Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Fayne when the Devils called him up last season; however, this would soon change, as the rookie showed great promise from the get-go.  The 24-year-old proved that he could forecheck as well as play a strong defensive game, and eventually did earn valuable time on the team’s powerplay as the second half moved along.  In his first full season, Fayne will be looking to land a permanent spot with the man advantage, and to further improve his defensive game as well.

Ironically, Fayne seemed to do just this (the latter part of this, at least) for teammate Henrik Tallinder, who had nearly as spectacular a mid-season turnaround as the Devils did last season.  Tallinder was perhaps even more disappointing than Greene throughout the first three months of the year (the last months of 2010), and his fairly hefty contract came into serious question.  However, when Fayne was promoted, and the two (quickly) found the right chemistry on a line together, the former Sabre’s season took off.  Tallinder looked solid throughout the second half of the year, and while we can credit him individually for this plenty, it is obvious that finding the right linemate was important as well.  There isn’t much of an argument to be made as to why these two shouldn’t play alongside each other come opening night, as I am excited to see if they can continue to succeed throughout next season.

After missing all of last season after suffering a concussion, Bryce Salvador has recently been cleared to practice, and any lingering injury concerns are basically out the window at this point.  While the 35-year-old could be monitored early on, we shouldn’t expect any serious issues.  Thus, Salvador’s place in the lineup is obviously cemented, and the Devils will be more than happy to have him back; the former Blue has been one of the team’s most reliable blue liners since coming over in the Cam Janssen trade (now, ironically, they’ll play together).  However, with those first two defensive lines looking pretty solid at this point, Salvador could make a terrific third-liner, giving the Devils some fantastic defensive depth in their lineup.

So, this leaves one spot up for grabs in the opening night lineup.  Of course, there is a possibility the Devils could carry seven defensemen with the team; however, for now, we will look for one more to fill out these lines.  At the moment, I am in the process of writing a series of articles detailing the ‘Devs blue line battle; so far, two posts have been published to the site.  Because I would like to trim down the number of defensemen I will discuss to the ones with better odds at grabbing that final spot, I will eliminate Matthew Corrente and Jay Leach (and the newly-acquired Harrold as well) from the competition.  Both have proven in the past, however, that they are servicable NHLers at the least, and the Devils will be more than happy to have them ready in Albany.

This leaves three defensemen looking to win the last slot on the blue line.  The Devils know Mark Fraser’s game, and he should have a very strong chance to make the team, potentially playing alongside Salvador on what would be a solid third defensive line.  24-year-old Matt Taormina was one of few players who performed nicely in the first half last season; however, he only played in 17 games after suffering a season-ending ankle injury, but should be ready to go come opening night.  And finally, there’s Adam Larsson; what the 18-year-old could provide is anyone’s guess in what would be his rookie season.  We know Larsson has all the potential in the world to be an outstanding defenseman, and it will be interesting to see how he performs in the next few weeks.

In the end, if I had to predict who would win the final spot on the Devils’ blue line, I would go with Matt Taormina; for the start of the season, at least.  The team saw Taormina’s potential as a puck-moving defenseman in limited time last year, and he would be a nice compliment to Salvador, if need be.  Mark Fraser could perhaps travel with the team, or be the “next man in line” to be called up in case of injury/struggles from this defensive group.  Larsson would have a great chance to eventually play for the team, too, which would surely excite plenty of Devils’ fans.

Overall, this Devils’ team has plenty of defensive depth, and I am excited to see some improvement from much of last season out of this group.  While they are a long way from the blue lines of (Stanley Cup Devils’ teams of) years ago, these defensemen have proven themselves in the past, and I am confident they will perform at a higher level in 2011-2012.

Goaltenders:

The Devils enter another season with two strong netminders on the roster.  While both might be past the primes of their careers, we saw both play fairly well (during points, at least, of) last season (especially Johan Hedberg in the second half), and having two who could shut down the opposition on any given night is very comforting to know.

In what might be Martin Brodeur’s final season, he should see the majority of the starts this year, and an improved blue line from a season ago in front of him should help boost his numbers from 2010-2011.  Brodeur played in 56 games last season; while he missed some action due to injury, there is a chance that he could play a similar amount regardless of his health, as the Devils are plenty confident in Hedberg’s ability and would love to give Marty as much rest as possible.  Personally, I am confident that Brodeur will “bounce back” this season, although his numbers weren’t particularly terrible to begin with.  The Devils got off to an unbelievably horrific start last year, and the opposition had plenty of scoring chances seemingly every night, with the opportunity of putting games away early on many occasions.

As for “Moose”, he might be one of my new favorite players on this team.  While various other teams reportedly offered him more money, many of which may have had larger roles for him as well, Hedberg nonetheless decided to stay in New Jersey.  As a fan, I was thrilled to hear of this, and believe he is excited to try and continue to win games with momentum from what was a terrific second half of 2010-2011.  Regardless of how many games he starts, Moose’s role on this team is a large one, as the Devils could easily go with the “hot hand” in net for a decent stretch if either of these two goes on a strong run.

Right now, it would be very tough to predict just how many games both Marty and Hedberg would start.  However, you guys want answers, so I will try and make a respectable prediction.  I would give Brodeur around 57 starts this season, and Moose the other 25, should both be healthy and fairly consistent throughout the season.  Marty should not play on consecutive days very often, if at all, this season, and if Hedberg plays like he did last second half, or close to it, there will be no reason for him to.

Outlook:

I’ll say it once again; last year’s first half was one of the most unpredictable outcomes I have ever seen in sports.  It was almost horrifying to watch a team I expected so much from play that terribly, and I do not expect to see anything like that from this team anytime in the near future.  The second half performance the Devils put up, while ultimately falling short of a playoff spot, may have been very important coming into 2011-2012; at least this team knows the level at which they can play.

In what is a further-strengthening Eastern Conference, predicting where the Devils, or any team, for that matter, will finish is nothing too easy.  I expect the Penguins to win the Atlantic, with or without Crosby, and the Flyers to come in 2nd in the division at the moment; thus, there is not too great a chance for this team to try and gain home ice, should they make the playoffs, for a series at least.  I believe that a finish between 5th and 10th will ultimately occur, and if the Devils were to finish outside of this range, I would either be thrilled or incredibly disappointed.

In the end, if the Devils can put last year’s horrific start behind them (and, truthfully, there is no reason they could not), I do believe they will make the playoffs once again.  This team is fairly strong all around, and despite the Zajac injury, the forwards should be able to hang tough, at least, until his return.  I will predict a sixth or seventh-place finish out of the Devils for next season, and this team does have a chance to knock off a team or two come playoff time, if they ultimately do make it in.  The last two teams to knock them out of the playoffs were both seventh seeds, in fact, so maybe this team can take a page out of the Hurricanes’ and Flyers’ books.

Tomorrow’s season preview will feature the New York Islanders, who look to bounce back from a disappointing 2010-2011 campaign with the help of an exciting young nucleus of forwards.

-Drew

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