This man gets to answer the same question John MacLean attempted to answer last year: Who will line up at forward alongside Parise & Kovalchuk? (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
The concept of déjà vu is that strange sensation that you get when you feel like you've witnessed or experienced a situation or event once before, regardless of whether it actually happened or not. New Jersey Devils fans will be experiencing it once again going into this fall's training camp. I am referring to this question and it's variants: What forwards will play with star left wingers Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise in this coming season? (Aside: Yes, Sam McHaig, Kovalchuk is a left wing, not a right wing.)
At the start of last season, John MacLean figured Ilya Kovalchuk could ride with Travis Zajac and Zach Parise on the top line. On paper, this made sense. Parise and Zajac are great at the two-way game, enough to carry Kovalchuk in that regard; while Kovalchuk's shot and offensive talents are vastly superior to Jamie Langenbrunner's skillset. In practice, it didn't work as intended and so the threesome lasted five games. A serious injury to Parise seven games later took him out for all but one game of the rest of the season; preventing further experimentation. Outside of his initial arrival by trade in the spring of 2010, the Devils haven't had too much time to really answer how to best utilize Parise and Kovaclhuk.
Ideally one would like the top center on the team to be aligned with one of the top wingers, but the Devils While Kovalchuk did fairly well with Zajac and Nick Palmieri in the second half of the 2010-11 season; it's at the least very tempting to reunite Zajac with Parise given their incredible on-ice chemistry. That alone is a difficult issue, and it will be one of the major questions in training camp and preseason, perhaps one of the toughest for Peter DeBoer to answer prior to the start of the season. At least Patrik Elias has successfully moved to center to prevent this from being an issue with three left wings. Given that it's the offseason and we know Parise is going to be a Devil in 2011-12 one way or another, let's try and come up with some possible suggestions.
Suggestion #1: Sort of Repeat History - Kovalchuk-Zajac-Parise. I don't think this is the worst idea in the world. In this variation, I am suggesting moving Parise to the offwing, which I don't think should be too much of a problem since he roams wherever there's space on offense. He's a dynamic enough skater to move to the right side, in my opinion. Zajac and Parise can drive plays that Kovalchuk can finish; and the duo can backcheck & forecheck well enough to help out Kovalchuk, who's needs to learn/do more of both. While Parise can focus on down-low plays, Kovalchuk can provide shots from distances that we all know he can hit. In theory, it can give opposing defenses nightmares.
However, again, in practice it can be beneficial for the opposition. Essentially, this suggestion is to put all of the proverbial eggs in one basket. Should they have a bad night, other teams can expose the other three lines on match-ups. Plus, I'm not confident enough in Kovalchuk's possession or defensive game for this unit to be used to power-for-power. DeBoer could use Rolston-Elias-Zubrus for that purpose, but that could take shifts from this potential line. I will say that the fact that even with moving Parise to the offwing, I'm not really a fan of repeating what was done last season. Therefore, I'd like to suggest something else.
Suggestion #2: The Duo Reunites and Kovalchuk Gets Youth: Parise-Zajac-RW (Palmieri?); Kovalchuk-Josefson-Tedenby. We know that Parise and Zajac go together like peanut butter and jelly and it leads to some wonderful hockey. I'm admittedly uncertain as to who would play on their right wing. Nick Palmieri didn't seem out of place with Kovalchuk and Zajac last season, so perhaps he can keep up with Parise and Zajac? Though, this could be problematic should Palmieri regress a bit in his second NHL season. I could see Dainius Zubrus get moved up to this spot as well, something that was also tried last season for a little bit. Still, it's an easier problem than the original as it's been established that good things happen when Parise and Zajac play with each other.
As for Kovalchuk, one of the confirmation-bias-riddled thoughts I have about him is that he tends to turn the puck over on offense because he often doesn't have help. He has to stop just after he blazes over the blueline because there are defenders in his way and his teammates have yet to get onside, creating some tough situations. While I may want to see Kovalchuk slow up instead, why not put him with a speedy winger in Mattias Tedenby? In theory, Tedenby could keep up with Kovalchuk's rushes and that could at least cut down on the turnovers. If you figure that Jacob Josefson and Tedenby go together, then Kovalchuk can supplement that. They're both young enough to get better acclimated. However, this puts a lot of pressure on relatively inexperienced players as anyone playing with Kovalchuk will need to produce along with him. Plus, Kovalchuk may have to take fewer minutes to play with two kids, and that could be wasting some of his talents as well. In a few seasons this may be good, but I think for 2011-12, the Devils can do better. Here's one suggestion for "better:"
Suggestion #3: The Duo Reunites and Kovalchuk Gets Elias: Parise-Zajac-Palmieri; Kovalchuk-Elias-Zubrus. I think this is an improvement, if only in that Josefson and Tedenby can be protected behind these two lines. I'm assuming Palmieri gets to roll with Parise and Zajac here because Zubrus has to be on the other line. The same concerns hold over whether Palmieri can keep up with the dynamic duo. The second line is far more intriguing. Zajac and Parise will surely get the better of possession, and here Kovalchuk can roll with another possession machine in Patrik Elias and another good possession player in Zubrus. Given that two-thirds of this line took on tough competition in the second half of last season, Kovalchuk won't need to be the first defender back. Plus, he's got a way better shot than Brian Rolston, so Kovalchuk could boost the line's offense.
I do only three concerns about it, though. The first is whether Kovalchuk and Elias can mesh on the ice offensively. It's not that Elias can't be a playmaker, he can; but he stood out as the one usually in offensive control on his line last season. He did stand out as a positive possession machine after all. The same can be said for Kovalchuk, though he's looking for shots more so than plays and he's not at all a positive possession machine. If they can, then great. If not, then that limits the effectiveness of this group. Second, can Kovalchuk cycle regularly? Zubrus is solid along the boards and Elias has no issue with playing out of the corners or from the sideboards. Kovalchuk isn't unafraid to go in deep or hasn't , it's just that his game is better suited to provide an open shot rather than dig for pucks. You may lose that if they get into repeated cycles. Third, I'm not so sure that either suggested line can perform well against tough competition. The Rolston-Elias-Zubrus line last season regularly saw the other team's top line and came out ahead. Rolston's defensive game isn't bad at all, or at least it wasn't a detriment to force Lemaire to change his usage of the line against the toughs or the line itself. Can Kovalchuk be competent enough defensively to make up for Rolston's defensive game? Can the new Parise-Zajac line be strong enough to do it with Palmieri or some other right winger? I'm not sure I can really answer either in the affirmative. But I will not have to with this other suggestion.
Suggestion #4: Continue the Kovalchuk-Zajac Pairing and Move Parise to Elias: Kovalchuk-Zajac-Palmieri; Parise-Elias-Zubrus. The first line is something you're familiar with if you saw the Devils from mid-January through the end of the season. While it's not a perfect line, it was quite serviceable. Kovalchuk had the freedom to fire away, Zajac knew well enough what to set up and when, and Palmieri would keep it simple by crashing the net. Keeping them together will only enhance the awareness of where the other is, and Palmieri has some familiarity going into his second NHL season.
The possibility of the second line makes me excited. Parise has played against tough competition before and came out ahead, and we know Elias and Zubrus did so last season. This unit can definitely be used to match power for power, should DeBoer want that. Besides, I don't think it's too unreasonable to suggest Parise can be a better defensive forward than Rolston. The notion of two possession beasts playing alongside each other should definitely see this threesome bring some offense. The best part is that they can mix it up. The three can cycle; the three can play positionally; the three play out of a triangle; and so forth. Parise's constant in-motion skating and courage to go down low combined with Elias' versatility and Zubrus' size allows for many offensive options. And I believe it's better to have too many than too few.
Among these suggestions, I favor the fourth one. However, it's just that - a suggestion. As much as I like how it seems on paper, it's only that - theory. For all I know, Parise, Elias, and Zubrus won't mix well at all and the three wouldn't know how to best use each other on offense. Plus, while Kovalchuk-Zajac-Palmieri could be good again, it still leaves one thinking whether it could be better. Again, Peter DeBoer will get to experiment in training camp and preseason and ultimately make this tough decision. And should it not work, it'll be up to him to admit and fix it as necessary.
Both players could stand to improve too to facilitate this decision, too. I can think of something off the top of my head for each. Parise will need to demonstrate not only he's still the same player as he was; but that he can demonstrate skill with non-Zajac centers. Kovalchuk could improve his own worth on the team by working on his backchecking and forechecking, which would enhance his two-way game and general on-ice usefulness. Both are in the prime of their careers, so I'm not expecting them to make radical changes to their game - and I'm not even sure I'd want them to. By the same token, they're not so old that they can't make a few improvements either.
In any case, I want to know what your suggestions for forward lines involving Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Who would you have each play with, and why? Would you consider putting both players on the same line if you were in DeBoer's shoes? What would you want each player to work on to help their fit into the roster for this coming season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the impending forward lines for the 2011-12 season in the comments. Thanks for reading.