Although training camp doesn’t officially open for another couple of days with the Devils, this weekend’s rookie tournament in Buffalo with Sabres and Bruins prospects felt like an early, unofficial open of camp. Admittedly, as time goes on I find it harder to get amped up for hockey season although perhaps that’ll change when the games start officially. Still, as a multi-sport fan my loyalty’s certainly divided with the start of football season – though I’m not expecting too much from my Jets they are 1-0 at the moment. Not to mention a spectacular baseball season where the Mets will finally play meaningful October games for the first time in eight years. Even of all things tennis occupied a lot of my attention in the last week between finally spending a day at the Open last Saturday (I was next door to the Donald Young comeback watching the Wawrinka match at the same time), and then following it through this weekend as the women’s tournament had a surprisingly compelling finish, while the men’s tournament continues to be dominated by the best player and the best rivalry in tennis today.
Until just now I haven’t really thought about it yet but it’s going to be difficult even in October to get amped up for Devil games while the Mets are still playing. It’s the same reason why I normally refuse to go to Met games till the Devil season ends, when your heart’s still in one sport it’s kind of hard to care about another. Of course, even aside from all that this year will be the first time the Devils will be in a true rebuilding state since ever, or at least since I’ve been watching. I get why of course, former GM Lou Lamoriello’s attempts at patching a competitive team together while at the same time making over the defense continued to have diminishing returns the last couple of years and eventually every organization has to pay the piper for a sustained period of success anyway (although Detroit probably can still put off the bill as long as Ken Holland is there). While the rational part of me thinks the sweeping change that happened this season was neccesary – and the fact there’s an experienced GM like Ray Shero to oversee it also makes me feel better as opposed to hiring a first-timer – the part of me that only knew the 1994-2012 Devils and that era of success is still going to be worried about what if this doesn’t work out and we’re now going to be doomed to a perpetual cycle of rebuilding?
Change has certainly been a buzzword of this offseason – Lou is now in Toronto as former player Brendan Shanahan’s consigliere. Martin Brodeur’s post-playing career will be in St. Louis, not Newark. Scott Stevens is in limbo after not being retained by the new coaching staff. Same with longtime scouting director David Conte. Of all the stalwarts from the glory days, only Patrik Elias remains and he’ll be 39 going into camp, coming off a career worst season on the last year of his contract. Clearly it’s a new day around here and after three straight playoff-less seasons this probably was the best time for everyone to cut the cord. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee the Shero-John Hynes connection is going to work out. Or for that matter new ownership with Josh Harris and David Blitzer, whose NBA team seems to be in a perpetual rebuild themselves.
However, camp’s about looking forward and being excited about the future. Certainly there are things to be excited about, starting with a young defense that could have as many as five 24 and under starters in the lineup and no true rookies although twenty-one year old Damon Severson’s close to it after injury took away half of his rookie campaign last year. Other prospects and overseas signings like 22-year old Vojtech Mozic from the Czech Republic and KHL import Raman Hraberenka could factor into the mix as well and on the eve of camp, Shero also made an under-the-radar signing of former Flames defenseman David Schlemko to a one-way deal. Seemingly the twenty-eight year old Schlemko is the new Peter Harrold who was the new Jay Leach who was the new Tommy Albelin (later in his career), the #7 defenseman who could step into the lineup in a pinch and warm a seat on the bench in the meantime so one of the younger players doesn’t have to sit. Schlemko probably would have been a top six defenseman in some other organizations last year though, and in the event of a trade he could definitely challenge for a top six role here. What makes having all these young defensemen even more exciting is the presence of Cory Schneider in goal, and his ability to limit the damage from the growing pains of a young D.
Of course offensively there’s still holes to fill although drafting Pavel Zacha at #6 overall and trading for Kyle Palmeri at the draft was a good start. Despite the buyout of Danius Zubrus and letting free agents Scott Gomez (currently on a PTO in St. Louis) and Steve Bernier (on a PTO for the Isles) walk, it’s still going to be an older forward group with skill deficiencies until younger players like Zacha, recent first-rounder John Quenneville and others can eventually make an impact on the NHL level. Although Lou’s FA and draft choices up front were lacking in recent years, he did make at least one astute signing with Joseph Blandisi during last season, and Blandisi by all accounts was one of the Devils’ better players this weekend at the prospects challenge. While the forward group is farther off from making an impact than the defensive group at least now there’s some light at the end of the tunnel at last for the first time since the dual FA departures of Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise staggered the franchise.
Although I am interested in seeing how the kids do in camp, in all likelihood I’ll only attend the Ranger preseason game if that (I’ve already sold all my preseason tickets on StubHub but got a couple of vouchers for that game a week from Saturday), but the Devils are holding an open practice at the Prudential Center this Saturday that is free to attend and I’ll likely go. Among the changes I’m looking forward to under the new regime, this is one of them, since the team got to Newark it felt like practices were held under lock and key, until they were finally open to season ticket holders once or twice a year – usually a mid-day mid-week practice that I refused to take off work for. Finally I get to attend an actual practice on a weekend, really for the first time since they were at South Mountain. I didn’t take enough advantage of seeing practices then. Maybe that – and the fact we can finally see games as opposed to debating whether change is good – will start to get me more excited about hockey season.