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Devils 2011-2012 Schedule Preview: Boston Bruins

August 7, 2011 1 comment

Hedberg backstopped the Devils to their only victory over the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Throughout the offseason, The Devils’ Den will preview the 2011-2012 schedule, breaking down matchups and providing in-depth analysis of their opponents. Today, we the preview this season’s matchup with the Stanley-Cup champion Boston Bruins.

The New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins never developed that nasty New York – Boston rivalry. Maybe it’s because of the proximity of the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. It just seems like that hatred never carried over to the Bruins. Of course, that could all change this year.

The Bruins enter this season as the defending champions, giving them the target on their backs. Every team, including the Devils, will look to give them a run for their money. But their recent success isn’t great, and they haven’t fared well throughout their history.

The History Behind The Matchup

The Devils and Bruins squared off 133 times during the Devils 35-year history, with Boston dominating the matchup. New Jersey is just 47-64-3 with 19 ties, a winning percentage of just .436. They’ve allowed 448 goals, an average of 3.37 per meeting. They’ve scored 368 times, almost a full hundred goals less. It’s an average of 2.77 goals per matchup.

Boston continued their dominance last season, winning three of four against New Jersey. The two teams first met on October 16, a 4-1 win for Boston. Dainius Zubrus opened the scoring, putting the Devils ahead, 1-0, at 3:45 of the second period. But that wouldn’t last long, as Jordan Caron tied the game at 5:38 of the period. Then, the Bruins took over.

Michael Ryder put Boston ahead, 2-1, at 10:44 of the second period. Shawn Thornton made it 3-1 at 16:43 of the middle frame. Milan Lucic capped the Bruins’ outburst, stretching the lead to 4-1 at the 18:09 mark. Tim Thomas would stop 31 shots in the win, and Martin Brodeur matched that number for the loss.

Things didn’t get much better in the second meeting, a 3-0 shutout win for the Bruins on November 15 in Boston. Ryder continued to plague the Devils, opening the scoring at 15:26 of the first period. Nathan Horton made it 2-0 just 43 seconds into the second period. Not to be outdone, Blake Wheeler scored 43 seconds into the third period to push the lead to 3-0. Thomas stopped 28 shots for the win, and Brodeur stopped 21 in the loss.

Not even a change in coaches could sway the Devils luck. Boston once again beat them, 4-1, on March 22 in Boston. Ilya Kovalchuk struck first, scoring on the powerplay to put New Jersey ahead, 1-0. Thornton tied it at 15:39, and the teams entered the second period deadlocked.

Once again, the Bruins went on a goal scoring spree. Zdeno Chara put Boston ahead, 2-0, with a powerplay tally at 8:17 of the second period. Lucic extended the lead to 3-1 at 16:13 of the third period, and Mark Recchi sealed it with an empty-netter at 19:20 for the 4-1 lead.

The Devils avoided the sweep, ending their season with a 3-2 win over the Bruins. Patrik Elias opened the scoring, putting New Jersey ahead, 1-0, at 1:47 of the first period. Richard Peverley tied the game, 1-1, at 10:04 of the period. It remained tied until the third period. Vladimir Zharkov put the Devils ahead, 2-1, four minutes into the third period. Alexander Urbom scored his first career goal at 9:10 of the period, extending the lead to 3-1. That would prove crucial, as Chris Kelly scored with four seconds in regulation to bring the score to 3-2.

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An Evaluation of the Andy Greene Signing

Greene, who recently signed a four year, $12 million contract, will need to improve on his 21 points last season. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Free agency opened four days ago, and the New Jersey Devils have yet to sign someone new.

Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello opted to retain his own players, re-signing both Andy Greene and Johan Hedberg. He managed to re-sign Hedberg for just $1.25 million, a $250,000 reduction from his base salary last season. Greene, however, cashed in big time.

Lamoriello signed Greene to a four year, $12 million deal Friday. He’ll carry a $3 million cap hit, which isn’t terrible considering the other ridiculous contracts handed out to similar players. But he officially took one-fourth of this season’s remaining cap space. Is $3 million a stretch? While it’s not perfect, it’s a contract that the Devils can support – and possibly trade.

Greene had a terrible contract season last year, recording a minus-24 through the first three months of the season. When Jacques Lemaire took over, he turned around tremendously, playing to a plus-1 for the remainder of the season. We all know that plus/minus is a flawed statistic, so that point alone can’t determine the validity of the huge pay increase.

The Devils leaned on Greene last season, putting him in their top three defenseman. His 22:21 of ice time ranked third, with 1:16 TOI on the powerplay and 2:19 TOI on the penalty kill. He turned in decent numbers during special teams play, but his even strength numbers were terrible. He carried a minus-.83 rating, becoming the only defenseman to carry a negative rating. New Jersey averaged just 1.61 goals for per 60 and a 2.66 Corsi rating. Both those numbers jumped with him off the ice, a clear indictment of his play.

There’s no doubt that Greene could be an effective second or third pairing defenseman. But there’s no shot he’ll ever be the team’s best offensive defenseman. He recorded a career-high 37 points two seasons ago. That’s it. He plays in an offensively-depressed system, but that excuse can only stretch so far. Maybe his numbers dropped because of the Devils’ terrible first half, but that’s yet another excuse. If he’s making $3 million to be an offensive defenseman, then he needs to produce.

However, it’s not the worst deal Lamoriello ever made. Greene is overpaid, no doubt about it. But look at some of the other crazy contracts handed out. James Wishniewski will make $5.5 million despite having no long-term, proven success. Christian Erhoff will make $4 million in a ten-year deal with the Sabres. Hell, even Steve Montador will average $2.75 million, and he’s not a great puck-moving, offensive defenseman. When you look at those ridiculous deals (both in cap hit and length), the signing doesn’t seem terrible.

In the next three to four years, the Devils defense will undergo a dramatic change. Both Mark Fayne and Matt Taormina will fight for roster spots next season. Rookies Alexander Urbom and (maybe) Adam Larsson will push veterans. Colin White and Bryce Salvador, two defensive stalwarts, may play their last season in a Devils uniform. Greene will quickly become the veteran among a greener blue line. That leadership could prove invaluable.

If all else fails, Greene’s contract will be attractive trade bait. Apparently, his agent fielded calls from “Stanley Cup contenders” during the opening of free agency.  If Lamoriello needed to trade him, his $3 million cap hit wouldn’t be detrimental.

Greene isn’t an earth-shattering signing, and hopefully will improve. If he slides back down the depth chart, his stats will improve. But Greene will never be the best offensive defenseman on this team. He needs to, once again, become a solid producer in the lineup.

Evaluating The Devils Organizational Depth: Defenseman

Urbom was all smiles after tallying his first NHL goal - a game-winner - against the Boston Bruins on the last day of the season. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils will always be a defense-first team. Jacques Lemaire’s first tenure as coach, way back in 1995, began that precedent. Those teams developed the trapping style that brought three Stanley Cups to the Garden State. It seemed the organization possessed unlimited defensive depth, churning out defensive stalwarts like Colin White to compliment the core of Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer.

Fast forward to 2011. The team still plays solid defense, but gone are the big names. In their place stand overachievers and average defenseman. The mass exodus of the dynasty defense through retirement and free agency left a gaping hole in the Devils’ organization. The inability to find a true offensive defenseman continues to frustrate fans. But there’s hope – a rising crop of defensive prospects, led by Jon Merrill and Alexander Urbom, should return the blueline to its once lofty status.

With a surplus of quality defenseman in this year’s draft, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Devils once again focus on their blueline with the fourth pick. But do they need a defenseman? The bubble of NHL-ready prospects looks ready to burst, providing ample opportunities for New Jersey to plug in holes. In today’s preview, we take a look at the organization’s defensive prospects, from the AHL to those yet to turn pro.

And here we go:

Albany Devils (AHL)

Alexander Urbom – 72 GP, 23 points (2 G, 21 A), minus-9 rating

Urbom continued the recent Swedish movement in the Devils organization. The 20-year old defenseman spent most of the season with the Albany Devils, earning two brief call-ups to the Devils. He led all Albany defenseman in points, and earned significant minutes on the powerplay.

The year of seasoning helped Urbom tremendously. When he broke camp with the Devils, he looked rough and didn’t adjust well to the NHL. But his year in the AHL gave him the ability to play with veterans like Olivier Magnan and Rob Davison. He ended his season on a positive note, tallying his first career NHL goal in the Devils’ 3-2 win. He may find himself back in the AHL next season, but Urbom made a strong case to play on the Devils’ blueline next season.

Rob Davison – 63 GP, 18 points (4 G, 14 A), minus-1 rating

Davison became one of the biggest offensive threats on an underachieving blueline in Albany this season. The stay-at-home defenseman, who compiled 203 NHL games before the season, never found a way to make it to New Jersey. When the organization needed replacements, they routinely called on other players. Davison signed this summer as a depth player, and served that role to the letter.

The unrestricted free agent probably won’t be in the organization next season. He helped with the development of Urbom and gave the team quality minutes. But a guy with over 200-games of NHL experience deserves a shot to make a NHL team, something he may not get with New Jersey.

Olivier Magnan – 50 GP, 13 points (2 G, 11 A), minus-3 rating

Magnan’s shown steady improvement in each season with the organization. The former QMJHL Kevin Lowe Trophy winner (best defensive defenseman) finally got his chance to play in New Jersey last season. In 18 games, he was solid yet unspectacular, failing to record a point. But he couldn’t stick in New Jersey, eventually giving way to Mark Fayne.

Despite solid play for both teams, Magnan may not return to the team next season. With a new crop of defenseman ready to take the reigns, Magnan may be forced out by his inability to deliver on his talent.

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The 2010-2011 Player Review Best Of The Rest: Defense

May 31, 2011 2 comments

Fraser took a step back this season, recording negative numbers in every important defensive category. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Throughout the offseason, The Devils’ Den will break down the 2010-2011 Devils season. Many of those breakdowns revolved around individual player performances. We broke down all players who skated in at least 40 games, because they contributed to over half the games (and outcomes) this season. In the next few days, we’ll look at “The Best of the Rest,” breaking down other players who skated in less than 40 games. Today, we’ll look at the remaining defensive players.

Of all the positions to suffer from injuries, the New Jersey Devils’ blueline was among the most volatile. They lost stalwart Bryce Salvador before the season even started, a major blow to the defensive corps. Injuries to promising rookie Matt Taormina left another hole needing to be filled. Anton Volchenkov and Colin White both missed stretches of games as well.

As a result, seven defenseman filled in, playing at least four games. Below is a list of those players and their performance this season. Some were good, others were just ok, and a few shouldn’t be back next season. We’ll take a look at them, in order of games played. And here we go:

Mark Fraser – 26 GP, 2 Points (2 A)

Fraser entered this season with a new contract (two-year, $1.085 million) and heightened expectations. He played well during the 2009-10 season, skating in 61 games and recording six points. The 2010-11 regular season would represent a major step backward. Fraser broke his hand on October 13, causing him to miss 32 games. He couldn’t consistently crack the lineup, playing in just 12 straight games.

A look at his numbers shows his general ineffectiveness. Fraser only averaged 13:58 minutes a game, managing to pull down a plus-0.18 rating. Despite a low goals-against per 60 rate (1.65 at even strength), his other numbers weren’t strong. His on-ice Corsi rating (minus-2.03) ranked far below his off-ice rating (plus-2.02). Opponents shots against fell from 26.8 with him on the ice to 24.8 with him off.

Despite it all, he still recorded a plus-1.0 GVT. I’m willing to give him a pass for this season. Both injuries and the inability to play consistently showed on the ice. He’ll battle for a spot next season, but could be pushed out with the strong play of Mark Fayne and the return of Salvador.

Matt Corrente – 22 GP, 6 P (6 A)

Like Fraser, Corrente entered the season with heightened expectations. The Devils’ first round pick (30th overall) in 2006 had yet to make his mark and earn a consistent roster spot. Training camp would be his opportunity to finally earn that spot.

Corrente performed worse than Fraser in his limited role this season. He missed 38 games with a shoulder injury, managing just an average time on ice of 13:35. He managed a plus-0.32 rating, higher than Fraser. The goals against numbers didn’t reflect well, with the team allowing more goals against with him on the ice (3.32) than him off (3.03). Shots against followed the same trend. Opponents averaged 29.3 shots per 60 with Corrente on the ice. Off the ice, that number fell to 23.3. The Corsi rating is just as bad. On the ice, the number sat at minus-0.83. Off the ice, the team improved to plus-9.63.

Despite all of that, Corrente recorded a plus-1.3 GVT. His six assists probably helped that cause, and he showed a surprising willingness to contribute offensively. He’s flashed his potential, but time might be running short. He’s a restricted free agent this summer, and the organization will probably re-sign him. He’ll find it hard to crack the lineup, especially with some rookies outplaying him over the course of the season.

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The 2010-2011 Player Review: Anssi Salmela

Hey look, Salmela is letting the other team shoot. Surprising. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Throughout the offseason, The Devils’ Den will break down the 2010-2011 Devils season. We’ll cover the big team stories, but also offer a breakdown of individual player performances. In our final review, we focus on Anssi Salmela.

Anssi Salmela entered the 2010-2011 regular season as one of the biggest question marks on the New Jersey Devils’ roster. After tearing his ACL in the World Championships, no one knew exactly what he could contribute. As the season progressed, it seemed the rookies would force Salmela from the lineup. But the defenseman found his way back, contributing solid minutes.

That’s about all he’d contribute. Salmela played 48 games this season, but didn’t post great offensive numbers or really stand out. He flew under the radar, which was simple considering his relatively bad play. He ranked second-to-last among all skaters in even-strength plays, and contributed little to special teams. He never stood out this season, and never quite met the already low expectations.

Salmela At Even Strength

Salmela almost exclusively played even strength this season. The defenseman averaged 17:23 of ice time and 23 shifts per game. He only 0.31 points per 60, and managed to pull down a minus-1.26. The rest of the numbers aren’t pretty either.

The Devils’ defenseman didn’t help the offense at all. On the ice, Salmela helped New Jersey score 1.47 goals per 60 (19 total) and put 23.7 shots on net. Off the ice, both of those numbers improved. Goals for per 60 shot up to 2.12, and shots for jumped to 25.7.

Defensively, he wasn’t much better. Opponents scored 2.33 goals with him on the ice and averaged 25 shots on net. With Salmela on the bench, goals against per 60 dropped to 1.72 and shots against fell to 20.6. It’s no wonder that his rating sat so low. On the ice, Salmela’s plus/minus rating was a minus-0.85. Off the ice, the rating jumped to a plus-0.40.

The Corsi numbers wrap his ineffectiveness up nicely. On the ice, Salmela recorded a minus-3.18, one of five skaters with over 40 games played carrying a minus rating. Off the ice, the team recorded a plus-9.13 rating. On the ice, Salmela didn’t help this team offensively, and couldn’t prevent scoring chances. Off the ice, they simply played better.

Conclusion

Salmela wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination. You can’t look at the numbers and give him credit for being solid anywhere. He finished fifth among defenseman in overall points (seven), but that isn’t impressive considering the offensive ineptitude of most blueliners. He finished behind a rookie, Mark Fayne, and the offensively challenged Anton Volchenkov.

Overall, Salmela finished with a 0.9 GVT rating. That ranked him third last among all defenseman, above replacement rookies Olivier Magnan and Alexander Urbom. He once again finished behind Fayne in this category. Yet he still skated in 48 regular season games. He provides some type of value, but not much.

Salmela enters the offseason as one of the Devils’ restricted free agents. He was outplayed by one rookie this season. The organization expects other young defenders, like Urbom and Matt Taormina, to play significant minutes next season. Salmela may be squeezed out of a roster spot.

If the numbers from this season are any indication, Salmela isn’t a great defenseman. The Devils can, and should, upgrade their blueline. Salmela barely fit in last season, and with better prospects coming through the system, he may need to find a new team soon.

The 2010-2011 Player Review: Mark Fayne

May 26, 2011 1 comment

Fayne played 57 games this season, leading all skaters with a plus-10 rating. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Throughout the offseason, The Devils’ Den will break down the 2010-2011 Devils season. We’ll cover the big team stories, but also offer a breakdown of individual player performances. In today’s review, we focus on Mark Fayne.

The New Jersey Devils’ defense entered the preseason under one of the biggest question marks in recent history. The organization watched as Paul Martin, arguably one of their best offensive defenseman, left to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In his place came Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, and Andy Greene became the top threat along the blueline. Colin White and Bryce Salvador figured to anchor the defense. But things, of course, never work out as planned.

A spot opened along the blueline after Salvador suffered a concussion in the preseason. Ex-coach John MacLean gave several rookies a look. Matt Taormina took the spot, starting the first 17 games of the season. The injury bug would get him too, opening the door for Mark Fayne.

Nobody had terribly high expectations for the Providence product. The rookie made his NHL debut against the Washington Capitals on November 22, and the experience proved to be “nuts.”

“My first game was kinda nuts playing against Ovechkin,” he said to me in an interview. “I wasn’t matched up against him, but a few times I was out when he was at the end of his shift and I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s Alex Ovechkin.'”

Clearly, the experience of playing in the NHL didn’t overwhelm Fayne. He became the best rookie defenseman, starting 57 games and providing solid minutes. He contributed offensively, played smart defensively and took care of his job on the ice. The rookie exceeded expectations, making him one of the best defenseman this season.

Fayne At Even Strength

Fayne finished among the top three in almost every important even strength category. That means he outproduced players like Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson in his first season. Fayne averaged 17:50 of ice time, ranked 14th among all rookie skaters. That number was the highest of all the rookies on the Devils this season. His plus-1.02 rating ranked first among skaters with at least 50-games played. He’s the only player to crack a plus-1 rating, and only one of eight to finish positive. He produced those numbers despite facing better quality of competition (plus-0.04) with lesser teammates (minus-0.071).

Despite a down year for several players, Fayne helped provide scoring and played responsible defensively. While on the ice, the team averaged 2.30 goals for per 60 (35 total). That average tied him for second on the team with Travis Zajac. He only allowed opponents 1.77 goals against per 60, tied for lowest on the team with Mattias Tedenby. His on-ice plus/minus of plus-0.52 ranked first on the team and was just one of three plus ratings on the ice.

With Fayne off the ice, the team worsened in every category. Goals for per 60 dropped to 1.73 and goals against per 60 rose to 2.23.  His off-ice plus/minus fell to minus-0.49, almost a full point lower than his on-ice production.

Shot production followed a similar trend. On the ice, Fayne helped the team average 25.5 shots on net. He limited opponents to 22.4 shots against per 60, third best among defenseman with 50-plus games played. Off the ice, both numbers suffered. Shots for per 60 dropped to 23.7, almost a two shot difference. Shots against per 60 rose to 23.8, which is a small yet noticeable difference.

Fayne’s Corsi rating confirms his strong even-strength performance. His on-ice rating of plus-7.7 ranked second among all defenseman, just seven-tenths of a point behind Tallinder. Off the ice, that number dropped to plus-0.6. Fayne exceeded expectations on even-strength play. He helped produce offensive opportunities, limited opponents chances, and became a solid player. Outproducing some of the bigger names on the roster, including Ilya Kovalchuk, shows the potential for him to grow into a top four defenseman.

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Ex-Devil Brian Rafalski To Retire

May 24, 2011 1 comment

Rafalski, skating against the Ottawa Senators in the 2007 Eastern Conference semifinals, will retire with three Stanley Cup championships. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Former New Jersey Devils defenseman Brian Rafalski will announce his retirement in the coming weeks, according to several media reports.

Rafalski, who signed a five-year, $30-million contract with the Detroit Red Wings after the 2007 season, will forgo the final year of his contract. He’ll leave $6 million on the table after retiring and open a big hole along the Red Wings blueline.

After going undrafted out of the University of Wisconsin, Rafalski spent four seasons in Europe – one in Sweden and three in Finland – before signing with the Devils before the 1999-2000 season. He finished with 32 points in the regular season, ranking third among the team’s defenseman, and averaged over 21 minutes of ice time in the playoffs. He helped lead the Devils to their second Stanley Cup championship.

He continued to take on a more prominent role on New Jersey’s defense throughout his seven-year stay. He led all defenseman in points five of the next six seasons, becoming the most consistent offensive threat along the blueline. He routinely topped 25 minutes of ice time in the playoffs, playing in all situations.

He won yet another cup during the 2002-2003 season, totaling 11 points and once again averaging over 25 minutes of ice time.

Rafalski became a main cog on the Devils blueline, an achievement considering the defense’s tremendous depth. In an era where Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Sheldon Souray all donned a Devils jersey, Rafalski found a way to stand out and make a name for himself. That’s no small feat, especially for someone who couldn’t catch on in the NHL for four years after college. His offensive skill and no frills play made him a fan favorite and one of the most successful Devils’ defenseman.

Despite leaving the team four seasons ago, the Devils have yet to fill the void left by Rafalski. Several replacements, from David Hale to Paul Martin, all failed to deliver the same offensive production. It’s possible that some prospects, like Alexander Urbom and the ever-present Jon Merrill, may fill that void. Rafalski remains one of the best to ever patrol the Devils’ blueline.