Is the Ilya Kovalchuk saga over, or will his play dictate that it is just the beginning?
Key Additions: C Jason Arnott, D Henrik Tallinder, D Anton Volchenkov, G Johan Hedberg.
Key Subtractions: D Paul Martin, D Martin Skoula, D Mike Mottau, G Yann Danis, C Rob Niedermayer, LW Andrew Peters.
The New Jersey Devils have become synonymous with great hockey over the past 15 years. The Devils won three Stanley Cups in nine years and have always been towards the top of their division if not at the top. But recently, New Jersey has fallen into a funk where they cannot escape even the first round of the playoffs.
The Devils are hopeful to change all that and win another championship this year, as was made apparent by an offseason of cap circumvention controversies and the upgrade on the back end. New Jersey enters the regular season as quite possibly the top of the pops.
It was a roller coaster ride for the past three months, but when the dust settled and the penalties were dished out, the Devils finally inked Ilya Kovalchuk to what appears to be a lifetime contract. There’s no doubt that Kovalchuk is dynamic. He can score 50 goals a season and deliver big hits at the same time. He’s aggressive and quick with the puck and always seems to have his head on a swivel. No wonder he was so sought after during free agency.
Kovalchuk will likely find himself playing with New Jersey’s other ace Zach Parise on a line that will make any goalie cringe. Parise is incredibly fast and never saw a shot he didn’t like. While other players get a reputation for a quick release or a heavy slap, Parise has both. He’s also playing in a contract year, which could spell astronomical numbers for the talented winger.
Centering the top line will be Travis Zajac, an underrated forward with smart decision making abilities and decent hands. Zajac hasn’t exactly been as dynamic as Parise or Kovalchuk, but simply playing great hockey between the two of them could lead to his big break. In 2009-10, he had a career high 25 goals and 67 points. Now imagine what a full season sandwiched between the two will do.
New Jersey’s veteran presence never seems to go away, as Jason Arnott rejoins the team after almost a decade in exile. Actually, Arnott was busy leading other teams to unlikely playoff berths while the Devils remained consistent. Arnott may be old but he’s still got intangible qualities and a scoring touch that a lot of his younger peers haven’t found.
This of course, is why we direct you to Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner for further offensive firepower. Elias didn’t play a full slate last year but is certainly still among the most dangerous skaters on the power play. He loves to take up the face-off circles and make goalies miserable. Langenbrunner, who found a media interest last year during the Olympics, maintained his composure for another 60-point campaign. With the added offensive power, producing that again would be impressive.
Other players like Brian Rolston and Dainius Zubrus may not have the biggest scoring punch to offer, but more than make up for it with great defensive work. Zubrus is consistently mentioned as one of the top defensive forwards in the NHL and can shadow any star on the ice if needed.
The toughness of the Devils roster remains as well, with David Clarkson and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (say that five times fast) taking up the space of agitating and fighting on a team that is certain to have its fair share of enemies.
The defense of the Devils is often heralded for being a no-nonsense, shutdown squad. Even when the Devils eventually parted with Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, their D looked as good as ever. A credit to coaching and smart off-season moves, which the Devils have made once again this year.
With Paul Martin out of the picture, New Jersey swooped in to acquire talented defensmen Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder. Volchenkov has been heralded as a big pickup for his work along the boards and in front of the net. He can sweep the puck out quickly and typically won’t panic. Tallinder comes in from the run-and-gun Buffalo system, yet he uses his size to box out the opponent.
Depth wise, the Devils are looking towards some young options to make things happen. Sure, they still have Colin White playing tough, but with Bryce Salvador on the long-term injured reserve list, the time has come for New Jersey to go fishing.
Andy Greene and Mark Fraser are two solutions the Devils have found to plug the holes, and rookie Alexander Urbom could also be a suitable candidate. Greene quietly tallied 31 assists last year and could see more use on the power play for a Devils team lacking in scoring defenders. Both Fraser and Urbom are big, 6’3” defenders with a little something to prove, especially if they’re fighting for a spot once Salvador returns.
One word describes the New Jersey Devils goaltending situation: Marty. Martin Brodeur didn’t call it quits after shambling through the playoffs, and instead is focused on one more shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup. If you question Brodeur’s dominance over the past two decades in the NHL, you may want to check yourself again.
Brodeur has over 600 wins in his career with high marks in shutouts, goals against average, and save percentage. Last year, Brodeur’s 45 wins were the second highest in his career, and he looked to have shaken off a sidelining injury from the year previous. The only factor fans will be keying on for Marty is his age, 38, as a possible detriment.
The Devils reacted to Brodeur’s return by bringing in a suitable backup in Johan Hedberg. While he’ll definitely see limited action (15-20 games) this year, Hedberg generally shows the kind of quality that a starting goalie would need to succeed. And in the Devils system, where Scott Clemmensen was an MVP for half the year, any goalie could have great success.
Since we’ve already touched on Urbom, let’s take a look at 20-year-old forward Adam Henrique. After a rough first year in the OHL, Henrique has turned his game around for the past three years and could learn a great deal from the incredible breadth of veterans playing in New Jersey. If Nic Bergfors was any indicator, Henrique could do similar damage.
The Devils still have many questions when they come into the playoffs, but they’ll likely be there as the top seed in the East. First in the Atlantic, First in the Eastern Conference.