Summer Fill: Dealing With The Devils Over At "In Lou We Trust"

For many Stars fans, mention the New Jersey Devils and their face may turn as bright a red as the Devils jerseys.  2000 is still a bit of a sore spot for Stars fans.  It was made even worse yet by the fact that two years later two of the Stars more beloved players in Joe Niuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner for what amounted to a bag of pucks and Jason Arnott..  The same Jason Arnott who ripped out Stars fans' hearts two years earlier.

The Stars will open their 2010-11 season in New Jersey against the Devils, so in a way as part of SBN Hockey's 2nd annual "summer fill" series where our network of team blogs pair off and ask each other a series of questions, you can maybe consider this a very, very early game day preview of what to expect from the Devils this season as the fine gentlemen from "In Lou We Trust" - John Fisher, Kevin Sellathamby and Tom Stivali - all took time to answer some questions we had for them.  You can look for our answers to some of their own questions about the Stars over at their blog as soon as they post them!

1 - First guys, lets get the Ilya Kovalchuk thing out of the way. Do you expect to see him in a Devils uniform on opening night in October against the Stars?  If the Devils do sign him, are Devils fans going to be OK giving him the kind of money he's going to command and the amount of salary cap he may end up tying up?

Kevin:  I think he will be a Devil come opening night. It's been pretty quiet on the news front itself, most quotes haven't been too revealing about the situation. This could mean that he's re-negotiating a new deal that's a bit more friendly towards the cap. If he is signed, I'd expect there to be a mixed reaction. Most fans will be happy that Kovalchuk chose New Jersey and the team has an offensive superstar and a big name, while others will be unhappy because this would mean the Devils would have to dump salary and some players who are starting to get popular (like Dainus Zubrus) are prime candidates due to their lack of No Trade Clauses. In some cases, it could potentially mean prospects getting moved in order to compensate for another team taking on a horrible contract (this would be the case if Brian Rolston was to be traded).

Tom: Yes, I do.  I think for the hardcore fans he will be heavily judged on his salary/cap hit.   If it is over 7MM per year, then I can see fan backlash if things aren't going well for the team. Also, if his signing forces out a Patrik Elias or makes it impossible to sign Zach Parise then I think most fans may have some resentment towards Kovalchuk.  The casual fan won't be as bothered and they won't single him out with booing.   Overall, the general fan response to Kovalchuk in his limited time here last season was very positive and unless the Devils nosedive during the regular season or don't show up for the playoffs like they did last year I see Kovy getting a 'pass' with the fans for a year or so.

John: Ultimately, I think the Devils faithful will be happy with Kovalchuk being re-signed. After the contract rejection, even those like myself who weren't total proponents of re-signing Kovalchuk, now want to see him back.  What he will command on the salary cap will definitely make things difficult for Lou to get under the cap in a month; but given the Devils seemingly consistent issue of scoring even with Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, and Travis Zajac on the team - Kovalchuk can fill that need. That's enough for most Devils fans to welcome Kovalchuk with open arms - even if it means dumping Bryce Salvador and/or Dainius Zubrus.   Basically, when Kovalchuk starts racking up the goals and assists, this summer's drama will be laid to rest and he'll earn that money.  If he plays very poorly, then he's going to hear it; though you can say that for any player regardless of salary.

2 - Jamie Langenbrunner's relationship with Devils coaches and management was a little rocky this past year, especially in the playoffs.  Since then word is that Langs is cool with the new coach John MacLean and everything seems fine.  Is everything really fine between the Devils captain and the team, or are we bound to see another blowup (or even breakup via trade) of some sort this season?

Kevin: From everything that's been said by Lamoriello and MacLean about Langs, I think there's not going to be a problem. MacLean's said that Jamie's the captain and he's got faith in him. Jamie's problem was that Lemaire didn't have faith in him: he felt a bit betrayed when Lemaire asked other players to serve as captain while he wasn't playing, and I don't think Lemaire asked him about another player serving as captain if I recall correctly. If MacLean always asks Langs first, I'm expecting that there won't be any locker room problems. If he does have any problems with the team, he can always leave: his contract expires at the end of the season.

Tom: Since Langerbrunner would have to waive a NTC (and he hadn't been asked to do so at the time of the Kovalchuk signing) I doubt he is going anywhere this season.   It seems the problems in the locker room were a bit more than Langenbrunner if you are to believe one of the Devils top beat reporters in Rich Chere.  It seems the line shuffling, treatment of Jay Pandolfo, apparent 'special rules' for Kovalchuk seemed to rub some of the players the wrong way.   Jamie's problem is he communicated that his one game 'healthy scratch' was not his idea and gave the impression that he was frustrated by it.   His 'no comment' answers essentially created the idea that he and Lemaire had issues and it was a subplot as the Devils struggled down the stretch.   If there is a point this year when the locker room has issues, it wouldn't shock me if the Devils took a page out of Carolina's playbook and gave the 'C' to another player during the season.

John: What makes this a bit of a difficult issue is that we don't and will not know the whole story.  Based on what Chere reported, I felt the reasoning given was petty and not legit reason to dog it in the post-season.  Perhaps the players feel differently about that, I don't know.  However, what's done is done.  Langenbrunner and MacLean have known each other for years (MacLean was an assistant for much of Langenbrunner's time in NJ), and that could go a long way with coach-player relations down the road.  Though if Jamie's being a pain, the Devils can really only give the captaincy to someone else during the season.  He's got chemistry with Parise and Zajac that you don't want to undercut to prove a point by an extended benching.  He's got a no-trade clause with a contract that expires at the end of this season, so Langenbrunner just has to wait out the season and can simply leave.  Essentially, this is a wait-and-see issue and I hope that there's nothing to see come April.

3 -  Martin Broduer at this point seems ageless and should still have a solid season especially being backed up by a savvy veteran goalie like Johan Hedberg, but what are the Devils plans in goal for the future?  Is Jeff Frazee the answer or is there another goalie down the road that non-Devils fans aren't aware of who the Devils themselves hope can step into Martin's crease when the time comes? 

Kevin: I think the plan is to go with Frazee. The team doesn't have alot of goaltending prospects mainly due to not drafting alot of goalies (Since the 2005 draft, the team has only drafted two goalies, and those two were drafted this year), so I'd expect Frazee to be the default starter when Brodeur retires. As for trading for a goalie, I don't think that's going to happen.

Tom: While Frazee hasn't provided management with the confidence that he is the heir apparent, I would think that the plan is still for him to get first crack at the enormous task of filling Brodeur's pads once he retires.   In an effort to back up their investment in Frazee the Devils took 2 goaltenders in the June's draft.  To show you how odd that is, they haven't drafted a goaltender since 2005 and this was the first time multiple goaltenders were selected in the same draft since 1997.  In Scott Wedgewood (3rd round) and Maxime Clermont (6th round) the Devils have drafted two very young goaltending prospects who will be given time to develop in the Canadian Junior Leagues.  Both could have been considered overdrafts by the Devils as Wedgewood was a backup for most of the year seeing little action and Clermont put up pedestrian numbers being the primary goaltender on his team.  The organization should have a better picture of their depth at the goaltending position towards the end of next season. Wedgewood and Clermont will be expected to step up their game in the junior ranks while Frazee will need to become the primary goaltender at the Devils AHL affiliate in Albany and show that he can be an NHL goalie.

John: I'm doubtful that Frazee is the heir apparent, if only because whoever the replacement will be will have the task of filling in a giant pair of skates for New Jersey.  Personally, I'd rather have the Devils go through free agency, pick up a veteran to fill in for a season or two until a long-term solution is available, and more importantly, ready.  I would be more confident in Frazee if he was the #1 in Albany. But he can go out and earn that spot back this season.  Brodeur's contract runs through 2012, and given his conditioning, I don't expect he'll retire before the 2011-12 season.  Frazee, or whoever else, has time on their side - for now.

4 -  How do Devils fans feel about the hiring of John MacLean as head coach and is Larry Robinson who was also brought in this summer as an assistant coach going to be a tutor of sorts this season for John? 

Kevin: A lot of fans are expecting a change from Jacques Lemaire and his more defensive system, so some people might get a bit angry if the Devils aren't scoring lots of goals (maybe not at the same pace as the Caps or Canucks). For me, as long as the team wins and gets over the hump in the playoffs, I'm fine. I think the return of Robinson to the coaching staff will help MacLean. Robinson has won a Cup as head coach, and if MacLean needs help, he's got someone who knows what to do and can help him.

Tom: One of Lou Lamoriello's favorite media quotes this offseason has been "Everything is status quo".  That's how I feel about the Devils coaching position.  While going from a hall of fame coach in Jacques Lemaire to a rookie coach in John MacLean can be seen as a huge dropoff, I believe the organization finally feels MacLean is ready to take the next step and be an effective NHL head coach.  MacLean ran the bench during Lou Lamoriello's most recent stints behind the bench and he knows the players, both veterans and younger, very well.   The hiring of Larry Robinson, to me, is important for two reasons.  (1) He is a great short term failsafe option should MacLean lose the locker room and a change needs to be made and (2) the Devils have invested many draft picks recently on defenseman and there aren't too many better defensive coaches out there better than Robinson who will be looked at to help the younger defenseman (Matthew Corrente, Tyler Eckford, Alexander Urbom) further develop their skills.

John: Well, at the time of the signing, Devils fans largely liked the selection based on this unscientific poll.  I outlined my feelings on it, and ultimately, I still feel somewhere between "I like it" and "I don't like it."  This is largely because MacLean is still an unknown quantity at the NHL level as a head coach.  As an assistant, my understanding was that he ran the power play (which wasn't so good) and stepped up in responsibilities when Lou had to step in as an interim head coach.  That said, he did manage to get more out of the AHL team than prior seasons in one season, so it's not like he's got no skills.  Larry Robinson by his side will help him a lot, I'm sure MacLean will listen to his advice.  (Incidentally, I liked the Adam Oates hire as he'll be looking at the PP instead of MacLean.)

5 - The Devils certainly got much tougher on the blueline this summer with Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov, but is it fair to say there really is no offensive stand out on the Devils defense and that goals may be few and far between from the blueline?  Is there any concern with fans that there may be a lack of any offense from the defense corps or is all the firepower that is on the forward lines enough to negate those concerns?

Kevin: I feel that it was a concern with the fans about not having any real studs on the blue line and anyone who can quarterback the power play. Andy Greene's the only true puck moving defenseman, and outside of Greene, there is no other defenseman on the team who's regularly logged PP minutes. Tallinder might help at even strength, but he didn't get a lot of ice time on the PP in Buffalo. Anssi Salmela might be able to contribute, but he's not going to get a lot of ice time, and at the moment is currently recovering from Knee Surgery (and will likely miss the season opener). Some of the team's prospects (like Tyler Eckford or Matt Taormina) might make a difference offensively, if they do make the team.

Tom: The loss of Paul Martin leaves the Devils with only Andy Greene as a proven impact defenseman in the offensive zone.  That said, he has only played at a high level for one season and while his career track suggests that last season wasn't a fluke or an outlier, some fans are expecting a small level of regression.  While Tallinder isn't that proficient in the offensive zone, he can make an effective first pass to start the offensive rush.  Also, when healthy Anssi Salmela could have an impact as a 3rd pairing guy, who might play the point on the second PP unit.    If the Devils are to make a deep run in the playoffs an offensive/puck moving defenseman will need to be acquired/developed before the playoffs begin.  They can get through the season with only Greene (as they did last year) but the lack of puck moving dmen was exploited by the Flyers in the playoffs leading to a lot of play on the wrong side of the ice for Devils fans.   If I had to guess, I would say there would be a low cost trade made during the year/at the deadline that netted the Devils a Joe Corvo type player.

John:
  Andy Greene's the only NHL player who is a two-way defenseman, and Devils fans (including myself) may have the possibly-unreasonable hope of that he played like he did last season in relief of Martin. So you may be fair in saying that, sad to say.  While Martin is not a point-machine, he is an excellent defenseman and was able to move the puck up ice well.  Should the Devils re-sign Kovalchuk somehow, he as well as the addition of Jason Arnott and a full season of Patrik Elias can make up for the lack of blueline goals.   However, I'm more concerned about who's going to lead a breakout, who's going to be able to jump up on ice, and who beside Greene can be reasonably useful on a power play beyond just goals.  Again, I don't have the answer, and hoping on prospects may even be more unreasonable than hoping Greene repeats his 09-10 season.  Tallinder and Volchenkov definitely makes the blueline bigger and meaner, but sans Martin and/or an adequate second two-way defenseman, I'm not convinced yet that it's better. 

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