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Last year, the Devils missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1995-‘96 season. They finished with their first losing record since 1990-’91. Gone in the last twelve months is their former captain Jamie Langenbrunner, former Stanley Cup hero Jason Arnott, sharp shooting Brian Rolston, and lifetime and Cup winning defenseman Colin White. There was a clear objective to get younger, faster, and more skilled this off-season. Coming into Tuesday night’s game against the Kings, the Devils are 3-2-1. What can we realistically expect from the Devils in 2011-’12?
The strength of the Devils has seemingly always been their goaltending. Marty Brodeur has been the rock and anchor for franchise’s three Stanley Cup victories. His performance has been on the decline for a couple of seasons now but in the end, he’s still Marty Brodeur. The advantage the Devils have over most teams is that they have a legitimate backup goaltender in Johan Hedberg. You’re not losing much by starting Hedberg. In fact, I’d even argue that Moose deserves to start over Marty. Either way, it’s hard to argue with either one in goal.
The squad lacks depth at down the middle. Their best center, Travis Zajac is out and his return is unknown. Patrik Elias has taken to his new role as a center and performed really well, but after him are youngsters Jacob Josefson—who is also injured—and Adam Henrique, Dainius Zubrus, and journeyman Brad Mills. Ideally the Devils would like Zajac to center the first line, Zubrus the second with Elias on the left, and Josefson the third. The center play has been such a problem so far this year, particularly on the second line (Zubrus) that all indications are that Zach Parise might be given a shot to play center.
The return of Zach Parise, the new Devils captain, is exciting for the franchise. Parise signed a one-year deal in the offseason and hopes to sign a long-term deal this offseason. Although the Devils have given every indication that they want Parise back, fans may need to come to grips with the reality that this may be his last season in New Jersey. It would be a tough pill to swallow for the organization and the fans if they lose their captain. On the ice, he’ll provide that spark of energy and goal scoring that this team desperately lacked last season.
The Devils are hoping for big years from their three young former first-rounder Swedes Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, and especially Adam Larsson. Tedenby (21) and Josefson (20) began the season on the Devils third line alongside David Clarkson. Tedenby and Josefson are both brilliant passers of the puck and great with the puck on their sticks. The real gem of the group though is Adam Larsson (18). He is often compared to Nick Lidstrom because of his ability to transition solid defense into offense. He has all the potential to be a Superstar in the NHL but this is his first year. There is a huge speed and skill difference between the Swedish League and the NHL. I expect him to struggle some but cement himself as a top-line defenseman on the Devils.
For me the X-Factor on this team is David Clarkson. He’ll be playing alongside Tedenby and Josefson, two excellent passers of the puck. The Devils need Clarkson to assert himself more offensively. Look for at least 20 goals from him. They’ll need him and the third line to provide offense this year.
Defensively they’re hoping and asking a lot from Adam Larsson. The loss of Paul Martin was apparent throughout the team. Martin was their defensive ace, the puck mover, power play operator, and their leader on defense. The defense has some solid players but after Greene and Tallinder, they don’t really have puck movers. The wildcard here is Larsson, so far the indications are that he’s getting well over 20 minutes of ice time every night. The signs are positive so far but it’s asking an awful lot out of him to log such heavy minutes at just 18.
On this day, Scott Niedermayer will be having his number 27 retired. He’ll be joining legends and teammates Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko as the only three Devils to ever have their numbers retired.
The Devils are certainly not an elite team, but they are not as bad as their record last year indicates either. I believe this is a mid-90s point team. I expect the Devils to make the playoffs. In the NHL, as long as you’re in the playoffs, especially with their goaltending, you have a chance.