Monday, September 10, 2007


Preseason Issue #4: The #4 Spot

With training camp to be opened this Thursday, I have been discussing what I believe are the biggest issues head coach Brent Sutter will have to address before the season begins. The first issue I brought up is the offense, the second issue is the roles of Sergei Brylin and David Clarkson, and the third issue concerns who will play on the third line. I'd like to conclude this short series with a focus on an number-appropriate position: the #4 defenseman position.

With Brian Rafalski now playing for the Detroit Red Wings, the player who played the second highest average ice time last season is now the de facto #1 defenseman: Paul Martin. I've stated before that Martin deserves #1 defenseman money and he got it for the most part with an average of $3.88 million per season. I think it's safe to assume (and I will stop referencing my own posts), let's assume that Martin will now play the most amount of minutes at defense on the first defensive playing. A safe assumption, given how much he's averaged in ice time last season - 25:13.

Given that Martin is a two-way defenseman and that the Devils traditionally pair a two-way defenseman with a defensive defenseman, I think Colin White will move up (remain?) at the #2 role. Meaning he'll be on the first pairing with Martin. Again, since we've seen the two paired together many times last season. White's average ice time has increased to 22 minutes last season, proof that he has been given increased defensive responsibilities as he's been with the team.

The second pairing is where the issue arises. With the return of a healthy Richard Matvichuk, the Devils defense gains his veteran presence and experience to go with his hard-nosed style of play. I expect him to be on the team's second pairing because he still has the proverbial "something left in the tank" as we saw in last year's playoffs. Matvichuk has been a defensive defenseman throughout his career. The question is: who will be paired with Matvichuk on the second pairing?

Let's consider the candidates. The Devils re-signed Johnny Oduya, who was impressive coming over from Sweden last season. Last season saw the emergence of Andy Greene, who shows potential as a two-way defenseman. Oduya and Greene will definitely make the team. The Devils also signed two defensemen: Karel Rachunek and Vitaly Vishnevski. Rachunek has shown some offensive abilities in the past; whereas Vishnevski is a more defensive, physical player. Also consider that Mark Fraser did look good in a few games up with the Devils last season from Lowell and prospect Matthew Corrente impressed last year in training camp and may look to do the same again. Basically, for three spots, the Devils have four defensemen who can easily step in to play.

Given the fact the Devils went out to sign Rachunek and Vishnevski, they are not going to send them down to Lowell; and I can't see Oduya or Greene being sent down short of poor performances. I expect the team to carry an extra defenseman on their roster in general given that they have seven NHL-capable defensemen. Basically, Fraser and Corrente are behind a number of players. Fraser and Corrente will need to play fantastically this preseason to make the team and even then they may start out in Lowell or in Saginaw, respectively. Therefore, I expect Fraser and Corrente to push the other players to perform well; I don't expect them to make the New Jersey first team before the season begins. Nevertheless, the big question to ask is whether any of the four defensemen available can step up their game to show that they can play in the #4 spot.

Someone in camp will need to do so, otherwise this will be a difficult situation. Oduya has actually played on the top two pairings at times last season, however he's also had some issues with consistency. For his first season in the NHL, Oduya did play well but I doubt whether he can handle a top 4 role for a whole season. Greene's style of play would suggest that he would play with Matvichuk, given that he is a two-way defenseman. However, Greene is still, well, green in professional hockey and throwing him onto the ice for 20-22 minutes a night may be too much for him (and too costly to the team) right away. Rachunek did average 19:23 of ice time last season with the Rangers, which was the fourth highest among defensemen. While he's got experience, Rachunek has been prone to defensive mistakes at times and his effectiveness can be questionable on some nights. In the eight regular season games the Devils played the Rangers, I can't recall Rachunek being a major factor in stopping the Devils forwards. Putting him up at the #4 spot may cause more harm than good. Vishnevski was on the third pairing in Nashville last season and he's a physical defenseman. He'll hit, he'll block shots, but he won't give you a whole lot (if any) offense. Putting him with Matvichuk on the second pairing would not be balanced, physical defenseman with defensive defensemen means little offensive support from the blue line or on break out plays. I think Vishnevski is better suited for the third pairing, based on the average amount of ice time he is used to seeing (he played 17:13 on average last season with Nashville).

None of the four players immediately is seen as a good option on the second pairing. If experience is the deciding factor, expect to see Oduya or Rachunek with Matvichuk. If it's a balance of styles, expect Greene to get some starts at that role to see how he'll do. If it were up to me, I'd rotate between Oduya and Greene depending on the opponent. Even then that's not a good idea since defense is all about chemistry and communication - something that is hard to do if the lineup keeps changing.

While Martin will take up the minutes Brian Rafalski used to play; it's unclear as to who will take Brad Lukowich's 20 minute-a-night average amount of ice time. Like the fourth line, how each of these players will do in training camp will go a long way in answering this question. Only this time, if no one establishes themselves, Sutter will likely have to keep rotating the position until someone does step in and takes the role as their own. Given how defense has always been an area of importance and a trademark of the Devils, Sutter can't just put anyone there. Oduya, Greene, Rachunek, and Vishnevski will have to battle for this role and Sutter will have to consider his options closely. If you're looking for something to focus your attention in training camp, this role will be the one. Who ever earns it will help decide who will be on the third pairing and who will be the seventh defenseman and/or a scratched player.

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Issue #4 is a very big point.
Good job.
I keep speculating if Lou may attempt to trade for a stud defenseman and then each defenseman drops one spot down in the depth chart (while possibly one of them being shipped out in this trade).
But, be that as it may, I think your right on par with how the lineup will be battled for by those who are available as of this moment. Note: I was impressed by Corrente, Tarkir, and Greene on the first day of rookie camp. On offense- not much sign of a future star, we need to hold on to our scorers and acquire others as we go along.
Great comment Sean. I doubt that Lou will trade for a stud defenseman because, well, they're studs. I can't think of any team right off the top of my head that would trade their all-star calibur defenseman without making Lou give up so much in terms of talent (on offense and defense), prospects, and future draft picks. Because the price is so high, I expect the Devils to deal with this issue from within and trade for a #3/#4 defenseman during the season if necessary.

Rookie camp has begun already?
Yeah, we'll see what Lou pulls out of his hat. I went to Codey Arena Saturday morning, hoping to see some guys and maybe get lucky with rookie camp starting. I went 2 for 2. Early session had Brodeur playing with Gio, Zubrus, Parise, Zajac, Langenbrunner, Madden, and Pandolfo. After that the rookie camp began. Was really neat to see the prospects.
Those in attendance:
Forwards: Bergfors, Clarke, Clarkson, Davis, Gionta, Halischuk, Khomutov, Leblond, Marshall, Mondou, Murphy, Palmieri, M. Pandolfo, Pelley, Romano, Rooney, Ryznar, Tallackson, Viuhkola, and Vrana.
Forwards missing: Hoeffel(ncaa), Korolyuk(EUR), Perkovich(ncaa), Pihlman(EUR), Pikkarainen(EUR), Sopanen(EUR), Vasyunov(SuperSeries), Zharkov(EUR).
Defensemen: Corrente, Fraser, Grand-Pierre, Greene, Magnan, Malmivaara, Molle, Mottau, N. Sigouin, Tarkir, and Zimmerman.
Defensemen missing: Eckford(ncaa), Fayne(ncaa), Klimov(EUR), McPherson(bchl), T.J. Miller(ncaa), Moran, and Tulupov(SuperSeries).
Goalies: Caruso, Doyle, Parise, and Smith.
Goalie missing: Frazee(ncaa).

Those that stuck out to me in either skill or tenacity were: Corrente(huge shot and physical), Greene(solid all-around), Tarkir(good skill & sense), Pelley(gritty), Marshall(gritty, set tone of scrimmage with 1st big hit), Mondou(aggressive), Davis(aggressive), and Viuhkola(involved, scored in scrimmage).
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