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What Should Devils Fans Expect: Jamie Langenbrunner

I'm starting a new mid-summer feature called What Should Devils Fans Expect.  With the 2009-10 season so dreadfully so far away from training camp, I think now is a good of time as any to heighten or lower our expectations of the New Jersey Devils currently penciled in on the roster.  I'll make a case for what to expect, and then you can tell me how wrong or far wrong I am with what to expect.  And I'll respond and there will be a discussion and it will be good because there's just no Devils hockey happening right now.

Anyway, the best Devil to start this out with is the captain Jamie Langenbrunner. Offensively, the Devils were led by the rising star Zach Parise and the team legend Patrik Elias.  They sparkled, they put up seasons over a point per game, and they rightfully got notice for it from fans of hockey across the league. However, the 2008-09 Devils didn't just jump from to 2.90 goals on the strength of them alone.  Some players had some great seasons, and none was more unexpected and massive as Jamie Langenbrunner.

I didn't expect this.  No, really, last August on the old Blogspot site, I made a case for not expecting a lot out of Langenbrunner for 2008-09. Here's what I said:

Therefore, in terms of expectations, we should be fairly pleased if Langenbrunner picks up about 45 points. He produced 41 in an injury-shortened season under a new coach and some inconsistent play. That shouldn't be asking for too much. 50 and up is definitely possible (and maybe even 20 goals!) if Langenbrunner is in the top 6 for most of the season (and not in a constantly revolving lineup) and he's healthy. That said, I really don't think he's going to get super-hot and drop 60-70 points for New Jersey; nor is he going to tally 25 or more goals. Langenbrunner's not getting any younger and he was never that kind of player to begin with. Fortunately for us, he doesn't need to be - he just needs to keep working hard, keep playing his way, and continue to lead the team.

Well! I was certainly wrong! In a very, very good way, though!

2008 - Jamie Langenbrunner 81 29 40 69 25 56 6 3 7 0 229 12.7

Langenbrunner finished just shy of 30 goals and 70 points.  Relative to the team, his 69 points put him third among Devils in scoring.  He set career highs in goals, assists, and points while dominating the right wing next to Parise and Travis Zajac.   Only those unfamiliar with the Devils last season or are just lazy thinkers would conclude that Langenbrunner "rode" the coattails of Parise and Zajac.  Oh, no. Langenbrunner was still the hard working trailing skater with the big shot. Only he dialed back enough of those shots so they go on net instead of above the net and found real chemistry with the two young forwards.  Langenbrunner put in his share of effort on that unit, as anyone who has seen him play last season can attest to.  Last summer,  I said not to expect Langenbrunner to be on the first line or even the first power play unit. Yet there he was on in that role, producing like a first line/first power play unit player.

And almost as impressively is the numbers you don't see in that stat line.  Langenbrunner's average ice time and shifts per game actually went down in comparison to 2007-08.  The captain averaged 18:05 per game and 22 shifts last season; a reduction of 0:12 seconds per game and 1.3 shifts per game!  And he puts up significantly higher numbers despite a relatively small drop in time!  

Need more numbers?  Let's check out Behind the Net. Langenbrunner finished with a CORSI of 13.0, second behind Parise on the team in even strength situations;  an average of 5 more shots on net per 60 minutes when Langenbrunner is on the ice compared to when he's not; and a reduction of 1.7 shots against per 60 minutes at the same time.  I know his linemates were Parise and Zajac, but offense happened when he was out there while not allowing much against. 

Langenbrunner truly had a massive season.

But this presents a concern.  While I'm confident that Brian Rolston can make up Brian Gionta's production, what's going to happen with Langenbrunner's numbers?  Can we seriously expect him to match or exceed 29 goals?  Should we expect offense to happen every time he's out there on even strength?  Forget the other factors, it isn't uncommon for a player to have a career year and then follow that up with a less-than-career year.   Patrik Elias, and Brian Gionta are recent Devils examples of players having an excellent season in terms of production followed up by a less-than-excellent season.  But is it something the player can even control?  Perhaps some of the breaks on those shots don't go Langenbrunner's way in 09-10.  Perhaps opposing defenses key on him and that line as a whole, and so scoring chances are harder to come by.  Perhaps he's playing with someone else (highly doubtful, but if the line struggles early, then who knows...we may even be demanding change at that point!) A number of uncontrollable factors could keep Langenbrunner from scoring as much; I don't think Langenbrunner will work any less hard or hustle any less - but that could be the reality.

For example, injury.  Langenbrunner is no longer a young man at age 34 and, unfortunately, he's had some injuries over his career, according to his player page.  Langenbrunner stayed perfectly healthy last season and as he's going to the USA Hockey Olympic Orientation Camp (h/t Raw Charge), I think it's fair to expect him to be in pretty good physical condition when training camp finally comes.  (I can't really remember him being out of shape come to think of it). Yet, it's not entirely impossible to think that Langenbrunner could be hit with a few minor injuries over the season with an older body and basically hold him back from hitting his numbers. Then again, that could happen to almost anybody.  And - hopefully - it may not even happen to Langenbrunner.

Truth be told, I'm not terribly considered by his age alone.  34 isn't ancient in the NHL these days. Forwards like Rod Brind'Amour and Ray Whitney have proven that a player can be near his 40s and still be a very productive hockey player.  But I really do think last season was the perfect storm for Langenbrunner in terms of production.  His linemates worked as hard or harder than he did, they all worked very well together, and the guy caught fire more than a few times last season. 

That said, I still expect him to line up with Parise and Zajac as the Devils' first scoring line.  I still expect him to be responsible defensively while going forward, as that has been his game for his career. I still expect him to lead.  I still expect him to unload some big shots.  And he'll do all of that and do it well, I'm sure.  But what I don't expect is 29 goals and 69 points.  I can't help but think just out of sheer likelihood that his 2009-10 numbers will go down to more in line with the rest of his career.   If Langenbrunner can contribute about 20 goals and about 50 points along what he normally brings to the team, then I'd say I'll be pleased with his production.  With respect to overall offense, I don't think it's unfair to expect about 9 more goals from the rest of the team to make up the difference.

Perhaps I'm off the mark here.  Maybe you think he'll match next year's numbers for whatever reason (e.g. retained chemistry with Zajac and Parise, still has a big shot, did awesomely despite my limited expectations last summer).  Or perhaps you agree.  Either way, let's talk about what you currently expect - not want, not desire, not need, but expect - from Jamie Langenbrunner next season.