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.
The New Jersey Devils enter this year’s draft with a top 10 pick, an unusual spot for the franchise. They haven’t had a top-10 pick since 1996. The last top-10 pick to make a significant contribution was Scott Niedermayer, who came to the Devils third overall in the 1991 draft.
To kick off our draft coverage, The Devils’ Den will run down every top-10 pick the organization made. Some were wildly successful, others were pretty big busts. That’s the nature of the draft.
And here we go:
1982 Draft: Rocky Trottier – 1st round, 8th overall
The name Trottier should sound familiar – his brother, Bryan, won six Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins. Rocky wouldn’t emulate his brother’s success. Trottier spent most of the 1983-84 season with Medicine Hat in the WHL, recording 84 points (30 goals, 54 assists). He appeared in five with the Devils that season, recording just two points.
The Devils gave Trottier his shot during the 1984-85 season. He played in 33 games, but couldn’t find that scoring touch. He recorded just six points (four goals, two assists) and a minus-3 rating. He did attempt the first penalty shot in history on December 17, 1984, scoring against Edmonton Oilers’ goalie Andy Moog.
That season would be his last in the NHL. Trottier bounced around the AHL and played internationally before retiring after the 1989-90 season.
Other notables from the 1982 draft: Ken Daneyko (1st round, 18th overall), Pat Verbeek (3rd round, 43rd overall)
1983 Draft: John MacLean – 1st round, 6th overall
The organization made up for the bust of Trottier with the success of MacLean. He recorded 98 points with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL during the 1982-83 campaign, showing his offensive potential. He lasted just 30 games with the Generals during the 1983-84 season before earning a call-up. His debut didn’t wow people – in 23 games, he scored one goal – but he would ultimately find success.
MacLean became one of the most accomplished scorers in team history. He recorded three-straight 40 goal seasons (1988-1991) and finished the franchise leader in goals (347). On April 3, 1988, MacLean scored an overtime goal against the Chicago Blackhawks, clinching the first postseason berth in franchise history. While he didn’t work out as the team’s coach, MacLean was one of the team’s best picks.
Other notables from the 1983 draft: Chris Terreri (5th round, 85th overall), Viacheslav Fetisov (8th round, 145th overall)
1984 Draft: Kirk Muller – 1st round, 2nd overall
The Devils drafted another great forward in 1984. Muller, drafted behind Mario Lemieux, became one of the best to wear the Devils’ sweater. “Captain Kirk” debuted during the 1984-85 season after recording 94 points in just 49 games for the Guelph Platers of the OHL in 1983-84. Muller made an immediate impact, leading the team with 80 games played. He also recorded 54 points, a solid number for a rookie.
He continued to improve year after year. He set a record for points by a center with 94 during the 1987-88 season, a mark that still stands today. He finished below 70 points twice in his Devils’ career. Unfortunately, the team never seriously contended for the Stanley Cup. They traded Captain Kirk to the Montreal Canadiens, where he won a Stanley Cup in 1993.
Other notables from the 1984 draft: Craig Billington (2nd round, 23rd overall), Kirk McLean (6th round, 107th overall), Mike Peluso (10th round, 190th overall)
When Brian Rafalski announced his retirement today, it signaled yet another Devil from their glory days to retire. As the team gets further and further removed from their dynasty days, when they won three Stanley Cup championships in eight years, more and more players will leave the game.
The departures already included some big name players. Over the last six years, we’ve seen most of the Devils vaunted defense retire. Ken Daneyko, arguably the heart and soul of the defense, retired after winning the Stanley Cup in 2003. Scott Stevens soon followed, retiring in 2004 after battling post-concussion syndrome. Scott Niedermayer went next, retiring last season. The list continues, with forwards like Jay Pandolfo and Sergei Brylin hanging up their skates.
All of these former players helped produce the most successful eight seasons in team history. They all deserve recognition, both individually and as a collective whole. There’s no bigger individual recognition than retiring a player’s number, and there are a few Devils who deserve the honor. But it shouldn’t go to everyone, and the franchise needs to tread carefully when considering players worthy of that honor.
Currently, only two Devils have seen their number retired. Scott Stevens became the first player in team history to have his number retired. The team honored him in a pre-game ceremony on February 3, 2006, acknowledging his immense importance to the team. Stevens racked up the honors, including a Conn Smythe Award during the 2000 Stanley Cup championship. His mere presence along the blueline made skaters think twice about where they were on the ice. His hit on Eric Lindros during the 2000 Eastern Conference was a turning point in the series. His resume continues, with the crowning achievement being his tenure as captain, which is still the longest in team history. Clearly, he deserved the honor.
Daneyko became just the second player whose number hangs from the rafters. “Mr. Devil” played for 20 seasons, all with the Devils. His gritty play and gap-toothed grin came to embody the Devils “trap” game. He sacrificed his body game in and game out, blocking shots and doling out hits. He’s never been an “offensive defenseman,” recording a career-high 21 points during the 1989-90 season. He almost never missed a game, holding the Devils “ironman” streak until this season. His contributions, both on and off the ice, earned him the honor.
Niedermayer and Rafalski both make great arguments to earn the honor. But before the team makes them one of the honored few, they need to realize not everyone deserves a spot. That’s where the difficult decisions begin. What criteria will the organization use to judge a player’s worthiness? Both Niedermayer and Rafalski were great Devils, and belong among the best to wear the jersey. Both also spurned the organization to play elsewhere, with Rafalski leaving near the tail end of his prime years. It doesn’t diminish their accomplishments with the Devils, but it may dilute them in the eyes of some observers.
We already know that, when he decided to retire, Martin Brodeur will watch his jersey number retired. But for others, like Niedermayer and Rafalski, the honor should take time to be decided. Players refused to wear Stevens’ number four and Daneyko’s number 3, but others wore numbers 27 and 28.
I don’t believe other players, like Rafalski and Niedermayer, should be shunned from having their jersey numbers retired. The franchise should practice caution, however, to keep it an honor and not a right.
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.
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. Today we focus on Colin White.
Colin White remains one of the few Devils from the early 2000s, when the team boasted one of the deepest collection of defenseman in the entire league. Gone, however, are all of his teammates from the two Stanley Cup championships. White once again entered the 2010-2011 season as the elder statesman of the defensive group. He anchored both the second and third defensive pairings this season. It wasn’t White’s greatest season, as he battled various injuries and only played 69 games. The advanced statistics show that, while serviceable, White was anything but stellar during the 2010-2011 season.
White At Even Strength
In the review, we’ll look at the two areas White played the most – at even strength and on the penalty kill. While he’s scored a few goals in his career, we all know White can’t consistently light the lamp and accordingly didn’t spend much time on the powerplay. White did, however, spend a majority of his time at even strength. He averaged approximately 16:12 of even-strength time this season, ranking third on the team. Playing lower on the depth chart made life easier for White, who’s quality of competition checked in at a measly .016. He ranked third on the team with a relative plus/minus rating of .49, showing he wasn’t liability in his own zone.
The numbers aren’t all positive. Despite a lower quality of competition, White still registered negative numbers. Teams scored 37 goals this season with White on the ice, averaging 2.05 per 60 minutes. The Devils only scored 34 goals with him on the ice, or 1.88 per 60 minutes. His Behind the Net plus/minus rating of minus-.17 isn’t terrible, but it’s not something a defenseman should be proud to display. His Corsi number while on the ice wasn’t impressive either. The -0.33 meant that White allowed other teams more offensive opportunities, failing to block or redirect shots. His teammates also let him down here, failing to generate offense.
The numbers for White when he’s off the ice decline even further. The Devils managed to score just 1.70 goals per 60 with the offensively-challenged White on the bench. They also allowed 2.36 goals per 60, a difference of plus-0.65. This despite allowing almost two shots less when he was on the bench. The numbers show White is a valuable even-strength defender, despite posting negatives in almost every category.
White On The Penalty Kill
White led the team in penalty kill time this season, averaging 3:08 of special teams time this season. The increased time did nothing to help White’s abysmal numbers this season. His rating of -2.33 showed he did litte to prevent powerplay goals. Teams scored 18 extra-strength goals this season, averaging 5.83 per 60. His minus-5.83 still ranked as one of the lowest of the team, a sad testament to the Devils’ penalty kill this season.
The team improved with White off the ice, allowing 4.20 goals per 60. The shots against also dropped, but not by a significant amount.
Can you feel something in the air? There’s a slight chill in the air, and the leaves are changing colors. The baseball playoffs are in full swing, and the NFL is already four weeks into their schedule. It all adds up to the best time of the year – hockey season. And, for the New Jersey Devils, it begins tomorrow night at the Prudential Center against the Dallas Stars.
With the beginning of the season comes the obligatory team preview. Without further adieu, here’s The Devils’ Den’s 2010-2011 Season Preview.
The Devils endured the longest offseason in recent memory. The failed to make it out of the third round for the third consecutive season, losing the series 4-1 to the hated Philadelphia Flyers. That playoff loss left a bad memory on what was a rather successful season. New Jersey clinched second in the conference, won their ninth Atlantic Division title, and made the postseason for the 13th consecutive season. They also swept the Pittsburgh Penguins, 6-0-0, during the regular season.
The organization wasn’t satisfied with their playoff failure, deciding to make several changes. The first change came in the coaching staff. Jacques Lemaire, who lost the locker room by the end of the season, retired on April 26. The Devils decided to go with youth at the helm, promoting then-Lowell coach John MacLean, who served as a NHL assistant for seven years. MacLean brought in Adam Oates to help a woeful powerplay and kept Larry Robinson to help with the defense. With the coaching staff set, Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello turned to the roster.
Lamoriello began the roster overhaul early in the Devils’ offseason, acquiring Jason Arnott from Nashville for Matt Halischuk and a second round pick in 2011. Arnott, who scored the game-winning goal to give the Devils their second Stanley Cup Championship in 2000, would be reunited with former “A-Line” partner Patrik Elias and former Stars teammate Jamie Langenbrunner. The Devils then bought out longtime Devil Jay Pandolfo and Andrew Peters the day before free agency began.
In an uncharacteristic move, Lamoriello signed several free agents for this year’s team. On July 1, Lamoriello signed defenseman Anton Volchenkov (six-years, $25.5 million), defenseman Henrik Tallinder (four-years, $13.5 million) and goalie Johan Hedberg (one-year, $1.5 million). The team lost Paul Martin to the Penguins and Rob Niedermayer to the Sabres.
On July 19, the Devils doled out the largest contract in NHL history for Ilya Kovalchuk. The left-winger and New Jersey agreed to a 17-year, $102 million dollar contract. It passed through the NHLPA, but not the league office. The league rejected the contract, setting off a summer of arbitration hearings and constant frustration. Eventually the team and league settled on a 15-year, $100 million deal, with amendments made to the collective bargaining agreement to ban these contracts.
To read the rest of the preview, follow the jump!
Tomorrow night can be a sad night at the Rock. The Devils, who outplayed the Penguins all year and clinched second in the division, can be eliminated in the first round of the players for the third consecutive season. Down 3-1, and with the way the Devils have played, this looks almost certain. The Devils face a steep uphill climb to just get a victory tomorrow night.
Despite the odds, the Devils can still stage a comeback. But, in order to be competitive, the team needs leadership, and those leaders need to step up quickly. Who can step up to provide the leadership necessary to lead the team? Here are a few of my options:
1. Coach Jacques Lemaire
Lemaire hasn’t been doing so well in this series. It looks like Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette has thoroughly outcoached him. The Flyers’ forecheck has been terrific, they’ve continually attacked the Devils’ defense, and the team has never stopped moving since game one. Lemaire has seem subdued, almost emotionally detached to the situation going on around him. But I believe Lemaire can begin a Devils’ turnaround by making a few simple adjustments.
First, Lemaire needs to actually coach. While watching the games, Lemaire seems to take a hands-off approach, especially when the Devils need him most. Lemaire needs to get in the face of his players. He needs to be there, getting in players ears. He needs to make the adjustments in between periods to keep this team sharp. I know Lemaire has been hands-off, but down 3-1, it’s time to break the mold. I’d like to see Lemaire get a little more proactive on the bench and institute in-period changes. It’s the only way to keep up with a Flyers team that has outworked the Devils in four of the series five games.
Lemaire also has the background to help the team rescue the series. In 2003, with the Minnesota Wild, Lemaire pulled his team back from two 3-1 series deficits. They first came back against the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference quarterfinals, effectively ending Patrick Roy’s career. They repeated the feat in the next round, defeating the Vancouver Canucks. His experience in this situation can and should be used to help the team respond.
Lemaire knows the time for speeches and talking is over.
“It’s been four speeches that we put on and there will be a fifth one,” Lemaire said to Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record. “There’s a time for speeches. You can’t look for speeches. You’ve just got to get the work done.”
2. Colin White
In 2000, the Devils had great leadership throughout the locker room. Scott Stevens was the unquestioned leader of the team, but they also had great leadership from Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer. White was also on that squad. With the defense playing subpar during this series, the Devils need someone to step up and lead the blue line. While White may not be the best blueliner, he’s the senior leader of that group. White needs to step up and get the defense playing well. The defense hasn’t played well in their own zone, and White needs to be the one to hold people accountable. He should be the vocal leader of the group, reminding the defenseman to move the puck and make the smart play. He should be riding defenseman when they take dumb penalties or take a shift off. I haven’t seen anyone step up this season to be the leader of the defense. In this situation, the team needs someone to do that, and White’s been around long enough to know what the Devils expect from their defenseman. He should step up, carry the torch and lead the defense.