The Maven's Haven

  • Sunday, January 20, 2013

    Devils Preview: The Music Goes Round and Round -- Good-Bye Zach, Hello (Again!) Kovy!

    You press the middle valve down; the music goes round and around, oh-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho and it comes out here.  (From "The Music Goes 'Round And Around," Words by Red Hodgson, Music by Edward Farley and Michael Riley.)

    Zach Parise goes bye-bye and Ilya Kovalchuk pretends to go bye-bye. Maybe that explains why I hear strains of "The Music Goes 'Round and Around." And the Devils continue to succeed under maestro Lou Lamoriello's baton. 

    Sometimes the melodrama on Mulberry Street is as exciting off the ice as it figures to be on the pond for Lamoriello, Inc.

    No question, the Devils boss tried to keep Parise, his former captain, in Newark but there were somethings -- simoleans and Ryan Suter -- that propelled Zachary to The Wild Things.

    No sweat. Peter DeBoer can do without Parise because he has Super-Russian, Ilya Kovalchuk, and a cast of winners. 

    Whoops! Kovy? Now you see him; now you don't. It looks like he might prefer Russian rubles to Lou's lettuce. At least some thought so until the start of this week.

    Nah! Kovy was only kidding. Like the NHL, Ilya is baaack, and now DeBoer, the Devils second-year coach, is crafting a team that threatens to surprise the skeptics once more. And, yes, there are skeptics; in print, at least.

    The Hockey News forecasts New Jersey for an eleventh place finish in the Eastern Conference. Now while that may distress some Devils fans THN has underestimated the Garden Staters before and I expect that it will happen again but it will take some doing.

    DeBoer will be without sudden-death playoff hero Adam Henrique for at least two crucial rehabbing weeks -- left thumb surgery -- in a season that's more sprint than marathon. 

    "When you lose the kind of players we've lost," DeBoer asserts, "other guys have to fill those holes. It will have to be scoring by committee because you're not going to replace a  Zach Parise."

    All of which thrusts veteran Patrik Elias deep into the pressure cooker as second-line center until Kid Adam returns. Patty, as usual, is nonplussed.

    "I'm in better shape than I was a few years  back," the crafty Czech insists. "I love it!"

    Ah, shape. That term has more relevance for the Devils than most teams because most teams are not relying on a pair of goaltenders -- Marty Brodeur and Johan (Moose) Hedberg -- whose total age is 79. Mister Goalie Marty has crossed the 40-year plateau while Kid Hedberg -- my math is good -- is 39. 

    Relaxed and secure in the knowledge that he's a future Hall of Famer, Brodeur immodestly says, "I always feel I play good. But if I've stepped up my game, it's probably because of the enjoyment of it." And he certainly displayed that joie de vivre last Spring.

    Marty out-goaled Vezina Trophy-winner Henrik Lundqvist to reach the Final and has utilized his savvy and "book" on shooters to remain among the puck-stopping elite.

    That said, Marty and Moose will require their No-Name defense led by Captain Bryce Salvador, Mark Fayne and Andy Greene to protect the seniors in the crease with tender, loving care along with shot-blocking and bodychecking, par excellence.

    Okay, okay can this offense-stripped outfit squeeze into a playoff berth? An X-Ray of the lineup will give you a good idea:

    GOALTENDING: Put it this (corny) way. It is what it is. What that means nobody will know until these adorable antiques face the flak fired by the Crosbys, Nashes, Malkins and Tavares, among the enemy artillery. Don't sell Marty short; not after he out-played the likes of Panthers, Flyers and Rangers younger goalies in the post-season.

    Marty, in particular, is as proud as they come and as combative as any future Hall of Famer hearing "experts" writing him off. "Moose and I bring stability to the back end," says Brodeur. "We definitely have a nice set-up." 

    Hope so!

    DEFENSE: The not-so-secret weapon is sophomore Adam Larsson who rode some bumpy ice in his rookie term but has all the gifts that could thrust him into a carry-the-D role. His cohorts -- Greene, Salvador, Fayne and Marek Zidlicky -- did everything expected of them and then some in the trek through four rounds. Anton Volchenkov, when he's not being a puck bullseye, and Peter Harrold are more than their no-name reputation. They might have to be more than that to keep Marty's goals-against average respectable.

    One of the more interesting returnees is Henrik Tallinder, who missed more than four months last season with blood clots in his leg. When healthy, the likeable Swede performed nobly and could very well return to top form in the 48-game schedule. 

    OFFENSE: Replacing Parise has to be done by a group effort; no more, no less. Which means the Kiddie Korps including Mattias Tedenby and Jacob  Josefson must hike their game up at notch or two. Likewise, David Clarkson, who enjoyed a career year in 2011-2012, will have to stay focused and as productive as DeBoer believes possible. Add to that the fact that the high command decided not to invite 21-goal Petr Sykora back for another season. Minus Parise's 31 red lights and Sykora's goals, that's a minus of 52 that will have to be found somewhere. 

    If DeBoer is lucky, his New Crash Line -- Steve Bernier, Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta -- could be a more-than-minor-matter as the Rangers will attest. That fourth NJ unit was as much responsible for the Devils upset of New York than any first-line. The coach also will get a boost if Patrik Elias defies Father Time and continues producing at a first-rate pace.

    In the end, though, success hinges on Kovalchuk doing what he's supposed to, big-time, along with the ever reliable Travis Zajac and ever-underrated Dainius Zubrus.

    Zajac proved last Spring that he's ready for a major leadership role up front. "I had a strong playoffs," says the Winnipeg native. "This is a big year for me; it's a chance for me to take my game to another, higher, level. As for the adversity, we've dealt with that before. Whenever we've lost important pieces, we've found a way to overcome the challenge. Collectively, we'll all have to be better."

    Another possibility would be a Lamoriello deal for a scorer. Lou has a surplus of defensemen and the with likes of Greene, Harrold, Tallinder and Fayne, any one of that group could be attractive to a defense-starved club. Not only that but the Devs feature prospects Alex Urbom and Eric Gelinas on their Albany (AHL) farm club. And as an extra added attraction, 2010 second round pick Jon Merrill could decide to bolt the University of Michigan after this season. "We've got some good prospects knocking on the door," says DeBoer.

    PHYSICALITY: With ovesized skaters such as Zubrus, Zajac, Kovalchuk and Larsson there's plenty of poundage and size but not an abundance of boffo. However if that whirling dervish Cam Janssen makes the team -- and he usually does -- there'll be enough police action to protect the smaller players.

    SPECIAL TEAMS: Minus Parise, the power play could be a concern considering that Zach had seven PP goals. When Henrique returns, Adam will move into Zach's place with the man advantage. With a year's worth of experience the offensively gifted Larsson will do more quarterbacking and should learn as he goes along. Zach also will have to be replaced on the penalty-killing unit. Last season New Jersey set an NHL record with an 89.6 percent kill rate. They succeeded on 232 of 259 attempts. Even without Parise, they should prevail.

    COACHING: DeBoer had every reason to be considered for the Jack Adams Award as the league's best bench boss last season. Cool, calm, collected -- ask John Tortorella -- the Devils mentor commands respect with little fuss or fanfare. Nor does it hurt his effectiveness that he is a certified lawyer and uses those skills with his team. If Pistol Pete does have a challenge it will be replacing Adam Oates who moved on to the Caps as head coach. Oates was superbly creative, working especially well on face-offs and with center ice men. Scott Stevens moves behind the bench but, so far, there's nobody with the Oates' offensive savvy on the bench.

    MANAGING: Lou Lamoriello is as inimitable as a general manager can be in the NHL. He's been with the club since 1987 and, as The Hockey News notes, "Lou looks like he can run the team for another decade. His mid-season deals helped get the Devils to the Final. Now the challenge is replacing Parise." 

    THE MAVEN'S PREDICTION: New Jersey will make the playoffs but where they go from there will depend on how quickly -- and effectively -- Henrique rebounds from his injury and whether Larrupin' Lou swings a deal and propels his team skyward; as he did last year. Then again, doesn't Lamoriello always find a way? 

    And doesn't the music always goes 'round and around?

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