Two summers ago, the Islanders' long-overdue commitment to a rebuild crystallized something for me as a hockey fan: The joy is the journey. Could I put up with some serious losing for a greater long-term goal? Turns out, yes I can -- particularly if it alters the static stopgap course the franchise was on.
"Winning is everything" is the oft-applied militaristic cliche -- but if winning is indeed "everything," then most fans experience "nothing" most of the time. Even if you're winning more often than not (ooh! shootout points!), you're usually not winning the Cup. And if "winning is everything," then even the Cup is but a fleeting moment, quickly followed by a return to the emptiness, apparently, of "nothing."
Yep, the joy is in the journey. Which is why I'm already getting a kick out of this squad's growing pains, its progress in fits and starts.
Questions from last night were Islanders-focused, so we'll focus this bit on the opposition. Here's John's In Lou We Trust preview, which notes the Devils are an injured squad -- the "other" Niedermayer being the latest -- but they're quite likely getting Patrik Elias back tonight.
Meanwhile, this is Scott Gordon's second encounter with the dark sith, Jacques Lemaire. Last year's encounter, a 6-2 loss to the Wild, did not go well. But that one featured Yann Danis in Islanders blue, whereas tonight he gets the nod in Devils red.
[Update: I ended up getting some Q&A's from John regarding the Devils, Lemaire, Danis, Niedermayer. They're added after the jump, and worth a look.]
My Q's for John:
1. Brent Sutter and Jacques Lemaire: I know the word is that Lemaire is not such a trapper anymore. But how's the transition going? Has he been able to blend elements of Sutter's more aggressive approach with traditional Lemaire lock-down hockey?
John, ILWT: The transition seems to going much better after 13 games. With respect to blending styles, if you can believe it, prior to the injuries to Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya, Lemaire was actually more aggressive than Sutter in some regards. For example, Lemaire has been putting out power play units of at least 4 forwards on both units in attempts to jump start the offense. Lemaire has the defensemen leading breakouts as well as encouraging them to go deep in the offensive zone if necessary. With those two out, Lemaire has dialed that back a bit, but the defense still comes in deep more often than you'd expect - especially from Andy Greene.
I recently noticed the Devils sometimes drop into a 1-2-2 but it's not something they do consistently, and I don't think he'd use it as much if Martin was healthy. With only 4 veteran defensemen on the blueline, it makes sense to be a bit more conservative on defense. Lemaire likes to throw different looks with respect offense. Whereas Sutter's style had the Devils dump it in and win the puck down low with physical play leading to cycles; the Devils don't automatically do that everytime they have the puck going forward. This at least keeps the opposition defenses somewhat honest. I think Lemaire's strategies will flourish when the Devils become fully healthy.
2. Rob "The Other" Niedermayer: I see he's put up a little offense, special teams work and faceoff success. Are you pleased? Seems like a coup in terms of a late signing who immediately plays his role well?
Devils fans shouldn't be anything but pleased with Niedermayer's play at center. He's more of a checking defenseman but he hasn't looked out of place when moved off the third line for some shifts. His defensive awareness is useful, his skills on the PK have been helpful, and his production is excellent for the 14-16 minutes he does play on average. It was a very smart signing. It's a shame he'll be out tonight and tomorrow at a minimum.
3. Yann Danis: I had to ask. I know we talked about him a bit over the summer, and he's only been in one game, but what's your gut feeling on how he's going to work out? The traditional "I'm good here but not elsewhere" Clemmensen experience?
I think he'll work out well. He looked very good on the road against Boston. I didn't think he was at fault for the sole goal against and he was always in position for nearly every other shot by Boston. liked his lateral movement and that he was so calm after not playing since preseason. I think he'll work out as a back-up goaltender, someone who can spell Brodeur for a few games - and that's really it. Do I think he'll have a long future? With a one-year deal, I doubt he'll have it in New Jersey. But I think he has the skills to be a 1A goalie or the #2 goalie in a two-goalie tandem team somewhere else.
4. The Devils are off to a strong start, and that's without Elias. With him coming back, what's the ceiling for this team in the regular season? Who gets bumped out of the lineup (once everyone's healthy)? Will they improve on last year's version?
I doubt the Devils will improve on their franchise mark of 51 wins last season. That's just such a high mark to achieve that I think it's unfair to the Devils to hope they'll meet or surpass it just when Elias (and everyone else) returns. But I do think the division title is certainly possible with a fully healthy lineup and that's really the ceiling. Not the conference, and certainly not the league; but winning the division is possible.
Once Elias (and Pandolfo and Niedermayer) are back, I see Matt Halischuk returning to Lowell and either one of Andrew Peters and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. Between the two, I expect it to be Peters since he's not featured as of late (though he'll play tonight). When Martin and Oduya returns to the blueline, Jay Leach and either one of Cory Murphy or Mark Fraser will be sent down to Lowell as I don't see the Devils carrying more than 7 defensemen at a time on their active roster.
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Can Lemaire be one of the best at upsetting the Islanders scheme under Scott Gordon? You have to believe he'd relish the opportunity. If Brent Sutter was more of an old school sand-and-grit guy, Lemaire relishes the X's and O's. Hard to imagine a Lemaire team being stunned -- twice -- the way Sutter's Devils team was late last season.
Beyond that, Lemaire was weirdly hot under the collar after last year's Wild-Islanders game got chippy. Sincere offense, or just Lemaire feeling the heat as a season and a tenure faded?
- The Devils are 7-0 on the road, and earlier this week picked up just their second home win, over Washington.
- The Devils' record is far better, but the special teams and 5-on-5 play is closer than you might think. PP: NYI-18.5%, NJ-17.6% | PK: NYI-80.4%, NJ-81.8% | 5-on-5 GF/GA: NYI-0.82, NJ-0.90
- Despite a truly horrid night at the faceoff dot in Buffalo, the Islanders remain near the top of the league (6th) at 51.9%, while the Devils are 16th at 49.2%.
- Undefeated in Extra Time: While the Islanders have gone to extra time half the time -- and lost five times -- the Devils have only tied three games, taking the shootout bonus point all three times.
Islanders Hit the Road
As for the Islanders: About that journey I referred to at the beginning of this post, and the evolution in fits and starts? Well, despite a tough slate of opponents in October, the schedule doesn't get easier now, as the Isles enter this 9-of-10 road swing heading toward Thanksgiving. Here's Scott Gordon on that challenge, as reported at Newsday:
"It’s going to be a tough test for us," coach Scott Gordon said. "We’re going to find out what we are made out of. The better we come out of this, obviously it’s a huge thing for our team."
"You don’t have the last [line] change, so you don’t get the the match-up that suits your team," he said of road games. "There’s an element that some players play braver at home than they do on the road, so when you are a visiting team you might get a better performance out of the opposition than maybe when they go on the road."
On this trip, the Isles will no doubt run into their share of brave little Mottaus at home. When they do, hopefully they deal with it better than last year. Thus far I like what I've seen in terms of how they play together; the contrast in atmosphere and performance between October 2008 (2-6-1) and October 2009 (4-4-5) is undeniable.
But a rough road run in November can change all that. The journey never stops.
Prediction: Yann Danis reminds us both why the Isles signed him, and why they let him go.