Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Preseason Issue #2: Clarkson & Brylin

One is a young right winger who plays physically but has some intriguing offensive talent. The other is pretty much the definition of utility forward, having played at all three forward positions on each of the four lines at one point or another in his long career with the Devils.

The issue is: what do you do with them?

From what I understand, the top six forwards are set: Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta, Zach Parise, Dainius Zubrus, Travis Zajac, and Jamie Langenbrunner. They are likely going to make up the top two lines for the team. Considering they've been mainstays on the third line as excellent checking forwards, Jay Pandolfo will once again play left wing for the third line; which will be centered once again by John Madden. That's eight forwards with four open regular spots.

Now let's be frank: there is no way Sergei Brylin will not be a regular on this team short of injury. Sarge has been a heart and soul player who has been at least competent wherever he's slotted on the roster. Also being frank, Brylin is not an offensive force. He can spell a couple of games on the top two lines, but he doesn't have the talent to be a regular point producer. 40 points for a third liner is acceptable; but not for a regular spot on the top two lines - and Brylin has only broke the 20 goal and 50 point plateaus once in his career. I don't think expecting him to increase his production drastically at 33 is reasonable; but given his effectiveness (and his heart) on both sides of the puck, he'll be on this team likely on the third or fourth line. Short of actively hurting his team on the ice, he'll be a Devil. That leaves nine roster spots.

David Clarkson is an interesting figure. After a productive and penalty-filled season in Albany in 2005-2006, Clarkson got his first shot at the NHL last season as he called up for 7 games in March earlier this year. He certainly impressed, with 3 goals, an assist, and 23 hits. I even remarked that he played like a young Randy McKay in my March review. Clarkson did so well in his call up duties, he even was on the playoff roster, getting in three games (unfortunately, it was in the Ottawa series). Clarkson isn't the biggest guy on the ice, but he's definitely not afraid to throw his body around; the fact that he has some skill with the puck definitely adds an extra dimension to his game. If he has a good camp, it wouldn't surprise me that Clarkson becomes a regular player this season.

That's why this is an issue. Let us assume Clarkson makes the team. One possible decision head coach Brent Sutter might make is to put Brylin at right wing on the third line and Clarkson behind him on the fourth line. Brylin has played at that spot last season many times, and he's good enough defensively for the line to be a solid checking line. However, I question whether that would be using Clarkson to the best of his abilities. Yes, he's gritty, he can energize the team with physical play, but putting him at right wing on the fourth line would diminish his offensive capabilities because of the lack of ice time the fourth line normally gets and the general role of the fourth line that the Devils have had in recent seasons - a physical, gritty, energy line. Unless Sutter changes what the philosophy behind the fourth line, Clarkson may become a better physical forward, but not necessarily a better forward.

We could see the reverse: Brylin could be put on the fourth line (anywhere on that line, but more on that tomorrow) and Clarkson could line up on the third line. Brylin would add some skill to the fourth line and history has shown he can play with just about anybody anywhere. On the other hand, he wouldn't fit well should it be primarily a physical line. Clarkson on the third line could be a return of checking lines that featured Pandolfo, Madden, and a physical forward. In the past that was Turner Stevenson and Grant Marshall - gritty guys who added a physical edge to the checking line. I'd like to think Clarkson may have more skill than those guys; but that's not necessarily a good comparison given Clarkson's inexperience and the fact Marshall and Stevenson were in NJ either in or past the prime of their careers. Nevertheless, should Clarkson develop into the next Randy McKay, it would be similar to that. The big question is whether Clarkson can play the role of a good checking forward. If he can, great. If he can't, putting him at the third line would hurt the line overall and prove to be a bad idea to play him there.

A more extreme (and interesting) idea is to mix up the right wingers even further and get Jamie Langenbrunner to a different line. Langenbrunner has played very, very well with Pandolfo and Madden in the past. Together, they were the J-Line wherein opposing forwards would have a rough time when those three were on the ice. Brylin could be slotted on the fourth line to add skill to that line (and provide additional help where necessary), Langenbrunner can re-unite with Madden and Pandolfo to form an even better checking line, and Clarkson can play up on the second line with Parise and Zajac. The extra ice time will help Clarkson's development and he would be encouraged to be more than just a banger, to be a scoring forward. His brief time in NJ last season did show some offensive prowess, looking good when he was on the top two lines in some games. Plus, Clarkson would had a physical dimension to that line - and there's nothing wrong with a little more bump and grind along the boards. On the other hand, it's a very risky move to A) break up an already successful scoring line, B) place a rookie on a top two scoring line where Parise would be the veteran of the three, and C) put a lot of pressure on Clarkson early to produce. That all said, if Clarkson could handle it, the results would be great.

But all of this is dependent on whether Clarkson does well enough in camp. For all I know, he'll get injured and won't make the team. Or he'll do well, but Sutter chooses to send him back to Lowell for further seasoning. Or something completely different. To be honest, as much as I like Clarkson's abilities, the very first option may be the one I go with if only to see how Clarkson develops with regular NHL time. It would be the safest, even if it may initially limit Clarkson's offense. Line-ups are never set in stone as players can go from line to line from game to game, or even in the middle of one. Nevertheless, the issue will not be whether the Devils are good enough at right wing, but whether Sutter can fit them in properly in order to use them to the best of their ability. Without Clarkson in the picture, I think it would be a simpler decision. Given how well he's done in his short time with the parent club, I really would not be surprised if he impresses the Devils enough in camp to earn a spot in some capacity.

An even more intriguing issue will be how Sutter determines who will be on the fourth line. But more on that tomorrow.

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I think you're spot on with your asessment of the situation with Clarkson. Risky business to mess with the 2nd line and throw him into that position early in his career. He may also be a little too undisciplined (from what I've seen) for that role at this time.

I can also see the reasons for your McKay comparison - it's a good one.

As for Sarge, no one can downplay what he has meant to the organization. He is the ultimate in work ethic and versatility (not to mention bang for the buck). No doubt Sutter will find him as valuable as past coaches have. It would be hard to imagine him not fitting into any role he is given.

All this being said, I think with Clarkson's offensive potential, it would be hard to place him into 4th line duty, thus minimizing his ice time. Truly an interesting dilemma. It will be very interesting to see how this pans out. As always, with a new coach comes new ideas. I wouldn't be surprised to see completely different lines from what we've known in the past.
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