Are Devils bound for playoffs or pitfall?
Editor's note: We are starting a new feature here at ESPN.com called "Friday Faceoff" in which ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: Will New Jersey make the playoffs again or is this the season we see the demise of the Devils?
Scott Burnside: OK, I know, I'm late. Still, I'm in better shape than the Devils. I know Damien is a sensitive soul, so I'll go easy on him knowing he believes the Devils to be infallible. So I will provide the one-word answer to the question in question -- no. Next?
Damien Cox: Oh my. To think I'm taking a chance on missing a flight to engage in this level of discourse with my Lou Lamoriello-hating colleague.
Scott: As you know Damien, they fly every 20 minutes between Ottawa and Toronto, and it's not a case of hating Lou Lamoriello. In fact, you'd have to go a country mile to find a smarter hockey man. But enough is enough. Year after year of leaking talent, it's about time the roosters came home to roost. It's the natural order of things.
Damien: Yes, I feared you'd drag livestock into this eventually...
Scott: You probably don't know this, but I'm a former 4-H member. Executive member, actually.
Damien: Gee, and I thought you were a Mensa member. My error.
Scott: Mensa? Exotic breed of goat, no?
Damien: Tastes like frog legs.
Scott: Yum. Bet it goes well with grits.
Scott: No Cuban cigars, but you can still get a fine Cuban sandwich pretty much anywhere here.
Damien: Intriguing how one so easily dismisses the Eastern team that routinely racks up 100-point seasons and has won three Stanley Cups in the past 12 years. Do explain, sir.
Scott: Oh, I'm not here to denigrate the Devils' history, but rather to suggest that they are history. Finally. I admit amazement that without Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens since the lockout, they've been able to advance to the second round of the playoffs both seasons. But now, without Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski, I think the Devils are going to see a lot of games like Thursday night. Play good defense, hang around, hang around and then lose by one (two counting the empty-netter the Bolts scored to make it 3-1). The Devils may lead the league in goals-against this season and lose 60 games by one goal.
Damien: Ahh, still stuck in the first year after the lockout, are we? Fact is, the NHL is going to be more defensive this season, not less, as the postseason last season and the early results this season are already showing (oh, to be in Minny to watch that 1-0 thriller against the Hawks Thursday night!). The Devils are an all-business team that always emphasizes defense -- it helps to have a decent goalie -- and they're going to fare beautifully in the -- ahem -- "new" NHL.
Scott: I didn't get a response to my last missive. Dumbstruck with my impeccable logic, or slumped over your terminal asleep?
Damien: Just counting up the playoff victories of your Thrashers from last spring ... OK, I'm done.
Scott: Actually, they aren't my Thrashers, just the team down the road, just as those Leafs aren't yours (not after pulling down one point out of four to start the season).
Damien: I understand. How is that Mike Vick thing working out, by the way? Anything lately from Eugene Robinson?
Scott: Michael Vick? Football, right? Robinson? Loved him in those gangster movies. Oh, that's Edward G. Robinson.
Damien: Loved Edward G. in "The Ten Commandments." You know, the one with Chris Chelios as Moses coming down from the mountain with that trademark flowing white beard.
Scott: Yes. Is that the version where Ted Saskin plays Yul Brunner's part as Pharaoh?
Damien: You're getting confused with Ted Saskin as Caesar. Et tu, Trent Klatt?
Scott: All those "power-mad ruler" stories run together. At least I knew it wasn't "Scarface." It wasn't, was it?
Damien: That was Borje Salming. Saskin was also one of the guys in the Vietnamese prison being eaten by rats in "The Deer Hunter."
Scott: Ouch. Poor Borje. Poor Ted.
Damien: Borje and Ted's Great Adventure! Now you're on to something. I'm sure Bob Goodenow can arrange the financing.
Back to the argument at hand...
Damien: I think coach Brent Sutter's going to start by changing a few things. Already, he's split up [Jay] Pandolfo and [John] Madden -- maybe they should have been together against [Vincent] Lecavalier Thursday night -- and he's vowing to get away from the trap system and play a more aggressive, up-tempo, forechecking style ... oops, this just in, Lou fired him.
Scott: Ah, you know Lou won't get into firing mode until late March, maybe even early April. Might as well get the most out of a coach before you toss him on the trash heap (with all due respect to Larry Robinson, Robbie Ftorek and Claude Julien). I think Sutter is going to be a fine coach even if he did spend the entire World Junior Championship in North Dakota referring to the Czech Republic as "Czechoslovakia" (memo to Brent, the Cold War is over). But I think there is bound to be a learning curve in coaching men instead of the mostly teenage boys he coached to such heights in Canada. And, you know, those barnyard allegories the Sutters are fond of will take you only so far in Newark.
Damien: You are a bit fixated on the farm analogies this morning, yes? Been watching "Deliverance" again? Since both Darryl Sutter and Brian Sutter (and their brother Darryl, and their other brother Darryl) did fine as NHL rookie coaches, I'm saying there's something in the Sutter blood that means these guys just get the hockey thing and it doesn't matter the age of the players they're coaching. But the Devils will be successful again because, more than any other NHL team, they know who they are. Just like Mufasa. Just like Simba. And knowing who they are and adding a Sutter snarl will work out just fine.
Scott: I will concede that point. It has always been mystifying how the Devils could trot out player after player to fill gaps, whether it's been Paul Martin on the blue line or [Brian] Gionta and [Travis] Zajac up front, and they never miss a beat. Still, sometimes having an identity isn't enough, especially if your most important element isn't what he was 10 years ago (who is?). Which brings me to Mr. Martin Brodeur. You know him perhaps better than any other writer in the land. What does he do for an encore this year?
Shameless plug: Damien authored a book with Brodeur titled "Beyond The Crease."
Damien: A second book with a more gifted writer, perhaps? It's a great question, because I think many in the hockey world are waiting for Brodeur to take a backward step. All that work piles up after awhile (oh, I'm probably talking to the wrong guy). Really, while you've focused on the Devils' offense, I think the real question mark is the defense in front of Brodeur. He would be the first to tell you he benefited from playing behind Stevens, [Ken] Daneyko and Niedermayer for a decade, and now the group in front of him just isn't as familiar or consistent. He faced more shots last season, which is why his season was extraordinary.
Scott: As we've seen with guys like Ed Belfour, Dominik Hasek and, to a lesser degree, Curtis Joseph, being long in the tooth isn't necessarily an impediment to continued success, even greatness. But Brodeur has so little cushion because the team in front of him, both offensively and defensively, is so much less than it was. He was very good Thursday night and it wasn't enough. How does Sutter use Brodeur less to keep him fresh when he is so integral to virtually every point they accumulate? I thought bringing in Kevin Weekes was a terrific move to help lighten Brodeur's load, but he's hurt and the Devils are back where they started. Loved the book, by the way. Who plays you in the movie version?
Damien: Why, Gene Hackman, of course. Or Katie Couric. Re: Weekes. It doesn't matter who the backup is because Brodeur's going to play 70-plus games and all the playoff games, as well. Twenty other teams would love to not have to wonder who they're going to put in net every night. Don't forget the Matvichuk factor, by the way. Scratched on opening night, Sir Richard will be back with a vengeance, one suspects, and thus the NHL balance will change.
Scott: Is that the same Richard Matvichuk who mysteriously appeared on the Devils' playoff roster after being hurt all last season (and whose appearance during the regular season would have hurt the Devils' cap situation)? I think if Brodeur plays 70 games, the Devils not only don't get to the 100-point plateau but also are on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in. Of course, that just may be my innate fear of Newark talking, and not the hockey writer.
Damien: Yes, a few of us are planning to cover Devils home games on the Internet. You know what yellow-bellied SOBs we all are, right? I will pass on to Monsieur Brodeur your concern for his physical well-being. I'm more concerned for his pocketbook given that seven other starting goalies now make more than he does. Geez, good thing the NHL has its financial house in order.
Scott: That's the league. That's Mr. Brodeur's blind allegiance to Mr. Lamoriello (if I'm not mistaken, Brodeur does his own deals, doesn't he?). I like it, frankly. If there were more like Brodeur, the league wouldn't have had to save itself from its own managers. But I digress. As usual.
Damien: Your digressions are usually when your logic finally has a chance to breathe, my friend.
Scott: Like a fine wine. So, will you be attending the Devils' home opener? I believe their nine-game road odyssey to start the season brings them to Atlanta next week, so I'll get a firsthand look at the unsinkable ones. What time is your flight, by the way?
Damien: Noon. Are we done? I can assume that, like usual, we've solved nothing. Until next week, then.
Scott: Done. This week, the Devils. Next week, the world. Until then.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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