Devils Early Season Q&A With Todd and Mike
Photo courtesy of NorthJersey.com
By Mike Luciano and Todd Cordell
So far the New Jersey Devils have shown a lot of promise early on in the season but Devils fans shouldn’t be done holding their breath just yet. After making a few observations about the team’s play, I was fortunate enough to get some valuable input from my fellow Hockey Guy colleague Todd Cordell on the team’s recent performance and where they’re capable of going down the stretch.
Q: If the Devils want to go anywhere this season, the young guys have to step up. The likes of Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, Adam Henrique (who was recently demoted to Albany), Adam Larsson, Nick Palmieri, Mark Fayne, and Brad Mills (although at 28, he’s not necessarily a young gun but is participating in his first NHL year) make up almost a third of the Devil’s roster. How have their performances thus far attribute to the team’s overall play and how will this group’s adjustment to the NHL pace and gameplay affect the team as a whole?
TC: Though most of them didn’t show up on the score sheet, they’ve all been very impact-full and have played key roles in the Devils two games; especially their victory against Carolina. Tedenby has not tallied a point yet, but I thought he played a fantastic game on Monday. Josefson has looked very good as Kovalchuk’s center, and he setup the game-winner. Henrique hasn’t seen a ton of ice, but he has killed penalties. Larsson has seen more ice than anyone. Palmieri had a monster game against the Hurricanes, Fayne was good and steady in his own zone and Mills has been a massive contributor to the penalty kill which remains perfect. These guys affect the team as a whole, no doubt. This is approximately a third of their roster, as you said, so if they don’t play well or can’t contribute at this level, the Devils will be in trouble.
ML: What I like most about the Devil’s youth crop this year is the diversity that is featured from player to player. Like Todd said, most of them haven’t gotten on the scoresheet but it’s because they’ve contributed in other ways. Jacob Josefson’s had a great start as the team’s current No. 2 center on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and projected power forward Nick Palmieri. Larsson has been logging top minutes and has looked very steady manning the power play (although they’ve yet to register a goal with a man advantage). Although Mark Fayne’s looked a little shaky on the point at times, he’s going to be a versatile blue liner capable of contributing on the second power play unit. Although he was recently sent down, Adam Henrique looked great when DeBoer deployed him on the penalty kill, as did Brad Mills, whose faceoff percentage shouldn’t go unnoticed. My only concern about this group of players adjusting is how it’s going to reflect on the team’s ability to score early on. In their first three games, the Devils have averaged less than two goals per game (5 goals in three games). I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes the Devils fifteen, twenty games until they start to score more consistently at the expense of such a large portion of their roster adjusting to the NHL style of game.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
Q: Considering the abundance of youth on the Devil’s roster, the last time we saw a movement like this that ended up positively impacting the Devils was in the 1999-2000 season when they had a closer portion of younger players featured on their roster (John Madden, Scott Gomez, Colin White, and Brian Rafalski just to mention a few). While a head-to-head matchup between this current Devils team and the championship team of 2000 would be comical, what’s distinguishable about this year’s youth crop in comparison to that of the 2000 squad?
TC: While it is hard to compare the two teams, I’d say this crop of young guns is plays more of a high speed, up-temp game where as those guys were best suited for a defensive team with good special teams units. I don’t think this current crop of young guns would be near as successful as that crop if this core was coached the same style of hockey.
ML: I think the biggest difference is that there are higher expectations surrounding this group of young players. I’m not saying the expectations for the team’s 1999-2000 rookie class were small but the circumstances differ greatly. General manager Lou Lamoriello opted to steer clear of last summer’s free agent frenzy. Instead, he shipped out a few veteran players to give his team much needed cap space, which also assured roster spots for this year’s large rookie class. The roles these kids have assumed vary from top six forwards to bottom pairing defensemen with some getting essential time on the special teams. To sum it up, the expectations are so dire because this group of young players have the ability to make or break this team early on.
Q: Save the preseason, head coach Pete DeBoer has made a solid first impression going into the regular season. What features to the Devil’s lineup has he made that stood out most?
TC: Though he has made many adjustments, I am going to focus on three. First off, the team is much faster, and is playing much more of a north, south style of game. That’s the best suited style for this team, and DeBoer is realizing that in a hurry. Secondly, their powerplay is better. Though their percentage is nothing to get excited about, they are shooting more. Last year you couldn’t pay them to shoot. Lastly, their penalty kill is outstanding. It was good last year, but it looks like it could be great this year. Their penalty kill is 13 for 13 at this time, and has done an excellent job of keeping opposing teams powerplay chances limited.
ML: Although it’s early, I really like how DeBoer has been consistent with the young guys in the lineup. I’ve always felt that Brent Sutter and Jacques Lemaire weren’t the best coaches at handling the team’s younger players and that both coaches weren’t as patient or opportune with their development. Players like Niclas Bergfors, Vladimir Zharkov, Anssi Salmela, and Alexander Vasyunov saw very limited ice time under these two coaches. I like how DeBoer is integrating this current crop of kids and giving them different responsibilities. Eventually, this’ll pay off for the team.
Q: Still on the topic of DeBoer, although it’s only been two games, he’s off to a much better start than John MacLean was at this point in the early season. As MacLean was supposed to be, many are projecting Pete DeBoer to be a longterm solution to the Devil’s coaching inconsistencies. What characteristics about DeBoer as a coach separate him from MacLean?
TC: There are many characteristics and differences between DeBoer and MacLean. DeBoer had/has a lot more coaching experience both in general and at the NHL level than MacLean did. DeBoer knows how to deal with each player, and he appears to be a reasonable guy. DeBoer expects a lot from his players, but he knows he has to work them to get it. DeBoer commands respect, and is a much more demanding than MacLean. DeBoer is also more of a systematic coach, where as MacLean kind of just through players out on the ice and expected results.
ML: Best said, DeBoer just seems more prepared and a lot more organized as a new head coach in comparison to John MacLean. Despite his lengthy tenure as an assistant, I think that MacLean’s readiness was rushed. He should have spent another season or two coaching in the AHL before being considered for such a position in the NHL. Like Todd mentioned, DeBoer has a decorate coaching resume and whatever scenarios DeBoer is in with the Devils, he’s probably had an identical experience at some point in the past.
Q: From what we’ve seen, the Devil’s power play and penalty kill have been like fire and water in that the team’s quality performances in both scenarios are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. What do they need to do to maintain their stellar play on the penalty kill and how can they start converting on the power play?
TC: In order to maintain a successful penalty kill, I think DeBoer should keep using three different forward units to kill penalties. It keeps teams honest, as they have to study more to know what style each group of forwards likes to play while out there. Doing that also keeps the players fresh. The last thing the Devils need to do to keep this up is stay aggressive. Right now they’re killing penalties like the Flyers, a team that has haunted the Devils when short-handed, do. Regarding their powerplay, just continue to shoot. They haven’t been too successful to this point, but if you’re shooting the puck and you have the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Petr Sykora, Patrik Elias and so forth on the ice, you’re bound to score.
ML: Best said, the Devils just have to keep doing what they’ve been doing up to this point to maintain their stellar penalty kill. The power play seems to be a seasonal issue with the Devils each year and on paper it would seem having Adam Larsson and Ilya Kovalchuk manning the points is the remedy this team’s been looking for. I’m going to take a stab in the dark and say the issue is more mental than anything. The power play units look very tense out there and look like they’re thinking too much and are being overly pressured to make something out of these opportunities. I also think the Devils are relying on shots from the points too much as well. They should try working the puck down low more often.
Q: Johan Hedberg started the Devil’s second game against the Carolina Hurricanes, despite Brodeur’s remarkable performance in the team’s season opener against Philadelphia. It’s the first time goaltending duties have been split this early on in the season since Brent Sutter started Kevin Weekes just two games into the 2007-2008 season. What can be made of this decision if anything at all?
TC: I think this shows that Pete DeBoer is committed to getting Hedberg some work, and committed to keeping Brodeur fresh for the stretch of the season and potentially the playoffs. In past playoff appearances Brodeur has looked tired, and worn down. If they can keep his games played total down to a manageable number, I don’t think we’ll see those problems. The decision to give Hedberg the start also probably had something to do with getting him work early on in the season, so they can rely on him if needed, and trying to spark the team after a 3-0 loss in their home (and season) opener. Either way, I liked the decision.
ML: DeBoer is definitely setting the bar early on in the season with his goaltending situation. Everyone (even Brodeur this time around) knows that Brodeur isn’t what he used to be as a goaltender and is probably playing the last season of his admirable career. If Brodeur truly wants to make the most out of this season, it means playing less games. Considering Brodeur’s injury, giving Hedberg more starts keeps him sharp should he have to play for an undetermined stretch of games.
Q: Mattias Tedenby, dubbed one of the Devil’s top prospects, played the first game against the Flyers on the fourth line before being promoted to a third line role. Tedenby clearly possesses a lot of raw talent that can mold him into a formidable scorer. What’s keeping him from finding a place amongst the top six?
TC: Though I would love to see “Teddy” get top-six time, he’s not on a team that can give it to him. Tedenby is a natural left wing, and the Devils have Zach Parise, and Ilya Kovalchuk slotted into the #1 and #2 left wing spot. I’m certain he’s not going to take the spot of any of those two. Where else could Tedenby play besides left wing on the third line? Center. The problem is Tedenby cannot play center and if he did I think he’d struggle to win 25 percent of his faceoffs. The third and final forward position is is right wing. Sykora seems locked in on the first line due to his chemistry with Elias and Parise. As for Palmieri, the Devils need him on the second line with Kovalchuk to help create space and to have a big body presence on the line. I think for those reasons, Tedenby won’t see top-six time this year. However, I do expect him to see some time on the second powerplay unit.
ML: Todd really summed up Tedenby’s absence from the top six. I think he’s been one of the more highly regarded prospects and as a result, the fans expected big things to come out of him. Although Tedenby is very talented and possesses a lot of potential, the developmental and adjustment factors may have been overlooked. As nice as it would be for Tedenby to have a Jeff Skinner-like year this season, it’s ultimately wishful thinking. Tedenby might not break the top six at this point in the season, but his playing on the third line will take away any unnecessary pressure so he can develop at his own pace. He could also help the Devils establish a third scoring forward unit.
Q: The Devil’s defensemen have been a lot more active in the offensive zone than they have in recent years. They’ve been pinching and getting involved down low throughout the exhibition season and early on in the regular season. Considering the scarce goal totals from Devil’s defensemen in recent years, is this an instance of DeBoer trying to integrate another offensive element into his team?
TC: I think it’s fair to say that. DeBoer coaches an up-tempo, fast, aggressive style of game. While he is much more offensive than some coaches the Devils and their fans are accustomed to seeing, he is by no means going to leave the defense hung out to try. He’s a two-way coach, but he knows that this team needs to score more goals. His style is perfect for the likes of Patrik Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Zach Parise and I think it is showing here early. There’s a reason Lou Lamoriello hired him.
ML: The fact that the defense’s heightened activity in the offensive zone has been noticed is a clear indication that they’re doing something different. Not that it DeBoer is advocating his defensemen to make offense a priority, but he seems to be encouraging them more to capitalize on offensive opportunities. It wouldn’t surprise me if the defense’s noticeable change in play has anything to do with the arrival of their projected longterm cornerstone Adam Larsson, whose style of play is perfectly complimented by the new tendencies of the Devil’s defense.
I want to take this time to personally thank Todd for taking the time to sit down and shed his insight on the questions I’ve presented in this writeup. You can follow Todd on Twitter @ToddCordell and also be sure to check out his daily posts on www.hockeybuzz.com