Friday, July 11, 2008
Let's Look at the New Guy: Holik
Let's face facts. Holik is not going to be seeing any big minutes unless injuries happen and he needs to fill a role for a game or two. Holik is also not going to be a leader, he's not going to be the proverbial "straw that stirs the drink," and he's not likely going to be a difference maker. His production has declined, he isn't getting any younger at age 37 and will likely not learn some new skills to rejuvenate his career, there's no real need for him on special teams except to win crucial faceoffs, and his best role has always been as a checker. And that's perfectly OK with me. Because I envision Holik not to take any of those big roles. No, I expect him to give John Madden a rest.
Before you write angry notes and/or never read this site again, let me explain. I am very much pro-Madden. He is clearly the top checking forward on this team he's regarded among the best in the league in that role, evidenced by his Selke Trophy Finalist selection. He gets all the tough assignments against the best forwards on the opposing team on a regular basis. He also played more minutes than all the other forwards last season with an average ice time of 19:30. While the Devils have been successful defensively due to the blueline playing better than the sum of their parts (or how they are on paper, depending on which cliche you'd like to use), the unit of Pandolfo-Madden-X has been a big help as well. During his Selke analysis, you'll find Mirle's methodology rates Pandolfo and Madden highly in this regard. What does this have to do with Holik? Plenty.
At this point in his career and given the Devils' current status, Holik can fit the bill as a second defensive center. Even though he's not close to being the player he was for New Jersey, Holik is still regarded as a third line center. On the Devils, he won't even have to do that. Among the various changes among the line up, there wasn't a consistent fourth line (or a first and second line, but I digress). Rod Pelley is a defensive forward, but he's also a rookie - looking like, well, a rookie in some games. I don't think Pelley's bad, but he certainly didn't make enough a case to keep him as a regular. Holik can provide the experience in that role that Pelley can't just yet. Given that a big part of defense involves positioning, anticipation, and hockey sense, experience is invaluable.
So instead of Pelley, let's modify Wyshynski's thought, and consider Holik as the Devils' fourth line center. With that move, he can provide the Devils the base for a viable second checking line. In Holik you have his defensive skills and his proficiency on faceoffs helping keeping possession. As far as wingers go, David Clarkson didn't look out of place on defense when he played with Pandolfo and Madden. Clarkson can be a physical force, aggressive - even agitating - against opposition forwards, and can be an interesting fit in this possible checking line. For the other winger, this is more open. If the Devils want it to be a physical defensive line, Mike Rupp can bring the pain along with Holik (I know he's 37, but he's still 6'4" and 230 lbs. and had 147 hits for Atlanta last year) and Clarkson. If they want to favor youth on this checking line, they could try Pelley at wing to see how it goes or give the supposedly Sergei-Brylin-like Petr Vrana a shot. Pelley has a good upside as a checker, but I'm not sure how Vrana can handle it - so I'd favor Pelley going into camp. So as long as defense is the goal, it should work.
Just by considering Holik as a defensive center on the fourth line the Devils have accomplished two things. First, they don't need to rely completely on Pandolfo-Madden-X to be the one-stop shop for line matching. Pandolfo and Madden won't have to have to take so many shifts to help the Devils not concede goals. This will leave them more rested for their shifts, which always good. Second, should the unit play well enough, oppositions are going to have hard time setting up their lines. In the past, they could move their best forwards around so they are on the ice when Madden is getting tired or isn't there. They could hit the Devils with their secondary (or tertiary!) scoring lines when the Devils won't have their third line out there. With a secondary checking line, the opposition can't just wait out the Madden line and hope for weaker opposition.
So Holik was a poor leader for Atlanta, so he wasn't good at scoring for the team, and so he wasn't particularly into all the games he played. So what? The fourth line was never much of a scoring line in the history of this franchise, so I don't think anyone reasonable will is expecting 40-50 points from Holik. No one will ask Holik to become a leader for the team, with established veterans already filling those needs (e.g. Madden, Elias, Langenbrunner, White, etc.). Holik won't have to play big minutes on a fourth line and he won't be needed on a penalty killing unit already well filled with forwards who have been doing a good job at it. If he's dogging it, Sutter will almost definitely not put up with it. These criticisms may even not be applicable for the role I'm thinking Holik should be in for New Jersey. He just needs to win faceoffs, play good positioning hockey for 8-12 minutes, frustrate the opposition's forwards a bit, and that in of itself will provide an extra dimension of defense for the team. That's always good for the team.
The worst-case-scenario out of all this is that: Holik totally sucks. He comes into camp out of shape, he doesn't have his heart in the season, and he gets dumped (bought out, down to Lowell, etc.). A loss of $2.5 million isn't good, but it is only for this season. After which, the Devils will probably look long term as to what they want to do with the fourth line. That all said, with the Holik signing, the fourth line doesn't have to be a low-minute line just there to provide some hits. It can provide some good use and I'd like to think the signing of Holik shows that the Devils organization may be thinking the same way.
That said, you got the main point. Four lines, but 2 checking lines so the workload isn't entirely on Pandolfo-Madden-whoever. If the fourth line is basically a checking line, Vrana may be OK. Besides, I'm not seeing any other openings where he could can step right in during training camp other than the fourth line. Throwing him up on the second line, I'm not convinced. Now Bergfors is willing to play off-wing, that may be more feasible...
Holik can still bring something to the table, but the fans and organization should keep their expectation in line.
In Atlanta the fans were over-promised and he under-delivered...and his big salary really hurt us later.
I think at this point Vrana will probably be our reserve forward in case someone gets injured. It really depends on who is better at training camp.
Vrana can also be a speedy replacement for Holik in those circumstances where the opponents have more speedy lines but only one top line to shut down.
Wherever Holik is I am hoping for 15 goals plus and 15 assists plus. Of course 90 or more big hits and under 60 PIMS. If he gets this he will impress.
The most logical place for him is to anchor the 4th line. In the end I am sure Sutter will have him play everywhere including slinging hotdogs.
The Devils can use this opportunity to redefine the 4th line and create a flexible, hybrid line. They need to score GOALS.