Rookies push for spots

By Andrew Clark

The pre-season is almost over and rookies are making things difficult for Larry Robinson and the rest of the coaching staff come decision time.

The New Jersey Devils have played five games against Atlantic Division foes thus far with only about two weeks remaining until the start of the season in Washington against Jaromir Jagr and the Capitals. During these games, a lot of new and young talented faces have laced up the skates and put on the red and black sweater, and all have impressed coach Larry Robinson in one way or another. Over the next week or so, Robinson and the rest of the staff are going to have to make some very difficult decisions on the open roster spots that were not filled via free agency over the summer. The Devils trimmed the roster to thirty-six over the weekend. Fifteen players were sent to the Albany River Rats and another six were re-assigned to their respective junior clubs. Those joining the Rats are forwards Scott Cameron, Brett Clouthier, Sylvain Cloutier, Ted Drury, Jason Lehoux, Carlyle Lewis, Richard Rochefort and Rob Skrlac with defensemen Daryl Andrews, Joel Dezainde, Alex Johnstone, Mikko Jokela, Andre Lakos, Lucas Nehrling and Victor Uchevatov. Those returned to the Canadian Junior Leagues are Phil Cole (Lethbridge, WHL), defenseman Deryk Engelland (Moose Jaw, WHL), right wing Robin LeBlanc (Baie-Comeau, QMJHL), center Warren McCutcheon (Lethbridge), center Brandon Nolan (Osahawa, OHL) and right wing Igor Pohanka (Prince Albert, WHL). Although most of these players did not see action, the ones who did took full advantage of the opportunity and showcased what they are capable of in the upcoming season, especially Rat captain Sylvain Cloutier and recently signed center Ted Drury.

Basically, there are four spots up for grabs (two forwards, on defensemen, and a goalie) and it will be a dogfight to the bitter end.

The Three Musketeers

One of the more interesting battles currently going on in camp is the one for the lone vacant defensive position. The three players involved, Sascha Goc, Josef Boumedienne and Mike Commodore all have unique playing styles and can contribute to the Devils in positive ways. Commodore, who was figured on as being the early favorite could be edged out by the other two. Coach Robinson loves his physical playing style and his experience at North Dakota (NCAA) and with the Devils last year in 25 games, but sometimes lacks an offensive punch. During the Flyers game on Saturday, he was paired with Boumedienne for most of the game and tallied an assist in a game with the Isles on Monday. Goc, who is clearly the most improved of the three from last year’s camp, has received an endorsement from captain Scott Stevens to join the club. Goc has gotten quality time on special teams and has been paired with Scott Neidermayer and Scott Stevens in 5-on-5 situations. Sascha’s offensive play really stands out and he seems more settled in than last year. Boumedienne is the one skater who seems the most rounded of the three. scoring at least one point in three of the four games he has played, Josef has been solid in his defensive role. In the Flyers game, Josef was on a 3 on 3 situation in overtime with Elias and Abelin where he showed his speed and offensive abilities. Larry Robinson is going to have a difficult decision to make real soon, but notes each player needs work around the net and deep in the zone on defense. Whoever is chosen and stays up for opening night is still unclear, but don’t be surprised if one or both of the other two see action with the Devils later in the year.

Where’s Pierre

The likely Alexander Mogilny replacement going in to the off-season has yet to appear in a pre-season game for the red and black. It seems that Dagenais is AWOL, absent WITH authorized leave. There are conflicting reports whether or not Dagenais has re-signed with the Devils, but there are no reports of any injuries that would keep him from skating. According to Lou Lamoriello in August, Pierre was the front-runner for a spot on the Devils and an important part of the franchise. If he were unsigned, this would not be the first time that Lou has had negative contract talks with Mr. Dagenais and his agent. After being drafted in 1996, the Devils were unable to sign the speedy winger and he re-enter the draft in 1998 only to be selected by New Jersey again. Dagenais has spent the last three seasons in the AHL with the Rats and saw action for nine games in New Jersey. This could be his last, and best shot at making the club, but Pierre could be thrown in the waiver pool on Friday or packaged in a deal later in the season.

Crash Line United?

Since Mike Peluso left the organization, the trio of Bobby Holik and Randy McKay has been short one permanent player. Sergei Brylin, John Madden and Bob Corkum are a few of the several players who joined the line, but could never permanently fill the position. Enter Swedish Elite League veteran Andreas Salomonsson. Since the beginning of training camp, the three have been paired together, and it has worked out quite well. The three skaters seem to complement each other and work the puck nicely. Expect this trio to stick together through at least the beginning of the season. They should take some pressure off of the “A” line with Alexander Mogilny leaving for Toronto. Salomonsson will make the team, because he has a one-way contract that would allow him to return to Sweden if he didn’t make the team.

Last Man Standing

With one offensive position still remaining after Salomonsson claims the first, several younger and very talented players are making legitimate claims to the roster spot. Included in this is Brian Gionta, Christian Berglund, Mike Jefferson, Stan Gron and unlikely candidate Mike Rupp. Gionta has been reunited with Scott Gomez on his wing, and the two are playing excellent hockey together. Gionta has tallied a goal and a assist, allowed Gomez to play strong hockey, and has showcased the same talent he displayed at Boston College. Berglund has also done the same. Although he hasn’t registered a point yet, he has presented his aggressive side, a booming shot and his speed. Don’t be surprised if he sees time with the Devils. Jefferson and Gron, who played for the Rats last year are both making things difficult for Larry Robinson. Jefferson, who is known for the rough stuff and dropping the gloves has become a presence on the ice. Going toe to toe and holding his own with Jeremy Roenick on Saturday will probably be the highlight of his camp, but he wants to score some goals and make the squad. Gron, who, with Jefferson last year, saw action in the NHL, really has the heart and desire to make the team. In a game with the Islanders, he tallied two goals and an assist. Although he with Jefferson, will probably be sent down, Gron is letting the franchise aware that he is ready if the need him and can perform. Finally, Mike Rupp, the oldest of candidates, is making a final push towards being promoted. He scored two points in one game and has logged a lot of penalty minutes through gritty aggressive play.

The Best For Last

It seems that the back-up job to Marty is between two players, the pre-season favorite, and the unlikely long shot. J.F. Damphousse has played in two games, the first he surrendered three goals to the Rangers and then only one in relief of Marty against the Flyers. J.F.’s play was much better in the second game as he came up with a couple of solid saves in serious offensive threats by the orange and black. It seemed he had good lateral movement and challenged the puck by cutting off the angles, but most importantly, he was lucky as a couple ringed off the posts. Scott Clemmensen is really giving Damphousse a run for his money. He has now appeared in two games, one in relief of Marty and a start on Monday. In both games, he has only allowed one goal each time, and has played better than expected. It seems that this BC graduate wants to join fellow alum Gionta in making the squad. Ari Ahonen has yet to appear in a pre-season game and will most likely be sent to the AHL for the upcoming year. Well, that leaves us with long time Rat Fredric Henry. In two appearances, Henry has been shelled for 7 goals and has performed as expected. Henry was supposed to challenge J.F. for the back-up job, but his future with the Devils could be in jeopardy. Don’t be surprised if he is exposed in the waiver draft later this week as Ahonen and Clemmensen split time in Albany.

Robinson and company will have to make some difficult decisions real soon and Albany will have an much improved squad from last year.