We're well into training camp and I'm sure I can speak for all hockey fans when I say how excited I am that hockey's back. Although we're in the stages of exhibition hockey, consider it your fix to help ease the anxiety that comes with the anticipation of waiting for October's arrival. After a summer where the New Jersey Devils were among the more relevant teams in the hockey world, there has been an abundance of optimism since training camp began. Between what looks to be a solidified offense, significantly improved defense, and a good number of promising prospects and rookie hopefuls looking to crack the opening night roster, the Devil's team and fans should have a lot to look forward to as the regular season approaches. After playing two exhibition games and having gone through about two weeks of camp, I've compiled a handful of observations on what I've seen so far from this team. Some may be things pointed out for the first time, while others may have already been covered.
Is Rolston being alienated?
I've brought it up in the recent past but want to get into a little more detail. Look at the projected top three lines John MacLean has assembled, Rolston's line mates during his group sessions, and in last night's game. Last night, Rolston played on a line with top prospect Mattias Tedenby and tryout Marcus Nilson . Prior to that, Rolston's line mates have varied from fourth liners to AHL veterans and mid-level prospects, many of which I can't see making the final roster or even as an extra. This shouldn't be the situation for Rolston, who I think can chip in at least twenty goals under the right circumstances. I could be looking into this too much and with the Devils having to get under the cap, there could be an opening for Rolston if someone like Zubrus ends up being one of the team's cap casualties, unless interest in Rolston may have been underestimated. Although he got over sixteen minutes of ice time last night and was used on the special teams, you'd think MacLean would have found a more stable spot for Rolston in the projected top nine.
Projected lines make good first impression
Since the start of training camp, the projected top three lines I mentioned above have remained in tact and rightfully so. The trios of Parise-Zajac-Kovalchuk, Elias-Arnott-Langenbrunner, and Clarkson-Josefson-Zubrus (although Swift centered this line today due to Josefson suffering a foot injury. He should return to the ice tomorrow) have had tremendous chemistry during camp, which continued during game situations. Although all three lines have only participated in one of the first two exhibition games each, they've totaled for five goals and ten points. The constant theme of this write up is first impressions and from what the projected top nine have showed so far aside from point production, they've given the Devils and their fans a lot of reason to remain hopeful as the season dawns.
Options on defense
As it stands, there are currently one or two available spots on defense for the youngsters to fill and John MacLean has an abundance of young rookie hopefuls to choose from. A popular conversation topic amongst Devils fans, many like to say the Devils have a modest surplus of defensive prospects capable of cracking the lineup. One of the favorites out of this group is 2009 third round pick Alexander Urbom, who had two assists and went a plus three in Tuesday's game against Philadelphia. The 6'5 Swede was initially known for his stay at home play but his offensive game has improved immensely. A sleeper to crack the roster is 2009 second round pick Eric Gelinas, who's been paired with Anton Volchenkov and logged over twenty minutes of ice time last night. Gelinas has the mold of an offensive defenseman, being a converted forward but his defensive responsibility is notable as well. The kid has size, skill, and if MacLean thinks he's got what it takes, don't be surprised to see him on opening night. Gelinas thinks he has what it takes but it's up to him to live up to it.
2006 first round pick Matthew Corrente is believably overdue to make final cuts, while some fans are a little skeptical about his capabilities. He's made your typical rookie mistakes and took a few bonehead penalties but has gone plus two and has the profile of a gritty physical defender capable of contributing offensively when the opportunity arises. Matt Taormina fits the profile of one of New Jersey's ideal needs, a puck moving defenseman but showed flashes of inexperience last night and could benefit from another year developing in the minors. Tyler Eckford returned to New Jersey after leaving due to a family death. Despite having a similar profile to Taormina, Eckford needs to have an impressive training camp to be considered. What players like Corrente, Taormina, and Eckford have going for them is playing under MacLean for a full season last year in Lowell, giving him a lot of familiarity on them.
No room for Tedenby?
Touted as the organization's top prospect, there has been a lot of hype surrounding Mattias Tedenby, the Devil's 2008 first round pick. Lou Lamoriello himself expressed belief that Tedenby was NHL-ready but as with Rolston, Tedenby has seemingly been exiled from the projected top nine and it would seem meaningless for a player of his potential to log fourth line minutes his rookie year, leaving the possibility of at least starting this year in the minors, where he could play a top six role and develop more. Like Rolston's situation, I could be looking into this too much, especially considering Tedenby's in camp as a right wing, a position the Devils are relatively scarce in depth, at least with natural right wingers, although he mostly played left wing in Sweden, he's better off making the transition with his first full season of North American hockey. As with Rolston, I think Tedenby's chances of making the team as a wing, a position where the Devils are overstocked will be determined on how the cap situation is handled and who is inevitably moved. Having said that, Tedenby may already be fated to start the year in the minors if the choice comes down to him and Rolston due to Rolston's cap hit, which arguably makes him immovable.
Mair and Nilson could be safe bets
This is more or less an obvious statement but I think the chances of Nilson and Mair making the team look good because they can form the makings of a reliable and stable fourth line. Add Pelley or Zharkov and PL3 into the mix and it could form a trio capable of playing more than ten or twelve minutes a game when called upon. In addition to experience, Mair and Nilson play with grit, stick up for their team mates, and if the past two games were any indication, can chip in the occasional goal from time to time. Last year when the Devils were riding their mid-season hot streak, they saw an increase in goals from the fourth line until Lemaire decided to mix things up. Could Mair and Nilson resurrect that trend? Not saying everyone on the fourth line will score 15-20, rather they could be relied on a little more than the checking lines of recent teams if their performances in the past two games and in camp are any indication.
On the Flyers...they held their own on Tuesday and are going to give the Devils and Penguins a lot of competition for the division crown. Although he only faced seven shots, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky played a phenomenal game in net and in the shootout. Daniel Briere seems to be continuing where he left off in the spring, scoring goals when they're needed most, and the Flyer's youngsters did great things on and off the score sheet as well.
On the Rangers...I didn't see much of the game but from what I saw and heard, the Rangers have an abundance of young talent that showed flashes of their potential last night. Alexander Frolov looked comfortable with his new team and scored a nice goal off a turnover. Marty Biron had an admirable game in net and youngsters Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh looked real good. I also don't understand why there was so much resentment in the Boogard signing. Yes he was a little overpaid and possesses no offensive ability whatsoever, but you can't deny the almost ominously arcane presence he has when he's on the ice. He'll be useful for the Rangers at the appropriate times.