2002-09-28 / Sports

Metro Hockey Update Part 3

By Andrei Petrovitch
Metro Hockey Update Part 3: A New Jersey Devils Preview By Andrei Petrovitch Hockey Columnist

Metro Hockey Update Part 3:
A New Jersey Devils Preview
Hockey Columnist

Ah, New Jersey: the state that is the home of both Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. The state that robbed both of New York's football teams. The state with the highest auto insurance rates. And perhaps the only state that is home to an Iron Maiden tribute band.

But I digress.

The Update comes not to bury the Garden State, but to praise it. Well, more specifically, its hockey team (besides, Bon Jovi and Iron Maiden ROCK!). Named after a mythological creature that lives in the South Jersey Forests - and not Satan - the Devils have established themselves as one of the best teams of the past decade. The organization's resume since the mid-'90s certainly looks impressive, with numerous division titles and two Stanley Cup championships to its credit.

Victories aside, the Devils are arguably the most influential team of the past decade. Under former coach Jacques Lemaire, the team was one of the first to use the controversial neutral zone trap, a passive limited-forechecking strategy that, for better or worse, changed the complexion of the game. Although the strategy won games and was eventually adapted by many other NHL teams, it has been blasted as being boring and uncreative; worse still are the criticisms that the Trap has led to the advent of "Clutch-and-Grab" tactics that have both nullified offense and transformed one of the fastest games on Earth into a boring snooze fest.

Like it or not, the trap worked for the Devils, earning them their first championship in 1995. The team eventually opened up its offense and, after four years of playoff underachieving, returned to the top of the mountain in 2000. But nothing lasts forever, and the team lost in the Finals the following year and lost in the first round in 2002. Instability set in, with numerous coaching and player changes threatening to undo the tradition of winning that the Devils worked so hard to forge.

Scientists, philosophers, and Larry David have said, or have at least hinted, that everything in the universe eventually goes to crap. Likewise, the world of hockey is not exempt from the ravages of time and the laws of thermodynamics. With some key personnel aging rapidly, and with others harboring various feelings of discontent, it may be time to curb our enthusiasm regarding the New Jersey Devils.

Or is it? Here's a look at the team by position:

Forwards

Rumor has it that when the Dallas Stars traded Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Lagenbrunner to the Devils in exchange for Jason Arnott and Randy McKay, several players in the Stars' locker room openly wept.

If the story is true, then it's clear that Jersey won the deal. Nieuwendyk is still a faceoff ace and consistent scorer, albeit while battling injuries at the age of 36. Lagenbrunner is a gritty two-way winger who will thrive despite the intense pressure to win in the Atlantic division.

The story of the Devils' attack certainly doesn't end there; Patrick Elias, who set the team's single-season scoring record (96 points) two seasons ago, will man the port side of the Nieuwendyk-Lagenbrunner combo. Jeff Friesen, recently acquired in a trade with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for Petr Sykora, adds size and speed to the second line. Although he won't make the team and its fans forget Bobby Holik, Friesen is certainly useful and the Update predicts he will benefit from a fresh start on a winning team and live up to the promise he showed in the early part of his career with the San Jose Sharks. Elsewhere in the lineup is John Madden, who is perhaps the only man in history to threaten to score 40 shorthanded goals in a single season. He won't, of course, but you have to admire his speed, bravado, and defensive prowess. The Update fearlessly predicts that he will contend for the Selke trophy this year. Remember, you read it here first!!!!!

And then, there is Scott Gomez. Conventional hockey wisdom states that the third year of a player's career is pivotal. Having survived the fanfare of his rookie season, and having withered the inevitable sophomore slump, a player is supposed to show by year three that he truly belongs in the big leagues. Gomez's third season certainly didn't help his case; although always more of a playmaker, his totals of ten goals and 38 assists are rather weak. He must score more often if the Devils are to be anything more than a one-line team.

Defense

Newcomer Oleg Tverdovsky, acquired in the Sykora/Friesen trade, adds speed to the blueline and gives coach Pat Burns another option at the point on the power play. In Tverdovsky, Brian Rafalski and Scott Niedermayer, the Devils have three puck rushing defensemen capable of quickly moving the puck up to the forward lines. Meanwhile, Captain Scott Stevens is still capable of throwing the near-lethal hits that have made him one of the leagues most feared players. Tough guy Colin White is also cut from the same cloth as Stevens, and may have an increased role on the team this year.

The big question concerns veteran Ken Daneyko. Can he still be a top six defenseman in his late thirties? He has noticeably lost a step, and will probably benefit from a reduced workload. Andrei Zyuzin and Tommy Albelin add depth, although neither would be anyone's first choice in a rotisserie league.

Goaltenders

Nothing new to report here: Martin Brodeur (38-26-9, .914 save %, 2.15 goals against average) will be the team's number one. However, it is imperative that the team does not burden him too much in the early going. Part of the reason Brodeur plays 70+ games a year is that the team has not had much luck in finding an alkddequate backup. Last year, the team had to go so far as to coax John Vanbiesbrouck out of retirement.

On his second tour of duty with the team, netminder Corey Schwab can help, but it is doubtful that he can be counted on for more than 15-20 starts.

Outlook

The defection of Bobby Holik to the rival New York Rangers will hurt. Don't be fooled by the gossip coming out of the locker room; Holik's presence in front of the net and in the corners helped to make the Devils very difficult to play against. The team has never really recovered from losing Claude Lemieux (twice!), and Holik's departure could have the same effect.

But the forecast is not all doom and gloom for East Rutherford's swamp dwellers. Newcomers Cristian Berglund, Brian Gionta, and Adrian Foster can help to fill the holes in the Devils' lineup. Ultimately, the responsibility will be on Coach Burns to tighten up the defense and get the team back into the habit of playing up-tempo hockey. Everything may eventually go to crap, but the Devils have been too good for too long to descend into mediocrity without a fight. Another playoff berth-but not a division title- awaits.


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