By John Fischer, In Lou We Trust
Get past the first round.
The New Jersey Devils have enjoyed plenty of regular season success in recent years. They have the respect of most teams in the league. On paper and on the ice, there's reasons to truly believe they can contend for the championship every year. However, the last three playoffs have all ended in first round flops: two to rival teams, which sandwich a heartbreaking, end-of-the-game Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Devils have been and will continue to ice competitive teams year-in and year-out. The fans want to see them succeed, as does the organization. However, the goal cannot be accomplished if they don't take the first step for a fourth straight season.
Get past the first round.
With that, here are answers to five burning questions those may have about the New Jersey Devils going into the 2010-11 season.
1: The Devils signed Ilya Kovalchuk to a massive $100 million, 15 year contract. What can he possibly do to justify that contract?
Kovalchuk has to do the same thing he's been doing throughout his career: score. His short time in New Jersey last season eliminated a lot of the garbage opinions that Kovalchuk wouldn't fit in New Jersey, that he's a waste, a prima-donna, etc. That's not true at all, and that the Devils went through the incredibly league-made-difficult process to re-sign him is evidence that he would make a fine Devil. Anyway, keep in mind that he shot well below his career average with a 9% shooting percentage in NJ. He still put up 10 goals and 17 assists in 27 games. Since it's likely he'll go back to his career average of shooting at 14.8%, he should be quite productive for the Devils - and that's all he has to do.
2: With the Devils hiring John MacLean, the team's fourth head coach in the last five seasons, how much leeway will he be allowed?
More than Claude Julien and Jacques Lemaire. John MacLean has been an assistant for the Devils for 6 years and was the head coach at Lowell last year, taking the AHL affiliate to a new place called the playoffs. The organization knows what MacLean is capable of as a leader, as a motivator, as a communicator, and as a coach. They are aware of his tendencies for a more up tempo, offensive tactical game; but without sacrificing the committment to defense the team has been known for the last 16 seasons. Short of the team collapsing and missing the playoffs, I think MacLean will at least have this year to do what Brent Sutter and Lemaire failed to do: get the Devils past the first round. If he can do that, then he'll be in New Jersey for more than just a couple of seasons.
3: The Devils added Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov on defense, but Paul Martin went off and signed with Pittsburgh. Who's going to provide any offense from the blueline in 2010-11?
Well, there's Andy Greene...and Andy Greene. Truthfully, Tallinder isn't bad at moving the puck; but he's never been a very productive defenseman. Never enough to think he's a two way player. Volchenkov is much like Colin White and Bryce Salvador in that whatever production he provides should just be gravy. There is some outside hope that the currently-injured Anssi Salmela could add an offensive dimension; but he's yet to prove himself across a whole season. If there's one positional weakness on the Devils, it's an offensive/two-way defenseman. Devils fans should be praying Greene remains healthy all year long and that the forwards can carry the entire offensive load.
4: How many games will Martin Brodeur play in this coming season?
I've yet to be convinced that Brodeur "slowed down" as the season went on and that he was poor in the playoffs. The videotape shows otherwise. Nevertheless, the Devils did sign Johan Hedberg for three times the league minimum. If only to justify the money, I would think Hedberg will get at least 10 games. Since the Devils do have 20 back-to-back games, it makes it more possible that Hedberg will be used in most of those sets. Of course, how the season plays out will ultimately determine how many games they'll get.
5: Who will be sacrificed from the current roster for the Devils to get underneath the salary cap?
The Devils have to clear at least $2,968,333, almost definitely more than that so they can have replacement players for the resulting open spots on the active roster. I personally think the ideal situation would be for the Devils to move Bryce Salvador, who's surplus to the team right now given that the team has 4 other defensive defensemen, and Dainius Zubrus, who does a lot of little things but not enough production to justify his contract. That would clear more than enough space for this season and next season, when the Devils have to re-sign Zach Parise. As far as what will actually happen, I don't know. Lou Lamoriello has always been secretive about his dealings, but he always comes through. He's got until 3PM on October 6 to clear enough salary. Like most Devils fans, I trust that Lou will do what is necessary without gutting the team.
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