Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Devilish defence in the swamp

"Lou Lamoriello is one of the most highly regarded GMs in the game, but even he couldn't keep Scott Niedermayer from bolting to Anaheim, leaving a large gap in his defence corps that neither oft-injured Vladimir Malakhov nor Flyers castoff Dan McGillis will fill. Goaltender Martin Brodeur makes up for a lot of mistakes, but... the Devils, under new-old coach Larry Robinson, could find themselves slipping from their perennial perch among the league's leaders."
— Eric Duhatschek, The Globe and Mail (Saturday, August 20)

"In the East, I'm not scared of New Jersey at all. They've got holes up front and on defence."
— A loyal reader.

When I say 'a lot' has been made of Scott Niedermayer leaving the New Jersey Devils, I mean that in the most understated way possible. Despite the moves Lamoriello has made to make up for the loss of the 2004 Norris Trophy winner, every pundit from Toronto, Philadelphia and beyond are declaring the Devils reign over.

I'm not going to quibble with the fact that the loss of Patrick Elias leaves a hole up front, but on defence, this club is as well-prepared as in previous years. And if it's one thing the Devils have been known for in the last decade, it's their defence.

New Jersey's big six.

Brian Rafalski - Vladimir Malakhov
Richard Matvichuk - Paul Martin
Colin White - Dan McGillis

You can't tell me that's not a solid starting six. Lamoriello spent big to bring in all three of Malakhov, Matvichuk and McGillis, and to varying degrees he's going to get his money's worth. Add these three veterans to a cast of already promising blueliners (not including 24-year-old David Hale), and I'll take these pairings over almost every other NHL teams'.

Brian Rafalski: At 5-foot-10, no one is going to be overwhelmed by Rafalski's 'power' game, but he has all the tools to be an excellent powerplay weapon. Even with Scott Niedermayer hogging the point man role, Rafalski has averaged 44 points a season the past four years. Expect him to pick up Niedermayer's slack this season.

Vladimir Malakhov: The much-maligned behemoth impressed more than a few people last season with his performance in the 2004 playoffs. Malakhov logged big minutes for the Flyers, including three 30+-minute games against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Conference Finals (a series in which he had four points and was +4 in a losing seven-game cause) and didn't look out of place as one of the top defencemen on one of the top teams. This despite playing only six regular season games with Philadelphia. (All of which wasn't lost on Lamoriello, whose club lost in five games in the first round to Malakhov's Flyers.)

Richard Matvichuk: As he's been a Dallas Star since he was a 20-year-old rookie in 1993, you may think Matvichuk is older than his 32 years. After a poor 2002-03 season, Matvichuk regained his hard-hitting form last season. With longtime Devils captain Scott Stevens likely hanging them up, expect Matvichuk to assume a leadership role as the No. 3 or 4 defenceman.

Paul Martin: The Devils would have been in more trouble than they were in 2004 when Stevens went down had they not been able to rely on this then-22-year-old rookie. Martin filled in more than adequately, eventually assuming 20+ minutes a night and picking up spot duty on the powerplay (he finished with 10 PPP). One of the best rookie defenders in 2004, Martin played more minutes per game than any other new blueliner aside from the Predators Dan Hamhuis.

Colin White: Name an NHL GM who wouldn't like to have Colin White on their team's third pairing.

Too slow. The 6-foot-4, 220 pound White has established himself as one of the meanest big men on the backend to play against, and he'll bring his fiery brand of hockey in spades this season.

Dan McGillis: Another fellow who has taken his fair share of drubbings recently, McGillis has bounced around from club to club and is perhaps overpaid at $2.2-million. In a limited role, however, he'll deliver a solid two-way performance. Don't expect his 49-point performance of 2000-01 but also don't write him off as a pylon. This big man can play.

Icetime in 2003-04:
Rafalski 22:45
Martin 20:07
McGillis 19:42
Malakhov 19:56
White 21:01
Matvichuk 21:50

Stick Martin Brodeur in front of these six and it's going to be awfully tough to squeeze pucks past him, smaller pads or not. Despite what you've heard, expect the Devils to remain in the NHL's 100-point club.

Think you know a club better set on the blueline? I'd love to hear your argument in the comments.


At 8:42 a.m., August 24, 2005, Anonymous David Johnson said...

So long as you have Brodeur in goal you have a chance to have a lot of hockey success. And yes, the New Jersey defense is still solid.

At 10:17 a.m., August 24, 2005, Anonymous Gamaliel said...

Clubs better set on D:
BOS- Leetch/Gill/Boynton/Girard/Slegr/Moran
OTT- Chara/Redden/Phillips/VolchenkovPothier/Schubert
PHI- Hatcher/Rathje/Desjardins/Johnsson/Pitkanen/Therien/Seidenberg

Looks like you're right. The Devils have an above average Eastern Conference defence. However, their current lineup is not nearly as dominant as the Devils blueline has been in recent years, and given that I think it's fair to say they're less of a threat than they have been previously. I don't think anyone's sayin they'll miss the playoffs.

At 11:08 a.m., August 24, 2005, Anonymous pete said...

Don't forget Calgary.

When Dion Phaneuf is at #7 on your depth chart, you're doing OK.

You and I have discussed this at length, James, and now we'll see what happens. I still say 100 points is a dream.

At 1:19 p.m., August 24, 2005, Blogger alyosha mcbain said...

The Devils are very solid, but I think you give Malakhov too much credit. He played well in the playoffs--he usually does--but his up and down game in the regular season may lose him some significant ice time. Jersey's d-men over the years have been consistent rather than flashy and Vlad can play indifferently sometimes in games against bum teams. That will not go over well in New Jersey.

By the way, Mr. Gamaliel's claim of the Tampa defense being one of the best in the league is quite overstated...Sydor and Sarich are in particular not that great, and Nolan Pratt sucks. They won the Cup on Khabibulin's shoulders and will not get that far this year.

I hate to give the Devils any praise, due to the fact that I'm a Ranger fan, but they've got a solid organization and a deep pool of talent. I wish Colin White was a Ranger.

At 1:37 p.m., August 24, 2005, Blogger Jeff J said...

NJ's depth is great, do doubt about it. As of now, I don't think anyone has a comparable #5&6. However, several teams boast a superior top three. Having a better top pair trumps having a better bottom pair.

Ottawa might have two Norris finalists in Redden and Chara. Throw in Phillips and Volchenkov, and IMO that outweighs the shortcomings of whoever Muckler gets to flesh out their defense.

Several other teams have more top-end talent: Tampa (Boyle-Kubina-Sydor), Anaheim (Niedermayer-Carney-Ozo), San Jose (Stuart-Hannan-McLaren), Detroit (Lidstrom-Schneider-Fischer). Calgary is deeper from 1-8, handy when injuries start to happen.

At 3:24 p.m., August 24, 2005, Anonymous Gamaliel said...

I was just looking at Eastern Conference teams. If you look to the West. . .
ANA- Niedermayer/Ozolinsh/Carney/Vishnevski/Salei/Marshall
are probably better, and
CHI, CBJ, PHO and STL are slightly below.
League-wide, the Devils are only average, and have a lot of question marks. Incidentally, I don't think TB's defense is one of the best in the league, just in the East. Leaguewide, I think Ottawa, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Calgary, Detroit or Edmonton(?!) have potential to be the best, although Ottawa and Vancouver's depth is only so-so, Detroit has Delmore, and I would question the footspeed of the Philadelphia blueline, particularly if the "Crackdown on Obstruction VIII- THIS Time It's Real" actually happens. Overall, I'd say the best bet is Calgary or Ottawa.

At 3:38 p.m., August 24, 2005, Anonymous Gamaliel said...

Edmonton's Defense is better than New Jersey's. Why? Compare:


Pronger vs. Rafalski- No brainer here. Pronger is one of the top 5 dmen in the league, bringing formidable size and skill to the rink. I'd take him over Rafalski in a heartbeat. Advantage- EDM

Smith vs. Malakhov- Malakhov's offensive skills are superior, but there are few defenseman better at hitting and shutting down than Smith. Furthermore, SMith, the team captain brings extraordinary leadership. Advantage- EDM

Matvichuk vs. Staios- Staios, a former team captain, is the same age as Matvichuk, with slightly superior offensive numbers. He's also a former captain, so I would give a slight advantage to Edmonton here. Advantage- EDM

Martin vs. Semenov- Semenov is something of an enigma. He has better size and probably better potential than Martin, but Martin's offensive ability and simple performance to date are superior. Advantage- NJ

White vs. Ulanov- Both defenceman have similar concerns (footspeed) and abilities (angry, like to hurt people, true warriors). Ulanov is a better pest, but White is simply better. Advantage- NJ

McGillis vs. Bergeron- Although Bergeron's offensive abilities and skating are far superior, he's undersized and simply isn't as well rounded as McGillis. Advantage- NJ.

Now, this seems like a tie, except that 1) the top three are more important than the bottom three, and 2) Pronger is simply so much more dominant than Rafalski that I think that Edmonton's d is obviously better. New Jersey has a good defense, but I don't think it's top-5 anymore.

At 6:34 p.m., August 24, 2005, Blogger James Mirtle said...

You wouldn't happen to be in Edmonton would you, Gamaliel? I think you're going to find very few people who'll take the Oilers current top six over New Jersey's. Based on experience alone, they are miles apart (despite the fact Pronger and Smith are both very good).

At 8:37 a.m., August 25, 2005, Blogger alyosha mcbain said...

Gamaliel--Now, I don't like the Devils OR Lou Lamoriello, but come on--Steve Staios and Igor Ulanov would not even make the Devils' roster. Staios at least plays with some heart, but Igor Ulanov is atrocious--his stint with the Rangers was memorably horrible in 2001-02. Also few of these Edmonton boyos have any playoff experience. While experience is in general overemphasized in sports, on defense it's a definite necessity.

Lastly, Chris Pronger is a great player, but he's blown out his knees often enough where you have to wonder if he'll still be the same player. I think St. Louis got the better of the trade by getting Eric Brewer, honestly.

You make a better point with Anaheim and Calgary's defense, but overall the Devils 1 through 6 are more solid, in my opinion. They can mix it up or skate around you, and I think that Brian Rafalski is going to win the Norris now that he's out of Niedermayer's shadow.

The big weakness in my mind with the Devils is their overrated swinger of a goaltender, Marty (Yes, I know you're my sister-in-law but I'll still have sex with you) Brodeur. A man who has lost playoff series to such immortals as Ron Tugnutt and a declining Mike Richter is not the best goalie in the league. Plus let's see how this jerky does without the extra space behind the net for him to intercept dump-ins.

At 10:19 a.m., August 25, 2005, Anonymous Gamaliel said...

New Jersey has superior depth, but Staios would certainly make the team. As for Ulanov, last season (after AHL time because nobody would touch him after he stunk it up with the Rangers), his stats were 42gp-5g-13a-18pts-+19. In Edmonton, he hits, blocks shots, and generally plays a very safe, smart game in his own end. In any case, if Rafalski steps up and looks like a number one defenseman, I'll be surprised, and if a first-rate shutdown guy (maybe Matvichuk) emerges, again, I'll have been wrong. Still the Oilers defense is under-rated, and expect them to finish with a very good GAA, even with mediocre goaltending. (and I live in Vancouver!). Anyhow, I'm probably wrong, but we'll see.

At 11:33 a.m., August 25, 2005, Blogger Tom L said...

Looking at New Jersey's current lineup and the fact that they're $4+ million over the cap, I'm having a hard time believing that some part of this core is going to be moved.... who will it be?


Someone has to score goals on this team and they just bought up AlMo.

Could the odd-man out honestly be Brodeur? I can't believe it, he's a bargain at the price. If Lou's seriously considering another run at the cup, it certainly looks that way, then what's gotta give to fit this team under the cap?


At 5:01 p.m., August 25, 2005, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Elias won't count against the cap to start the season, and it's debatable when exactly he'll even be able to play. His $4-million-plus salary takes them down into the realm of where they need to be.

I also know that Lamoriello has been trying to move Kozlov (and Friesen is another possibility), both of whom aren't likely in the team's plans. That said, David Hale played half decently in 2003-04, so moving one of those six defencemen is also not out of the question.

Brodeur won't be dealt (and anyways, Tom, your Sabres have too many goalies as is!).

At 8:04 a.m., August 26, 2005, Blogger Tom L said...


Thanks for the clarification. If and when Elias returns they'll certainly have a problem.

And, as much as I'd love to see Marty in an AGH, I know full well Lou would never trade him. Actually, the more I think about the situation, the more I think Madden might be the odd-man out.

Is it really wise to spend $3.8 mil on a 3rd line center? Or is he going to step up and play '2nd line' minutes with Langenbrunner?

Friesen and Kozolv getting moved make perfect sense.


At 1:19 p.m., August 26, 2005, Blogger Ryan Wolstat said...

While still solid, the Devils just don't scare me anymore.

Stevens and Neidermayer were the heart and soul of that team.
While nobody would argue that Brodeur isn't the best goalie in the world, the new rules certainly won't help him and may impact him significantly.

Rafalski is a good offensive d-man, though he is tiny, Malakhov had a good playoffs but is still a headcase who may be great one night and terrible the next as he thinks about skiing.

White is good for the third pairing, true, but should be even slower and less effective thanks to the new rules.

Elias is sick, Mogilny is finished and overpaid (when's the last time Lou overpaid for someone?)
I love John Madden, but he's overpaid now too in the new NHL.

The Devils have had their day.

Oh well, good for us fans of God's team... right Pete?


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