Hockey season approacheth nigh! And so, it is time for the long-awaited season preview for the most popular team in America's most popular sport—the New Jersey Devils.
Last year, the Devils did pretty well for themselves. Under a new coach, and missing some key players, they still managed to finish second in their highly-competitive division. And then they fell flat in the playoffs, against the traitor Scott Gomez and the New York Rangers.
But the Devils have enjoyed a fruitful offseason in which they dumped some unnecessary pieces—I feel so evil calling Sergei Brylin "unnecessary," but it's the sad truth—and added some necessary players.
For some reason, Lou Lamoriello decided this would be a good time to host a reunion tour, so he brought back a bunch of former Devils, including Brian Rolston, Bobby Holik, Scott Clemmenson—and for the fourth time, Pascal Rheaume.
The Devils are also said to be interested in the still-unsigned Brendan Shanahan, another former Devil who was last seen with the aforementioned Rangers.
Where does this team stand? Well, the biggest weakness for years has been the scoring, and the Rolston signing directly addresses that need. Rolston is a tad advanced in age, but plays like a young man. He's still a near lock to notch 30 goals, and has a cannon shot.
Plus, this will take defenders off of Zach Parise and Patrick Elias, both of whom should improve thanks to Rolston's presence. Rolston will not turn this team into a goal-scoring juggernaut, but he will add a reliable go-to shot that has been missing for some time. We've all seen what the Devils can do without him—with him, they're definitely much better.
Bobby Holik adds a veteran presence to the fourth line, which has been manned by rookies and sophomores. Holik still punishes with his hits, and his one-year deal was a very worthwhile investment, as he should help his young linemates excel in their goonish skills.
Holik has gotten a bit of an "overrated" rep around the league, leading some to criticize this signing, but that reputation is actually the result of ignorance on behalf of the Rangers. Holik has never been anything but a defenseive forward, a Sean Avery-type who can annoy the hell out of his opponents. This is what the Devils used him for in his first tenure with the team, and it's what they signed him for now.
The Rangers signed Holik in 2002 to a stupidly lucrative contract, perhaps expecting him to score some goals. Lo and behold, he didn't. So now Holik has a rep as an underachiever, and it's really pretty foolish.
Holik was signed to center a fourth line, annoy opposition, mentor some young guys, win faceoffs, and finish hits. He wasn't signed to a tremendous contract, and he's not expected to do the impossible. The Devils signed Holik to be Holik—and it was a damn good decision.
However, this does create a clogged fourth line. The Devils have Dainius Zubrus, Mike Rupp, David Clarkson, Fedor Fedorov, and Rod Pelley already employed for that role, with Zubrus, Pelley, and Fedorov all able to center the line. In addition, the Devils intend to try our Petr Vrana, one of their prospects, another center.
Zubrus will, in all likelihood, be on a higher line, unless the Devils do wind up signing Shanahan, although that doesn't appear to be exceedingly likely.
The defense remains one area that could stand to be improved, but it's still vastly underrated. Gone are Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko to retirement, and Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski to free agency.
Colin White is now the longest-tenured blueliner, and his eye injury from last year has caused a dip in his abilities. Paul Martin is therefore the leader on defense, with Bryce Salvadore returning as another veteran.
The Devils did trim the fat from their crowded defense of last year by cutting ties with the ineffective Karel Rachunek and Vitaly Vishnevski. Also returning are Andy Greene, Johnny Oduya, Mike Mottau, and, for some reason, Sheldon Brookbank. This unit seems rather shoddy, but like I said, it's underrated—the team last year was eighth in shots allowed. That's a very nice stat for a hodgepodge group.
The Devils also have a young defenseman named Matthew Corrente, who they hope will be part of the defensive rotation. Other names to keep an eye on are Tyler Eckford, Mark Fraser, and Anssi Salmela—although their impact will likely not be as great as Corrente's this season.
The Devils were also rumored to be interested in Mathieu Schneider, but they passed on him when he was recently waived by Anaheim.
And finally, the goaltending. The Devils did bring back Clemmenson, although he's probably headed to the minor-league team in Lowell. That leaves Kevin Weekes to once again watch Martin Brodeur play 82 games.
With Marty around, the Devils will always make the playoffs. The man is by far the best goalie in hockey, and will arguably wind up as the best in history. He should claim the career-wins record this early this season.
As far as comparison to other teams in the division, the Devils stack up nicely. The Penguins, who won the division last year, will likely do so again, despite losing Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone in the offseason. They're extremely young and talented, so they appear to be the new team to beat in this division.
The Flyers had a solid offseason as well, and looked good in the playoffs last year, so they'll be a tough opponent. But keep in mind that the Devils did finish ahead of them last year, and they too improved, so there's no reason to assume the Devils can't finish ahead of Philly again.
The Islanders are the Islanders, and I'm not really sure if they plan on playing any hockey this year.
Finally, the Rangers had a pretty terrible offseason. They lost Jaromir Jagr, who has led the team in goals and points since he got there. They lost Sean Avery, who was easily their toughest player, and a guy who seemed to be able to propel the team every time he stepped onto the ice. His presence will be sorely missed.
They did not brought back Shanahan, who quietly put up solid numbers last year. They also traded away Fedor Tyutin, a solid defenseman. They've replaced these guys with players who are not exactly of the same caliber.
Nikolai Zherdev is Alexei Kovalev 2.0, and we know how that worked out for the Rangers. The guy could put up some nice numbers, but he could suck. Keep in mind his stats last year were similar to Shanahan's, who the Rangers just let walk.
Markus Naslund is so beyond past his prime. He's declined every year, and he's nowhere near Jagr's production value. And Wade Redden has done squat the past couple of years in Ottawa, and the Rangers grossly overpaid for his services. He won't help the defense at all.
Did they decimate their team? No. But they definitely downgraded, and considering how the other teams fared this offseason, I would not be surprised to see New York in fourth place.
Back to Jersey—the team looks good, and could stand to get better if they trade for a solid defenseman. They've improved their scoring and their defensive forwards, and they've dropped some unnecessary baggage.
A second-place finish in the division will be a difficult thing to repeat, but it's definitely doable for this squad—and that's exactly where I predict they will finish.