New Jersey Devils 2011 Training Camp: Questions & Roster Battles

Training camp is about to begin. It's time for Peter DeBoer, among others, to get to work. (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)

Since April 10, there hasn't been any on-ice action for the New Jersey Devils.  Sure, there was plenty that went on in the offseason between the NHL Entry Draft, free agency, hiring a new head coach, re-signing Zach Parise, lamenting Travis Zajac's injury, and all kinds of analysis in between. But now we're on the cusp of actual hockey by more than just prospects with training camp beginning this week.  Rookies will report for physicals tomorrow, veterans will do the same on Friday, and - as indicated in the end of the Devils' statement to Monday's infamous NY Post article - the first practice of training camp will officially start on Friday with the rookies (veterans will start on Saturday).  

There won't be any games played until September 21, when their preseason kicks off against Our Hated Rivals.  So it'll be drills, scrimmages, and many other kinds of tasks until next Wednesday.  Keep a close on eye on Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice and Rich Chere at NJ.com to stay up-to-date about what goes on at each day during camp.  Before we know it, it'll be October 8 and the 2011-12 regular season will begin.  That's enough to get excited, but several questions and issues about the team are still open. There will definitely be some battles for roster spots in this year's camp.  They will have to be addressed in the coming three weeks between practices and their six preseason games.  After the jump, I'll spell out what the important questions and the roster battles to look for in this year's camp as the Devils prepare for the 2011-12 season.

How Well Will Peter DeBoer Fit in New Jersey?

One of the biggest issues many people have with this team is with the head coaching position.  The Devils essentially promoted John MacLean to the job last season and the team crumbled.  Sure, there were several other reasons why the team won 9 games by Christmas; but MacLean simply wasn't getting through to the players.  It was not a coincidence the team performed better under interim head coach Jacques Lemaire.   Therefore, with Peter DeBoer now behind the bench, it's a fair to question how well he'll fit in with this roster. Will the team buy into his strategies? What does DeBoer want to do with the players he has in New Jersey?  

The second question actually has an answer of sorts.  When Gulitti interviewed DeBoer back on August 31, he asked him about whether he plans to follow what Lemaire did with the team last season. Here's DeBoer's response:

Will you play a similar style to what the Devils did in the second half under Lemaire or do you want to be a more aggressive team on the forecheck?
"I think every coach brings his own philosophies and systems. Without getting into the details of exactly how we’re going to play, the foundation of our team is going to be playing the right way and being defensively responsible, but Pete DeBoer-coached teams pursue the puck, put pressure on the other team and that’s going to be the identity we’re going to try to create here."

DeBoer gave a similar answer today, as reported here by Rich Chere:

The team’s style will not be a drastic change.

"It’s going to be a version of what New Jersey’s identity has been for years," DeBoer explained. "It’s been a team that’s very hard to play against every night, competes, plays the right way and doesn’t give you anything. At the same time I believe with the group we have here we can put some pressure on the other team offensively and at the net. That’s going to be stressed because I don’t think it’s any secret shots-for and goals are areas we have to improve this year."

To me, this sounds great. The Devils have always prided themselves on being strong defensively; but creating offense has been a challenge. Adjustments to have them play with more aggression in the opponent's end of the rink could certainly help them get to the next level. Throw in the fact that DeBoer's teams have been hardworking teams, which was an initial appeal to Lou according to this extensive post by Gulitti.  Will it work? We'll see how this goes during preseason.   If it doesn't do so well, I hope DeBoer is willing to adjust.

As for the first question, we're just going to have to wait-and-see.  Of all of the questions and issues for this preseason, I think how well DeBoer will fit in; how he will work with the team is the most important. If it doesn't go well, it'll lead to a myriad of other problems up and down the lineup, which will definitely affect performance.  Right now, everything is fine. Now is the time to experiment and get settled with the team.  Once the season begins, all eyes will be on the coach. If the team plays well and gets results, then great. Initial concerns and fears will fade and some of the pressure will subside.  If not, pressure will mount and comparisons - fair and otherwise - to MacLean will fly quickly and pressure will mount.  Good luck, coach DeBoer.

The Battle for Second Line Center

The team's top center Travis Zajac will be out for several months recovering from a torn left Achilles tendon.  Given that he plays in all situations and fairly well, this is a big blow to the team.  When the news came out, I argued that his replacement should be Patrik Elias with Dainius Zubrus sliding to center behind him.  That apparently is a realistic possibility.  According to this post by Gulitti, Lou is clear that the Devils will try to replace him from within first, specifically mentioned Elias as a center, and in Gulitti's reporting, Zubrus could move back to center. 

However, I'm sure that Jacob Josefson will get a good long look at a larger role should he prove himself in training camp.  I don't think it's a great idea, given that he's still young, he's still developing at this level, and the second line is a fairly significant responsibility. I would prefer he would play against weaker competition on a third line until he proves himself.  Yet, if he stands out in camp and in preseason, then he could be fast-tracked up the roster and Zubrus would slide back to the right.

The Battle for Right Wing Spots

That's all well and good, but this would create an opening for the right wing in replacing Zubrus.  The Devils aren't teeming with great right wingers at the moment.  Nick Palmieri, Mattias Tedenby, and David Clarkson will battle it out in camp to determine what role they'll have.  I'd like to think they'll be on the first three lines, but I couldn't tell you what order it'll be.   The Devils have invited right wingers Petr Sykora and Steve Bernier to camp for a tryout, in the hopes of whether they can possibly contribute.  While I'm personally not big on either tryout player (or any of them - neither is Kevin), they do have the most incentive to give a full effort as neither has a NHL contract right now.  Even if they're real long-shots, their presence will push on Palmieri, Tedenby, and Clarkson in some manner.  That they were invited at all is a sign by management that they want to strengthen that side of the ice - that those three alone aren't enough to make them confident in the right side.   Sykora and Bernier are wildcards amid the open competition at right wing.

By the way, this will become even more of a battle if Zubrus isn't moved to center.  Zubrus would play at right wing, which would at the expense of Palmieri, Tedenby, and/or Clarkson. That would be fine in the sense that the team would be stronger there; but it means one or two of them has to move elsewhere in the lineup.  It can become a little more crowded if DeBoer decides to move one of the two ace left wings - Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk - to the right.  I have my doubts that would happen, DeBoer has said that he plans to use Ilya Kovalchuk at left wing and Parise has never played right wing. It is a possibility; and it may benefit Tedenby since I believe he can play both wing positions.  Nevertheless, this positional battle is almost as wide open as the third defensive pairing.

Rumble on the Fourth Line Wings

The fourth line center is likely going to be David Steckel.  He's played limited minutes so far and that's where he played last season with New Jersey.  Who will be alongside him, though?  The Devils will have several options. Possession winger Vladimir Zharkov is certainly a possibility.  Zharkov's played only mostly on the fourth line in his two stints in New Jersey, but unlike many fourth line forwards, the puck gets going in the right direction when he's on the ice.  Rod Pelley has been a mainstay on the team's bottom six in recent seasons, he could do it again.   The Devils acquired Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen, two enforcers would be nothing more than fourth-line players.  DeBoer has mentioned to Chere that the two could be battling each other for a spot, so it may not be Steckel alongside two slabs of beef.  This may not be a big battle, but it will round out the roster and have to be decided.

The Third Pairing Defenseman Battle Royale

I think it's fair to assume that Andy Greene, Anton Volchenkov, and Henrik Tallinder are guaranteed spots on this team.   Mark Fayne did quite well last season alongside Tallinder, and I would think he has an inside track on defense. I'd be shocked if he's on the outside looking in unless he has a horrible camp or something.  Beyond that, the Devils have a lot of people for two regular spots.

Or as it may turn out, one regular spot.  The most experienced among the group of defenders available is Bryce Salvador, as he's a NHL-caliber physical defensive defenseman. He didn't play at all last season due to a inner-ear concussion. According to this post by Gulitti, Salvador has been symptom-free for months and he expects to pass Friday's physical easily.  While he hasn't played, I doubt he's regressed to a point that he can't play at this level anymore.  Short of a horrid camp, I think he's on the team.  

There are so many defenseman that could concieveably play on that #6 spot. Here's the list: Mark Fraser, Matthew Corrente, Matt Taormina, Alexander Urbom, try-out Anton Stralman, Peter Harrold, and Adam Larsson.  Everyone's healthy and I'm sure looking to at least start the season in New Jersey.  Even if the Devils take an extra defender and if Salvador doesn't make a team, there will be several players left behind.  I can forsee the Devils rotating a bit, but this year's camp is going to be big for many of these players.  I can't imagine Fraser, Harrold, and Corrente will have too many chances at sticking in the NHL if it doesn't happen this season. Taormina's offense keeps him interesting, but he's not getting any younger either. Stralman's on a try-out and I'm sure he would want a contract of sorts.   Urbom and Larsson could stand to develop a little more; but I'm sure they want to make their mark.  Given the Devils' blueline is still short on offense, any of these who can provide some sort of a spark there would have an edge. 

Lou's excited for this group. The competition alone certainly would be exciting.

How Does DeBoer Utilize Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise?

It's strange, but this really hasn't been answered yet since Kovalchuk was acquired in February 2010.  DeBoer gets to have his crack at figuring out how to get the most of having two incredibly-talented left wingers. 

If they're together, then different questions abound.  Who moves to right wing? DeBoer says the plan is to keep Kovalchuk on the left side; so does that suggest Parise could move?  Regardless of that, can the two play well together?  Early indications from last season suggest not so much, but they did only have 5 regular season games together. I doubt that will happen, but it's entirely a possibility in training camp and preseason.  

Keeping them on separate lines begs several questions. Who gets more minutes? Who gets more responsibilities? Who plays with Elias and who plays with the To-Be-Determined Second Line Center? Does both lead the forecheck on their respective lines, or will that depend on who the linemates are? Can DeBoer get both to forecheck at all?  If both are separate at even strength, then should they play on the same power play unit? If it's late in the game, does DeBoer put both of them out there or stick with someone hot?   These questions and more will all have to be addressed in some way or form before the season starts.  On paper, having Parise and Kovalchuk is a definite strength.  But it's only a strength if they are utilized well in the lineup and in games.

Who Will Be The Surprise in Camp This Year?

Last year, Urbom actually made this team out of training camp and preseason and started in the team's first few games.  That's an impressive feat for a player who just signed his first pro contract. It spoke to how highly they regarded his performance in camp.  The question is, who will be the surprise in camp in 2011? 

Granted, if I had a great answer for this question, then it wouldn't be much of a surprise.  Still, Adam Henrique would be a popular choice for this question.  Given the team's depth, there may not be too much room. Yet, Lou talked up Henrique's versatility quite a bit in this post with Gulitti.  It seems to me that he's somebody that management will be watching closely.   Though, it could be somebody else from Albany that can turn the team's heads in someway.  Pay attention as to who, if anyone, stays on with the NHL team as preseason goes on. Take a gander at the team's training camp lineup to see what other names may jump out.

Your Take

There's a lot to question and think about.  As it should be with the opening of training camp.  Who do you think will win the various roster battles that will take place this year?  Who centers the second line? Which defensemen make the team on the third pairing?  How will the right wingers be slotted into the lineup? Do any of the try-out players make the NHL team?  Who will be the surprise out of camp? How well do you think Peter DeBoer will fit in New Jersey?  Please leave your answers to any (or all) of these questions, as well as any other thoughts about this year's training camp, in the comments. Thanks for reading.   (P.S. Next week: We'll preview the 2011-12 season.)

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