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