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Devils 2011-2012 Schedule Preview: Buffalo Sabres

August 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Kovalchuk led the Devils to their only win against the Buffalo Sabres this season. Photo Credit: Bill Wippert/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 Buffalo Sabres.

Usually, the Buffalo Sabres stay out of the limelight during the offseason. But since late last year, the only successful team from the Buffalo area made a ton of noise. First, billionaire Terry Pegula purchased the team, brining a wealthy owner to a usually frugal team. They made some noise in the playoffs, but lost to the Philadelphia Flyers. That would be one of their only disappointments.

With Pegula backing the team, Buffalo went on an offseason spending spree. They became, for the first time in recent memory, big spenders. Nobody was surprised; Pegula promised to pay for a quality team. An already good team added some key pieces. It’ll be a different team on the ice taking on New Jersey this season.

The History Behind The Matchup

The Devils have faced the Sabres 132 times, and haven’t fared well against them. New Jersey is 47-65-3 with 17 ties, allowing 448 goals against, or 3.39 goals per game. They’ve only scored 380 goals against Buffalo, good for 2.88 goals per game.

The two teams faced off four times last season, with New Jersey compiling a 1-2-1 record. They first met on October 13 in a game that became a duel between Martin Brodeur and Ryan Miller. Both goalies stood on their heads, matching each other save for save. In overtime, rookie Matt Taormina set up Ilya Kovalchuk for a game-winning one-timer deep in the Sabres zone. The puck rang off the crossbar before finding it’s way to the back of the net. That marked the first win of John MacLean’s coaching career. Too bad he wouldn’t lead the team to many more.

Buffalo evened the series just 10 days later, blowing out the Devils, 6-1, at the Prudential Center. Drew Stafford started the scoring, giving Buffalo a 1-0 lead at 6:57 of the first period. Tyler Myers extended the lead to 2-0 at 16:33 of the opening frame. They poured it on in the second period, scoring three times. Tyler Ennis pushed the Sabres’ lead to 3-0 at 3:10 of the middle period. Patrick Kaleta stretched the lead to four at 8:17 of the period, chasing starter Johan Hedberg.

Brodeur couldn’t stop the bleeding. Thomas Vanek made it 5-0 at 18:12. Vanek scored again in the third period, making it 6-0. Zach Parise broke the shutout, scoring at 11:25 of the period. Miller finished with 26 saves. The game was more known for the infamous benching of Kovalchuk.

The teams played another high scoring game on November 10, with Buffalo winning, 5-4, in a shootout. Jason Arnott opened the scoring, putting the Devils ahead, 1-0, at 10:12 of the first period. That lead wouldn’t last. Jason Pominville tied the game, 1-1, at 5:22 of the second period. Derek Roy wasted no time in giving Buffalo the lead, scoring 13 seconds later to give his team a 2-1 advantage. The Devils answered right back. David Clarkson tied the game, 2-2, at 7:58 of the middle period. Arnott struck again, giving the Devils a 3-2 lead at 12:01.

The see-saw battle would continue. Myers evened the score, 3-3, at 13:50 of the second period. Jamie Langenbrunner responded, putting the Devils ahead, 4-3, at 18:01 of the second period. New Jersey once again failed to hold their lead. Ennis tied the game at four at 8:54 of the third period. Both teams moved to the shootout, where Vanek and Langenbrunner both scored. Roy put his team ahead, and set up one of the worst moments for Kovalchuk this season:

Jhonas Enroth stopped 28 shots for the win. Hedberg stopped 38 in the loss.

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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.

Devils Qualify Nine Restricted Free Agents

Corrente, a former first round pick, was qualified by the Devils today. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils entered today with 11 restricted free agents. Two of them may not return.

The organization sent qualifying offers to nine of their restricted free agents today. Matt Corrente, Matt Taormina, Vladimir Zharkov, Mark Fraser, Maxim Noreau, Jeff Frazee, Steve Zalewski and Nathan Perkovich all received offers.

Alexander Vasyunov, who entered the offseason as a restricted free agent, did not receive an offer. His agent informed the Devils that he signed a one-year contract for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL next season.

The players can still receive offer sheets from other teams, but the Devils can match that offer.

There were a few players who were locks for qualifying offers. Taormina led defenseman in goals until a high-ankle sprain ended his season. He was one of the few bright spots during the team’s abysmal first half, and will probably get a chance to earn his spot back next season. Corrente, a former-first round pick, has the support of the organization behind him. Like Taormina, injury limited him this season.

Other players seem to be skating on thin ice. Fraser followed a strong rookie campaign with a disappointing sophomore season. The Devils qualified him, but with the defensive depth moving through the organization, he needs to put together a solid season. The same goes for Frazee. The Devils have three strong goalie prospects in Scott Wedgewood, Maxime Clermont and Keith Kinkaid. They’re still a year or two away, but Frazee doesn’t have much time to prove himself.

The organization also did not issue a qualifying offer to defenseman Anssi Salmela. He played 48 games with the Devils, but failed to really make an impression. It doesn’t necessarily mean the team won’t sign him. Two years ago, New Jersey didn’t qualify Andy Greene, but re-signed him anyway.

Zach Parise entered this offseason a restricted free agent, but did not receive an offer. Instead, New Jersey elected to take the left-winger to arbitration. That eliminates the possibility of other team’s submitting an offer sheet and guarantees he will be a Devil next season.

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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A Devil Of A Season Finally Going Right

January 19, 2011 Leave a comment

The lightbulb seems to have clicked for the New Jersey Devils.

In their past four games, the Devils are 3-0-1, capturing seven out of a possible eight points. They’ve scored 18 goals in that span, suddenly finding the goal in bunches. They’ve also only allowed opponents 10 goals against, a testament to the improved defense.

Individuals have also played better. Ilya Kovalchuk netted five goals in his last nine games. Martin Brodeur‘s play is drastically improved. Even rookies Nick Palmieri and Mattias Tedenby have provided secondary scoring.

All of these things contribute to the Devils’ recent surge. While it probably will not lead to a playoff berth, it’s a sign that this team wasn’t the dumpster fire we thought it was. With several factors contributing to the team’s success, I’d like to give each one an individual look.

Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk have found recent offensive success. That means Lemaire will split them in the next few games. Photo Credit: Chris O'Meara/AP Photo

1. Finally, some offense!

The Devils’ offense this season has been terrible. With scorers like Kovalchuk, Jason Arnott and Zach Parise struggling, the Devils sputtered out of the gate. In their first 45 games, New Jersey has recorded one goal or less in 22 of them. That’s almost half a season’s worth of offensive futility.

The past four games has showcased the scoring expected from this roster. The Devils are scoring in every situation, and while the powerplay is scuffling, the offense looks better. Players are creating scoring chances and settling into their roles. Linemates are adjusting to each other and developing chemistry, an important part of creating any successful offense.

Kovalchuk credited his increased scoring to his chemistry with Travis Zajac.

“Before that, I got some chances, but they just didn’t go in,” Kovalchuk said to Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. “Now, overall we’re playing better. That is why. My linemates they create way more room for me and it looks like it’s clicking. We’ve got a lot of opportunities and we scored some goals.”

Of course, if those lines fail, head coach Jacques Lemaire will change them without question. Hopefully he keeps these lines, because they’ve proved they can work.

2. Lemaire’s Return

When Lemaire left last season, most Devils’ fans were shoving him out the door. We were tired of the constant line juggling, fractured locker room and poor play. The abysmal playoff series last year only fueled the dislike for the coach.

The hiring of John MacLean brought optimism and a promise of a reinvigorated offense. All that optimism disappeared with the Devils’ struggles. To bring this team back, Lou Lamoriello turned to Lemaire, and his interim stint has brought a confidence and swagger back to New Jersey.

Zajac believed that, since Lemaire took over, the team’s play dramatically improved.

“I don’t know if it’s anything different,” the Devils’ center told Gulitti. “I think our system play is a little better 5-on-5. We’re playing more as a five-man unit, defensively, offensively and started scoring some goals, so we’re getting some confidence. You’re starting to see guys getting excited now scoring and going to the tough areas. When you have that confidence and it’s fun playing and you want to score goals and you’re going to win more games. Obviously we have nothing to lose, so we’re just playing right now.”

Lemaire believes a simple shift in play helped the team improve.

“The guys are playing hard,” Lemaire said to Gulitti. “The guys are playing together. They believe they can do it a little more. They’re skating and they want to succeed.”

Lemaire has free reign of the team, since he’s only the interim coach. But he’s instilled confidence in his players and brought the Devils out of the doldrums. They won’t make the playoffs, but at least they are respectable.

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