Monday, September 03, 2007


What the Devils Don't Need to Worry About

The New Jersey Devils will report to training camp starting on September 13, per TSN's listing of the start dates of all 30 teams' training camps. This year's training camp and pre-season will certainly be one of the more interesting ones in recent years. A new coach in Brent Sutter; a new center in Dainius Zubrus; multiple new defensemen in Vitaly Vishnevski, Karel Rachunek, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, and Ian Moran; and - for the first time in years - a capable backup goaltender in Kevin Weekes. So far, it really isn't clear how any of these changes will shape up as they haven't done anything hockey-related during the offseason (as far as I know, if I'm wrong, my apologies) except for Sutter coaching in the Canada-Russia Super Series. Given that Canada is leading the series 4-0, I think it's safe to say that Sutter is a solid coach at the junior level.

Even then, just by the number of players signed, players signing to other teams, and a new coach, it's fair to say that the Devils have a number of issues that they will need to resolve in training camp and pre-season before the regular season. For the next few days, I will point out what I think those issues are and what I think could be done about it. Again, I'm just a fan so I only know so much about what is going on with the team. For all I know, some of the issues I may bring up may not be big deals or they may be resolved sooner than later. Nevertheless, it's good to examine it so and there is not much going on with the Devils. Other than the arena being built - which looks like it is making serious progress with 54 days left until the opening date.

Anyway, after all this rambling, I think it is a good idea to establish what the Devils do not have any issues. Stating what the team already has in place and does not necessarily need to change is always a good idea to get a sense of perspective of where the team stands. In my opinion, there are five key areas that will cause little to no concern to the Devils. I apologize for the list-mania this may induce.

1. Goaltending. In case you don't know or choose to be daft, Martin Brodeur is the starter for the New Jerseu Devils and he is the best goaltender in the NHL. Roberto Luongo can't touch Brodeur. Brodeur is coming off a season befitting of some kind of goaltender Superman (Ken Dryden in the late 1980s? Dominik Hasek in the late 1990s? Terry Sawchuk in Detroit in the 1950s?). Past history has indicated that if the numbers will drop, it won't be by much. If you think the Devils have any question marks between the pipes, I think it would be safe to say that you've seen the Devils in the last 13 seasons. What's more, for the first time since Chris Terreri (and maybe John Vanbiesbrouck), the Devils have a backup goaltender who is talented enough to be a starter. I expect Kevin Weekes to get more than 5 starts this coming season; and the only question I would have is how many games will Brodeur start? We all know he can play 70 or more, but with Weekes in the fold, I would guess Brodeur only has to play 65 or so.

2. Defensive depth. While Brian Rafalski signed with Detroit and Brad Lukowich signed with Tampa Bay, the Devils added a number of defensemen in the offseason while re-signing Paul Martin. Returning from last season is Martin, Colin White, Richard Matvichuk (hopefully for a full season), Johnny Oduya, and Andy Greene. Karel Rachunek and Vitaly Vishnevski both played a significant number of games for their teams last season - 66 games for the Rangers and 67 in total for Atlanta and Nashville. That's seven defensemen who can definitely play at the NHL level. Beyond those two, Mark Fraser looked good in call-up duty from Lowell last season, Matt Corrente will be in the mix at camp fighting for an early spot on the team, and the Devils signed Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre and Ian Moran for additional depth. That's 11 players fighting for six spots. As it is, I think the five returning will retain their roster spots; but should injuries strike the blueline, the Devils will have the personnel. Maybe not the talent, but definitely the numbers to fill in spots. Also, that is because of the third area.

3. Cap space. The Devils were literally right up against the salary cap ceiling last season and that proved costly at times during the season. Richard Matvichuk was on the injured reserve list all season long, the Devils traded their first round pick to get a useless Vladamir Malakhov off their books, David Hale had to be traded to create the room for Andy Greene to be on the team, and when injuries severely struck the Devils during last season, they played games with a less than full roster. This season, the salary cap ceiling has been raised; and Rafalski and Gomez came off the books by signing big contracts with other teams. According to NHLSCAP, the Devils have approximately $9.8 million in salary cap space. The Devils will not need to worry about making a trade for a substantial player at the trade deadline breaking the Devils' budget nor will they have to avoid calling up players from Lowell to fill roster spots. This is a very good thing, considering what the Devils had to do last season.

4. Left wing. Patrik Elias had a down year in 2006-2007, but still led the Devils in scoring last season with 21 goals and 48 assists as the team's left winger on their first scoring line. Zach Parise had a breakout year and led the Devils in goals with 31 (34th in the NHL); Parise also tallied 31 assists as part of the ZZ-Top/PZL Line/ZZ-Pop line with Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner. They will remain on the top two lines on the left side of the rink, for sure. On the defensive side of things, Jay Pandolfo remains an underrated checking forward (and a Goal Scoring Machine) who accomplishes his assignments without taking many penalties (8 minutes in 82 games). He will remain as the left winger on the team's third line. The only question mark is who will play the position on the fourth line, but that is an area I will address later this week (and one that I have revealed, so there goes the suspense for that one).

5. Size and Grit. No, I didn't forget how to count. However, they are (generally) related so they are in the same point. Take a look at the current roster for the New Jersey Devils. Notice the heights and weights of the new players the Devils signed. Zubrus is 6'4" and 224 lbs.; Aaron Asham is 5'10" but a sizable 209 lbs.; Rachunek is 6'2" and 215 lbs.; and Vishnevski is 6'2" and 215 lbs. Consider that the 6'0" and 210-pound Cam Janssen will return and the 6'3" and 215-pound Matvichuk will hopefully remain healthy will stick with the team. The Devils definitely got bigger so size should not be true issue. Not that size is everything, considering the 5'7" Brian Gionta is ten times the player of the 6'5" Viktor Kozlov ever was in NJ. Asham, Vishnevski, and Rachunek will definitely not be pushed around - nor will they let others do the same to their teammates. White, Janssen, and Matvichuk will not have to be the only ones regularly using their size for physical means.

These five things the Devils do not need to truly adjust nor concern themselves with going into the new season. Tomorrow, I'll begin with what I feel the biggest issue actually is for the 2007-2008 season.

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I think Luongo and Brodeur are comparable as the top two goalies in the NHL at this stage. Certainly, from a career perspective, Brodeur surpasses all, but Luongo is completely carrying that anemic Vancouver team.

Also, smart for the Devils to have Weekes spell Brodeur. That should help keep him fresh and ensure he stays healthy (he isn't getting any younger).

To the age factor, forgive me, I'm not a Devils fan but I am very curious - what do the Devils have in the pipeline for when Brodeur hangs 'em up? Thanks.
Well, I addressed the anemic-ness of both teams on offense in my recent post about the preseason. Vancouver's offense isn't anything to write home about, but it's better than New Jersey's.

Brodeur is 35. He's got at least 5 more years of solid goaltending left in him. Maybe more, considering how well conditioned he is and how fortunate he has been to avoid injury all these years. Jeff Frazee is the top goaltending prospect in the system, but he's got plenty of time to develop before the starting spot needs to be filled. It may not even be Frazee by the time Brodeur retires In any case, I don't think it is wise to doubt Brodeur's talent just because he's now 35. :)
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