Reviewing the Previews: Scott Burnside at ESPN

First, big thanks to Tibbs for including this in his morning Devils news links.  If you're not checking them out, you're missing out on something interesting.  Speaking of, my team preview is still up, which may be of interest to those who haven't seen it yet.  This preview by Scott Burnside at ESPN is quite interesting on it's own, to say the least.  It actually opens with a prediction, right next to a big picture of Zach Parise.  Right underneath some general numbers about last year's team (record, finish, etc.), Scott Burnside gives his prediction.

SCOTT'S PREDICTION

Almost every season, we predict the Devils will swoon. One of these years, it will actually happen. We're pretty sure this is it. The clock runs out on the Devils' 12-year playoff run as they will finish fourth in the Atlantic and outside the playoff tournament.

Oh, Scott Burnside and the ESPN NHL layout editors.  Leading with this was not smart for three reasons.

First, traditionally, you give a prediction at the end of a preview so the reader will want to read the rest of it.  Ideally, you state what's new with the team, what their situation is, and generally those points would lead into a prediction based on how you see it.   This is convenient for readers who really just want to see a prediction - and good job there throwing them a bone; but do we have to read what you have to say now?

Second, did you read your own prediction?  If you're predicting the same outcome every season for a team and it doesn't happen, then why are you continuing to say so?  Unless there's some dramatic changes to the team, wouldn't you perhaps re-consider your assumptions?  We know he's aware of the cliche about a broken clock. But does Burnside know that cliche about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time?

Third, most Devils fans will initially think that you don't have a semblance of a clue about the team.  There's something to be said for being up front, but they've either moved on from this preview or they're hoping you have one heck of a case to back up your prediction. Fortunately, they'll (hopefully) read sites like this one, featuring an author more than happy to spell out what you've said in the preview they didn't read. And they shall do that after the jump. If they want to, that is.

Now, the preview is set up differently from most others and Burnside breaks down the team into 10 points. "Things you need to know," says Burnside/ESPN.  The little introduction before the 10 points has this little gem:

Think "Hotel California" and you've got a sense of it as players and coaches consistently return to the Devils' fold, like Brendan Shanahan, who is back for another season after joining the Devils midway through 2008-09, forward Brian Rolston and, of course, Larry Robinson, who remains part of the Devils family after two go-rounds as coach. Go figure. Maybe that's why the Devils, despite obvious holes in their lineup, are a perennial playoff team.

This was clearly written at a different time as when the prediction was made.  Or Burnside isn't quite smart.  The introduction doesn't fully say it, it hints at it, perhaps as a sign that maybe Burnside is trying to figure out what Devils fans have known for over a decade and a half.  So I will - pay attention ESPN/Burnside:

The Devils have continued to be successful because of the organization. Because Lou Lamoriello has been successful, understands what it takes to be successful, respects those who are committed to the organization, and such an organization attracts players and staff of all kinds - even players who left the team with some bad feelings (e.g. Bobby Holik a summer ago).   It's not a "cult-like draw," it's a world class operation that results in a world class hockey team.

Anyway, before getting into Burnside's 10 points, let's take a look at that sidebar.  Give ESPN and Burnside credit for this, they offer a lot of content in this preview.   Plenty to read through.  There's a little fantasy section which is up to date, noting Patrik Elias as a risk due to his groin surgery likely keeping him out for most of October.  There's a listing of the team's starting 5, which is accurate enough.  If you have an Insider account, you can see Puck Prospectus' VUKOTA rankings for the team along with additional commentary - which is unnecessary, you can read Puck Prospectus' rankings here for free (I'll review it soon). There's even a section focusing on the coach, Jacques Lemaire.  Which unfortunately has this as it's major point:

Did the Minnesota Wild become a stultifying, unimaginative offensive team because their personnel dictated that was their personality or did Lemaire impose that personality on the squad? A moot point given that the Devils don't really have the personnel to play anything but that kind of hockey.

Hard to imagine this will go a long way in selling hockey in Newark, but if anyone can keep the Devils in the hunt for a playoff berth, it's Lemaire.

Oh, whoever wrote this wasn't as up to date as the fellow who did the fantasy section.  Same old assumptions. Maybe they aren't familiar with Gulitti's or Chere's blogs?   Lemaire has said he's looking for more offense, recognizes that you can't sit on leads, and has worked on offense first in camp. The players have said they've been working on "up tempo" hockey.   And I can confirm from the first preseason game that Lemaire wasn't trapping.  Is this too obscure to find? To hard to research? Will whoever wrote this go back to school?

And most of this team was on last year's roster which didn't play a "stultifying, unimaginative offensive team." Was any research done for this part?  Any at all?  Whatever, I'm done with this section. Let's move on to the points.

Points 1, 2 - Goaltending

Burnside's first point is about the "curious case of Martin Brodeur."   Not sure what's so curious - every season critics complain he plays too much for some reason, he plays a majority of the Devils' games anyway, and at the end he remains an elite goaltender.  Burnside recognizes this, followed by the old line about how Brodeur didn't lead his team to a long postseason run. Of course, when the Devils lose in the playoffs, it's Brodeur's fault and no one else's.  Like I said in the Wyshynski review, you won't see that written about Henrik Lundqvist or Roberto Luongo even though they are in the same "boat."  What was the point of this section, Burnside?  That Brodeur is great but he hasn't seen the conference finals since the lockout so he's not so great? Something that those who has actually seen Brodeur play would tell you otherwise? And so he should play fewer games even though last season is evidence against that logic?   My head, it hurts.

Burnside's second point is about Yann Danis, the new Devils back up; and I do agree that he's a decent option and that he'll not see much action in this coming season.That much we agree upon and it's good to see Burnside make a separate point for Danis.

Points 3, 4, 6, 7- Forwards

Again, credit where credit is due, Burnside is right for the most part about what he had to say about his third and fourth point.  His third point is about Patrik Elias and his  injury will certainly lead to some initial struggles on offense, and let me add, leadership. Though the quick line about Dainius Zubrus having to play #2 center doesn't make much sense to me because that is exactly where he played for most of last season.  For the fourth point, he brings up Zach Parise as the team's top offensive talent and soberly states that he may not match 94 points - though I disagree with Burnside's rationale; he claims Lemaire will hold him back, I claim that it's just so high of a mark to repeat.   But we agree on that point. 

Jumping ahead to the other points he had about the offense, his sixth point is quite disappointing. His sixth point is simply entitled "Offense," which consists of this piece of work:

One might assume the Devils were near the bottom of the league offensively, but under former coach Brent Sutter, they were actually fairly dynamic, finishing tied for 14th in goals per game and 15th in terms of power-play efficiency. But power-play staple Brian Gionta is gone to Montreal, and with Elias hurt, the Devils once again look to be goal-starved unless they can find some homegrown scoring talent in the form of rookie Patrice Cormier or Ilkka Pikkarainen, a Finnish Devils prospect from a couple of years ago.

Credit to him for noting that the Devils weren't devoid of offense last season. But the rest, oh, the rest. 

Given that Patrice Cormier is a two-way 19 year old center who is likely to return to Rimouski at the end of camp, and Ilkka Pikkarainen is a gritty winger expected for the fourth line, those are some imaginative suggestions for supporting the offense.  Has Burnside ever heard of David Clarkson or Brian Rolston?  Rolston is only mentioned at the beginning as an example of a player returning to the Devils, and Clarkson - the previews' consensus breakout player for NJ - isn't mentioned in the article at all.  I'm not kidding! Search it if you don't believe me.  Anyway, I'm sure either of those two can replace Gionta's 20 goals last season.  I'm expecting Rolston to do so, at least.  Come to think of it, both players - 8 for Rolston and 4 for Clarkson - scored more power play goals than Gionta (3) did last season.  Did Burnside or his staff really do his homework here?

Burnside isn't any kinder about his seventh point - he raises the very real concern that the Devils are a "one line team." Though, again, should a few players step up, this won't be a big concern.  And it'll be cleared up when Elias returns from injury.

Point 5 - Defense, or rather Paul Martin

Burnside makes only one point about the defense, and he focuses solely on Paul Martin. Which is fine, because Burnside nails this point perfectly.  He's a rising star, he'll feature for the US at the Olympics, and he's going to be highly sought-after as an unrestricted free agent in the summer.  Burnside raises the uncomfortable thought of trading him, but it is something to truly consider - especially if the Devils don't think they can afford his market value.

Points 8, 9, 10 - General Team Comments

The last three points by Burnside are interesting takes on the team that I really haven't seen elsewhere.  First, the last two.  Point number nine is about the Devils' favorable December schedule (10 home games) that's really inarguable except for the veiled jab at Newark.  Uh, Burnside, the Devils were 28-12-1 at the Rock last season. They like it just fine.   The tenth point focuses on the Olympics noting that many of the Devils' key players will get to play extra games.  He tabs Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, and Paul Martin as definite trip-takers to Vancouver while Jamie Langenbrunner and Johnny Oduya are long shots to make their respective national teams.  That's largely the core of the team and it's good that Burnside raised it.

I end on the eighth point because Burnside makes an admission with this one. The opening sentence to "Anomaly city:" 

The Devils are always a hard team to figure out.

Well, it's even harder when you don't do enough research!  Amazingly, within this point brings up two facts that I'm surprised he didn't focus on more if he wanted to make a case for the team missing the playoffs.  The loss of John Madden leaves the Devils thin at center and raises questions as who will fill in his spot as a checking forward. This is just mentioned here.  The Devils' poor penalty kill is also touched on here. But Burnside crams this in between two very positive stats Devils fans can be proud of last year: that only Boston let up fewer even strength goals and the Devils were 37-5-2 when scoring first. 

Burnside sums this up as the Devils being an anomaly.  Not really, if you consider that John Madden had a relatively poor season, Jay Pandolfo had a very poor season, Brent Sutter never made the right adjustments to make the PK work right, and that the organization as a whole has emphasized backchecking and positional defense as a responsibility since the 1990s.  Again, why not just make separate points about the penalty kill, the thinness at center, and/or the penalty kill if you want to argue that the Devils will miss the playoffs? I can't believe it, I'm giving advice as to what to criticize about the team because Burnside did such a bad job at making his own case.

Overall Outlook: Pessimistic, Prediction: 4th in Atlantic, Miss the Playoffs

I have to laud Burnside and ESPN for putting a lot of effort into the layout and the kind of content available within the preview. It's well done and provides plenty of information.  The biggest problem is the information itself. Sure, there's some interesting nuggets that some may have not thought about (e.g. the schedule in December, the focus on Paul Martin, the Olympics).  But then there's the rest.  The missed conclusions, the signs of a lack of research about the team, and the biggest sin is that the case is not made. I did not come away from this preview thinking "Well, I don't agree, but I can see why Burnside thinks the Devils won't make the playoffs."  Wyshynski's preview shows that you can have a pessimistic outlook on the Devils but have it be supported by proper facts.  To me, Burnside seemingly started with his prediction and threw some information to fill in the rest - both true and otherwise outdated.  That's the impression I got and that's definitely not good for a preview.  I should not be reading this thinking, "No, no, no, if you want to dump on the Devils, then you should do X, Y, Z."  It is also an impression further empahsized by that initial prediction at the beginning of the preview.

I hope someone from ESPN isn't wondering why hockey fans aren't flocking to their sites for information and analysis.   If they are, they can start by closely reading this preview.

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