The strength of the New Jersey Devils heading into the 2010-11 NHL Season appears to be at left wing. Compared to top left wings in the game today (Alexander Ovechkin, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Zetterburg, Dany Heatley, Alexander Semin, etc.), the Devils' trio of Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias are as good as any of the top wingers in hockey. In fact, the Devils had two of the top five goal scoring left wingers at season's end in 2009-10 (Kovalchukranked third with 41 goals and Parise fifth with 38 goals). That presents a challenge for head coach, John MacLean, however. Most teams benefit from two decent scoring lines in the NHL today. The Devils may have the talent for more than two scoring lines, however, but it will take patience to do so. MacLean has reportedly experimented with a line consisting of Parise, Travis Zajac and Kovalchuk playing on the right side. Ilya did not mind the 'experiment' by MacLean(he later joked saying he would play goal to be with the two of Parise and Zajac), however it may not benefit the team as expected.
The Devils do not appear to have a checking line in place for the 2010-11 season, however MacLeancould probably come up with one, consisting of Brian Rolston, Danius Zubrus or Jamie Langenbrunner and either a rookie center or Adam Mair. The fact is, though, that the line of Parise, Zajac and Langenbrunner is a better defensive checking line than any other combination. Parisefinished the 2009-10 campaign at a plus-24 defensive rating, with Zajac just behind at plus-22. Langenbrunnerwas a plus-six, however in 2008-09 season, all three players were a plus-25 or better. For these reasons, that combination should not be interfered with. Parise, Zajac and Langenbrunnerplay at their best then they can play with each other consistently, and Jacques Lemaire clearly did not leave the three together as often as 2008-09 head coach Brent Sutter had. The three combined for 82 goals (one goal per game) in 2009-10, and 94 goals in 2008-09. That 176 goals in the past two seasons combined accounts for nearly 39% of the Devils' 454 goals scored during that span.
Now, the question then becomes what to do with who after the top line is set. Assuming the lines rolled out on October 8th against the Dallas Stars begin with Parise, Zajac and Langenbrunner, MacLean has some more decisions to make. Danius Zubrus has previously centered a lot of talent in his career, from the occasional shift with John Leclair in Philadelphia to Martin Rucinsky in Montreal, even limited time with Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra in Washington, then with Alexander Ovechkin later in his Washington career, Zubrus has fit well at times with the right wingers. Zubrus even showed flashes of brilliance playing as a right wing with Parise and Zajac last year with the Devils. That leads me to my next mock-coaching decision: install Zubrus as the second line center. Zubrus possesses size that would open up ice for potential linemates Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson. Clarkson could drive the net (not that Zubrus couldn't do that as well). This move may not be permanent, however, depending on the development on young centers such as Jacob Josefson and Adam Henrique. Having Clarkson play on a line with a talented winger such as Kovalchuk could help him dramatically. Clarkson's adjusted 82-game stats last year would have been 20 goals and 23 assists for 43 points. Kovalchuk, Zubrus, Clarkson. That's my second line for the time being.
The three players remaining that would likely assume third line duties are very talented players, and all three are probably top six forwards on a lot of teams in the NHL. One could argue that nine players on the Devils are top six forwards depending on their respective roles on the team. But having a third line of Patrik Elias, Jason Arnott and Brian Rolston could be dangerous. Last season, Elias and Rolston were matched up for a part of the season, and at times were unstoppable. Zubrus did center them for part of that time, while Elias actually played center as well for some of the time. Patrik Elias is a left wing. He should be left there all season (other than power play time...). Jason Arnott is the most logical center for Elias, with Rolston a very solid complement to the duo. This line won't skate by anyone, however they will generate plenty of scoring chances, especially because this would be the third line. Considering John MacLean seemed like he wants to keep Parise, Kovalchuk and Elias as left wings, someone has to play third line anyway.
Now as anyone can tell, there are some flaws with this potential lineup. Zubrus and Langenbrunner are in trade rumors (let's be honest, Brian Rolston is not likely to be moved this season), and ice time would be scarce for an individual. There's also the young players such as Mattias Tedenby and the aforementioned Josefson and Henrique. Any (one or more) of those players could make the team this year as well. Tedenby has been practicing from the right side, and the other two could make solid third line centers.
The most 'logical' approach to trades the Devils certainly have to make is to send Colin White (no-trade clause, not no-movement clause) to Albany and deal Zubrus, whose trade value appears greater than other options (Travis Zajac would not be considered an 'option'). Assuming the ladder comes to reality, things could become more problimatic for MacLean. If Arnott assumes second line duties, than Elias moves to the right side OR Langenbrunner gets bumped to the second line with Elias and Arnott, but Kovalchuk would then play right wing. In my opinion, the Parise, Zajac, Kovalchuk line is too 'stacked.' I highly doubt that MacLean places the pressure of second line duties on Henrique or Josefson, however long-term, that may be the way to go. There is no easy answer any way you look at it. The one thing I would like to see through all of this is for Parise, Kovalchuk and Elias to play as seperately as possible. They all bring their own dynamic to the game, and they all excel in their own game. It seems unlikely that seperating Elias from Arnott benefits either player, but putting Kovalchuk with Parise and Zajac damages a top line that can match up against the opposition's top line defensively.
Finally, there is one final option that may or may not take off amongst fans and coaches. The option would be to move Kovalchuk up with Zajac and Langenbrunner and move Parise to the right side with Elias and Arnott. The remaining wingers, such as Clarkson and Rolston, could be centered by Josefson or Henrique as a third line, with Tedenby on hold.
One thing is for sure, though, there are a lot of forwards in New Jersey.