Another off season going by, another opportunity the Devils have passed on to obtain that top 2 defenseman the blue line has lacked. Unless the Devils execute a trade, which is unlikely (just because I have no recollection of the Devils ever making a significant move between now and the beginning of the season), it looks like they'll have to work with what they've got. The Devils are quite deep on defense...as far as quantity, but considering the potential candidates viable to compete for a roster spot, it presents Lou and Lemaire with a couple of options that could add a few new faces on the blue line, or stick with the familiar ones.
There are 4 people guaranteed to be a shoe in on this year's blue line, whether because of their role or contract, which ultimately guarantees them a full time spot. Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya are the team's best defensemen and only legitimate offensive threats on defense. Like them or not, Colin White and Bryce Salvador are 99% likely to serve as the blue line bruisers and stay at home defensemen yet again. Sure they're not perfect, but they're serviceable players and it'd look bad on their and Lou's part if they failed to make the team or maintain regular playing time with the contracts they're signed to.
With 4 spots occupied, it leaves 2 full time and one extra spot up for grabs. The candidates aren't superb or reputable, which is why I think nobody else will have a guaranteed spot on defense. Mike Mottau and Andy Greene are the likely 5th and 6th players that fill the two full time spots, but I wouldn't be surprised if either or don't make cuts. Andy Greene hasn't had much of a chance to prove himself since making his NHL debut. He had a solid start this season, which was halted by a wrist injury and was never given a chance to regain what he lost when he returned. I think Greene is the most deserving of a full time spot because from what he's shown, he has potential to serviceably contribute offensively and could be a power play asset. He won't finish top 10 in defensemen scoring, but I think if Greene is given a full time role, he can prove to be more capable than originally sought, plus he'd go along with the Devil's summer theme of going young.
I think the fate of Mike Mottau ultimately lies in the hands of Jacques Lemaire. Mottau debuted under Brent Sutter, who was infatuated with him enough to make him a regular skater. This year, Mottau had a goal and 15 points, bleak numbers, but his plus 24 and past 2 playoff performances can make Lemaire reconsider him. At 31, he's not too young or old, but one can argue he is easily replaceable. Although he was a Hobey Baker winner and put up spectacular numbers throughout his AHL career, the question on Mottau's capabilities stands. Is this as good as he gets or can Lemaire find him a way to reach his full potential?
This upcoming training camp could provide the most competition for Mottau and Greene with the arrival of new faces that are capable of beating either of them out for a full time spot. Leading this group is Matt Corrente, the Devil's 2006 1st round pick. Since he was drafted, Corrente has shown a lot of character and capabilities as a player and is the Devil's top defensive prospect. He's only 6 feet tall but drops the gloves and likes to shoot from the point when he has the opportunity. Corrente's totals were 6 goals, 18 points, 161 penalty minutes, and a plus 1 in 67 games on a struggling Lowell Devils team, which he led in goals and tied for second on shots for defensemen this year. Corrente looks like he's on the path to becoming a bruising defenseman with an offensive upside, something the Devil's defense has lacked and the fact Lemaire likes to play the young kids increases Corrente's chances of landing a full time spot.
Those 7 are the most likely to make up the Devil's defense most of next year's season, but there are three unlikely players that shouldn't be discounted. Amongst them is Cory Murphy, who the Devils signed this summer. Although Lou implied he would spend most of next season in Lowell, I think Murphy deserves a closer look. Last year, where he totaled 5 goals, 16 points, and was a minus 4 in 32 games, 10 points coming on the power play with Florida and Tampa Bay. While he's undersized and 31, he averaged high totals of ice time on his former teams and has a right shot, something else the Devil's defense also needs. He's never played more than 47 games a season, so exactly how he would fare maintaining a full time spot throughout a full season remains yet to be seen.
Odds are Tyler Eckford and Jay Leach won't appear regularly next season for different reasons. Like Mottau, Leach was another Sutter project, who played the role of a fill-in last year for injured players. Although Leach had one point in 24 games, he amassed 21 penalty minutes and played his role well. An upside about Leach is he's a team player that understands his role on the team and is grateful for any opportunities that come his way. When asked about him, Lamoriello said he'd have to compete for a spot like everyone else in training camp, which Leach did last year when he made final cuts.
After his first season in Lowell, Tyler Eckford made a good first impression. He had 2 goals and 27 points for the year, leading Lowell's defensemen in points and shots. Despite a minus 16 for the year, one can say his overall performance was held back by the state of the team he was on, like Corrente. Despite his age (24), Eckford completed his first full year in the minors, but it's said he may need one more year to fully develop his game. If he ever makes it to the big team, whether it's coming season or the following, Eckford appears to be a late developer that the Devils should take their time with.
In the past 2 seasons, I think the ex-factor behind the Devil's late season collapses originated on defense. Aside from lacking a true No. 1 defenseman, the overall quality of the blue line is mediocre at best and despite their phenomenal first 2/3 of the season, they always return to Earth at the most pivotal part of the year. The defense has been virtually unchanged and the fact the Devils were unable to advance past the first round of the playoffs 2 consecutive years signals the need for change. Lemaire should instill a new face or two on the Devil's blue line from the group of eager competitors from the Devils minor league system or the small signings made this summer. Even though they amount nowhere near the defenses of year's past, the Devil's defense is well rounded at a moderate skill level. New faces shouldn't significantly affect the blue line negatively, should have an indifferent impact at worst and instill slight improvements at best.
Some league thoughts...
First off, I want to ask what some Ranger fans have against Nikolai Zheredev. He scored 23 goals, 58 points, and was a plus 6 in all 82 games this year, not to mention is only 24-years old. This was first year in New York and I think he still has a lot to offer. Sure he may be the kind of player that needs to be motivated, but wouldn't signing Gaborik be a good start? I'm not saying it's a mistake to walk away from his hearing if the Rangers lose, I just think he deserves another shot at proving his worth. He could be a solid second line right wing or play with Gaborik on the first line at left (even though he's naturally right wing). The Rangers lacked a true sniper last year and Zheredev managed to score 23 goals. I bet he scores 30-35 if he plays on a line with Gaborik and gets some power play time this year.
I haven't paid much attention to the Danny Heatley situation, so I don't know if Edmonton is trying to lure Heatley into waiving his no-trade clause. Personally, I think Heatley's being stubborn on the situation and isn't thinking about how he can benefit Edmonton. If Heatley has the win now mentality, which is understandable after playing on losing teams most of his career (minus the three successful years with Ottawa), and wants to go to a team that has a shot at contending next year, he should know he makes Edmonton that much closer to entering that state if he goes there. Edmonton is slowly building their team the right way with a young core that is improving every year. My question to Heatley is would you rather get traded to a team that makes a strong cup run for a year or two and starts to slide, or be a part of a young team rising in talent that can be competitive for years to come?
Next year's Outdoor Classic will be played between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers at Fenway Park. As a hockey fan, I think it'll be a great turnout, as a Yankees fan, I'll admit I'm getting the green-eyed monster, but am sure we'll see a game at Yankee Stadium in the future. While their markets aren't as big as Philadelphia's or Detroit's, I wanted to get some feedback on an idea I had for a possible outdoor game: The Minnesota Wild hosting the Colorado Avalanche in the first (as far as I know) NHL pond hockey game. I'm sure finding a big and frozen enough lake wouldn't be too hard, but I guess converting the area into a rink for thousands to attend would pose a challenge. I know it sounds a little farfeched, I just figured I get some input on the idea to see if it'd be worth considering, plus I believe pond hockey is a deeply rooted tradition up in Minnesota, making it more better of a place to host such a unique Outdoor Classic game.