What Happens After You Go From The Outhouse To The Penthouse? 2012-13 New Jersey Devils Season Preview
August 31 2012 10:54AM
In July of 2011, the Wynn in Las Vegas placed the odds of the Devils winning the 2012 Stanley Cup at 50-1.
It must've been quite a surprise to whomever set that line to see the Devils make the playoffs - a 50-1 line suggests a hopeless team, one far away from playoff contention. Only 5 clubs right now are listed as that unlikely to win the 2013 Stanley Cup according to Bovada. It must've been a bigger surprise to watch them take down the Flyers and #1 seeded Rangers on the way to the Cup Finals. Despite that performance, the Devils are listed as 28/1 this year, and while that number still seems pessimistic, it's certainly much closer to accurate than last year's 50/1 number. They've lost some key pieces and others likely can't be counted on. Let's see what will contribute to the Devils' decline after the jump...
In: Bobby Butler, Krys Barch
Out: Zach Parise, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Eric Boulton, Petr Sykora(?)
I detailed Zach Parise's contributions in my Minnesota Wild writeup. It was a tale of two seasons for Zach - through the first 46 games, he was at 50.7% Fenwick - okay numbers, but not what's expected out of a forward of his caliber. Over the remainder of the season, he was at 55.0%, and through the first three rounds of the playoffs, he managed a similar rate at 55.4%. Losing his contributions will be a big blow.
That loss will not be softened by the exodus of Alexei Ponikarovsky, who led Devils forwards in Fenwick % after his acquisition. Petr Sykora has yet to sign elsewhere and the Devils have indicated that they are open to bringing him back. He provided a surprising 21 goals in an even more surprising 82 games after making the team on a tryout.
Coach Peter DeBoer and GM Lou Lamoriello have their work cut out for them to get the remaining forward unit to return to the excellence it displayed in the 2nd half and in the playoffs. Fortunately, New Jersey retians surprising depth at center, with Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, and Jacob Josefson all returning and all capable of being a top three quality pivot. Expect either Elias or Henrique to get shifted over to wing, with the favorite being the younger man - Henrique played a lot of wing in the AHL in 2010-11, and his goal/assist ratio over his pro career to date fit the profile of a winger. In addition, no one took more faceoffs than Elias last year for the Devils.
Going with the perhaps antiquated notion of top two and bottom two forward lines, the Devils have 5 of their top 6 firmly in place - we should expect Ilya Kovalchuk, Dainius Zubrus, Henrique, Elias, and Zajac at the top of the rotation. Right now the favorites to round things out are David Clarkson and newcomer Bobby Butler. Clarkson's 30 goals were certainly a surprise to Devils fans, but even with that performance he operated on the third line for most of the season.
Butler failed to crack Ottawa's top 6 and fell into Paul MacLean's doghouse but he did okay with soft minutes and has an offensive player's profile. Mattias Tedenby has an outside shot at landing this role, but he failed to deliver at either the NHL or AHL level next season, and it would take a quantum jump forward to seriously compete for that position.
Overall, expect this group to be worse territorially than last season's forwards - the Devils lost two key contributors and many of their others (Elias, Zubrus, Zajac, Kovalchuk) are either in or entering the wrong part of their career.
Closer to the bottom of the roster, the Devils retained the 4th line magicians from last season's playoff run. They also kept Cam Janssen, and added Krys Barch, meaning the 4th line should once again be a territorial sinkhole. There's talk from GM Lou Lamoriello that either Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier, or Stephen Gionta could be moved to a higher line if other players falter, which shows how poor the Devils' depth is beyond their top 5.
No Changes. Yet.
Lamoriello made the odd decision of retaining Bryce Salvador to a ghastly 3 year contract, which means the Devils now have 7 defensemen on one-way deals as well as impressive youngster Adam Larsson. It therefore seems inevitable that New Jersey will make a trade, with the most likely candidates being Andy Greene, Henrik Tallinder, or Anton Volchenkov.
An impending deal makes it difficult to talk about the Devils D for the start of the 2012-13 season, since we can't be certain precisely who will be patrolling the back-end once things finally get going. The Devils didn't deploy consistent a shutdown pairing last year - either Greene and Tallinder or Mark Fayne generally took the toughs, but in the playoffs, they were also given to Salvador and Marek Zidlicky.
Even if the Devils manage a trade, they will likely have one of the strongest third pairings in the league when healthy, with either Larsson or Zidlicky paired with Salvador or Volchenkov. Peter Harrold impressed as a third pairing man who can work a power play, and prospects Alex Urbom and Eric Gelinas don't look too far away. They should get a cup of coffee if there are any injuries.
While the Devils don't have anyone who jumps out as a top pairing defensemen, only Salvador was significantly below 50% in Fenwick last season - it's impressive depth, if unspectacular top-end talent. The club does have to be concerned about both Salvador and Zidlicky's length in the tooth, though; both are over 35, and it seems unlikely that they can play the same role they did in the 2011-12 playoffs.
The Only Change Here Is The Passing Of Ruthless Time...
Both Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg were UFA this offseason and both players were re-signed to multi-year deals. If they didn't have such a cheerful disposition, it'd be easy to label them the Grumpy Old Men. Regardless, Hedberg is 39 and Brodeur 40.
That said, something strange is happening to Johan Hedberg - he seems to have actually gotten better with age:
Hedberg was one of the league's worst goalies for nearly a decade, but now he appears almost, well, average. How long can Hedberg cheat Father Time? I don't know, but already it's longer than Martin Brodeur, whose performance has clearly declined; his last two seasons' save percentage and GAA are well below his career marks. Brodeur did rebound from a shaky beginning in the playoffs to post solid numbers right in line with his career (.917 SV% playoffs last season, .913 career SV%), and his performance in the Cup Finals actually made the series a lot closer than it should have otherwise been.
However, history is not particularly kind to the 40+ goaltender: Of the 10 seasons where a 40+ year old played 20 or more games, only twice did a puck stopper put up save pecentage numbers better than his career average.
The Devils are tempting fate by signing both goaltenders to multi-year deals - a Dwayne Roloson-like collapse for both players isn't out of the question. Behind these two are a gaggle of could-bes, but right now none of Jeff Frazee, Keith Kinkaid, Scott Wedgewood, or Maxime Clermont scream 'future NHL-quality goaltender'.
Repeating Last Season
The Devils had a number of unusual things happen last season which makes their future difficult to predict: they were first in the league in short-handed goals and also worst in the league in short-handed goals allowed. They set a record for best penalty-killing percentage in a single season, but finished the playoffs 12th out of 16 teams in that category. Their 4th line didn't score a goal until Game 78, then managed 10 in 24 playoff games. Patrik Elias had a career renaissance at 36; it had been 8 years since he had been top 10 in the NHL in points. David Clarkson managed 30 goals when his previous career high was 17. Petr Sykora scored 21 goals after being out of the league for the better part of 2 years. Finally, Martin Brodeur had an .894 SV% before the All-Star Break and a .921 afterwards.
All in all, the Devils finished with 102 points, good enough to be tied for 7th overall in the league, but that record was buoyed by a 12-4 record in shootouts. In games decided in regulation, they were just 32-28. They nevertheless went ahead and made the Cup Finals on the back of an envy-inducing 53.6% playoff Fenwick (59.1% tied through Game 4 of the ECF) before crashing to earth in the Finals.
So, what does all this madness confer to our cogitating prognosticator? Will the Devils be any good or not?
The biggest question for New Jersey revolves around health, as many key contributors suffered calamity last season. Ilya Kovalchuk ended the playoffs with a back injury that he did not have surgery on and played through despite obvious discomfort. With 13 years remaining on that contract, the Devils have to hope that this is not a recurring issue.
Travis Zajac returned from a torn Achilles to have an outstanding playoffs, but it remains to be seen if he'll return to his level of play before the injury. Henrik Tallinder missed the second half of the season and the majority of the playoffs with a blood clot. Jacob Josefson has had three seperate bone breaks that have caused him to miss time over the first two seasons of his North American career.
There is also 4 players over 35, including both goaltenders, who have to be considered injury risks. Health is obviously critical for any team, but the depth here is tenuous, and a long injury to a major contributor could mean earlier tee times than the Devils and their management would like.
There's also the financial issues - the New York Post reported that as a result the Devils had to get approval from the league to make a trade for Marek Zidlicky. Rumors abound around owner Jeff Vanderbeek's ability to remain solvent in the face of the massive debt remaining on the Prudential Center. These fiscal woes could affect the Devils' ability to add salary if obvious needs emerge later on in the season.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. A lesser known corollary to that saying is that when life gives you lemonade of uncertain quality, immediately judge it mediocre.
That's what I'm doing with this year's Devils squad - the defense should be a strength, but the forwards aren't anymore and the goaltending is a giant question mark. If either the forwards or goaltending falter, there isn't likely to be any outside help, and there's not nothing in the organization's cupbaord either. I expect the Devils to be around NHL .500 (.561 last year), and whether they're in or out of the playoffs depends a great deal on Martin Brodeur's aged haunches.