BT's 2008/09 NHL Season Preview: New Jersey Devils

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BT's 2008/09 NHL Season Preview: New Jersey Devils

Preface: So after finishing up the New York Islanders, I didn't have to go to far for the New Jersey Devils. In fact, if it wasn't for Ottawa, the entire Atlantic division would be together in the alphabet.

You're the odd one out, Ottawa. Either join the Atlantic division or get a new letter.

 

We all know the story about the New Jersey Devils—defense first with a few offensive stars, and one of the best goalies of all-time standing between the pipes.

They've also qualified for the playoffs in every season since 1989-90 except once, one of the greatest examples of consistency.

As the St Louis Blues proved, at some point consistency fades—but it's just a matter of when.

So we have to ask ourselves, is this the year the New Jersey Devils miss the playoffs?

I'd hate to say no, but they've got a pretty big challenge ahead of them.

 

Roster Additions: Bobby Holik-F (F.A.), Brian Rolston-F (F.A.), Scott Clemmmensen-G (F.A.)

Roster Subtractions:
Karel Rachunek-D (Europe), Sergei Brylin-F (F.A), Grant Marshall-D (F.A.), Richard Matvichuk-D (F.A.), Aaron Asham-F (F.A.)

How did 2007-08 go?
46-29-7, 99 points, fourth in conference, second in Atlantic division, lost in first round of 2008 playoffs (Eastern Conference).

2008-09 Goal:
Second in division (try to overtake Pittsburgh for first), reach second round of playoffs.

Let's break'er down...

A few years ago, the New Jersey Devils were the most boring, yet most consistent team in the NHL.

You can almost single-handedly blame the Devils and the Minnesota Wild, with their defense-first style, for some of the rule changes the NHL made to open up the game.

Once they tried to open up the game though, we basically found that Martin Brodeur can adapt to any situation—and well.



Eliminate offsides entirely and Brodeur would probably average about a 2.25 goals-against average.


Essentially, he IS the Hall of Fame when it comes to goalies now, and every other team that had the opportunity to take him in 1990 is kicking themselves.

Now introducing the Martin Brodeur trophy. Its goal? Award it to Brodeur every year and let someone else win a Vezina.

We’re going to start this segment with a “duh” moment. If Martin Brodeur gets injured, the Devils are screwed.

Not just set back, not just facing a little adversity, but flatout screwed. If sexual visualization wasn’t so prominent in today’s society, I’d say they’d be boned...but that’s dirty.

If Brodeur were to get hurt, you can choose either Scott Clemmensen and his 28 total NHL games, or Kevin Weekes, who looked less-than-stellar in his nine games with a 2.97 GAA and an .894 save percentage.

The best thing about Martin Brodeur, though, is that he plays in 77 games a season.

First things first: Martin Brodeur has NOT seen action in just nine games the past two seasons. There are players on the Leafs (more than a handful) that have fewer games of NHL experience than he's missed.

Brodeur also has four Vezina trophies to his credit, but he also has four William M. Jennings trophies as well. An interesting stat is that those awards only crossover twice—the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons. Brodeur’s other two Jennings trophies came in 1996-97 (with Mike Dunham) and 1997-98 (when he was the lone recipient), while his two lone Vezinas came in 2006-07 and 2007-08—that’s two different kinds of domination.

On top of that, Brodeur has had two seasons with GAAs under 2.00, two seasons with GAAs under 2.10, and back-to-back seasons of GAAs under 2.20 (2.17 in 2006-07 and 2.18 in 2007-08).

And he’s inches away from the all-time shutout mark.

But aside from all of that, Brodeur is still 36, and had a very rough go of it—Sean Avery or not—in the playoffs last year against the Rangers (1-4, 3.19 GAA, and a .891 save percentage).

Although the Devils will be in trouble if they have to rely solely on Weekes and Clemmensen, they’re going to have to cut down Marty’s workload if they expect him to carry them through the playoffs once again.



Who forgot to tell Ken Daneyko it’s homecoming season?


I don’t know why, but for some reason New Jersey decided to bring back Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik.

The Brian Rolston signing, although it caught me off guard, I can live with. The fact is, Rolston still has some life left in his legs, and he can still kill penalties and unleash his shot when he wants. He’ll also be a great role model for a young guy like Zach Parise.

Throughout his best years in New Jersey, Holik was a solid two-way performer, who was able to contribute in a big way to two Stanley Cup runs, posting 50-60 points per year.

As people began to “take notice” of Bobby Holik and think he was “underrated”, he soon got “his due” from the Rangers in the 2002 offseason, becoming one of the overpaid, underperforming New York Rangers of the mid 2000’s.

Now though, the Devils look to be overpaying for a 37-year-old, 30-point producer who has looked like one of the weaker links in Atlanta the past few seasons—a great way to spend $2.5 million.

Bobby Holik, inadvertently or not—I mean, who WOULDN’T sign that contract put forth by the Rangers), helped in causing the lockout. I agree in saying that Holik got a terrible rap for the contract he was offered, but it's also one of the most referenced contracts when  talking about "overpaying" for a player.

Even now, I think that the Devils are overpaying a bit for a center who's tumbled a bit in recent years, but still offers a feisty presence and who could revitalize his two-way game.

One of the players that’s overlooked in today’s NHL—especially in competition with Crosby and Malkin in the Atlantic—is Zach Parise. Now, you wouldn’t expect an offensive dynamo to emerge from New Jersey, but that’s exactly what Parise is: He’s had back-to-back 30 goal campaigns, and two straight 60-point seasons; He’s smart, he skates like the devil (it’s a pun—get it?), and will be a great captain for this team one day. It’s too bad this kid doesn’t get more attention.

A few of the names he’s being overshadowed by in Jersey are long-time Devils Patrick Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner. Elias has proven to be an excellent point-producer throughout his career, but is dogged by consistency issues, and a little bad luck. He’ll go from a 30-goal, 80-point season and stay completely healthy one year, to a 20-goal, 55-point performance, and struggle through some health issues.

Although his playmaking ability and his vision would be better utilized in a more offense-first system, one has to respect Elias for his commitment: Although Chicago and the Rangers both offered him a competitive contract, he still made the choice to stick with New Jersey, showing dedication to a program that has proven to be successful.

Langenbrunner has also put in some solid time with the Devils. Although Jamie is also prone to the cycle of one season up, one season down, he is a speedy guy with some versatility, and has been around long enough and seen enough success to be a quality leader.

Although he is small, Brian Gionta will still continue to help the Devils this season. Despite exploding for 48 goals two years ago, Gionta has shown that he can play a good two-way game, as well as being a constant 20-goal threat—especially when playing with a quality centre who can get him the puck.  If he’s able to find his 2006-07 form once again, thank Travis Zajac.

John Madden and Danius Zubrus will also become vital parts of this New Jersey team. When Zubrus is surrounded by quality players (like in Buffalo) he’s able to produce. Madden, meanwhile, should provide a fundamentally sound penalty-killing tandem with Jay Pandolfo for the Devils.

The lower forward spots will be filled by Mike Rupp, Rod Pelley, Fedor Fedorov (although if he suddenly becomes motivated, his skills could carry him higher in the lineup), David Clarkson, and Barry Tallackson.

There are also a few young players that the Devils could showcase this season.

After spending some time in the Russian leagues, Vladimir Zharkov could provide a bit of scoring depth for the Devils. Granted, his stats from the past few seasons aren’t overly impressive, but he also played games in a men’s league at the age of 16. He’s only 20 now—but with a little maturation, he could surprise a bit in the years to come.

Matt Halischuk may be destined for the AHL this season, but he may be another young Devil who can impress down the road. Halischuk has the ability to be a 20-goal scorer in the NHL, but more importantly is that he could become a solid play-making center for the Devils as well, while Brad Snetsinger could also be a top OHL-Alum to watch for as well.

 

Oduya think you’re better than me eh? Well let me Salvador my reputation…

If you’re familiar with Canadian politics, then you know who Paul Martin is—but that knowledge makes you useless in this case.

The other Paul Martin—the defenseman for the New Jersey Devils—has steadily stepped up as different parts of those excellent Jersey units left over time. Scott Stevens left, and Martin’s role increased. Scott Niedermayer left, and Martin’s role increased. Brian Rafalski left (rather quietly) last season, and Martin upped his performance with the added responsibility.

What followed was a career-best plus-20 rating—it’s scary that this wasn’t the best on the team—and a solid five-goal, 32-point season. Although his offensive production may level off in the 30-point range, Martin is steadily becoming a solid defender in the NHL.

While Martin continues to improve his all-around game, Colin White will continue to use his big body to clear out space for Martin Brodeur, while offering very rare offensive spurts. It’ll be interesting however to see if a midseason eye injury has any lingering effects on White this year. Although he did come back last season, eyes are a tricky thing, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re a bit finicky going forward.

In his second season, Johnny Oduya was a very pleasant surprise for the Devils. He nearly doubled his offensive production from the previous season (from 11 points to 26), and posted a startling plus-27. Although Oduya has shown strong offensive talent in the past, don’t expect him to get too far past the 30-point plateau, although it’s practical to believe that Oduya’s defensive prowess will steadily improve in New Jersey.

Acquired in a trade late last season with St Louis, Bryce Salvador is also back, fresh off of a four-year extension. Although his career hasn’t been anything to write home about so far, Salvador had a strong showing with St Louis (11 points, plus-12 in 56 games) and a fairly strong post season by his standards.

He may not seem like much more than an alternate option, but it’s also quite conceivable that New Jersey’s style could cover up some flaws in Salvador’s game, as well as those of Mike Mottau, Sheldon Brookbank, and Jay Leach if they see significant ice time in the NHL.

Matt Corrente is a fairly young defenseman coming out of the OHL who saw some success, but only played 21 games in his final OHL season. Despite that—and an minus-38 rating in his rookie season—Corrente posted some steady point numbers, and started to turn into a very reliable source of defense.

Andy Greene, Mark Fraser, and Taylor Eckford may also be three young defenders to see some time within the NHL ranks in the event of injury or under-performance.

 

So what's it all mean?

The Atlantic Division is a hard division to decipher.

The Devils have the best goalie in Martin Brodeur, but the Penguins have the most firepower, while both the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are difficult teams to place.

In light of last season’s second place finish, I feel it unjust to rank the Devils so low, but also consider this—it’s possible for all of the Flyers, Rangers, Penguins, and Devils to make the playoffs.

The Southeast is fairly weak, with Carolina and Washington being the two real challengers. The Northeast is also a tough egg to crack, as there’ll be no easy games in that division.

Then you factor in Pittsburgh’s injuries on defense to Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar, and the career of Philadelphia's Derian Hatcher being in jeopardy, and things are complicated further.

If I say the Devils need to score more to be more of an impact, then I get ripped because they only allowed 197 goals last season. But that’s last season.

To be competitive for top spot in the Atlantic, though, I think they do need to score more, and I’m not sure that depth is there. I’m also not sure how much “better” the Rangers, Flyers, Devils and Pens are than each other because only seven points separated first in the division from fourth, while second and fourth were separated by just four.

Basically it means they're close. I don't like close. Close is hard.

As of now? I see the Devils fourth—but with teams that evenly matched, they'll be locked in a battle for third with Philadelphia, and could easily hop as high as second.



Fourth in Atlantic

 

Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile, and you can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.

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