2010-11 NHL season preview: New Jersey Devils

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ilyakovalchuk6.jpgLast season: (48-27-7, 103 points, 1st in Atlantic Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference) The New Jersey Devils won another Atlantic Division title while acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk before the trade deadline only to get pounded by the Flyers 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs. Despite winning three Stanley Cups in their history, the post-lockout Devils are starting to earn a reputation as a team that is great in the regular season but can’t get it done when the games matter the most.

Head coach: John MacLean paid his dues by going through the Devils system, so now he’ll get his shot with the big team. Things didn’t go so well in Jacques Lemaire’s second stint with New Jersey and the team recently got burned by Brent Sutter, so the Devils must hope for some stability behind the bench.

Key departures: D Paul Martin, G Yann Danis, F Rob Niedermayer, F Dean McAmmond, F Jay Pandolfo and whoever leaves to clear cap space. The biggest loss was Martin, a player who struggled with injuries last year but was often one of the team’s top two defensemen. The other guys are depth players, but whoever leaves to make room for Ilya Kovalchuk – most likely Brian Rolston, Jamie Langenbrunner or a mid-level defenseman – will probably be the second biggest loss.

Key arrivals: F Ilya Kovalchuk, D Anton Volchenkov, F Jason Arnott, D Henrik Tallinder, G Johan Hedberg. OK, I know Kovalchuk came over last deadline, but his signing was such a headache that he makes sense here. Volchenkov is a valuable defenseman, but he’s coming at a hefty price and his shot-blocking style might make him a likely candidate for the IR. The trade to land Arnott smells of nostalgia, but he can bring some offense. Tallinder is a solid but quiet defenseman while Hedberg did well as a starter in Atlanta, yet might not be more than adequate as a backup. Overall, the Devils improved themselves.

Under pressure: When you are the focus of two months of tedious contract banter (and receive a $100 million contract), then you better deliver, so Kovalchuk is under big-time scrutiny. Zach Parise is also under quite a bit of pressure to drive up his own price in the last year of his bargain contract, while Martin Brodeur needs to win in the playoffs before people start giving up on him.

In other words, there’s plenty of pressure to go around.

Thumbnail image for martinbrodeurglance.jpgProtecting the house: Brodeur is the all-time leader in wins, shutouts and HEbaG (Hamburgers Eaten by a Goalie) and is about as automatic as death and taxes. He still puts up great stats year in and year out. Chances are the no-brainer Hall of Famer will play his typical ton of games because Hedberg is nothing more than an average backup.

On paper, their defense is uninspiring but the Devils’ system tends to camouflage many flaws. Volchenkov might be an upgrade on Martin as far as pure defense goes while Tallinder is another steady upgrade. If the Devils can keep Bryce Salvador, they have a decent trio along with the occasionally mistake-prone but rugged Colin White. The Devils struggle in the playoffs because they lack a true shutdown defenseman, so maybe Volchenkov will be worth those big bucks.

Top line we’d like to see: Kovalchuk-Travis Zajac-Parise. Sometimes, you get what you want, which is the case of the “ZIP” line. They’ve been tearing it up in the preseason, so don’t expect to see a lot of this trio in the regular season. Patrik Elias isn’t chopped liver in Zajac’s spot, either.

Oh captain, my captain: Jamie Langenbrunner might end up getting traded from New Jersey, but he’s a solid lead-by-example type who should maintain his captain status if he avoids a swap. Lemaire being out of town is a big plus in keeping him happy.

Street fighting man: Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond – rather than discussing his fighting merits, just watch this two-plus minute bout with Cam Janssen.

Best-case scenario: The “ZIP” line becomes the best scoring line in Devils history while Elias and Arnott are inspired to defend the honor of the Elias-Arnott-Petr Sykora line by putting up great depth offense, too. Volchenkov helps the Devils put together their best defense since they lost Brian Rafalski, Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens in rapid succession. Brodeur shakes off his playoff struggles and the Devils win yet another Cup.

Worst-case scenario: The Devils falter in the playoffs while Kovalchuk justifies all the “once a loser, always a loser” fears by putting up empty numbers in the regular season but struggling when it counts. Worse yet, the Devils allow both the Penguins and Flyers to pass them in the Atlantic Division so they don’t even have a division title to heal their wounds. Brodeur shows his age with a below-average season.

Keeping it real: The Devils are a top-heavy team that should be great in the regular season, but what about the playoffs? Arnott and Kovalchuk are one-dimensional players while Volchenkov puts himself into consistent danger by blocking shots (even though that’s just what he does). Brodeur has a lot of mileage, so that whole 70-starts-per-year thing might not be so wise any longer.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and a five being the best, they get a 5. They have some flaws, but every team has its blemishes. The bottom line is that this is the best Devils team in ages, one built to win now or (almost) never.

Mario Lemieux is ‘fine’ with Josh Ho-Sang wearing number 66

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Believe it or not, many people have an issue with Islanders rookie Josh Ho-Sang wearing number 66, but it sounds like former Penguins great Mario Lemieux isn’t one of them.

On Thursday, Lemieux made it clear that Ho-Sang using his number wasn’t an issue.

“I’m fine with it,” Lemieux said via a spokesperson, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s just a number. Number 4 and number 9 were worn by great players (Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe, respectively), and they are not retired forever. Players can choose whatever number they want.”

 Unlike the number 99, the NHL hasn’t retired 66, which means any player can still use it.

Some see it as a sign of disrespect, but Ho-Sang has made it clear that that’s the last thing on his mind when he decided he wanted to wear Lemieux’s old number.

“It’s honoring [Lemieux] and just, I think a lot more people remember who he is now because they’re yelling at me about wearing the number, right? I think that’s cool too,” he told Newsday earlier this month. “There’s a lot of light being shined on an amazing player. By no means am I trying to be better than or trying to prove anything. For me, it’s definitely a tribute to a great player. If he asked me not to wear it, I’d definitely consider it, but I haven’t gotten any phone calls or anything. So for now I’m gonna wear it.”

Even though Lemieux has now given his blessing, don’t be surprised if Penguins fan are all over Ho-Sang during Friday’s game between the two teams at PPG Paints Arena.

PHT Morning Skate: Matt Duchene helps fan land a prom date

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Matt Duchene may be having a tough season, but he picked up a terrific assist on Thursday night, as he flipped a puck to a fan and helped her get a prom date in the process. (Top)

–Sportsnet breaks down the five longest individual playoff streaks. Henrik Zetteberg has the longest active streak, but that’s about to come to an end in the next few weeks. After the Red Wings are officially eliminated from the playoffs, Sharks defenseman Paul Martin will own the longest streak. (Sportsnet)

–As you may have seen, yesterday was National Puppy Day. Several NHL players shared pictures of themselves with their dogs. BarDown has accumulated some of the best ones. (BarDown)

–The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell thinks the NHL could improve the World Cup by taking some ideas from the World Baseball Classic. Campbell writes: “Not only was the World Cup in one country, heck it was in one city, in one arena. The World Baseball Classic, on the other hand, was played in four countries – South Korea, Japan, Mexico and USA, with three different American cities hosting games. If you want to capitalize on the unique passion that many European fans have for the game, you have to bring it to them and make them feel a part of the experience.” (The Hockey News)

Al Montoya is the first Cuban-American player to make it to the NHL, and he spoke to the Montreal Gazette’s Stu Cowan about his heritage. “I’m a first-generation Cuban-American. You don’t really hear that a lot. A lot of these (Cuban) people have been here for a while, so it’s something that’s special to me. Where my grandparents came from … they passed away a few years ago, but for me it was always a sense of pride the way that my grandparents carried themselves. The traditions that we had during the holidays … whatever it might be. (Montreal Gazette)

–The Vegas Golden Knights and Cirque du Soleil have become strategic entertainment partners. This partnership should make in-game entertainment pretty interesting. “Cirque du Soleil has had a significant presence in Las Vegas since 1992 and continues to be one of the most popular entertainment options in town. We are always looking for creative ways to enhance the overall fan experience at our home games and this partnership certainly helps advance that objective.” (NHL.com/GoldenKnights)

A big night for the rookies and a big win for the Maple Leafs

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William Nylander helped get Toronto started on Thursday, extending his point streak to 10 games — a new Maple Leafs franchise record for a rookie.

Connor Brown finished it with his 17th goal of the season, securing a 4-2 win for the Maple Leafs over the New Jersey Devils.

Toronto has won three in a row and moves three points clear of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, with a game in hand, which further helps the Maple Leafs’ playoff chances with nine games remaining on their schedule.

Just another big night for Toronto’s impressive crop of rookies.

Auston Matthews had a pair of assists.

— Nylander had a goal and an assist. He set one and tied another franchise rookie record on Thursday.

Mitch Marner had an assist, giving him 40 helpers this season, which ties the franchise rookie record set in 1943-44.

“They’re good players,” said coach Mike Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “I didn’t know Marner would make the team. I knew Matthews and Nylander were good players. I knew Brown and (Zach) Hyman were relentless. I had no idea (Nikita) Zaitsev was as close to how good he is.

“We have lots of good players.”

In May of 2015, Babcock predicted at his introductory press conference that the Maple Leafs would, during their massive rebuild, endure “pain.” This was, he said, to be a long process — a “massive, massive challenge.”

Approaching the two-year anniversary of that event — after all the losing that franchise and its fan base has gone through, which obviously helped them with the Matthews lottery last year — the Maple Leafs are poised to make the playoffs with a nucleus of young players that present even more promise for the future.

“We just want to get in to the playoffs, and give ourselves a chance,” continued Babcock. “We’re playing well, and finding a way to win games. That’s what we have to continue to do.”

Capitals defeat Blue Jackets in clash of Metropolitan Division powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington’s 35th shot of the game. Orlov’s goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead.

A showdown between two of the top three teams in the league jockeying for position atop the Metropolitan Division lacked a playoff feel. But the matchup of two likely Vezina Trophy finalists lived up to that billing as Bobrovsky and Holtby went back and forth with big saves.

Bobrovsky entered the night first in wins, goals-against average and save percentage with Holtby second, second and third in those categories. The 2013 Vezina winner could also be an MVP contender this season given his value to Columbus’ third playoff berth in franchise history.

“When he’s in his game it’s very hard to score on him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who had eight shots stopped by one of his Russian national teammates. “He likes the big moments, he likes pressure. His worth ethic is unbelievable. … In my opinion he’s one of the best goalies in the league right now.”