The Devils minor leaguers and rookies have already hit the ice, and the veterans report to camp for physicals on Sept. 19, with the main camp set to begin on the 20th. The Devils get a quick start on the pre-season, as they play their first of seven exhibition games on the 22nd against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Devils had a less tumultuous off-season this time around, and with the team knowing what to expect in year two of the Brent Sutter regime, expectations are high after a disappointing first-round playoff exit at the hands of the rival New York Rangers.
There don’t appear to be many roster spots there for the taking, but the Devils rookies will be looking to make an impression and push some of the established veterans for a spot on the big club with a strong training camp and pre-season.
With the addition of former Devils Brian Roslton and Bobby Holik during the off-season, there does not appear to be any openings up front. But that could change with top prospects Nicklas Bergfors and Petr Vrana leading the charge as candidates to push for spots on the opening night roster.
With a top-six forward group consisting of last year’s leading scorer Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, Rolston, captain Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Gionta and Travis Zajac, there would have to be some major re-shuffling of the deck in order to accommodate Bergfors and/or Vrana making the team. While Vrana could really be slotted anywhere among the top 12 group of forwards, Bergfors would have to be utilized on a scoring line with skill players in order for him to make a legitimate impact.
Moving further down the depth chart at forward, John Madden, Jay Pandolfo, Danius Zubrus, Holik and David Clarkson are established NHL’ers who are assured roster spots as well, which leaves Mike Rupp and Rod Pelley as players who will have to be at the top of their games in order to hold onto their roster spots with the big club.
Others aside from Bergfors and Vrana to keep a close eye on during training camp include the likes of Matt Halischuk, who is turning pro after a sensational final season of junior, strapping right winger Nick Palmieri, and a trio of forwards attending their first professional camps; Brad Snetsinger, Vladimir Zharkov and Michael Swift.
While not considered a prospect at Hockey’s Future anymore due to his age, 27-year-old Fedor Fedorov is a big and talented forward with a bit of a nasty side. He is coming back to North America after two fairly productive seasons in his native Russia, and appears determined to make an impact this time around.
GM Lou Lamoriello had hoped to add a top-four blueliner into the mix in the off-season, and while there is still time before the season starts for that to happen, the Devils will go into training camp with essentially the same group of defensemen that finished the season with the club last year, minus only Vitaly Vishnevski, who was recently put on waivers and will be playing this season in Russia.
Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya emerged as the Devils top pairing last season, with Martin leading the charge as the club’s workhorse on the back end. Colin White and Bryce Salvador, who was re-signed in the off-season after coming over from St. Louis at the trade deadline last year, both appear to be locked into the top-six group of defenders.
While Mike Mottau emerged as a pleasant surprise last season, he would be much more effective in a lesser role, playing a few less minutes. He might be challenged for a roster spot, but unless he falls flat on his face, should make the team again.
Andy Greene and Sheldon Brookbank will be pushed hard by the likes of 2006 top pick Matt Corrente, and newcomer Anssi Salmela, a 23-year-old Finnish rookie who led all SM-Liiga defensemen with 16 goals last year. Head coach Brent Sutter has already raved about the tough as nails Corrente, and it would not be a major shock if he were to start the season in New Jersey with the Devils. He showed well in his previous two camps with the team, and the Devils will not hold back their top defense prospect if he proves he is ready for the big show.
Fresh off a season in which he led all collegiate defenseman in scoring, it will be interesting to track the progress of Tyler Eckford and see how he adjusts to the pro game. He will likely need some minor league seasoning with Lowell before getting a serious look at a roster spot. Mark Fraser has two full AHL seasons under his belt and doesn’t appear to need much more time in the minors, so he is another guy to keep close tabs on as training camp progresses.
Everything appears to be set from top to bottom throughout the organization. All-world goaltender Martin Brodeur returns for an unprecedented 14th season with the club, fresh after winning his fourth Vezina trophy in five seasons. He currently sits only 14 wins behind Patrick Roy’s all-time mark of 552 wins, and considering he has 12 straight 35+ win seasons under his belt, expect that mark to be reached in mid to late November.
Kevin Weekes was expected to provide Brodeur with more rest last season, but instead wound up only suiting up in nine games. He is a more than capable caddy to have behind Brodeur, but as coach Sutter learned last season, if Brodeur’s practice time is monitored properly, he can ride arguably the best goaltender in the NHL and play him in 70+ games.
Returning to the fold over the off-season was Scott Clemmensen, after spending 2007-08 with the Toronto organization. He will be asked to mentor the top goaltending prospect — the only goaltending prospect in the system — Jeff Frazee. Frazee is coming off a disastrous junior season at the University of Minnesota, but the Devils hope that a fresh start, along with some pro-level coaching will get Frazee back on track. There is no doubting the talent of Frazee, who led Team USA to a silver medal at the 2006-07 World Junior Championships. He just needs to work on the mental side of his game, something that he needs to accomplish very quickly if he wants to have a future in the NHL.