Sunday, September 09, 2007


Preseason Issue #3: The Fourth Line

First and foremost, my apologies for not having this up sooner. I did say in the previous post I would get to it on Friday and obviously, I did not. Nevertheless, you didn't come here to read apologies but to read some commentary about the New Jersey Devils. This is the third in a short series of what I believe are the main issues that the Devils face in the upcoming pre-season. The first issue, in my opinion, is the offense and the second issue deals with the eventual roles of Sergei Brylin and David Clarkson. Now, the second issue exists based on the assumption that David Clarkson would make the team out of training camp. If he doesn't, that issue isn't an issue any more and it makes this one a little easier. The issue I'd like to delve into is the fourth line.

In this offseason, the Devils re-signed Mike Rupp and Cam Janssen. They also went out and signed Jari Viukhola from and Aaron Asham. In addition, Lowell forwards Rod Pelley and the aforementioned Clarkson looked good when called-up last season; I'm confident they'll get a good look at camp to make the team. While it's a long shot, there's also Grant Marshall, who could make the team with a very strong camp (though I think it's unlikely); and maybe the Devils will re-sign Jim Dowd and/or Erik Rasmussen (though I think either being signed at this point is also very unlikely). Last, and certainly not least, there is no way Sergei Brylin will not have a regular spot on this team.

For the purposes of this issue, let's focus on those who are already signed with the team, assume that Viukhola is not the next Andreas Salomonsson, and assume that Marshall will not make the team (sorry Grant). Even then, that leaves the Devils with 7 forwards who can all play on the fourth line.

Again, as I stated in discussing Brylin and Clarkson's potential roles on the team, I believe there are 4 open spots at forward - one of them is the right wing slot on the third line and the rest are the fourth line. Essentially, three people will not have a regular spot right on the team. And one of those three will not be Sergei Brylin. Considering the number of defensemen that are on the roster - 7 with Paul Martin, Colin White, Richard Matvichuk, Andy Greene, Johnny Oduya, Karel Rachunek, and Vitaly Vishnevski - it is not a given that all three left over forwards will be on the active roster. If you're looking for some heavy competition in training camp, expect it to be among the forwards for this line. Given what I understand of each player, let's go down the list one by one to see what each brings to the table.

Sergei Brylin - Utility forward, he can play any position at forward - though I think he's best at center. He had his most productive season since the 2001-2002 season in this most recent season with 18 goals and 24 assists. That said, he's more of a checker than a scorer and he's loaded with heart, guts, moxie, fighting spirit, et al. He makes this team short of a serious injury. Could be on the third line at right wing again, freeing up all three spots on the fourth line. You could also see him centering or playing either wing on the fourth line.

Aaron Asham - After Brylin, Asham is the most likely forward to make the team after being a regular fourth line banger for the New York Islanders. While he's not big, he did have 131 hits for the team last year (fourth behind Sean Hill, Trent Hunter, and Brendan Witt) and he's a guy who can/will drop the gloves when necessary (and sometimes when it's not necessary). He's not completely devoid of offensive skill with 11 goals and 12 assists last season; but it's nothing to write home about. He gave the Devils hell when they played the Islanders, so it's nice I don't have to see him against New Jersey 8 times a year. Nevertheless, due to his experience, I'd be shocked if he wasn't a starter. While he's a natural right wing, don't be surprised if he's at left wing (an open spot on the team).

Jari Viuhkola - The big wild card. The Devils had success with free agents from Europe (e.g. Brian Rafalski, Johnny Oduya) but also failures (e.g. Andreas Salomonsson). Nevertheless, Viuhkola is a wild card in that I don't know too much about him. He's seemingly done well enough in Finland with Karpat with 12 goals and 27 assists in 46 games last season. He even made the Finnish national team for the IIHF World Championships earlier this year. Given that the Devils signed him so early in the offseason, the scouts have clearly liked what they have seen out of Viuhkola. If Viuhkola shows he can be a two-way center with some decent skills at faceoffs, while adjusting to the North American game, you'll see him center the fourth line. If he struggles, expect him to get some seasoning in Lowell. How he adjusts to the NHL game is the biggest key and is the main reason why I think he's a wild card. Some players truly do struggle when entering a new league that has a different style of play (not to mention different rink sizes, different skill levels, etc.). How Viuhkola will deal with that will help force Brent Sutter's hand in determining whether he makes the team and in what role. Don't write his name at the fourth line center position in pen for now.

Mike Rupp - The 2003 Stanley Cup Legend gives you size, physical play, and more size and physical play. Yes, he was big in that Game 7 against Anaheim that won New Jersey their third Stanley Cup. That said, you're not getting a whole lot of offensive production from Rupp. He has only broken the 10 point plateau once in a season. Expecting Rupp to blossom and put up 20-30 points is foolhardy, in my opinion. But if you need a big man to throw his weight around, Rupp can do it with ease. Rupp can play right wing and center, so he has some versatility in terms of position; but he's at his best at right wing. Unlike Cam Janssen, Rupp brings a little more to the table than just hits so you might see him start at right wing.

Cam Janssen - The Hammer definitely brings energy, hits, and penalty minutes to the table. He brought 82 hits and 118 minutes in 48 games. While the right wing pain-bringer did get his first goal last season; the fact that he only played in 48 games shows that his role is limited. When playing a physical team (or a rival), Cam will be there. Otherwise, Cam will be scratched. Unless he shows that he can do more than just hit and punch, I don't expect that role to change. Expect to see him on some nights but not every night, again.

David Clarkson - The Randy McKay-like player has a great chance to make the team if he has a good camp, in my opinion. He looked very good in 7 regular season games (3 goals, 1 assist, 23 hits) and was even given time in the playoffs. Definitely an encouraging sign. As I discussed the other day, if Clarkson does have a good camp, the question will be whether he's on the right wing on the fourth line or the third line. It depends on how good he does and where Sutter feels he can get the most out of Clarkson's talents. If Clarkson does not impress in camp, it may be another season as a call-up player from Lowell - which would not be the worst thing in the world. That said, I'd love to see Clarkson stay up for a whole season.

Rod Pelley - As another call-up from Lowell, this center actually played more regular season games than Clarkson. Pelley was primarily playing in a defensive center role because that's what he is: a defensive center. Is he the second coming of John Madden? Of course not. However, he was competent in the 9 games he did play. Pelley could be in a similar situation as Clarkson where if he has a good enough training camp, Pelley could make the team. His situation is harder because A) Sergei Brylin may end up centering the fourth line anyway which will shut him out and B) Jari Viuhkola is also a center who may end up centering the fourth line. Because Pelley has one (or maybe two) players ahead of him at this position, I think he may end up in Lowell again for another season. Again, it's not the worst thing in the world, I think he may need it more than Clarkson - who I think is ready for more time in the NHL.

Basically, I would expect Sutter to change the fourth line constantly throughout the season for different situations. It's not just that the Devils have a number of possible fourth-line players, but they provide a variety of play. If Sutter wants a more skilled fourth line he could have Brylin-Viuhkola-Clarkson on the ice. The fourth line could also be quite physical with the combination of Asham-Rupp-Janssen. It doesn't have to be in any one extreme, Sutter could have a balance with Asham-Vihukola-Clarkson or go with developing youth (with a balance of skill and physical play) with a line of Janssen-Pelley-Clarkson. There are many combinations and I would expect Sutter to try a number of them throughout the season.

Nevertheless, it definitely is not clear at this point who will play on the fourth line. This training camp and preseason will go a long way to decide this issue.

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