It’s no news about the intentions general manager Lou Lamoriello had going into the 2009 summer for his New Jersey Devils. He believed it would be in the team’s best interest to part ways with the team’s unrestricted free agent class so certain rookies and young players in the organization to step in, while having the veterans on the team increase their roles. Lamoriello frequently expressed his belief players such as Pierre Luc-Letourneau Leblond and Rod Pelley were capable of succeeding the roles John Madden and Mike Rupp occupied, while an overdue Niclas Bergfors finally had the perfect opportunity to crack the roster and become a full time player, while first year Lowell Devil Matt Halischuk was able to make cuts and has been with the squad since day one.
Everyone knows Lou is a man of his word and is arguably one of the best general managers hockey has to offer. Although his moves and intentions are sometimes questioned, they usually make sense in the end, backed up him always assembling a solid Devils team that’s always competing in the post season. Many of you should also know I’m a frequent critic of Lou and some of the moves he makes or doesn’t make, which is why I bring the current situation into question: Have the Devils abandoned their summer intentions going into the season? Think about it. During training camp, the Devils signed center Rob Niedermayer and have enforcer Andrew Peters a two-year contract after inviting him to training camp. Two veterans that have been regulars in the lineup (when healthy) that you can say took away two spots from a pair of youngsters Lou had raved about through July and August.
While they’re not the two most promising youngsters in the organization, I hope it’s obvious I was referring to center Rod Pelley and left wing Pierre Luc-Letourneau Leblond. Lamoriello believed he felt Pelley was ready to succeed John Madden’s role as the team’s third line center and become a present force on the penalty kill unit, all of which coach Jacques Lemaire initially agreed with. In my Devil’s season preview, I said Pelley had potential, but felt it’d be better for him to regularly center the fourth line, while becoming a regular penalty killer so he can spend his first full season with the team developing at his own pace, and learning the ropes of the organization and their system. I was originally content with the Niedermayer signing, who I think has been a stellar third line center thus far until he was injured. Then the Devils signed center Dean McAmmond. He was originally signed to a minor league deal, until injuries forced him to get called up. As a result, Lemaire played an aging McAmmond over a perfectly capable Pelley.
Lou never gave much insight into why he felt the need to start the season with two enforcers on the roster (PL3, Peters), but now it appears the Devils are down to one. Leblond only played in seven games this year, while his counterpart Peters has played in all but eight. Leblond was demoted to Lowell on November 25th, and does not appear to be returning anytime soon. I think Peters is a serviceable player that fulfills his role, but enforcers are plentiful throughout the league and it seemed like a purposeless act to even consider Peters in the first place, let alone how his arrival’s affected Leblond’s role with the team, not to mention how it affects the alleged youth movement the team used as an excuse to avoid any activity in the early days of the free agent market. If anything at all, Lamoriello would use his “depth” excuse to get around the question.
While injuries forced the Devils to dip into their minor league system to maintain a full lineup, it’s obvious we wouldn’t have seen the likes of Matt Corrente, Tyler Eckford, Tim Sestito, Vladimir Zharkov, and Matt Halischuk around much or at all hadn’t the situation come about. With Sestito returned to Lowell now that Niedermayer’s been cleared to play, watch how quickly we’ll see players like Zharkov, Corrente, and even Halischuk disappear out of the lineup to make room for the healthy returning.
Then there was the Shanahan situation. Lamoriello and Lemaire made the decision to cut Shanahan because he was unable to secure a role in any of the team’s top three lines, wouldn’t play a fourth line role this season, and Lamoriello and Lemaire used the excuse that they wanted to continue making room for the kids to play…which brings me to my next question surrounding the mystery behind the Pikkarainen signing. The Devils signed Finnish right wing Ilkka Pikkarainen to a one-year deal over the summer with intentions of him playing a regular third or fourth line role this season. Although Pikkarainen was a 20+ goal scorer in Finland that was reputed for his short temper and physical play, it appears he abandoned those qualities of his play at customs upon arriving in the United States. Pikkarainen has registered only one assist in fifteen games and has a minus four for the year, not to mention he’s only registered eight shots the whole season. Without any special teams capabilities, it seems Pikkarainen is no valuable than one of the “depth” players Lou has raved about throughout the years, leaving me to question how he’s remained in the lineup, while players like Pelley have sat out games, players like Leblond have been sent to Lowell, and players like Zharkov and Halischuk might be there soon as the Devils get their roster fully healthy.
Having said that, when the full roster returns from injury, you could expect the team’s projected lineup to look something like this:
With these eighteen likely regulars in the lineup, the average age is thirty. This lineup has ten players over the age of thirty playing, and only four twenty-five or younger playing, Bergfors being the youngest at twenty-two, while McAmmond and Rolston tie at thirty-six for oldest player. Now, I know age should not generally be associated with skill too often, but consider this. After their first ten games, around the time before the injuries started when the Devils had most of their nightly regulars at hand, they were 6-4, third in the division, sixth in the conference, averaging 2.5 goals a game, and 2.6 against. They appeared like a middle of the pack team with promise to contain struggles in offensive production, especially on the power play. After the injuries started and the young kids were forcibly installed in the lineup, the Devils are 17-7-1, and in a close race for first in the division and conference (they’re currently second in the division and fourth in the conference, trailing behind by five points to tie for both titles). The Devils also currently average approximately 2.7 goals a game and have given up the fewest goals in the league.
In addition, the six injured Devils players have combined for twelve goals (Clarkson scoring seven), and thirty-three points in a combined eighty-six games. Out of the group of Mark Fraser, Vladimir Zharkov, Matt Halischuk, Tim Sestito, Matt Corrente, and Tyler Eckford, the group of players that have been filling in, they’ve combined for totals of two goals and six points in a combined fifty-five games, averaging only eleven minutes of ice time per game amongst all six, while the six injured veterans averaged precisely eighteen minutes of ice time amongst themselves.
Overall, you could say there are some undeserving veterans that are occupying spots and roles these youngsters are capable of occupying because of their contracts, or the fact they’ve established themselves as a team regular, or a “Lou-type” player. I hope I made a point here and that the numbers speak for themselves. We’ll see how the Devils do as the roster gets healthier and some of the regulars start returning into the lineup. I hope I did not ramble and what I said made sense.
With hopeful proof backing my concern the Devils may have swayed off the path they initially intended to follow going into the season for whatever reasons Lou or Lemaire state, my ultimate concern is this could lead to a repetitive trend Devils hockey hasn’t been able to distance itself from for the past few seasons, a strong 3/4 of the season, followed by a mysterious late season collapse that leads to an early post season demise. The Devils haven’t showcased the youngest teams in recent years, with Brodeur being the optimal example of this fact. As older veterans, whose play tends to deplete as the season wears on them, continue to occupy regular roles on the team, it leaves this writer to wonder how new faces, similar in age and varying in quality as their predecessors, can help sway the outcomes recent Devils teams were fated to experience as the Devils have seemingly swayed the encouraging path they followed throughout most of the summer. Comments and questions are always welcome.