We're about halfway done with our season preview. Hopefully we can get this kicked out well before September ends and the teams start their travel season in lovely Europe. Pre-season hockey rules so go check it out in a town near you!
And now, the New Jersey Devils.
Team M.O.: Typically a defense-first team that's built around their goaltender, the team's taking advantage of their budding offensive talent as their star goaltender is starting to get closer to the end of his playing career. They made a hell of a splash last season and acquired one of the best players in the league. The problem now is that they aren't cap compliant and who knows what moves will have to be made to make that possible.
Last Season: They finished second overall in the Eastern Conference but failed to get out of the Conference Quarterfinals and were eliminated in 5 games. One has to wonder if that wouldn't have happened if they were to give their backup goaltender more playing time.
Offense: No doubt the big story in the off-season was the re-signing fiasco of Ilya Kovalchuk. Now that his contract issues are settled, the Devils have one of the best wingers in the league. He would be an amazing compliment to Zach Parise and Travis Zajac, who continue their ascension into NHL stardom (Parise was still over a point-per-game player last season while Zajac had a career season with 67 points.) Jason Arnott was acquired from the Nashville Predators and will likely be on a line with the offensively-gifted Patrik Elias and team captain Jamie Langenbrunner; these guys will give the team secondary scoring that will rival most teams' first lines. Though Brian Rolston was expected to play the role of a top-line scoring winger, he hasn't been able to deliver than in a New Jersey Devils uniform. The team would ideally love to get out of that contract but considering that it's a 35+ contract, his salary would count against the salary cap even if he were to be assigned to the minors. Dainius Zubrus, however, could be assigned to the minors to give the team breathing room; so he had better do everything in his power to ensure he has an excellent camp if he doesn't want to be playing games in the AHL. David Clarkson, meanwhile, was re-signed before the free agency period began and is starting to look like a legitimate agitating goal-scorer; hopefully his offensive production continues to improve.
As for the team's checking unit, they look like they're going to go into battle with the energetic Rod Pelley, the tough-as-nails Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, and NHL sophomore Vladimir Zharkov, who did very well in a defensive role for the Devils. Adam Mair has been invited to training camp to compete for a roster spot and will probably be able to sign with the team once they've figured out their salary issues up front.
The team needs to figure out which if their forwards they can jettison and get cap compliant. In a perfect world Rolston could be waived and claimed and Zubrus could be re-assigned outright. However the world's far from perfect and even if those two took off, they'd have to turn to within for replacements; which may or may not work for them.
Defense: Andy Greene had a breakout season last year as a small-yet-skilled point-producting defensemen from Michigan... kinda reminds us of Brian Rafalski in a way. Colin White managed to be injury free most of last season and will give the club a solid and steady defensive defender. Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov were brought on during the off-season to provide the team with two solid shutdown defenders who may actually pair up together on a unit. Bryce Salvador and Mark Fraser provide the team with a solid physical third-pairing who are as capable of dropping the mitts as they are playing a solid defensive role for the club. Anssi Salmela looks like he's going to be on the shelf for a while so the club may turn to a defender like Tyler Eckford to play as that Number 7 forward who can generate points.
All and all the defense doesn't look too shabby, especially for a group of guys who will clog up the neutral and defensive zones so their forwards can attack and their goaltender can defend.
Goaltending: Martin Brodeur remains one of the best goaltenders in the game but simply needs to play less in order for the team to achieve more in the post-season. Johan Hedberg was brought on last seasn and but up some pretty serious numbers on a non-playoff Atlanta Thrasher team (21-16-6 in 47 games played with a 2.62 GAA and .915 save percentage.) If the team can get the two to platoon then the achievements can be taken off of the individual (Brodeur) and focused back on the squad.
Management: Give it to Lou Lamoriello; though somewhat eccentric the guy's managed to build some pretty legitimate teams in a market where there's two other teams fighting for the spotlight. We'll be anxious to see how well John MacLean handles his first full-season of coaching at the NHL level.
Prediction: First in the Atlantic Division and in the playoffs.
Cap issues be damned, these guys are still better than everyone else in their division. They can't take anything for granted though; because as long as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, and New York Rangers are in the mix, they're going to have to bring it every night to establish their supremacy.