While it is not yet the end of July, it's hard not to think about the upcoming hockey season, especially given the current state of the Devils and everything that has happened since last season's disappointing playoff loss. It seems as though the Devils have addressed their most pressing needs, and in just two months time, we finally will get to see how the seeds planted this summer will begin to grow. I realize that there is still plenty of time left to add and remove pieces, but I feel that enough has been done and sufficient time has passed in order to properly make a prediction for the upcoming season.
Brian Rolston, Bobby Holik, Scott Clemmensen
Sergei Brylin, Arron Asham, Karel Rachunek
There is not a doubt in anyone's mind that if you replace Sergei Brylin and Arron Asham with Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik, you made out pretty darn good. Player loyalty is all well and good to a point, but Brylin is a prime example of when too much blind loyalty is not a good thing. "Sarge" had not been much more than a body on the ice for the past few years, and likely would have been shown the door years ago had he not just happened to have been a part of all three Stanley Cup winning teams. Given the option to give either sign Brylin or Jay Pandolfo, the Devils made the right decision. Arron Asham is why one-year contracts can be a great idea sometimes. Asham and the Devils were a terrible match from the start, and thankfully, we only had to watch it for one season. While his only real strength is his fighting ability, he barely even used that during his Devils tenure, rendering him dead weight on skates. He's on his way to Philadelphia where his services fit the Flyers' mold far better than they ever would ours.
Brian Rolston returns to the Devils following a season in which he was one of the best forwards on the Minnesota Wild. He brings with him 59 points that the Devils' anemic offense certainly could have benefitted from last year. Rolston also provides an instant solution to the Devils powerplay, an area nearly as vapid as the offense in general. Rolston also brings great veteran leadership and playoff experience, and can easily assume the right wing position on the top line with Patrik Elias and Zach Parise. Bobby Holik was a slightly more questionable signing at first glance, although given the performance of Dainius Zubrus last season, it could very well work out to be a great move on the part of Lou Lamoriello. Holik will fill two critical roles on the Devils; Holik, like Zubrus, is a big body and can fight the battles in front of the net while patrolling for rebounds. He's also very strong on the puck and is hard to shake off, and provides the team with a necessary dose of sandpaper. Holik's second role will likely be to provide relief to John Madden, who upon Holik's original departure in 2002, assumed his duties. Just as Rolston bolsters the powerplay, Holik's presence will prove beneficial on the penalty kill, as one half of the second unit which follows Madden/Pandolfo. In addition, Holik is proficient in the faceoff circle, another aspect of his game which will come in handy should Madden be too fatigued to take a key faceoff. Even if the Holik signing does not appear to be working out, it is a one year deal, therefore it is an easy mistake to fix.
What the Devils lost on defense this offseason was not much. Karel Rachunek was brought aboard last summer for his point shot alone, though it became clear when he rarely if ever used it that his time in New Jersey would be short. Even with his departure, there remain eight defensemen under contract. There are those who say that the young and inexperienced Devils defense corps overachieved last year; that their "defense-by-committee" was nothing more than youthful drive, and that they worked well as a group but were nothing more than a bunch of no-name minor leaguers. Even Colin White and Paul Martin, blueline regulars going back to the pre-lockout days, seemed lost in the shadow of those who came before them and those on the other teams around them. Not that you can entirely blame the hockey media...after all, who outside of the Devils' development coaches had ever heard of Mike Mottau? But the "pleasant surprise" that was the Devils defense now has experience and chemistry, and figure to play even better this year.
Whether you're looking for the quick puck-movers like Johnny Oduya and leading minute-getter Paul Martin, the hard hitting stay-at-homers like Bryce Salvador, Vitaly Vishnevski, or the workhorses Colin White and Mike Mottau, this incarnation has players of all types who are good at what they do, and that perhaps is one of the underlying reasons for their success. You don't just walk into the 5th best Goals Against per game average in the league (2.35 if you're counting).
Oddly enough, here lies the true challenge for the Devils this season. Say what you will about whether or not Martin Brodeur is consistently overworked, the truth is that doesn't matter. Every goalie benefits from rest, and if Marty truly doesn't feel tired come playoff time when he racks up 78 games, imagine what an extra 8 games of rest could do for him. Brent Sutter has already proven that he is a coach that does what he wants, therefore there is nothing to say that he can't demand of Marty, by the power vested in him by Lou Lamoriello, that Kevin Weekes will start 12 games, and that Marty will handle the other 70. Last January, Weekes had one bad game, entirely due to the fact that he hadn't played in two months, and from that point on he did not start a game the rest of the way. But think back to early last year, when Kevin was recieving normal minutes for a backup goaltender; he was extremely solid in goal. Combine fewer games for Marty with more playing time for Kevin, and you solve two problems at once. It is only if this happens that the Devils can truly get the most out of a goaltending duo that most teams would kill for. Scott Clemmensen returns to the Garden State just one year after publicly complaining about his lack of playing time. Fortunately for him, that will not be an issue this time around. Clemmensen was signed to mentor up-and-coming goalie Jeff Frazee in Lowell, similar to what he did for Justin Pogge last season with Toronto.
I know I sound like a blind optimist, but you cannot argue that this team did not lose much this offseason, but it did gain a lot, particularly up front. It is for this reason that I predict no worse a finish than last year. With the added offense brought in on July 1, '07-08's 99 points is a mark that can be surpassed, and the club's 12th consecutive postseason appearance is far more reality than fantasy. If Rolston and Holik can deliver the way they were brought in to, the defense essentially picks up where it left off, Brodeur plays less and Weekes plays more, and all of that is supplemented by the further growth of franchise future Zach Parise, there is nothing to say that the Devils can't contend for the Stanley Cup this season.