Devils Defense Gets Younger

By Andrew Clark
With Sean O’Donnell signing with the Boston Bruins and Ken Sutton making the jump to play for Mike Milbury on the Island, the Devils defense will have a good mix of seasoned veterans with younger talent, with a bright future ahead.

Yes, yes, I know, …you are already laughing about how ridiculous this sounds and are about to go back to the Devils main page never to read another one of my articles. But before you head over to the message boards and start posting, continue reading and think about what I have to say for a while. Now, I have read several posts on various Devils message boards saying how the Devils defense is too old and there isn’t much left in the tank. I have also read other things like, Devils should have kept O’Donnell or tried to sign Erin Weinrich. I was particularly fond of the more sarcastic posts like maybe we should see what Paul Coffey is doing in the fall or maybe Robinson will get nostalgic and strap on the skates and throw on a sweater for old times’ sake.

Before you actually start ripping on the Devils’ Defense, lets look at the personnel who make up the core of blueliners. First, Scott Stevens, who turned 37 in April is the captain of the team and the unchallenged leader of the squad on and off the ice. He is and will be a presence in the NHL this coming year and years to follow. He played 81 games last year and expect him to play another 80 this year. Ken Daneyko is also 37 years young, but is in the prime of his career. He is skating better (but not faster), more confident with the puck and is very important on the penalty kill. His value in the organization has improved since his role and services as tough guy/borderline goon is no longer required. He played 77 games last year and will play another 70 some-odd this coming year. Brian Rafalski and Scott Neidermayer are both excellent puck handlers and great play makers. Neidermayer now has 10 years experience in the NHL and Rafalski was named to the U.S. Olympic squad for the 2002 games. And Colin White turned 23 last December and shows a lot of promise in improving his game. Yes, he made a lot of stupid mistakes and he showed his inexperience throughout the playoffs, but things for the big youngster can only get better.

Right before the trading deadline in March, the Devils traded defensive prospect Willie Mitchell to the Minnesota Wild for Sean O’Donnell to solidify the defense as the defending champs entered the playoffs. The Devils also had veteran blueliner Ken Sutton who has traveled a lot back and forth between the NHL and the AHL. Now, with O’Donnell at 30 and Sutton at 32 and the five aforementioned players, the average age of the Devils Defense right before the playoffs was 30 years of age.

Soon after the playoffs ended and the free agent season began, the Devils had a void in the back that needed to be filled and they went to the free agents market and dug up former Devil and current Calgary Flame Tommy Albelin. The Swedish born player, who is 37 years old, was a member of the 1995 Stanley Cup team and played 77 games last year registering 20 points and was a +2. Albelin brings a lot to the table that was lost with both O’Donnell and Sutton and will make a nice fit into the organization once again. With the loss of two defensemen and the addition of one, there still is a position open for the seventh spot on the team, which will probably be filled by one of four youngster who are about 22 years old. Now with Stevens, Albelin, Daneyko, Rafalski, Neidermayer, White and one more reserve, the average age of the Devils Defense is still, believe it or not, 30 years old.

Now, I propose to you, that GM Lou Lamoriello did the best thing for the franchise by letting go the two free agents and signing a third, slightly older player. The rationale for this strategic move lies with four defensemen in Albany and two others playing in the collegiate ranks. There is still a spot open on the Devils for the 2001-02 season as a 7th defensemen. There will be four young, strong and very talented gentlemen competing for this position: Mike Commodore, Sascha Goc, Josef Boumedienne and Andre Lakos.

Mike Commodore played 20 games last season with the New Jersey Devils early in the season before heading to Albany for the rest of the year. With New Jersey, he scored 1 goal and had 4 assists and was a + 5 during the stretch. The defensemen who stands 6’4″ and weighs 225 pounds was a part of the 2000 NCAA championship team of North Dakota. Mike is big, fast, strong, and a very solid defensive player who fits well into the scheme of things in East Rutherford. With quality experience early in the season last year and possessing the ability to exert a physical presence on the ice, which the Devils will need, Mike seems the likely front runner for the spot.

However, Sascha Goc could give Mike a tough challenge for the position. Goc also saw playing time in the NHL last year. He played 11 games in the top league and did not tally a point. However, in 55 appearances for the River Rats he scored 10 goals, including 4 on the powerplay and one shorthanded, and helped on 29 other scores. His 39 points were tops on the farm club for defensemen last year. The German is also a big player, but it is his abilities to handle the puck and contribute on the special teams that makes him valuable within the organization. Look for Goc to make an occasional appearance next year, especially if Commodore slips up.

But do not count out Josef Boumedienne and Andre Lakos for a possible promotion to the NHL. Neither played for the Devils last year, but got a lot of quality time in Albany. Boumedienne, 23, was Albany’s top blueliner and was counted on to lead the defensive core. As the Rats made a late season surge towards the playoffs, Josef was one of the guys leading the way with points in just about every game. Boumedienne finished the season with 8 goals, four on the power play and 28 assists in 79 games. He also tallied 117 PIM’s and is one of Albany’s best skater. He has what it takes but faces some really good competition. So does Andre Lakos, who was an AHL Vic +/- player of the month. Lakos is extremely large, standing at six and a half feet tall and weighing 230 pounds. He scored 21 points last season in Albany. At 22 years old, Lakos represents another option in the farm team, but could use some more playing time in the AHL.

With this being the final season for Ken Daneyko, and Stevens and Abelin only playing one to two more each, the future looks very bright for the Devils on defense. The Devils will probably play two of the aforementioned prospects, one on a regular basis because Ken may get a rest every once in a while and Stevens will be saved for the playoffs late in the season. The second might get the occasional game here and there. Also, barring any injuries or trades, the younger players could obtain some excellent experience and playing time to hone their skills to the NHL level. By not signing Sutton and O’Donnell and acquiring an older Albelin, Lou made a smart decision by allowing room for the younger guys to prove themselves and showcase their abilities to the team and the rest of the league. Eventually, someone must take the reins when Scott, Kenny and Tommy call it quits, so why not get somebody ready today, for tomorrow. By placing the responsibilities on a younger defensemen to step up and meet the challenge, Lou is benefiting the team later down the road. Also, by obtaining only one defensemen, you are letting the younger guys aware of a potential spot and allowing for some really good competition amoung some very talented and motivated hockey players who want a permanent position in the NHL. Get set for a very exciting training camp and Larry Robinson is going to have to make some difficult decisions.

The fans complaining of an aged defense is something that will not happen for a while in New Jersey. Once Stevens, Daneyko and Albelin retire, the organization has several options to consider when replacing these excellent athletes. In three more years, the Devils will welcome 2000 first round draft pick David Hale and his fellow U.S. World Juniors teammate Paul Martin to the NHL. Both are very talented hockey players that offer a wide range of skills and abilities. Hale is currently playing for the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota, Commodore’s alma mater, and is known for his brute force, overbearing strength and effective and solid defensive play. Paul Martin, from Elk River, is playing for the Golden Gophers of Minnesota and has blossomed into an excellent two-way defensemen. Paul can handle the puck very well, skate very fast and smooth, and lead a power play on the attack. Both players are entering their sophomore year in their NCAA careers and have promising futures as professional hockey players. I can just about image a defensive core in New Jersey that will showcase strong, stay-at-home defensemen like Colin White, Mike Commodore and David Hale, while having three able and willing puck-carrying, offensive mind blueliners like Scott Neidermayer, Brian Rafalski and Paul Martin. The oldest being Neidermayer and Rafalski at the age of 32 and Hale and Martin being the youngest at about 23. This, of course, would only happen if no one leaves via free agency or trades.

All in all, the New Jersey Devils are one of the leagues best defensive teams, especially over the past eight seasons. Expect this trend to continue during the 2001-02 campaign and well into the next couple of years as older players retire and younger prospects rise through the ranks to professional hockey.