We are hoping beyond hope that Lou Lamoriello drank a toast at some point this offseason to his new Devils team, just like Dr. Frankenstein in The Bride of Frankenstein — “To a new age of gods and monsters!” And, well, if he didn’t, we will. This year our beloved team is a really bizarre — dare we say freakish? — combination of familiar faces and a totally new look, and we’re here to help you, Gentle Reader, anticipate who and what about the 2007-2008 Devils will be god-like and who and what will be monstrous.
GOD: Brent Sutter
From what everyone has been saying about him since his hiring was announced, we fully expect Coach Sutter to be able to walk on water. And the way everyone seems to think that he’s someday going to be our new Lou, he damn well better walk on water. Of course, the way the coaching situation has gone for our boys since the lockout ended is reminiscent of “The Lord Of The Flies”, only the kinds of players Lou has on the roster means they don’t become a group of savages when they find themselves without a strong authority figure, but rather unleash a lethal passive-aggressiveness that drives good men to the brink of insanity. Sutter is talking a big talk that he’s not going to stand for more of that craziness, and this preseason he’s shown that he’s inclined to back it up. Stripping Patty Elias of his C? Instituting an aggressive forecheck? Refusing to obsessively match lines? Breaking up Pando and Madden? He means business! We’ve spent the last few Springs watching the Devils fade out with a whimper in the postseason thanks to a stubborn insistence on being a passive, reacting team. Sutter seems to be the guy who’s going to take us back to the glory days in 2000 and 2001 when the Devils swaggered around the ice, setting the pace and dictating tone. We’re going to go out on a limb and say that we are not going to see a third Spring with Lou behind our bench.
MONSTER: Scott Gomez’s Legacy
For some strange reason, people across the MSM and hockey blogosphere reacted to Gomer’s departure as if he had been powering the Devils to 500-goal seasons or something. We get where they’re coming from when we watch the way the team stood around last year every time he had the puck and just gawked while waiting for him to beat all five defenders by his lonesome, but how was that an effective offensive tool? Don’t get us wrong — Scott Gomez is a fantastic hockey player, and he’s had some years where he was a great fit in the Devils’ offense. But with Elias, Gionta, Zajac and Parise all under contract for the next few years, he really wasn’t going to be that good a fit anymore. His success on the EGG line in ’05-’06 was a symptom of having half a year of skating basically just with a sniper (Gio) before Patty came back from the Hep, desperate to fit an entire contract year into just a few months. Last year was a more telling demonstration of why a puck-possession center is really not a good fit for a puck-possession winger, and we are fully confident that Elias is going to do his damnedest to show the world exactly how much better he can be than when he’s sitting around waiting for Gomer to decide to pass to him.
GOD: Patrik Elias
Okay, so last year was a disaster for Patty. But now that he’s out from under the weight of that onerous “C”, and he’s no longer on what we’re convinced was a secret Gomer-killing mission, we fully expect a return to form. And by “form” we mean “worth the ginormous contract he signed two years ago”. When things are going right with Patty he is one of the top players in the league, and things were never righter with him than back in 2000-2001 when he was skating on a line with a slick, scoring winger and a giant, banging, low-scoring center. Call us hopelessly optimistic, but that kind of sounds like what he’s going to be doing this season. No, we’re not predicting a second coming of the A Line, but we are pretty sure we can expect good things from a Patty who gets the puck more, and whose coach is demanding an uptempo, cycling forecheck.
MONSTER: Loving Pando
We spent the entirety of the Devils’ short playoffs last year banging our heads against the wall as the coaching staff abjectly refused to recognize that the Madden-Pando checking unit was getting its collective ass handed to it. Then along comes this preseason, with Sutter announcing that he doesn’t believe in line-matching, and then doing the unthinkable — breaking up the seven-year partners. Suddenly we wished we could take back our cries of, “Dear lord, make it stop!” from after each shift of watching Pando and Madden get skated into the ice by Tampa’s and Ottawa’s top lines. We didn’t actually mean it, did we? The lesson in this, Gentle Reader, is to be careful what you wish for. Because now we’ve got Madden winging on the third line, and Pando shunted to the fourth… and off the penalty kill. He was a finalist for the Selke last year! He’s Schnookie’s favoritest player! We want him to be captain! But we guess Sutter doesn’t read IPB, because he’s clearly not in agreement with us.
GOD: Andy Greene
No, we don’t expect Andy Greene to go to the All-Star Game this season. But you know what? He’s nearly ten years younger than Brian Rafalski and costs ten times less. And he’s just as good at turning the puck over, scrambling out of position, and being undersized. He also proved in the playoffs last year that he can skate solid minutes and has a nasty, sneaky shot from the point on the PP. What’s not to love? Furthermore, he’s not going to be a $35 gazillion cap hit when he’s 150 years old like a certain former Devils 28 is going to be for the Red Wings.
MONSTER: The Schedule
The Devils start the season with a 9-game road trip. And they get to spend the rest of the season in this godawful unbalanced schedule playing in the “mine’s bigger than yours is” Atlantic Division. We saw our division rivals all load up this offseason, and whether their roster moves are really going to make any of them significantly better is beside the point. The point is that things are just nasty now in the Atlantic. There are no easy nights because everyone just utterly hates each other. 32 games against the Flyers, Rangers, Penguins and Islanders is not a good thing.
GOD: Paul Martin
Fans expecting Paulie to rack up the points will find his season more monster than god, but those of us expecting the quiet confidence of a solid defenseman finally carving out his place in the game will find his season just right. Regardless of Martin’s pedigree coming into the league, it was never fair to expect Niedermayer’s offensive numbers from him. At the start of last season we were beginning to wonder if we couldn’t expect Neider’s D, either. Paulie ran into some plus/minus troubles early on and needed months to get back on track. That said, from January on, it became very clear that he figured out how to put the pieces together. By the time the playoffs started we were seeing a player ready to be the number one — a player oozing confidence in his ability to shut down opponents, supporting his offensive teammates, and communicating perfectly with his goaltender. Marty seems to play differently when he’s got defensemen he knows he can trust in front of him, and Paulie’s clearly earned that trust. Even with his increased time on the power play, we’re not chalking Pauile up for more than 50 points, but based on the pre-season games we’ve seen, the old Devils system of sticking to a quadrant (i.e. you could practically see the electrical collars sparking whenever a d-man skating past the face-off dots in the offensive zone) has been disregarded, so maybe we’ll be proven wrong.
MONSTER: Groins, Eyes and Other Injurable Body Parts
For many, many seasons the Devils managed to avoid the significant injury bug. We snickered at teams like Washington and Philly when they’d rack up the Man Games Lost to Injury in what seemed to be the quadruple digits, but now it seems the tables have turned. The puck wasn’t even dropped on the season before we lost stalwart defenseman Colin White to a freak eye injury and Jamie Langenbrunner to a lingering sports hernia (we don’t believe losing Cam Janssen to a shoulder injury is really something to lose sleep over). With players skipping practice left and right with “tight groins” and “sore groins” and “overall groinal unhappiness”, we can’t be blamed for starting to worry. Lou’s gone on the record previously saying he prefers not to practice his players much for fear of injury. We can’t help but think that Sutter disagrees with this policy. Will Sutter’s Reign of Toughness take its toll? Will the freak injury bug continue its swath of destruction through the Devils dressing room? Will Brian Gionta “pull his groin” while falling awkwardly arm/wrist/shoulder-first into the boards again this season? Only time will tell, but from where we’re sitting, the spectre of the team’s health is looking pretty monstrous.
GOD: Zach Parise
The only thing monstrous about this player is his work ethic! Thank you, we’ll be here all season! Seriously, there is no reason to expect Parise to do anything but build on his star-making series against Tampa, particularly if the lines stay as they currently are set — there’s a lot of punky nose-for-the-net, hard-working mojo on a Parise/Zajac/Gionta line and we’re looking forward to seeing Sutter winding ‘em up and letting ‘em go. That said, we have a lot of faith in all six of our top fowards (well, five if we take into account Langer’s trick groin) that if the lines get shuffled, there won’t be the whining and feet-dragging we’ve seen in the past. Not with a guy like Parise trying to prove he’s future-captain material!
MONSTER: Kowtowing to Any Perceptions that the Team was Weak by Responding with an Increased Inclination to Fight Needless, Momentum-Killing Fights
Hm, that sort of says it all, doesn’t it? While the team was undoubtedly pushed around last season, seeing the first pre-season game marred by a steady stream of losing fist-fights made us wonder what the point of being tougher is if all you do is stop the game to see a scrub like Janssen get pummeled. We’d rather see the team respond by putting Clarkson out to crash the net instead of wasting ice time on an ineffectual enforcer like Janssen.
GOD? MONSTER? WE DAREN’T BREATHE A WORD!: Goaltending
We refuse to tempt the hockey gods by saying anything that might adversely affect what has been, for the last 15 years, the key to the Devils success. We just want to send a solemn, sincere wish into the hockey ether that we get more of the same from Marty.
In summation, we think this is a team that is going to be a lot stronger as the season wears on (barring those injurable body parts getting injured, of course) than they might be at the outset. They’ve got a new system, new coach, some new key players, and will be in a new building. But they built some momentum as the preseason games wore on, and we’re reasonably confident that they’re not going to stumble right out of the gate. The blueline looks soft on paper, but it was a D-by-committee last year, too, and while there aren’t a ton of big names back there for us, there is a collection of at least competent players. The absence of Langenbrunner is clearly not something to be thrilled about, but looking on the bright side, it gives some kids a chance to prove themselves. The Devils might not be an obvious powerhouse, but we don’t think they’ve plummeted onto hard times. It is, instead, a new age of gods and monsters!