Ready for Primetime?

By Jared Ramsden

Most rookies have the benefit of being eased in to the NHL, but that is not the case for two members of the New Jersey Devils. Although both Brian Gionta and Christian Berglund saw time with the big club in 2001/02 and did not look out of place, they are relatively inexperienced. Barring a horrible training camp, both are expected to crack the opening night roster, and the Devils desperately need one of, or preferably both of Gionta and Berglund to make immediate impacts.

Gionta, the former Boston College standout Right Winger, is only 5’7, 170 lbs, but he does not let his small stature prevent him from being an impact player. Gionta’s calling cards are his above-average speed, offensive flair and his outstanding hustle and determination. Gionta doesn’t play as though he is 5’7. Although he can be out muscled along the boards, that doesn’t prevent him from grinding it out with much bigger and stronger defencemen. He displays great puck skills and possesses a good, hard shot. He is also reliable defensively.

In his first pro season, Gionta spent most of the first half of the season in Albany with the River Rats, posting totals of 9 goals, 16 assists and 25 points in 37 games. Gionta was recalled in late December by the Devils and didn’t look back. In 33 games with the Devils, Gionta posted respectable totals of 4 goals, 7 assists and 11 points. But it was his performance in the playoffs that stood out the most last season. Gionta was one of the lone bright spots, scoring 2 goals, 2 assists and 4 points in 6 playoff games.

This season, Gionta will be given every opportunity to win a job on one of the Devils top two lines, and if his playoff performance is any indication, he should have little difficulty doing just that. If he doesn’t make it on one of the top two lines though, he will be a shoe-in for a third line role. The Devils don’t want to put any undue pressure on Gionta to produce offensively, seeing that he has less than 40 NHL games under his belt, but if he plays on a scoring line, he will be expected to score. A 10-15 goal, 35-40 point season should be attainable for the pint-sized sniper, but he could do more or less, depending on where and how he plays.

Berglund is a 5’11, 190 lb high-energy winger, who is also versatile enough to play center if need be. Berglund plays every shift as though it is his last, displaying great desire, determination and aggressiveness. He thoroughly enjoys the physical aspect of hockey and loves to battle it out in the corners and along the boards. That aspect also allows him to get under his opponents skin with relative ease. Berglund is an excellent skater, and also possesses a fair amount of offensive skill, showing lots of creativity in the offensive end of the ice. He can be difficult to knock of the puck at times, despite his somewhat small stature. Berglund’s style of play allows him to be a good fit anywhere in the line-up from second line scorer to fourth line pest. However, what makes him an above average prospect is his strong two-way play, a must if you want to be a Devil.

After playing Sweden for his entire career, Berglund crossed the border to North America last season to make his pro debut. He started the season in Albany, but his strong play and quick adjustment to North American hockey earned him a call up in January and he did not look out of place in his 15 game trial, scoring 2 goals and 7 assists for 9 points. He was sent back to Albany in February, but was recalled again late in the season after finishing second in River Rat scoring with 21 goals and 26 assists for 47 points in 60 games. He also gained valuable experience with the Devils in the playoffs, seeing action in a couple of games as an injury replacement.

In 2002/03, Berglund has a great opportunity to stick with the Devils. Based on his strong 15 game trial last season and his impressive play in limited post-season action, Berglund should have an edge over other youngsters battling for roster spots this season. He could see action on anywhere from the second line to the fourth line. The ideal spot for Berglund to start the season, assuming he makes the squad, would be on the third line where his energy, intensity and two-way play would be invaluable. Depending on how he performs though, he could see second line duty, and as a result, would likely score more. Berglund is capable of 10 goals and 25 to 30 points, but could do more damage if he plays on a scoring line.

Before the Devils 2002/03 training camp even began, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello said that the likes of Gionta and Berglund would not be handed jobs and would be in competition with others young players such as Jiri Bicek, Mike Rupp and others. But in reality, they both showed enough last season, to be considered the front-runners for the open forward jobs in New Jersey. There is a lot of pressure on New Jersey to maintain their status as an elite team in the NHL, and the performances of Gionta and Berglund could have a big say in whether that happens or not.