The 2010-11 New Jersey Devils Season Preview

The Devils re-loaded on defense, promoted their AHL head coach to be the new NHL head coach, got a new backup goaltender, and committed to Ilya Kovalchuk for a long time. Are they ready to take it to the "next level" in the playoffs? (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Have you heard of the phrase, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it?" Well, if a point still applies, repeat it.  From last year's preview:

At the start of every season for a team there are so many uncertainties that could make the difference between a successful and a disappointing season.  In fact, we can save time by just listing what is certain that we will see from the New Jersey Devils:

The Devils will play 82 games, 41 on the road and 41 at home.  There will be games where the Devils are the better team, and win. There will be games where the Devils aren't the better team, but find a way to win anyhow. There will be games where the Devils are the better team, but lose somehow (a bad break, a fatal error, etc.). There will be games where the Devils look terrible and deserve to lose.

These events will happen throughout the season.   However, no one really doubts that. There's little doubt that this year's roster has talent. There's even less than little doubt that everyone in the organization from the players to the coaches to management wants success. The big question is whether this team will actually achieve it, or flop out of the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.   A summary of last season, the recent offseason, and the team as-is follows after the jump.  This is the In Lou We Trust 2010-11 New Jersey Devils season preview.

Overview of Last Season

by John Fischer

The 2009-10 regular season was similar to the 2008-09 season.  The team was quite successful, winning yet another Atlantic Division title.  The team was forced to respond to unfortunate injuries.  Though instead of legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur being out for several months, the Devils had to perform without Paul Martin for most of the season, in addition to injuries to Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, and David Clarkson among others.   Back in April, I said the Devils' regular season exceeded expectations.  As for players who stepped up and played above their level, look no further than Andy Greene and Travis Zajac.  Of course, the season was also memorable for Martin Brodeur breaking the NHL all-time shutout record, with his 104th shutout in one of his six wins over the Pittsburgh Penguins.  And the Devils made this trade for some guy named Ilya Kovalchuk in February.

The playoffs were a different story, though.  Once again, the Devils lost in the first round.  The Philadelphia Flyers had the Devils' number all season long, and they continued to have their number - winning the series 4-1.  To further rub salt into the wound, the Devils lost Game 5 on home ice 3-0; a total embarassment. My recap of that game, surprisingly, holds up pretty well in terms of how the Devils lost the series.  It wasn't just the coach not making the right adjustments. It wasn't just the Flyers' forechecking. It wasn't just the absolutely miserable performance by Jamie Langenbrunner. It wasn't just Martin Brodeur getting beat on plays no goalie has a chance on (watch the video, ignore the boxscore journalism).  It wasn't just the Devils shooting percentages dropping well below expectations (though if you're looking for just one reason, make it that one).  It was all of that and more.

Another great season marred by a miserable playoffs.  That was the 2009-10 season for the New Jersey Devils.

Offseason Overview

by Kevin Sellathamby

After an ugly first round loss to the Flyers, Lou Lamoriello knew that there needed to be some changes.

Who's Out: Highly effective defenseman Paul Martin decided to defect to Pittsburgh despite the Devils having a similar offer on the table. Rob Niedermayer wasn't re-signed and signed a 1 year deal with Buffalo.  Matt Halischuk will be taking his talents to Nashville (or Milwakee) this season as part of the deal for Jason Arnott. Veteran center Dean McAmmond was not re-signed and he's on a try-out contract with the Islanders. Speaking of the Island, Mike Mottau now is a member of the New York Islanders. Long time Devil Jay Pandolfo and useless enforcer Andrew Peters were bought out. The Devils other deadline acquisition, Martin Skoula, will be playing in the KHL this season with the Devils' backup for last season, Yann Danis. There are also the casualties of the roster purge to get under the cap, and right now, no one knows who those players will be right now.

Who's In: While most of the losses consisted of role players, Lou made some big acquisitions in the off season.  Behind the bench, the Devils promoted long-time assistant and last year's Lowell head coach, John MacLean, to be the new head coach in New Jersey.  On the ice, the Devils were able to retain the services of Ilya Kovalchuk for the next decade and a half, despite the NHL trying to stop the deal and handing out a subsequent punishment.  The biggest signing was the most important signing: Ilya Kovalchuk adds another 40 goal scorer to the team, and solidifies one of the best top-six forward groups in the league.

The Devils also re-acquired injury prone center Jason Arnott to fill the void of the 2nd line center, and more importantly, move Patrik Elias and his horrible faceoff skills back to the left wing. Gritty winger David Clarkson re-signed as well, and will hope to avoid the injury bug this season.  Depth forward Rod Pelley was also re-signed.

Lamoriello upgraded the defense as well, signing shutdown defenseman Anton Volchenkov to a 6 year deal, as well as the steady veteran Henrik Tallinder to a 4 year deal.  Goaltender Johan Hedberg was signed to a 1 year deal to give the Devils a very solid option if they need to rest Martin Brodeur. Adam Mair was given a tryout with the team, and could potentially make the team as a cheap and effective utility player. Rookies like Alexander Urbom, Matthew Corrente, Jacob Josefson, Matt Taormina, and Mattias Tedenby will try to make an impression with MacLean and Lamoriello in training camp as well, and could potentially make the team.

The one loss that hurt them the most was Paul Martin, especially since Lou wasn't able to acquire a defenseman with a similar offensive ability, leaving most of the offensive duties to Andy Greene. Outside of losing Martin, the team upgraded everywhere else: Tallinder and Volchenkov are definitely capable of logging minutes and playing great defense. Arnott can still score (barring another concussion/long term injury) and solidifies the 2nd line center position, while Hedberg will give Maclean a quality backup if he wants to give Brodeur a rest.

Three Team Strengths

by John Fischer

  1. The Top Six Forwards - For the first time in a long time, I can confidently say the Devils actually are strong at the top two forward lines.  MacLean has utilized a first line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Ilya Kovalchuk (who's the best shooter in the league) in preseason; and so far, it has been working out quite well. The second line of Patrik Elias, Jason Arnott, and Jamie Langenbrunner has also looked good early.  The best part about this is that if, for whatever reason, a change needs to be made, then MacLean has some solid options.  He can re-unite ZZ Pops and move Kovalchuk with Elias and Arnott. He can swap centers or left wings for a few shifts to throw off the opposition.  No matter the combination, there's some serious offensive talent on both lines.  Possibly among the best in the league.
  2. Defensive Defensemen - The New Jersey Devils are now loaded with defensive-minded blueliners. Prior to this offseason, they already had much-better-than-you-may-think Colin White along with Bryce Salvador and Mark Fraser.  The Devils then added Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, two defenders who are good but definitely not offensive.  While one of these players may be dumped for the Devils to get under the cap in the next week, the Devils will still have a defense corps that's mostly defensive defensemen.  In theory, this should certainly shore up their own end.
  3. Goaltending - Johan Hedberg had a nice statistical season for the seemingly-not-good-enough Atlanta Thrashers.  He will be behind some guy named Martin Brodeur.  You know, I hear from other people, even Devils fans, that Brodeur has to take less games because he will regress.  I haven't seen it yet, and the video tape doesn't show him giving up more soft goals as last season went on or in the playoffs.  Until it actually happens, you can count on Brodeur being The Man.

Three Team Weaknesses

by Matthew Ventolo

  1. Offensive Defensmen – The Devils bulked up on defense this offense, yet they didn’t approach an issue that was needed before Paul Martin left. This leaves Andy Greene as the returning defender that can contribute notably to the offense and power play. Free agent pick up Henrik Tallinder will assist in moving the puck up the ice. Players like Colin White, Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov, and Mark Fraser can handle their own zone and that’s about it. Prospects like Tyler Eckford or Matt Taormina may not be ready. Can the team depend on the forwards alone for scoring?
  2. Depth at Center – The Devils are set for the top two lines, with Travis Zajac and Jason Arnott at the dot. After that, not so much. Zubrus is capable of handling the 3rd line center role, yet he may not be with the team come October 6th. Face-off inexperience is a problem for the 3rd and 4th line. The Devils will have to rely on players like Rod Pelley, Tim Sestito, and rising Swede Jacob Josefson to play the dot on the second half of the depth chart. They don’t have much experience
    in the NHL, and other faucets of their game may not be NHL caliber at this point. Perhaps Adam Mair is awarded a contract for some veteran presence on the bottom two lines? With the salary cap situation, it’s extremely unlikely the Devils find an outside solution to this problem, baring a trade of course.
  3. Injury Depth/Prospect Uncertainty – These two are related and also involves the prior two weaknesses. The Devils aren’t necessarily old or injury prone, but new comers like Jason Arnott and Anton Volchenkov had some injury issues the last couple of years; Zubrus, Clarkson, and Elias are coming off injury-shortened seasons; and Salmela is to start the season on the LTIR. Because some prospects are already needed to fill roles (or will be needed because of their cap hit), if any major injuries occur, the Devils may be stuck with a limited option of minor leaguers. Some players may be able to play their role fine for a few games. The salary situation doesn’t help, which can limit Lou’s maneuvering. If these prospects aren’t able to adapt the NHL and be NHL caliber type players, the Devils could turn into a top heavy team.

The Depth Chart

by Tom Stivali

[Editor's Note: Since the Devils absolutely have to get under the salary cap limit by 3 PM on October 6, this will undoubtedly change. Not to mention the risk of injuries and other things happening in preseason.  So I wouldn't suggest writing this down in pen.]

Goaltenders

Starter:  Martin Brodeur  Backup: Johan Hedberg

This part of the depth chart is easy.  Brodeur, still highly productive at age 38 and now record holder of the most shutouts and goalie wins has only another Stanley Cup to add to his collection of accomplishments, and should see his workload reduced to keep him fresh for the playoffs.  The Devils didn't pay Johan Hedberg $1.5MM and give him a no trade clause if they weren't going to use him.  

With that in mind I can see a scenario where Brodeur/Hedberg split the season at least at a 65/15 rate.  Hedberg is probably the most talented goalie the team has had backing up Brodeur in years.  Hedberg has performed well as a backup/co-starter in previous career stops and will be able to handle the workload given to him.  Hedberg's talent will also give John MacLean confidence to start him even after a string of losses by Brodeur.  It was obvious the Devils didn't trust Yann Danis last year in those situations which forced Brodeur to play 77 games at age 37.  If the team is expecting to play an extra 20 games in the spring next year, Brodeur will need some breaks.  Additionally, and I hate even typing this, should Brodeur go down with an injury, the Devils would be comfortable using Hedberg as a primary goaltender for an extended period of time.

 

Forwards 

I will break down the forward depth chart into two sections:  the top two lines and the bottom two lines.

The top two lines will have in some combination the following six players;  Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jamie Langenbrunner, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac.  The initial combinations through the beginning of camp and two pre-season games were:

Zach Parise-Travis Zajac-Ilya Kovalchuk
Patrik Elias-Jason Arnott-Jamie Langenbrunner

I would put an asterik on the lines above and say they are subject to change depending on how much chemistry each line continues to show in the pre-season.  So far, it's been good.  The only thing that is probable at this point will be that Parise/Zajac and Elias/Arnott will be used together.  MacLean's first priority will be to find the right partners for Kovalchuk and then fit Langenbrunner into an open spot.  While it is a surprise to see, the ZIP (Zajac/Ilya/Parise) line makes logical sense as the Devils plan to have them all in red and black for many years, so it's worth a shot to see if they do have chemistry and can be a force out on the ice.  Elias/Arnott/Langenbrunner (the AARP line?) when healthy, will also be tough to play against.   John pointed out immediately after the Devils traded for him how Arnott should boost the offense, and his old partner Elias is coming off an injury-free offseason. Langenbrunner has something to prove to both fans and himself and could have a bounce-back season the last year of his contract.

The bottom two lines will consist of four different groups of players

  1. No-Brainers:  David Clarkson, Rod Pelley, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond
  2. Limbo/Trade Bait: Danius Zubrus, Brian Rolston (trade bait/limbo)
  3. Ubiquitous Veteran Pickup: Adam Mair, ???
  4. Youth Movement: Vladimir Zharkov, Jacob Josefson, Mattias Tedenby, Brad Mills, others from Lowell.

Assuming the Devils will take eight total forwards from the group above, I think (obviously) all three players in Group 1, one player in Group 2, one player from Group 3 and three players from Group 4 will be on the roster when final cuts are made.  Who do I think will make it?

Brian Rolston-Jacob Josefson-David Clarkson
Rod Pelley-Adam Mair-Vladimir Zharkov
Extra Forwards/4th Liners: PL3 or Brad Mills

The reasoning for the selections are based upon cap hit, players likely to be traded/sent to the minors and prospects who will need AHL development before playing in NJ.  Josefson playing on the third line might be a stretch but considering the role he played in the SEL last year, I don't see that much value in shipping him to Albany.  At the very least he can share the third/fourth line center role with Mair.  If the situation is not going well then let him work out his issues in Albany.  Mills has played in the first three preseason games so far and could work his way into some fourth line minutes if he can add a spark to the fourth line.  He was sent down with Zharkov, but could be brought back up.

Defense

With Paul Martin leaving for Pittsburgh and two top free agent signings it will be a different looking defensive corps then previous years.  The top 4 defensemen are easy to ascertain and they will be Henrik Tallinder, Andy Greene, Anton Volchenkov and Colin White.  I would expect a rotation on the third pairing with a few different players. Breaking the unit down by potential pairing, as of now:

First Pairing:  Henrik Tallinder-Andy Greene

Tallinder, paired with Alexander Urbom for most of the pre-season has been talked about having a great influence on offensive defensemen Tyler Myers and being able to help cover some of his mistakes that the young defenseman would make.  He has also been talked about as a potential mentor to Urbom, which he will be, just not this season as the Devils don't need to rush Urbom to the NHL.  Because a lot will be expected of Greene this year after his breakthrough last season Tallinder's defensive abilities and experience in being the defensively responsible partner will allow Greene a little extra freedom on the ice.

Second Pairing:  Anton Volchenkov-Colin White

The shutdown pairing.  Think about how effective Colin White was last year with Mike Mottau at his side.  Remember when John pointed out he was a good #3 defenseman?  Now think about the upgrade that he gets in partnering with Volchenkov.  Not bad right?  This pairing will be spend plenty of minutes together on the penalty kill and in the defensive zone matched up against other team's top players.  The fact that this pairing will likely focus so much of their time in the defensive zone will also open up the possibilities of the Tallinder-Greene pairing starting in and spending more time in the offensive zone.

Third Pairing Rotation:  Bryce Salvador, Mark Fraser, Matthew Corrente, Anssi Salmela, Matt Taormina, Alexander Urbom

Salvador is sort of the odd man out, unless MacLean decides he needs to play ahead of White, Greene, Volchenkov, or Tallinder.  All the same, he would be the experienced half of this pairing, and that's not bad given the relative inexperience of the defensemen left in the system.   Salmela will start the season on IR and likely won't be a factor until mid-season.  Fraser, on a two way contract this year, should start the year on the NHL roster after a decent season last year.  He was protected most of the year and didn't play many high leverage minutes but he is serviceable for at least 10 minutes a game if needed.  His salary also helps landing him a roster spot. 

Assuming the Devils can/will carry 7 defensemen, they have several options. Corrente, a first round pick in 2006, has played minutes at both defense and forward during his limited time in the NHL. He's had a good preseason, and he might finally earn a spot on the roster this year on defense.  Taormina, who played a lot of minutes with Colin White in Thursday's game against the Rangers may also get a look early on to see if he can fill the power play specialist/third pairing role.  He's since had other appearances in preseason, leading one to believe the Devils coaches like what he brings to the table.  They also like Urbom, who has had multiple preseason games, and hasn't looked out of place among NHL competition.  It's difficult for anyone, much less a defender, to make the jump from major junior to the NHL; but Urbom's a little more than just a long shot.

Predictions

by the In Lou We Trust writers

Tom Stivali:  I feel like this team is becoming a trendy selection by analysts to go deep in the playoffs, and right now I get a sense of fans/media becoming a little too excited about a team that has been bounced from the playoffs in the first round for three years straight.  The X factor to me this season is Patrik Elias.  Reunited with Jason Arnott, coming into the season healthy and without the pressures of playing center,  he will be a playoff key to the Devils.  Kovalchuk, Parise, and Zajac will get their points, but it will be up to the second and third lines to generate secondary scoring for the Devils to progress deep into the playoffs.   Elias, who seems re-energized by having Arnott being back, will help determine how far this team goes and I think he can help lead this team to the Eastern Conference Finals provided that the roster purge doesn't cut too deeply into the core of the team.

Matthew Ventolo: Everyone knows a first round exit isn’t acceptable. The Devils are thinking playoffs and going deep into it. They addressed many needs and have some of the most dynamic players in the league in Parise and Kovalchuk.  Brodeur doesn’t seem to be missing a beat, but the Hedberg signing indicates he will play less games. There are some issues, ones in which may not help the Devils new style of play. My prediction for the Devils is that they finish 2nd in the division and 4th overall in the conference. The Rock will see its first playoff series win. I don’t think this is a Cup team yet; though the Devils will make it the Eastern Conference Finals. A lot of work was done this off-season, and a few more kinks are still needed for a complete playoff run.  Overall though, this season will be a success and further motivation to come.

Kevin Sellathamby: The Devils will likely repeat as divisional champions this season, again by a slim margin over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Although they've got an equally effective defense and equally talented forwards, the Devils superior goaltending will be the deciding factor in the divisional race again. Final prediction: second place in the eastern conference, first in the Atlantic Division, and they will make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

John Fischer: I have to echo my fellow writers that the expectations for this season is a deep playoff run.  A first round exit is unacceptable no matter how well they do in the regular season and no matter how bad the matchup may be.  The goal for this season is simple: get past the first round.   It sounds like I'm aiming low, but when the team has had three consecutive early exits from the playoffs, the expectations must be lowered.  Think of it this way - there can be no deep playoff run without a first round win.   In any case, I do believe the Devils will get past the first round, and if they do, anything is possible.  As for the regular season, I don't think the Devils will sweep the Penguins again; so I think New Jersey will finish second in the division (fourth in the conference for what it's worth), by a close margin behind Pittsburgh.  But that's OK as long as the Devils get past the first round. 

Your Turn

Thank you for reading the 2010-11 New Jersey Devils Season Preview.  Now is the time for your input.  What do you think the team's strengths and weaknesses are? Was there something we missed in our overviews of last season and this past offseason?  Who do you think will make the final roster?  Of course, please come up with your predictions and expectations for the New Jersey Devils this season, and leave your other thoughts in the comments.

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