The New Jersey Devils have unfinished business.
The Devils, who finished 4th in the Eastern Conference last season despite an atrocious start, are hoping that a couple of old faces signed through unrestricted free agency (forwards Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik) beget new results in 2008’09.
After being expelled from the first round of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs in disconcerting fashion courtesy of the New York Rangers, General Manager Lou Lamoriello inked Rolston and Holik to address weaknesses he perceived on the team.
These weaknesses included, but were not limited to, a lack of goal scoring and playoff experience. And who better to solve New Jersey’s problems, than two players with over 600 career goals and three Stanley Cup rings between them, right?
Lamoriello knows that the Devils are still a high-quality club, so we can only conclude that New Jersey brought past Cup winners back into the fold to inspire greatness in the team’s young stars (hello Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and David Clarkson). The fate of New Jersey’s season will depend in large part on the ability of the team’s young forwards to become more complete players. The Devils are solid defensively and have the best goalie in the game in Marty Brodeur, but they simply must score more goals this season if they want to compete with Atlantic Division rivals Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers.
New Jersey’s forward group struggled mightily during the 2007’08 season, finishing 26th in the NHL in goals scored. Devil gunners Brian Gionta and Patrik Elias regressed without familiar playmaker Scott Gomez and were uncomfortable all season long as Coach Brent Sutter bounced them from line to line. Things should be different this year however as the acquisition of Brian Rolston will allow Elias to play left wing on the team’s second line while also giving Gionta a natural center to feed off of. In addition, Bobby Holik gives New Jersey a big third-line center that has the ability to inspire the inconsistent Dainius Zubrus.
This is a much more balanced forward dozen this year. The only significant departure for New Jersey was Sergei Brylin so this is a team that should score more often this year. It will be interesting to see if Coach Sutter gives some of New Jersey’s young prospects any real face time in training camp this fall. New Jersey’s top two forward prospects, Nicklas Bergfors and Petr Vrana, have shown lots of potential for Lowell of the American Hockey League but they may have difficulty winning a job this year. The Devils probably won’t employ any rookie forwards this season.
New Jersey’s defense corps hasn’t changed much from last year and is still a group that is in its growth stage. Seeing as how the good ‘ol days of Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski, Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko are gone, the Devils will rely more on a quick transition game now. While Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya are decent puck-rushing defenseman, this is a team that is not going to score very many goals from the back end. New Jersey’s power play was pretty bad last year and sorely needed a top-quality power play quarterback. Brian Rolston will man the point on the team’s Number-1 power play unit which should take some of the pressure off Martin. Watch for Bryce Salvador and Andy Greene to log big-time minutes for the Devils this year in the absence of Vitaly Vishnevski.
Will this finally be the year that Martin Brodeur takes a rest and plays only 60 or so games? Are hockey writers ever going to stop asking this question? Brodeur started 77 games last year on his way to a 4th Vezina Trophy but looked human in a first round series loss to the New York Rangers. Look for Brodeur to play fewer games this year in favor of Kevin Weekes. Whether that means Brodeur plays 65 games or 75 games is anyone’s guess. Marty likes to play every game and that is usually a good thing but if he wants to avoid late-season exhaustion, he should pass the baton to Weekes once in a while.
Ceiling: 2nd in the Eastern Conference
Floor: 6th in the Eastern Conference
The Devils will surprise a few people this year and remain competitive in the Atlantic Division.