2011-2012 New Jersey Devils Season Preview Part 1-The Forwards

Devils fans have been told the last few years that youth movement was imminent.  It was usually either when a popular free agent left (Brian Gionta, John Madden) or when training camp approached that the media was told that the team would be integrating more youth on the roster. Among the forward unit, this is the year that the long awaited youth movement will take place.  Let me rephrase a bit.  It must take place.

With openings in the top lines at right wing and center, the opportunity is there for some of the younger players to solidify themselves as major contributors to the team. Former first round picks Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby along with Nick Palmieri will be the first in line to have a chance to step up and replace the production of departed veterans like Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Rolston and Jason Arnott

The three will not be thrown into the fire though as all logged significant time with the NHL club last year.  (Last year Tedenby played 58 games, Josefson played 28 games and Palmieri played 43.)  Now they must prove that they have utilized last year's time wisely and deserve to be on the NHL roster in a top six type of role playing heavy minutes.

And they are needed. Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac (when healthy) and Patrik Elias are all really good players, but they need help. Not help in the 'we need an elite center for Kovy' way. Help in the secondary and tertiery even strength scoring way. 

After the jump I will look at the even strength scoring from Devils forwards last year, try to project even strength scoring from the current crop of forwards in 2011-12, speculate on the depth chart and line combinations and further emphasize the importance the role that the young forwards will play on this team.  As part 5 of the season preview will focus on special teams play, I will focus my preview on even strength play.

Comings and Goings:

First let's look at who came and went in the past year....

Who's Out: Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott who both were projected top six forwards on the 2010-11 team. Langenbrunner was traded to the Dallas Stars in January for a third round pick (Blake Coleman) and Arnott was dealt to Washington for a second round pick in 2012 and center David Steckel. PL3 was banished to Albany after the second game of the season for instigating a fight in the last five minutes of a game, and dealt to Calgary for a fifth round pick in 2012. Adam Mair who came to camp last year on a try out basis has accepted an invitation to try out with the Philadelphia Flyers and will not return. Veteran forward Brian Rolston had sports hernia surgery, was sent through waivers/re-entry waivers and didn't really find his groove until Langenbrunner was dealt and Lemaire showed some confidence in him. He was dealt to the Islanders in a salary dump deal over the summer.

Together, the group above accounted for 24 even strength goals along with about 26 minutes of ice time per game in second or third line situation. 

 Es_loss_medium

Is this production replaceable?  You betcha.  Whether it's a resurgent David Clarkson, or younger players stepping forward, the players who are now gone from the opening day roster of last year won't be missed on the ice.

Who's In: In a puzzling move to most Devils fans, former Thrasher Eric Boulton was added to the roster on a two year deal. Management obviously felt that some toughness was needed on the roster.

That signing was followed up with the addition of former Devil Cam Janssen who would appear to be a signing more geared for the Albany team. Signing a one year/two way deal (although he is waiver eligible) signals that unless there are some camp injuries, Janssen likely starts the year in the minors and I won't say anything more about him in this preview.

Even Strength Scoring Woes:

One of the keys to get back into the playoffs this year will be increasing the production level of their even strength scoring. 

Last year the Devils scored a total of 174 goals with 137 of those being at even strength. They ranked dead last in the league in even strength goals. They were 33 below the league average of 170 and as you can see from the chart below if you hit the league average, you were more than likely to make the playoffs.  Only one eastern conference team (Candiens, 154 ES goals) made the playoffs scoring less than the league average. 

The 137 goals for a team even without Zach Parise was the result of a dreadful start of the year, questionable coaching and a lot of bad luck. 

 Es_goals_medium

*Denotes a playoff team

Taking it a small step further and adjusting for the scoring by defensemen, the Devils forwards scored 122 goals.  I think the Devils will dramatically improve on that production this season, because it would be insane to think that the collective talent they have won't fare better at even-strength, but more on that later.  Looking at the individual performances of the Devils forwards last year, a few things jumped out at me. 

First, star players like Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk had significantly lower shooting percentages at even strength play than they have ever before.  Roughly 20%-25% lower than their career averages. Second, David Clarkson should be due for a rebound.  He can't shoot that awfully bad again, even if he does fall down every other shift.  Third, the Devils dominated at puck possession.  Look at the offensive zone starts for each forward.  The only Devils with offensive zone (OZone) percentages were David Clarkson and Rod Pelley, and both were barely under 50%.  Fourth, some of the save percentages experienced when a forward was on the ice were not indicative of a player’s ability to help out on the defensive side of things. 

Travis Zajac had one of the better ES SV% out of forwards last year but that was poor compared to his rates of .935 and .927 the previous years.  Even Ilya Kovalchuk was below his career averages when it came to ES SV%. 

Es_summary_medium

Perhaps the Devils haven't had the quality of shots or scoring chance opportunities that one would think a team should have while dominating puck possession as they did much of last season. While we can't go back and look at every game last year to determine this, thankfully ILWT will be tracking scoring chances this year which will help all of us better understand whether or not the Devils dominating puck possession translates to realistic scoring opportunities. 

That project aside, Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise (if healthy) should return to their previous career averages when shooting the puck at even strength. That alone makes the Devils so much more dangerous of a team.

Lineup/Depth Chart:

With Zajac's injury and camp just underway it is hard to get a sense of what DeBoer will do with his line combinations. Let's look at the groups of players he has available:

Zach Parise-Jacob Josefson-Danius Zubrus

Ilya Kovalchuk-Patrik Elias--Nick Palmieri

Mattias Tedenby-David Steckel-David Clarkson

Eric Boulton-Rod Pelley-Vladimir Zharkov/Steve Bernier

Full disclosure:  I hate putting together line combinations.  I think overall it's an effort in futility because lines change on the fly based on coach's decisions, matchups, injuries, etc.  One of my favorite lines of the past couple of years has been a Parise/Zajac/Zubrus combination.  Does it work against some teams? Yes.  Does it work against all teams?  No. 

I prefer to break down the depth of the Devils forward like this:

Top Line/Second Line Players: Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, Injured: Travis Zajac

Second Line/Third Line Players: Nick Palmieri, Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, Danius Zubrus, David Clarkson,

Third Line/Fourth Line Players: Vladimir Zharkov,David Steckel, Eric Boulton, Rod Pelley, Steve Bernier

Callups/AHL Players:  Adam Henrique, Mike Hoeffel, Stephen Velliuex, Steve Zalewski, Tim Sestito, Cam Janssen

To me, this makes more sense.  Kovalchuk, Parise, Elias and Zajac are your best guys. Simple as that. Other players will float in and out of the top lines with those players based upon the situation.   Pigeon holing players into firm lines now is a guess and is best served for HF Board Discussion.

With Zajac out for the first few months of the season it will be imperative for Josefson, Tedenby, Zubrus and Palmieri to contribute on both even strength and special teams in order to make up for his absence.

While Lou Lamoriello has recently raved about Adam Henrique and how he is a top prospect, I don't see him making the opening night team unless he has an amazing camp or there is another injury to a forward.  I see him starting in Albany and possibly appearing in New Jersey after at least 1/4 of the season. After his 25 goal effort in Albany last year bringing Henrique up sounds like the right thing to do, but I don't see him getting the right ice-time in order to make a promotion to the NHL the right approach.   In fact, I could see Mike Hoeffel having more an impact at the NHL level than Henrique does.

Note:  I am not considering Petr Sykora as a possibility for the roster. The nostaligic part of me would love for it to happen but the practical part of me realizes that it is highly unlikely.

2012 Scoring Projections:

Based upon the data I saw from last year, I am very bullish in my predictions below. While I might have undersold the possible production of Kovalchuk and Parise, I conversely might have overestimated the contribution Palmieri, Josefson, Tedenby and Clarkson will make. Zajac's prediction does take into account his injury and I think his past shows last year's goal scoring production was a blip on the radar screen. Perhaps age catches up to Elias and Zubrus dropping their production a bit.

Overall I believe the Devils forwards will contribute at least 35 more even strength goals than they did last year. I think you can make an argument that a healthy Parise would do that on his own, but I was conservative in his prediction and utilized his 2007-08 and 2008-09 numbers as a gauge on what his production might be.

Es_projection_medium

Again I think 35 is a conservative number. If luck breaks in their favor could we see 50? I can see it. Whether it is 20, 40, or 50 they will score more even strength goals than last season. There is too much top-end talent to not do so. You may quibble with a goal here or there but none of my predictions are that bold, as they fall in line with past player performance and in the case of the younger players the talents they have briefly flashed and what should be expected of them.

I will predict though that if the forwards score at least 30 more even strength goals, the Devils will be in the playoffs. Easily.

For a fun little exercise I looked at the full season projections for some key Devils based upon games played in January, February, March and April of last season.   The four players below would have generated about 34 more even strength goals over an 82 game season if we had utilized statistics from Lemaire's time as coach.   

 Esfullseason_medium

Just an example of how easy it will be for the Devils forwards to eclipse their production of last season.

Of course increased production of forward scoring will be helped by the continued development of younger players.  I believe both Nick Palmieri and Mattias Tedenby can take that next step and in a full regular season score in the high teens for goals.  Both their pasts say they can, and from what we saw last year I don't have any trepidation in saying they both have a nose for the net and if given adequate ice-time can reach that mark in their first full season with the Devils.

X-Factor: Jacob Josefson

His basic numbers last year (3-7-10 in 28 games) don't jump out at you. But his on-ice play and some more detailed stats paint a very optimistic picture on his future.  Josefson, 19 years old for most of last season, missed a large chunk of time last year due to torn thumb ligaments.  When he returned he played 17 games in Albany scoring 3 goals and 9 assists before being recalled by the NHL team in mid-February.  And watching those Albany games, you can tell he was a step above the rest of his teammates and the competition.  He played like a poised veteran, and often reminded me of Patrik Elias, specifically how he directed the even-strength and power play offense from the sideboards.

Remember, he was 19 (turned 20 in early March) last year.  An age where unless you are an elite player (or drafted like one) you are likely to be in Major Junior or the AHL.  I was curious to see other players (and focused on centers) who made their debut in abbreviated fashion (40 games or less) at around age 19 or 20.  A handful of players came back when I researched this on Hockey-Reference.com.  To further the search I also looked at 19 year old players making their debut in the NHL and didn't set a limit to how many games they played.

The players I think Josefson's initial season compare best with are listed below. (Players include Logan Couture, Tyler Ennie, Oscar Moeller, Josh Bailey & Phil Kessel)  It's tough doing something like this from the perspective of "I hope he is better than Josh Bailey or I hope he does not go back to the SEL like Moller did" but based upon the advanced numbers, age, even strength time-on-ice and points per game. 

 

Jj_comps_large

(If this table is tough to view in the article, just clik on it for a better quality image)

What will partly define Josefson's second year is how he fares against tougher competition on the ice. He wasn't thrown up against the tougher opposing players (and in his defense he was not given the best teammates) when this year he likely will be going up against the opposition's top 6 forwards and top 4 defenders.  Compared to the some of the players above his CORSI related stats don't impress, but I was impressed with how well the team did on the ice (.943 ES save %) even though he didn't have great teammates out there with him. 

Comparisons are comparisons, not predictions. Comparisons help provide context and guidance. I don't think Josefson will have 36 goals this year like Logan Couture but I also don't think he will be a defensive liability like Josh Bailey.  With only 28 games in the NHL his career can go in a variety of ways.  But based on what we have seen at the NHL and AHL level, I think his second season sees the progression to a Phil Kessel type season, scoring about 40-45 points on the season.

Also, let me leave you with this: Remember what former coach Lemaire said about him at various points last year:

"This kid has it. There's no doubt," Lemaire said. "He just turned 20 a couple days ago and he's a good player right now. If you look at his stats, his stats are not that great. But as a hockey player you want him on your team."

 "I think it's how he understands the game, where he goes on the ice," Lemaire said. "When he doesn't have the puck, what is he going to do? When he has the puck, what he's doing with the puck. He's quick, strong, he's got good hands. He sees the ice well. So he has a lot of qualities.

Lemaire was right his stats weren't that great last year.  They might not be great this year.  But a 40-45 point season from Jacob Josefson I think is a realistic and attainable goal.  A season like that will help replace some of the production of Travis Zajac as he recovers from injury, and give the Devils another offensive weapon beyond the big four of Kovalchuk, Elias, Parise and Zajac.

Random Predictions For The Season:

Zach Parise inks a new deal in early January making him a Devil long-term. This angers fans of certain teams on the west coast so much that they write 37 articles-in a row-about how they never really wanted him anyway.

We see a return to form for David Clarkson, seeing the guy Lou Lamoriello gave a contract valued at $2.6MM per year.

Mike Hoeffel plays in more NHL games and scores more NHL goals than Adam Henrique does this year.

Steve Zalewski plays some fourth line time with the club, grinding out some goals.

Steve Bernier makes the club, pushing Rod Pelley to a bench role. His presence also helps light a fire under David Clarkson and Vladimir Zharkov.

By the end of the season, the Jacob Josefson jersey is a much more prominent one among fans at the Rock.

Final Thoughts:

This is a talented group of forwards.  Starting with Parise, Kovalchuk, Elias and Zajac at the top and adding youth and grit to supplement them, I am excited about the group that the Devils have this year. Even strength scoring will improve, it has to.  Statistically and logically.  If all the other scoring output (defensemen, special teams) remains the same from last year than the increased scoring responsibility will be shifted to the Devils forwards, a task I think they will handle well.

Thanks for reading and sound off below!

Note: Tables/statistics generated from Hockey-Reference.com, hockeydb.com, eliteprospects.com and behindthenet.ca

 

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