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2009-10 Season Preview: New Jersey Devils

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.

None of that answers the real question: Given the current team, how well will the New Jersey Devils do in 2009-10?

Overview of Last Season

The Devils had a fantastic regular season and managed to prove that there is indeed life after Martin Brodeur. Martin Brodeur was sidelined for 4 months with a torn bicep injury that required surgery in early November. Yet, contrary to what one may have expected, the Devils didn't wilt with the loss of their legendary goaltender. They soared. Brent Sutter managed the team to play solid possession hockey en route to another Atlantic Division title and a 51-27-4 record, a franchise high for wins in a season. Not a bad mark to hit given the success the team has had since 1993-94. As with most successes, there is much credit to be given: Scott Clemmensen playing very well in Brodeur's absence; the excellent play of Brodeur before the injury and not skipping a beat when he returned; the emergence of Zach Parise as a top scorer; Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Travis Zajac rebounding to put up some really productive seasons; and Paul Martin leading an unheralded defense.

The playoffs were not what one expected. The Devils drew the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round. The series was quite tight series with each team trading off wins, with Brodeur and Cam Ward playing excellent in net as the only constants. Alas, the Devils couldn't build off the momentum after either one of their three wins. They paid for it as the team collectively collapsed under some bad breaks to blow a 2 goal lead in 80 seconds in Game 7 to take an early exit from the postseason.

Offseason Overview

Disappointment was the best feeling one could have after that Game 7. Such a great season was marred by an embarrassing playoff exit. This was the first major reason that, I think, drove the Devils management - Lou - to reconsider the team's plans going forward. The second was Brent Sutter quitting on resigning from the New Jersey Devils instead of fulfilling the last year of his 3 year deal with New Jersey, and signing with the Calgary Flames to be their head coach in late June. After a season where the Devils thrived on offense due to Sutter's system, the Devils had to find a new head coach in addition to dealing with the NHL Draft and the beginning of free agency.

So the Devils basically stood pat on July 1. Truth be told, the Devils didn't do nothing; but their major deals were to retain Johnny Oduya, Andy Greene, Brendan Shanahan, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, and Travis Zajac - all of whom received raises. It can be argued that the biggest move made in the offseason, however, was to hire Jacques Lemaire as a head coach. Lemaire initially made his mark as a NHL head coach with New Jersey back in the mid-1990s. He's best known for bringing back the Montreal Canadiens' "neutral zone trap" to the NHL and leading the Devils to be NHL contenders and their first Stanley Cup in 1995. Initially, the concern was - perhaps still is among some fans - that he would be a defensive minded head coach. However, training camp has revealed so far that he wants to more offense within the team and the first preseason game indicates that he is planning to tweak Sutter's system instead of starting from scratch.

Who's Out: Outside of Oduya and Shanahan, the rest of the Devils unrestricted free agents were left to pursue other offers. Brian Gionta? Off to Montreal. John Madden? Off to Chicago. Mike Rupp? Off to Pittsburgh. Niclas Havelid? Off to Finland. Barry Tallackson? Off to St. Louis. Kevin Weekes? Now off to the television studio. Bobby Holik? Off to his ranch in Wyoming, as he retired. The only restricted free agent to not return to the organization is Petr Vrana, who will play for Vitkovice in the Czech Republic; though his NHL rights are still owned by New Jersey.

Who's In: The New Jersey Devils only made signings for depth. They added goaltender Yann Danis, brought back former draft pick forward Ilkka Pikkarainen from Finland, and signed two-way deals with defensemen Rob Davison and Cory Murphy along with some minor-league specific moves (e.g. trading Tony Romano for Ben Walter). The lack of activity was a clear sign that the Devils intend to go with a "youth movement" to spark the team overall, and to keep the overall salary cap low when the cap goes down next season - something that Lou is confident will happen.

Three Team Strengths

  1. Chemistry - While the Devils lost a number of free agents, the core really is still the same. When Patrik Elias is healthy enough to play, they will have 5 of their top 6 forwards available - and the sixth may be Brian Rolston, who was on the team last season. The entire defense from last season returns for a third season. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect the blueline to work even better as a unit now that they have been working together for so long. There may be open spots of the team, but the main parts of the team that won 51 games last season remain.
  2. Coaching - Jacques Lemaire may have a reputation for defensive hockey and the trap. But he's publicly stated that he wants "a little more offense" than what the team was doing under Sutter. Based on the first preseason game, I felt the team played similarly to how Sutter had the team play. A few tweaks here and there, of course. And that's the strength. Lemaire is smart enough to know that the Devils don't need to be taught a completely different system or force square pegs into round holes. He knows what the organization wants and demands, he knows what the players can do, and he has responded accordingly.
  3. Goaltending - Martin Brodeur is still one of the best goaltenders in the world today and he's completely healthy. I'm confident opposition forwards are already trying to figure out how to deal with it. Yann Danis did a fairly good job last season on an awful Islanders team and looked good in his first preseason game with New Jersey. Really, there's no reason not to be confident in this goaltending tandem.

Three Team Weaknesses

  1. Depth at Center - Travis Zajac had a great 08-09 season and will continue to improve. At least, I expect him to improve. Dainius Zubrus may not be a good second line center, but he showed he can play the center position well enough and he's good on faceoffs. Beyond that, the Devils are hurt here by not replacing John Madden. Lowell's Rod Pelley is expected to be on the team (and was tipped by Lou as his replacement back in July, who knows if that's true now) but his lack of experience is a cause for concern. There were plans of Elias playing center yet again, but that's not happening because he had recent surgery to remove scar tissue from his groin. So Elias is now out for 3-6 weeks. The Devils have some options to get a fourth center on the team, but even then they will have to hope no other center gets injured.
  2. Special Teams - The Devils power play wasn't so bad last season at 18.9%, but they only scored 48 goals in 5-on-4 situations (1 of 8 teams to score less than 50) and the majority of those goals came from either Parise, Elias, or Rolston. The penalty kill was poor, finishing with a success rate under 80%. The Devils will do well to improve the power play; but the penalty kill was surprisingly porous despite the Devils' normal commitment to defense.
  3. Offense...from the Defense - Paul Martin was the only defenseman to put up more than 30 points last season; Oduya led the blueline in goals scored with 7 and shots on net with 108; and the defensemen combined for 3 power play goals. None of the Devils' top 6 can be considered as a true offensive defenseman and it showed when Brent Sutter used 1 defenseman on a power play (and sometimes, none at all). Cory Murphy was signed to help out on that front, as he put up 15 points in 25 games - 4 goals and 6 assists on the power play. He may be a specialist at best, though, so it'll still take a team effort to provide more points from the point.

Player Mentionables

Most Important Player: In most seasons, the answer to this question is normally Martin Brodeur. But last season proved that success doesn't rely entirely on Brodeur's shoulders. Don't get me wrong, I'll happily have Brodeur in net anytime. It's just that I think Zach Parise is the most important player for the Devils' offense and for the team. Parise broke through last season and his goalscoring and play making abilities made opposing defenses crazy and ensured success for the Devils more often than not. Parise led the team with 45 goals - a total that included 8 game winners, 3 overtime goals, 14 power play goals last season. He's pretty crucial, and what's more, he has the skills to prevent from being a one-year wonder (like Brian Gionta) since his game is so dynamic. It's not that he'll crash the net and put in a rebound, but he can also fire from mid-to-long range, set someone up from the side, and beat defenders for loose pucks all game long.

As the team's best offensive weapon, he'll need to continue to put up points at a similar rate next season to give the Devils the best chance of success. When Lemaire is saying you can't sit on a lead anymore in this league; that means the best defense is a good offense. Otherwise, the Devils' offense will be significantly weaker and the team will suffer for it. As a result, Parise is crucial to the team's success this season.

Player with the Most to Prove: Brian Rolston signed a 4 year, $20.25 millon deal in the summer of 2007 with the intention that he would an immediate significant contributor to the offense. Instead, he suffered an early injury, and ended up contributing only 15 goals and 32 points - his lowest totals since 1999-2000 - from the third line after said injury. Now that Brian Gionta is signed to Montreal, there is at least one spot for a top 6 winger available. Rolston will almost assuredly get the chance to play on an offensive line and attempt a comeback season. I'm expecting him to do that and replace Gionta's numbers in the process, and he's himself told the media that he's looking to rebound from last season. Now he just has to do it. Keep an eye on him.

Player who will Breakout in 2009-10: While multiple previews are tipping David Clarkson (and I don't disagree), I'm going to through some respect and high expectations to Johnny Oduya. Since coming to the NHL from Frolunda after the lockout, he has risen from a third pairing defenseman to be Paul Martin's defensive partner. He's pretty good at moving the puck, but his positioning and awareness in his own zone has improved by leaps and bounds over the years. He's not an offensive powerhouse, but he's improved his point totals with every season in addition to his defensive play. Now that he's guaranteed to be a Devil for another 3 years, I think the best is yet to come from Oduya - who is still only in his fifth season in North America professional hockey.

A Bold Prediction of a Depth Chart: This is a guess at a depth chart, assuming all players are healthy. I emphasize guess due to the ongoing training camp, along with injuries making a difference. So don't write these down in pen just yet.

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
Brian Rolston - Patrik Elias - David Clarkson
Jay Pandolfo - Dainius Zubrus - Brendan Shanahan
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond - Rod Pelley - Ilkka Pikkarainen
Extras/Could Make Team: Nicklas Bergfors, Vladimir Zharkov, Patrice Cormier, Tim Sestito, Matt Halischuk

Paul Martin - Johnny Oduya
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Bryce Salvador - Andy Greene
Extras/Could Make Team: Cory Murphy, Jay Leach, Rob Davison, Matthew Corrente

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

A Bold Prediction

Predictions are risky by their nature. The unknown could strike at any kind and throw all hopes and predictions into doubt: a series of massive injuries, an unforeseen incident or problem wrecks the team internally, or even a string of bad hockey games. So many uncertainties can cause problems. Or even bring fortune, like a player unexpectedly becoming a regular producer or blowing out a rival when they least expect it. Again, the list of what is certain is far shorter and doesn't really tell us much about what a team will do in the future. Still, I think based on past history and what we do know about the team, we can make a decent attempt at a prediction.

As I've told Wyshynski, when asked for a "testimonial" for his preview, this is a franchise that has missed the playoffs exactly once and has the second best combined record in the NHL since 1993-94. The core of the team is back, Martin Brodeur is healthy, and so far, it seems that Lemaire really is just tweaking Brent Sutter's system. No, this team probably won't match the 51-win season last season unless they go some torrid streaks in 2009-10. Yes, there are still issues the Devils still have to address. Yes, the other teams in the Atlantic/East/League have made big changes that may make things harder for the Devils. But again, that core has been through a lot over the years and they know how to handle adversity. The history and the core lead me - and perhaps you - to be bold and confident in the Devils' chances this season.

So let's be bold and confident. Not only will this team definitely make the playoffs; I'd be shocked if they finish by more than 10 points behind the Atlantic Division winners. I'm predicting that the Devils finish second in the Atlantic and fourth in the Eastern Conference.

Given that I've been going through and criticizing other Devils previews, I fully invite you to tear this apart as you see fit. Feel free to leave any other comments you have about this preview and where you think the Devils will finish in 2009-10 - or just vote in the poll. I thank you for reading this preview and your continued readership.