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An Analysis of the Johan Hedberg Signing

Hedberg recorded a career-best 2.38 goals against average and was given the Player's Player award. Photo Credit: Justin Aller/Getty Images

Last year, the New Jersey Devils watched Johan Hedberg save their season, posting a career-best 2.38 goals-against average. He more than earned the $1.5 million (plus bonuses) he signed for last July. It was only logical that Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello wanted the goalie back.

While the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement before July 1, Lamoriello didn’t let Hedberg stay on the market long. He re-signed “The Moose” to a one-year, $1.25 million contract. Getting a fan favorite back excited plenty fans. Bringing back a solid player with for less than he made last year made the signing even better. Lamoriello definitely earned himself some praise with this move.

At the beginning of last season, I laid out my expectations for Hedberg. I expected him to be a solid backup, and pegged him as a streaky goalie. Martin Brodeur just came off a season where he played 77 games and returned to Vezina form. I figured Hedberg would start between 12-15 games, so he wouldn’t be too important. But, of course, things didn’t play out that way. Brodeur fought through injuries and inconsistent play, limiting him to just 56 games played. Desperately needing some solid goaltending, the Devils leaned on Hedberg. The Moose wouldn’t disappoint.

Hedberg became one of two Devils to actually play solid hockey until John MacLean. He kept the team in the game, stringing together quality starts. He once allowed his goals-against average to climb north of 3.00, and that month Brodeur came back from injury. When Jacques Lemaire took over, he played even better. Hedberg reeled off 7 straight wins during February, recording a 1.43 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage. Fans serenaded him with chants of “Moose” during home games, and antler hats started popping up around the arena.

The good times wouldn’t last, as Brodeur eventually won back his spot. The appreciation shown by both fans and teammates wouldn’t end with him moving back to the bench. In addition to the praise of Devils’ fans, Hedberg’s teammates gave him the Player’s Player award. Everyone in the organization appreciated his contribution, and he rewarded them with a stellar season.

Hedberg once again made a personal sacrifice to join the Devils. Last year, he left his wife and daughter in Atlanta to play in New Jersey. He admitted he didn’t like it, and I’m surprised he chose the Devils again. When a player is willing to give up living near his immediate family to play for your team, it speaks volumes to the respect he must have for New Jersey. Even without a coach, he made the sacrifice to return to the team.

Just like last season, this is a low-risk signing. I don’t want to speculate on games played, because only Brodeur knows how much he’ll play next season. He proved a more than capable backup, and could form a solid goalie tandem if the new coach decides to use one.

It’ll be another year of Moose calls at the Rock. For fans and players, it’ll be another year to enjoy a quality teammate and positive locker room presence.

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.

Devils Need A Veteran Presence Behind The Bench

The Devils need a new coach, and Ken Hitchcock would bring a veteran presence and winning record to the team. Photo Credit: Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

It’s the offseason, which means the New Jersey Devils can only be doing one thing – looking for a new head coach.

Today, Devils’ president and general manager Lou Lamoriello announced the team would not hire a coach before the NHL Entry Draft Friday night. A few names are connected to the Devils, most notably Ken Hitchcock. There doesn’t seem to be a candidate on the horizon, and New Jersey appears doubtful to have a coach by the open of free agency. For a team that missed the playoffs, it’s incredible that this checklist item hasn’t been done.

There are several qualified and interesting candidates out there. Lamoriello could return to former Devil Kirk Muller, who is an assistant with the Montreal Canadiens. Mike Haviland, one of the hotter coaching prospects, could lead the team. Recently-fired Craig Ramsay would bring a veteran presence behind the bench.

With so many candidates, it’s a crapshoot as to who will become the organization’s next coach. There should be, however, one determining factor – the amount of actual NHL coaching experience. If the Devils want to return to the postseason, they need to hire a veteran coach.

This isn’t a revolutionary idea – just look at last season. John MacLean, the team’s assistant coach from 2002-2009, helped coach the Lowell Devils to a winning record during the 2009-2010 season. They finished fourth in the Atlantic Division and made the playoffs. They couldn’t advance past the first round, but he did exactly what the organization wanted – gain experience and show he could succeed as a coach.

Devils fans were excited to welcome one of the most successful former players to the bench. MacLean promised a more up-tempo system and a continued emphasis on “the Devils way.” After several first-round flameouts, he seemed to breath life into the organization. Many believed he would be the change this veteran team needed.

That optimism lasted until the end of October. MacLean promptly led the team into a tailspin. By December 23, the Devils were 9-22-2 and MacLean didn’t have a job. In rode Jacques Lemaire, leading the team on an incredible second half run.

The run proved something pivotal to the franchise’s success – the vital need to find a veteran coach. There’s no doubt the Devils are changing the guard. This isn’t the Devils of the early-2000s, with a large core of older players supplemented by younger call-ups. An AHL coach could find success with the various young players on this roster. The veterans, however, won’t respond to the unproven coach. It didn’t happen last year, and I’d seriously doubt it happening again.

I’m not going to guess on the team’s next head coach. With Lamoriello, playing the guessing game is an exercise in futility. But I will bet on one thing – the Devils next coach won’t be some hotshot assistant making his coaching debut. It’ll be an established veteran with a proven track record.

The 2010-2011 Player Review: Travis Zajac

Travis Zajac, playing without constant linemate Zach Parise, set a career low in goals this season with 13. 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 Travis Zajac.

Travis Zajac entered this season looking to continue last year’s breakout performance. During the 2009-2010 season, Zajac recorded a career high with 67 points. He played in all 82 games, and stood on the precipice of breaking Ken Daneyko’s consecutive-games streak. He entered the season the anchor of a top line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise on his wings. I held pretty high expectations, believing the line could reach 150 or even 200 combined points.

That bright picture turned bleak pretty quickly. Zajac never got started offensively, ending the season with just 44 points. His 13 goals were the lowest of his career, and he took recorded just two powerplay points. He did break Daneyko’s record, a commendable feat considering the daily grind of a hockey season. Despite his lack of offense, Zajac continued his solid play this season. His offense fell way below expected levels, but the team could still count on him game after game.

Zajac At Even Strength

Zajac played in all 82 games this season, one of only two forwards to skate in every game. His time on ice per 60 sat at 14.62, tops among forwards. His plus-0.36 rating belies his point production, where he finished second with an average of 1.55 points per game. Despite playing on the first line, Behind the Net ranks Zajac’s quality of teammates at a minus-0.006. It’s a slim negative rating, and with the ratings so low for his teammates, it belies the skill the line possessed. He also faced tougher competition, with opponents holding a plus-0.014 quality of competition rating.

Zajac surprisingly turned in a solid even strength performance this season. That’s not an indictment of his skill, but rather a surprise because of the team’s abysmal start. He helped New Jersey average 2.30 goals for per 60 while on the ice (46 total), a number that dropped to 1.69 with him off. Teams averaged 2.45 goals against per 60 with him on (49 total), a number that also dropped to 2.19 with him off the ice.

Shots for/against per 60 followed the same pattern. Zajac helped generate chances, with the Devils averaging 27.1 shots for per 60 with him on the ice. Off the ice, it dropped to 25.7. He played effectively in his own end, allowing just 23.9 shots against per 60. That number dropped a miniscule 0.6 to 23.3 with him off the ice.

It’s also important to note the zone starts and how Zajac fared in the faceoff dot. Since he was the top-line center, Zajac took the bulk of the faceoffs for Jacques Lemaire. He usually started in the offensive zone, beginning 56.6 percent of his shifts in the opponents end. He also ended 52.4 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. That’s very solid and exactly what you’d expect to see from your first line center. Zajac was on the ice for 185 offensive zone faceoff wins and 171 losses, not all of which he participated. He also finished ahead in neutral zone faceoffs, with a 232 wins 195 losses. He struggled in the defensive zone, finishing with just 134 wins and 139 losses.

Finally, we turn to the Corsi numbers. On the ice, Zajac recorded a plus-6.76 rating, which isn’t surprising considering his spot in the lineup. That only underscores his solid play throughout all three zones. Off the ice, the number drops to plus-3.02. Zajac remained a solid constant the entire season for the Devils, remaining an important part of the top line.

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The 2010-2011 Player Review: Ilya Kovalchuk

May 9, 2011 1 comment

Kovalchuk scored nine game-winning goals, tying him for fourth in the NHL. 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 Ilya Kovalchuk.

Ilya Kovalchuk became the biggest story of the New Jersey Devils’ 2010-2011 season. The left-winger, prize of the summer’s free agent market, made news on both coasts. He reportedly entertained an offer from the Los Angeles Kings, even flying out to LA to meet with general manager Dean Lombardi. But they eventually broke off talks, leaving the Devils the only team left to sign Kovalchuk.

New Jersey did, handing Kovalchuk the keys to the franchise with a 17-year, $102 million dollar deal. The team and its fanbase celebrated, but the league didn’t feel so festive. They rejected the deal, citing the low back-end numbers and citing it as a “retirement” contract. That set off “The Kovalchuk Saga,” where phrases like “cap circumvention” became commonplace and everyone became an armchair arbitrator. Eventually, the team worked out a 15-year, $100 million deal that fit the league’s expectations. But it came with a price, as the Devils paid more than money for crossing Gary Bettman and the league for the first contract.

All that drama raised Kovalchuk’s expectations for this season. Fans expected him to produce immediately, and the team’s newly designed top line looked like an offensive juggernaut. But it never materialized, and Kovalchuk struggled during the first half. Ex-coach John MacLean scratched him for missing a meeting, and he continually tried to force his way through defenses. The low point came against the Buffalo Sabres, when Kovalchuk couldn’t even muster a shot attempt during the shootout:

Jacques Lemaire’s return revitalized the down-and-out Kovalchuk. He finally lived up to expectations, netting game-winning goals time and time again. His stickhandling and playmaking ability returned, and he found a way to involve his teammates. He even played defense, committing to an aspect of the game he routinely ignored. While he fell short of offensive expectations, Kovalchuk rebounded to produce the second-highest point total on the team. He became the weapon the Devils expected, almost leading them to a playoff berth.

Kovalchuk At Even Strength

The Devils’ left-winger played in 81 games this season, third most among forwards. His time on ice number ranked first among forwards at 17.66. We all know about his miserable first half of the season, driving his player rating down to minus-0.77. He played against solid competition (plus-.004 competition rating) but had a better quality of teammates (plus-0.140) all season long.

Kovalchuk’s offensive showing wasn’t impressive, but a terrible first half submarined those numbers. He accounted for 49 goals for, or 2.06 per 60. He was on the ice for 69 goals against, a total of 2.89 per 60. The on-ice plus/minus total of minus-0.84 wasn’t terrible considering his terrible first half, when he put up a minus-15 rating in December alone. He also helped generate offense, tallying 25.8 shots for per 60.

The numbers dropped across the board with Kovalchuk off the ice. Goals for fell to 1.78 with him off the ice, goals against dropped to 1.85 per 60 and his off-ice plus/minus dropped to minus-0.07. The shots for rose to 26.3 per 60 and fell to 22.6 against per 60.

The Corsi numbers show Kovalchuk’s largely neutral impact on the offense. On the ice, he recorded a plus-2.56 rating, helping drive shots towards the opponents net. But all of those turnovers and lost opportunities drove that rating down. Off the ice, the team put up a 4.98 Corsi rating. Other lines simplified their attack, cycling and generating more offensive opportunities.

Kovalchuk’s second half helped to improve those numbers, but only slightly. The first half killed his overall production and gave little hope to any positive numbers. He played well during the second half of the season, but his even strength numbers are unimpressive.

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The 2010-2011 Player Review: Rod Pelley

Pelley played mostly a defensive role this season, but did tie a career high with 10 points. 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 Rod Pelley.

For the past few years, the New Jersey Devils raved about the abilities of Rod Pelley. Several team officials believed he could become the next John Madden. Last year, after Madden left the team as an unrestricted free agent, he got his first shot at taking the defensive forward role. Jacques Lemaire wouldn’t play him full-time, so we never fully got to see his potential.

With a new coach this season, Pelley got his chance. He didn’t become an elite checking forward, but he made the most of his chance. For most of the season, Pelley anchored the team’s checking line. His numbers weren’t superb, but they weren’t overly terrible. He ended up proving what he was – a defensive forward who could be used on the team’s third line.

Pelley At Even Strength

As a third-liner, Pelley didn’t see much time on the ice. His time on ice per 60 of 10.24 was middle of the road, which is expected. He put up a negative player rating of minus-0.25, which also isn’t terrible considering his line. For someone who isn’t going to generate much offense (just 10 points this season), his rating will take a hit. It also suffered from his quality of teammates, which checked in at minus-0.317. When you’re constantly centering guys like Adam Mair, that’ll help drive down the rating.

As a third-liner, Pelley’s greatest impact should be defensively. A look at his numbers shows he had an almost neutral (and slightly negative) impact this season. When on the ice, teams scored 23 goals against, an average of 1.82 goals against per 60. He only generated 1.11 goals per 60, leading to a plus/minus on the ice of minus-0.71. It’s not a good number, because you never want any player with a negative plus/minus. Off the ice, however, the numbers increased. Teams averaged 2.51 goals against per 60, but also scored more (2.05 goals for per 60). That drove the plus/minus with Pelley off the ice down to minus-0.46, which seems like an improvement. But Pelley and his linemates aren’t goal scorers, which will obviously put him at a disadvantage in his on-ice plus/minus rating.

The shots against numbers paint a slightly negative picture. With Pelley on the ice, he held teams to 25.4 shots against per 60. With him off the ice, that number dipped to 23.5. That’s almost two full shots less. It’s not a huge number, but it shows he wasn’t the best defensive option on the team’s bench.

The Corsi numbers wraps up this section nicely. Pelley’s on-ice Corsi was a minus-7.92, one of the worst among forwards with at least 50 games played. Off the ice, that number improved to plus-7.06, almost a 180 degree turnaround.

Pelley On The Penalty Kill

Pelley’s numbers on the penalty-kill paint a similar picture to his five-on-five numbers. His time on ice of 1.38 put him within the top nine of the Devils penalty killers, putting him in the regular rotation. Like his even strength rating, Pelley turned in a negative rating of minus-1.36. It was one of the worst ratings among regular penalty killers, but a deeper look at the numbers could expose some flaws.

Penalty killing, of course, isn’t a one man show. Teammates sway the numbers heavily, and Pelley’s teammates didn’t help him one bit. His quality of teammates was minus-0.764, which ranked dead last. Teams scored 10 powerplay goals against Pelley last year, an average of 5.86 goals per 60. That gave Pelley an ugly plus/minus average of minus-5.86. The number improved with him off the ice, dipping to 4.93 goals against per 60 and a plus/minus rating of minus-4.50.These numbers make sense, as better combinations produced better results on the ice.

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The 2010-2011 Player Review: Johan Hedberg

April 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Johan Hedberg proved to be invaluable to the Devils this season. 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. To start the brand-new feature, we lead off with Johan Hedberg.

Devils’ general manager Lou Lamoriello always shops for a goalie during the offseason. The organization doesn’t need a starter, with Martin Brodeur firmly entrenched as the franchise leader and one of the best in the game. But he can’t start every game (although he tries), which means a rotating door of backups routinely sit the bench and start between 10-12 games a season. This year, Lamoriello pegged Hedberg to hold that spot. He didn’t seem like a big piece to the overall puzzle, but Hedberg became an important piece to the Devils season and contributed to the team’s second-half turnaround.

Hedberg came to the Devils after four uninspiring seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers. He spent most of the time splitting duty with various goalies, never becoming the undisputed top goalie. His numbers weren’t great, as he recorded only one year with a save percentage above .900 and two with goals-against averages under 3.00. Lamoriello brought him in on a one-year, $1.5 million contract, handing him a no-trade clause. With that, the Devils had their backup situation settled.

With Brodeur patrolling the blue paint, Hedberg expected to play a limited role this season. Fantasy hockey projections pegged him for only 17 games played. But rarely do things go according to plan. A Patrick Kane shot injured Brodeur’s elbow during the second period of a game on November 3, forcing Hedberg into action. The injury hampered Brodeur for most of the month, making Hedberg the number one starter. In 10 November games (eight starts), Hedberg went 4-2-1 with a 1.56 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. It’s no surprise the Devils played NHL-.500 hockey that month, going 5-5-1 with Hedberg as the starter.

Brodeur would return to the net in December, relegating Hedberg to backup duty once again. But he wouldn’t wait long to step back into the starting role. After relieving Brodeur in a 4-1 loss against the Maple Leafs on December 26, Lemaire stuck with Hedberg over Brodeur.He started five of the next six games, but couldn’t buy a win. His performance was unspectacular – a 2-4-0 record with a 2.57 goals-against average and a .875 save percentage – and he once again found himself on the bench. The roller coaster ride, however, wasn’t done.

Yet another injury to Brodeur gave Hedberg yet another chance to be the team’s number one goalie in February, near the beginning of the team’s second-half run. The Devils backup replaced Brodeur during a February 6 game against the Montreal Canadiens. Brodeur tweaked his knee, spraining his MCL in the win. With him on the shelf, Hedberg stepped into the spotlight. He turned in his best stretch of the season, recording a 7-1-0 record in nine games (eight starts) with a stellar 1.14 goals-against average and .955 save percentage. He recorded two shutouts during that time as well, helping propel the Devils on their second-half surge.

It would all end for Hedberg after the stellar February. Brodeur returned to the net, and Hedberg didn’t make another start until April 3. He finished the season 15-12-2 with a 2.38 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. His goals-against ranked 11th in the league, which surprised several people. His performance earned him the annual Players Player award from his teammates.

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