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Suggestions for What to Look for in a Preseason Hockey Game

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Tonight, the New Jersey Devils take to the ice for the first time since April. However, it's a preseason game against Our Hated Rivals that will not matter. As preseason begins, this post has suggestions on what one should look for in these games.

Preseason: Where guys who won't make it, guys who might make it, and guys who will make the team play games that won't count.
Preseason: Where guys who won't make it, guys who might make it, and guys who will make the team play games that won't count.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Today is technically the return of the New Jersey Devils!  Technically because it's the first preseason game of the season for the team we all love and support: the Devils.  Yet, this isn't necessarily something to get excited for, even if you are legitimately excited for the team. That's because you (and I) are (likely) excited for the 2014-15 season. This is not the first game of that season.  This is the preseason.  This game will not count for anything.  The result does not matter.  Winning or losing will not lead to anything of value, regardless of the fact that the game is against Our Hated Rivals.

That said, this game and the other five preseason games the Devils will play are not a complete waste of time.  And not just because two teams will be playing a regulation game of hockey.   You just have to watch this game differently than any other regular season and playoff game, where the result truly matters.   Over the years of watching and writing about these kinds of games, I have some suggestions to help get the most out of the evenings.

The key thing to look for are the performances of the player.  The final scores and box scores of these games are essentially wiped away the moment the final preseason game ends.  What the coaches, scouts, members of management, and fans should pay more attention to what the player shows.  Pretty much every team will be playing these games with rosters filled with NHL players, players trying to make the NHL team, and players getting a look before they go elsewhere (e.g. minors, juniors, Europe).    The 'how they play' will go a long way for the decision makers over 'what they did.'   A player who scores a goal but looked like he was a half-step behind everyone else and showed little effort on defense doesn't help his cause more than a player who didn't score but was zooming around and making plays happen.    Of course, something exceptional (e.g. a hat trick) is going to get more attention but it's hard to do something exceptional without having at least good night overall.

It is also important to note that not everyone on the team has the same goal for these games. For established players like Cory Schneider, Jaromir Jagr, Travis Zajac, and so forth, the purpose is to get prepared for real games.  It's about trying to get as much rust off as possible while avoiding injury.  The hope for them is that when it's October 9, they will be ready to perform.  So if Schneider doesn't pick up a shutout, then that's OK.  What would be a real concern. is if he conceded goals he shouldn't have and/or got hurt.

It's different for players that were signed and will likely be on the roster in one way or another, but their spot is not secured.  In a way, these are the players who you should pay the most attention to.  How they perform in preseason could make the difference as to where they end up at the start of the season.  For example, there's a battle for the backup position between Scott Clemmensen and Keith Kinkaid.   If Kinkaid gets lit up like a Christmas tree in his appearances while Clemmensen looks decent, then that could very well determine who sits behind Schneider on Game #1.    For another example, while Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas, and Jon Merrill are expected to be at least regular defensemen, it's not at all clear how much they will play.   How Larsson, Gelinas, and Merrill do in these games will likely determine whether any of them start with Andy Greene or are lower on the blueline.   And the bottom six forwards are up for grabs.  A good preseason impression goes a long way to taking one of those spots.

Similar to that are the players here on a try-out basis.  The Devils have six, and all of them aren't here just to hang out.  Their goal is to make a NHL team.  They're trying out with New Jersey in the hopes that they'll make the Devils, so they (should) be trying to impress in these games.  If they don't make the Devils, then a notable preseason could help them get a deal elsewhere.  Anton Stralman is a good example.  While I didn't think he was that strong, but the Devils couldn't make space for him.  The Rangers liked what they saw, swooped in, and picked him up.   It turned out to be a big find for them.  I don't expect the six tryout players - four are over 31 - to become diamonds like Stralman.  But if Scott Gomez, for example, plays pretty well in his preseason appearances and he isn't signed by New Jersey, another team that may need a veteran center on the cheap would be encouraged to get him since he played some hockey recently somewhat well.

If you're not as familiar with where everyone on the squad is in the pecking order or who's fighting for spots in camp, then that's perfectly fine.  Instead, focus on the little things that they do. Questions to think about during the games: Are players skating smoothly or choppy?  Are they pressing on defense or playing more passive?  Regardless of whether the shot goes in, are the shots crisp and on-target?  How

That's for the players.  As for the team, preseason games are a good way to identify any changes in tactics by the coaches.  While players may not be in shape and the rosters won't likely be at full strength, coaches can and do use this time period to get their team used to their strategy.   I don't anticipate Peter DeBoer making too many changes.  I think we'll still see a modified 1-2-2 on defense, with the various forward lines approaching the zone differently.  Pay attention to how they carry the puck in, how they forecheck, how they drop on defense, how they breakout, and so forth.   While there's only so much strategy a coach can implement, this is the time where new players learn the systems, old players get a refresher course in them, and adjustments can be made freely as the results won't matter.

Lastly, and I repeat: relax, these games won't count.  I know the preseason for New Jersey are home-and-away sets with both New York teams and Philadelphia.  Two hated rivals and the Islanders.   These games won't say anything of value of either team.  The rivalries will not have another chapter added short of something completely bizarre happening, and maybe not even then.   Sure, there will be a bit of a drive to not look bad - but that's based more in competitive nature that sports in general bring out than wanting to take a rival squad down a peg.  There are no pegs in preseason.  Most of those who are paying attention to these games that aren't part of organizations are hardcore fans who know that preseason in hockey in total is worth as much as preseason in other sports.   And since this a blog of hardcore fans (the logo isn't just for show), you most likely know that.  Just sit back, watch the games if you can, and have a little fun.

Those are the lessons I've learned from preseason over the years.  What are yours? What will you be looking for in tonight's game and for the five to come?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.