Devils: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
The full ramifications of Ilya Kovalchuk's 15-year, $100 million contract are not yet known in New Jersey. Oh, we know about the $3 million fine and the forfeited draft picks. But what will the Devils look like when they open the 2010-11 season? The players themselves spent most of training camp wondering who was going over the side to make room for Kovalchuk and get the Devils under the salary cap.
The game's greatest goaltender, Martin Brodeur, noted the team gave up a lot in terms of assets when it acquired Kovalchuk from Atlanta in February.
"Now we gave more because of what happened, what transpired with getting fined and draft picks and stuff," Brodeur said. "I think it's a great thing [to have him], but definitely it was weird to see how the NHL dealt with a superstar.
"It could have dealt a lot differently, I think. You don't see that in any other sport and I don't think we're the top sport out there. You don't see that happening with [Derek] Jeter or A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez] but what are you going to do?"
Even with the uncertainty and the many Kovalchuk headlines from over the summer, the Devils enter the season again expected to make the playoffs after adding solid defensive pieces in Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov. Former Devil Jason Arnott returns to provide size down the middle.
1. Kovy in the house
Let's start with the big man and his big contract. Kovalchuk looks like he'll shift to the right side to start the season with Zach Parise on the left and Travis Zajac in the middle. He said in an interview the switch wasn't that big a deal, and if the trio generates any kind of chemistry, expect big numbers for all three. To start paying dividends, Kovalchuk will have to net at least 40 goals and be in the 90- to 100-point range. He has the tools to do it. But the bigger question is whether Kovalchuk can actually help the Devils return to Cup-contender status.
2. The postseason pit
Speaking of the playoffs, the Devils have gone from perennial contenders to perennial flops with three straight first-round ousters. They have not advanced beyond the second round since their last Cup win in 2003. Why is that? Lack of leadership? Personnel? Scheme? Maybe all of the above. The bottom line is that the Devils appear only appreciably better than a year ago and they lasted five games in the postseason.
3. Martin Brodeur
Not exactly sure what to make of the game's greatest goaltender of all time. Brodeur was nominated for a Vezina Trophy again last season as he led the league in wins (45) and shutouts (nine). He has hit the 40-win plateau a record eight times in his career. And yet Brodeur has not been able to find magic in the postseason in a long time. Not that losing to Philadelphia in the first round was his fault, but in a matchup against journeyman backup Brian Boucher, the Devils should have expected to fare better. As usual, he talked about his workload, especially with Johan Hedberg backing him up ("We got a guy that's almost as old as me," Brodeur joked), but look for Brodeur to play a lot.
4. A-Train on track?
There weren't a lot of tears shed in Nashville when Arnott returned to New Jersey this offseason. For a player with his size and skill, he just never got the job done in Nashville. Some of that is injury-related (he missed 36 games over the past two seasons). Last season, Arnott's goal production slumped from 33 to 19 and he produced points (two goals) in just one of six playoff games for the Predators.
Arnott will turn 36 before the season is a week old, so his continued durability remains a major question. Arnott began training camp playing with old linemate Patrik Elias and captain Jamie Langenbrunner. If the trio can stay healthy -- and Lamoriello doesn't have to trade or demote one of them -- there is plenty of potential for production and a chance to roll out two pretty potent lines.
Coach John MacLean will have to deal with a dressing room that faced uncertainty about who would stay and who would go through training camp. Would there be resentment toward Kovalchuk? And then there was captain Jamie Langenbrunner, who at least appeared to be at odds with former coach Jacques Lemaire and perhaps had other issues weighing on him. Langenbrunner, the captain of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, saw his name percolate as possible trade bait in camp, which may have added to unsettled feelings. Coming off yet another disappointing playoff turn, getting everyone on the same page may be a major issue for the Devils.
6. Lou's time?
It was a strange summer, to say the least, for one of hockey's most respected men, Lou Lamoriello. There were rumors the GM and ownership disagreed over the pursuit of Kovalchuk; whether that's true or not, the plan has cost the Devils dearly in terms of young talent (Patrice Cormier, Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors and a first-round pick went to Atlanta), forfeited draft picks and $3 million.
It's not the first time Lamoriello's teams have struggled with cap issues since the lockout, and without obvious young talent coming through the pipeline, the future doesn't look all that bright for the Devils. One wonders what another short playoff spin will do for Lamoriello's once-bulletproof career in New Jersey.
7. Zach Parise
Another huge issue looming will be keeping Parise in the fold. He is the team's most important asset outside of Brodeur and can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Parise, who had 82 points last season and was a plus-24, has indicated he is open to talking extension whenever it suits Lamoriello, although we wonder if the image of former teammate Paul Martin heading to Pittsburgh may give Parise pause to signing with New Jersey for the long haul. Perhaps more to the point, do the Devils have the wherewithal to keep Parise in the fold having signed Kovalchuk to his monster deal?
8. Same old, same old
The Devils were once again the stingiest team in the NHL when it came to allowing goals. There's no reason to suggest they won't be at or near the top of the league in that category again this season given the additions of veteran shut-down guys Volchenkov and Tallinder. Volchenkov, the former Senator, is one of the game's most fearless shot-blockers, while Tallinder was a key part of a decent Buffalo blue line. With Brodeur and Hedberg between the pipes, opposing teams will once again have their hands full trying to dent the Devils' armor.
9. Same old, same old, Part II
At the other end of the ice, the Devils were 19th in average goals per game. Not bad, not great. Some believe the addition of Kovalchuk for a full season will make a huge difference. Maybe, maybe not. Assuming the top six forwards are healthy, yes, the Devils could jump up in offense. But they're not likely going to get much help from the back end, and that could be a problem. The Devils had the 11th-ranked power play last season and that is an area MacLean could improve.
10. No surprise
The Devils were the least-penalized team in the Eastern Conference and are annually one of the most disciplined teams in the league.
PREDICTION: We've long since given up predicting the Devils will fall out of the postseason. Look for them to be third in the Atlantic and fifth in the conference. As for anything beyond that, don't hold your breath.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: First NHL season as head coach
Stanley Cup titles: N/A
• It's been a long journey from being the sixth overall pick in 1983 to his first taste as an NHL coach, but it's fitting it comes with the Devils. Until Patrik Elias passed him in March 2009, MacLean was the Devils' all-time leading scorer.
MacLean has to find a way to shake the Devils out of their annual playoff letdown. He has promised to change things, but can he affect change when the team is so set in its ways? As Brodeur joked earlier in training camp, there seems to be a new coach in camp every year now. The Devils have gone through coaches at an alarming rate since the lockout (MacLean is the sixth if you count Lou Lamoriello's two fill-in gigs). This suggests MacLean will have to work harder to have his message heard given the turnstile approach to the position.
Still, if there's anyone who knows Devils hockey and can add a positive twist, it would seem to be MacLean.
The Fab Five
Burnside's top positional players for the Devils:
F -- Travis Zajac: He will center the team's top line. Is he up to it?
F -- Ilya Kovalchuk: The pressure on the $100 million man will begin the moment the puck drops. Whether the pressure gets to him or not won't be known until April.
F -- Zach Parise: Lou Lamoriello's next big contract headache is also his most important player.
D -- Anton Volchenkov: When Paul Martin bolted for Pittsburgh, the Devils needed an impact defender. They got one in the shot-blocker supreme.
D -- Henrik Tallinder: Another solid defender added in offseason as the Devils will continue to be tough to score against.
Best bet: Zach Parise
Parise has proved he is a point-per-game player for fantasy owners. Coming off a huge 2008-09 season in which he had career highs across the board, Parise had a lot of questions to answer, the biggest being whether he could continue to take almost 100 shots more than any other season of his career. He didn't quite hit those peaks, but came close. There is little doubt he represents a top-10 talent for fantasy purposes. -- Sean Allen
Risky pick: Jason Arnott
Last season was an off year for Arnott. Now back with the Devils for the second time, expect the old 30-goal Arnott to make a return (most likely a No. 2 center for the first time in a while). While Arnott has the potential to return those stats in your pool, there is no way he should be selected higher than a No. 3 center in the draft. -- SA
Sleeper pick: Andy Greene
Underrated by many, Greene deserves more credit. The 27-year-old filled in for an injured Paul Martin as power-play pivot for most of 2009-10 and performed admirably, collecting 37 points in 78 games. With Martin now in Pittsburgh, the quarterback job belongs solely to Greene this season. -- Victoria Matiash