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New Jersey Devils vs. Winnipeg Jets: Game Preview #1

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The NHL regular season begins for the New Jersey Devils and they will host the Winnipeg Jets tonight. This post is a game preview that goes through both teams and identifies aspects from each to know ahead of this first game.

The Devils celebrated their last preseason game as they won it.  Now, the real games begin.
The Devils celebrated their last preseason game as they won it. Now, the real games begin.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Welcome back to the regular season.

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils vs. the Winnipeg Jets (1-0-0; SBN Blog: Arctic Ice Hockey)

The Last Jets Game: Yes, the Jets have already played a game as they visited Boston last night.  It started off well for the home team when David Krejci put one in early on.  Then the wheel fell off for the B held by the yellow spoke. Mark Scheifele tied it up with a sick nasty wrist shot past Tuukka Rask. Minutes later, Blake Wheeler made it 2-1.  Near the end of the second period, Drew Stafford finished a feed in front of the net by Adam Lowry to make it 3-1. The night got a little better for the Bruins when David Pastrnak scored a nice goal of his own early in the third.  Then it got worse - much worse.  Christopher Thorburn scored a lovely goal to re-establish the two-goal lead. The fourth line continued to score when a pass by Andrew Copp went off Nicolas Petan's skates and into the net. Alexander Burmistrov iced it with a backhanded clearance that ended up being an empty net goal.  The Jets won 6-2; as truck wrote at Arctic Ice Hockey, they laid a bruisin' on the B's.

The Goal: Slow down the top line.  One of the concerns the Devils are going to have throughout the season is winning match-ups. With a lack of talent at forward, they're going to be in trouble against a team that can roll three or four solid lines.  That's going to happen more often than one may think this season, so we should expect more pressure to be placed on the defensemen and the goalie.  That said, the primary target to at least slow down is the top line. Winnipeg is a good example of this.  They certainly have some quality players throughout their four lines and that alone makes them a difficult first opponent.  Still, their first line is easily the most dangerous on paper.

Andrew Ladd has been a powerful wing, prolific shooter, and a productive Thrasher-Jet since joining the organization.  While Yaw Axis at Arctic Ice Hockey may have a point about moving Ladd, he's a key player on the current squad.  At first glance, Blake Wheeler is like Ladd except he plays on the right side and he's younger.  He's still a big threat. Bryan Little has been an underrated center who does a lot of things well and helps make things happen for his bigger wingers, Ladd and Wheeler.  With the last change, John Hynes should be able to choose who he wants to go up against tonight.  I would think mean the Travis Zajac-led unit, but it remains to be seen how Hynes will handle match-ups.

Your Expected Starting Lineup: Under past coaches - take your pick: Peter DeBoer, Brent Sutter, Jacques Lemaire, John MacLean, the Oates-Stevens Duo of Defeat - the forward lines and defensemen pairings used in the practice before a game typically represents the starting lineup.  Assuming that's true, what Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice reported on Thursday is what should be expected from New Jersey tonight:

Forwards: Mike Cammalleri-Travis Zajac-Lee Stempniak; Adam Henrique-Jacob Josefson-Kyle Palmieri; Reid Boucher-Sergey Kalinin-Jiri Tlusty; Tuomo Ruutu-Stephen Gionta-Jordin Tootoo; Brian O'Neill, Stefan Matteau.

Defensemen: Andy Greene-Adam Larsson; Jon Merrill-John Moore;  David Schlemko-Damon Severson; Eric Gelinas

Goaltenders: Cory Schneider, Keith Kinkaid.

From that same post, Cory Schneider is your expected starter and your scratches will be the recently-acquired Brian O'Neill, Stefan Matteau and Eric Gelinas.  Your top six does include Lee Stempniak and Jacob Josefson to go with four others that would normally be expected on the team's top two lines.  Those two were standouts at forward in preseason and they played in similar roles in the final preseason game. We'll see how it goes against competition that's stiffer than Philly. I would have guessed Jiri Tlusty to be among them, but it appears how the last preseason game went led Hynes to keep him with Reid Boucher and Sergey Kalinin.   The fourth line is what it is. Maybe it'll be energetic, we'll see.

The surprise is really on defense as it appears David Schlemko will skate with Damon Severson. I didn't like this pairing much in the last preseason game. Yet, it's the only option in order to keep Jon Merrill with John Moore, which was a pairing that I liked in that same game.

Scratched Due to Preseason: O'Neill is brand new to the organization so there's still going to be some evaluating of him to see how he fits in.  Obviously, he was not a part of the Devils' preseason. If you're not familiar with him, check out Gerard's post on him from yesterday. The other two extras in practice - Matteau and Gelinas - were two players that were notably poor in preseason. Matteau went into his first preseason game this year with the belief that he had a spot to lose. Unless that spot was the 13th or 14th forward, then he lost it with not doing much on offense, taking avoidable penalty calls, and generally not being noticeable on the ice.  Keeping him out of the first game is fine; with fourteen forwards on the roster, there will be a rotation.

Gelinas is a more surprising omission. As much as I have criticized him throughout last season, I still figured he was a safe bet for being a regular defenseman.  The Truth remains a power play asset and keeping him to limited minutes on a third pairing would be best for the rest of his game.  Alas, Gelinas had a really poor preseason. There wasn't enough of The Truth and too much of the other negatives to his game: his poor skating, his poor decision making, and his not-superlative play on the puck that isn't shooting.   I know he didn't always have favorable partners on defense, but he was a veteran to them and he played below that.  Schlemko didn't wow me in preseason either, but given the other two pairings Hynes wanted, it's clearly preferable to have Schlemko-Severson than Gelinas-Severson. Again, this is only the first game and Gelinas will absolutely get some ice time this season.  He will get the opportunity to reclaim a regular position.  It could be as soon as tomorrow. But as surprising as this omission was, I can't say it was undeserved.

According to this post by Gulitti at Fire & Ice, Hynes was careful to state that things could change this morning.  But given past experiences with practices before games, I'm confident that we won't see Matteau or Gelinas play tonight. When a coach throws out the old preseason cliche of "everyone's jobs are up for grabs," sometimes it's true.

Home Opener Hype: With today being the home opener, the Devils are appropriately making this game a little more special than others.  They're debuting a new 3D pre-game presentation that will be aired on the rink. They've sent out releases hyping up their new food options, stores, renovated lounges, the Little Devils Zone (for members of the Little Devils club), and two main concourse bars. There will be a live performance by the Powelton Steppers Drill Team and Drum Line and the New Jersey Symphony String Quartet.  And there will be a fan fest at Championship Plaza with the players, coaches, and alumni arrive to the game on a red carpet there between 4:15 and 4:45 PM.   That's all well and good and it should be a good time - except for the fan fest and red carpet arrival.  According to what I'm reading at Weather.com, there's a 60% chance of rain in Newark tomorrow with expected "PM thunderstorms."  Should that happen, I would assume the outdoor events will be cancelled.  Hopefully, the weather holds up.

Cory And Then...More Cory?: Last season, Cory Schneider started in twenty straight games to start the season.  He will play tonight.  The Devils will visit Washington tomorrow night.  And Hynes has been non-committal on whether he'll start that one too, per this post by Gulitti at Fire & Ice. I'd like to think Keith Kinkaid will get that start, but who knows. We could see Schneider start off 2015-16 with another - hopefully shorter - streak of starts.

Your Young Opponents Beyond the First Line: Winnipeg is a team that has some solid lines and defense pairings beyond their top unit of Ladd-Little-Wheeler. And the most intriguing names are some rather young players, the sort of player a fan can get excited about because they have talent now but also some tantalizing potential to hang hope on.   22-year old center Mark Scheifele had a good sophomore season in the NHL last season and will look to build on that.  Should he do so, the Jets will be well set with their top two centers for the next few seasons.  He'll do it provided he can keep getting shots like this:

On his line in Boston, there was another intriguing U-25 forward in Nikolaj Ehlers.  The 2014 ninth overall pick will be playing in his second NHL game tonight and has demonstrated a lot of offensive talent in the Q.  The Jets are hoping that will translate right now to the NHL.  He was one of the few Jets forwards not to put up points last night, but he'll get there.   Down in the bottom six, Alexander Burmistrov is back from the KHL with the intent of sticking around in Winnipeg.  He'll have to watch himself; he elbowed Patrice Bergeron in the head last night and that's the sort of play that can hinder his status in the long run.  Big (he's 6'5", 210 lbs.) Adam Lowry centered Burmistrov and ex-Sabre Drew Stafford. That was a line that contributed two goals as well, so it's another one to keep in mind. Nicolas Petan and Andrew Copp represent another wave of the Jets future on the fourth line - and not as future fourth liners, but beyond it.  According to the team's official website, the only forward over the age of 30 on the roster is energy guy Chris Thorburn.   That fourth line must be feeling good with two big third period goals to ensure the win.

What this means in the bigger picture is that the Jets have compiled plenty of young talent through the draft and their farm system and they're confident that they can compete right now.  If these young guys can do so, then the Jets won't just be a difficult opponent in 2015-16 but for several years to come.  In their first game against Boston, they absolutely contributed on the scoreboard and in the run of play.  It'll be on the Devils to make sure that not only do they try to win the match-up against Little, but to keep these guys at bay.  Boston couldn't and got a six-spot stamped on themselves in their home opener.

A Defense Featuring an X-Factor: I had to remind myself that the Jets didn't just get Stafford in their Evander Kane dumping trade, but they got Tyler Myers too.  Myers came into the squad last season and received a lot of minutes with Toby Enstrom. It appears they're doing the same thing to start the season.  Myers has represented a lot of potential not exactly panning out. He's not bad at all, but he can be remarkably inconsistent - which is problematic for someone who plays a position for a significant of ice time where mistakes can be very costly, very quickly.  Enstrom has, can, and will help him, though.  It may be glib and too easy to write it, but I'm going to say it anyway: Enstrom could be the Bryan Little of defensemen.  He's good, he's not large, he plays a lot, he does a lot of things well, but he doesn't get a lot of attention for it.  The Devils should see plenty of these two - which will be easy to identify as Enstrom is considerably smaller than the 6'7" Myers.

The X-factor for the Jets is one of the more interesting players in the entire league: Dustin Byfuglien.  No disrespect intended for Mark Stuart or Jacob Trouba, but Byfuglien can be a real difference maker tonight.  Despite his well-earned nickname of "Big Buff," he can be quite fast once he gets into motion.  He's strong enough on the puck to lead a breakout himself, his shot can be particularly nasty, and he has good offensive instincts. After all, like Brent Burns, he has been used as a right winger as well as a defenseman.  Unlike Burns, Byfuglien can get into trouble in his own end, especially when pinned back.  His defensive issues led the Jets to move him to wing last season; though they've put him back on the blueline to start this season.  Should Byfuglien get space to shoot or even skate, he will take it and potentially make New Jersey pay for it.  Should he suffer from play resembling a hashtagged buzzword like #RELENTLESS, then the Devils can pick on that part of the roster.  Byfuglien is only fast when he has a lot of room to work with, after all. For better or worse, I think he'll play a role in how tonight goes.

Then There's This Issue...: OK, so you're a Jets fan.  You're jazzed about the forwards, which features a strong first line and a potentially dangerous young crew behind them.  You're comfortable with Enstrom-Myers playing 22-24 minutes a night, Big Buff doing his thing, and Trouba continuing to grow.  You start to think, hey, this is a pretty good team here.  Forget just making the playoffs, maybe they can do something should luck smile upon them.  Then, you remember who the goaltenders are and begin to worry at least a little bit.

The goaltending tandem for the Jets to start this season is Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson.  Pavelec's career in a word: checkered.  Well, that's not entirely true.  He was actually fine last season.  Perhaps even good.  He posted his best overall save percentage in a season with 92%. That's still not quite league average, but it's way better than the 90.6%, 90.5%, and 90.1% he put up in the previous three seasons.  Yet, the Jets are going to have to bank on whether he can sustain it.  Previous seasons suggest he won't. That alone could scuttle the Jets' chances of doing something big in 2015-16.

Hutchinson is the team's backup. With Pavelec playing in Boston, it's possible if not probable the Devils see him tonight.  His career in a word: NHL-inexperienced.  After a mere three NHL games in 2013-14 after splitting time in the ECHL (Ontario) and AHL (St. John's), the Jets signed him.  He made 38 appearances last season, posting up a 91.4% overall save percentage. The Jets were successful when he was in net in those games, so that helped him keep getting minutes.  Yet, the save percentage suggests that he's really just a backup-caliber goalie.  He's not some Cam Talbotian figure that's just behind an entrenched starter, just a capable body for a team that's endured Pavelectricity running through their crease for years.  Should the Devils make him look good, take a quick look at the Devils forwards first before lamenting some notion that they're just bad against backups.  This isn't a Devils team that will likely be scoring a lot, if we're honest with ourselves.

One Last Thought: If there's another reason to get hyped (and stay hyped) for this Devils season, then it's #21 Kyle Palmieri.  He was also a standout in preseason and I really enjoyed how he played because he just kept firing pucks.  I'd like to see him do that regularly and perhaps he can be the sort of shooter the team has missed.  Hopefully, he'll get the chance to fire away tonight - perhaps against that Byfuglien pairing and one of those younger lines that may be a bit more prone on defense than an experienced line.

Your Take: I'll be at the game in my usual seat in Section 1, Row 16, Seat 5.  Where will you be? What are you expecting for tonight's game?  What do you think of the Jets and what they'll do?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.