Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. New Jersey Devils

Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. New Jersey Devils

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Welcome to the 2014-15 season opener! After an off-season that felt like forever, Leafs hockey is back…. (*checks the ridiculous schedule, realizes it’s still 2013*).

Before James van Riemsdyk played his first game as a Maple Leaf, Leafs fans were salivating at the prospect of dropping the big winger into the center ice position next to Phil Kessel. That was after the recently-hired Randy Carlyle got an early lesson on how even the most innocent offhanded comment (like maybe trying JvR at center, at some point) can spark a wildfire in this market.  It never happened, but fans were nonetheless awe struck by the big man’s talent, the chemistry he formed with Kessel, the dynamism of that duo once Lupul went down to injury,  and most of all that Brian Burke had acquired him in a one-for-one trade for Luke Schenn. This was before we learned Kessel and Bozak were going to be attached at the hip under Carlyle as they were under Wilson.

Tonight, with Bozak and Bolland on the shelf, we’ll get to see how that will look as Carlyle has been forced to convert a piece of their wing depth in hopes of shoring up the middle.  JvR will play next to Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel on a top line that looks fantastic on paper from the offensive standpoint. The issue might be that JvR isn’t being supplemented with much in the way of defensive ability on his wings. This line can do damage on attack and not much will change for JvR once over the offensive blueline, but the questions for the Leafs’ newfangled topline will be: How will they fare in defensive zone coverage, and will they be able to get out of their own zone effectively?

JvR’s extra gear is what makes him at least an option at center. Not that he was ever slow, but he gets up and down the ice that much quicker this season and it should help him as he tries to get this whole center thing down. Size, speed and high end skill at the 1C position is a tantalizing prospect, but the obvious issue is that JvR hasn’t played the position at the NHL level. Playing there all the way through college won’t not help, but the mental aspect of the position and the small details are what will be the challenge; faceoffs, supporting down low defensively, tying up the man in the slot, being the wheel in the breakout, etc. It’s going to be an interesting experiment to keep an eye tonight.

The other interesting experiment is going to be the second line of Kadri, Raymond and Clarkson.  One point in five games is not the start David Clarkson was looking to get off to, but the manner in which he’s been bumped around the lineup, with rotating linemates, and Carlyle’s reliance on him in a more defensive role against tough competition, has only added to his already disrupted start given his suspension. The original vision was for Kadri to play next to Clarkson and Lupul on a line that could exploit middling competition, but for a variety of reasons we haven’t seen Kadri and Clarkson together yet. Clarkson, of course, will  be looking to make a statement against his former team. It’s not hard to picture Clarkson being fired up for a night when his former club comes into his new home for the next seven years; he’ll want to prove the Leafs weren’t off their rocker in handing him that contract, and that the struggling Devils shouldn’t have let him walk.

In other storylines, Jerred Smithson will debut for the Leafs on a line with Orr and McLaren.  Rounding out the lines, Kulemin, Bodie and McClement will seemingly represent a makeshift shutdown line for Carlyle. We have seen Carlyle go with some head-to-head, strength-on-strength matchups this season, but it will depend on how the top line looks in the early going (defensively, how JvR is faring in the faceoff circle, and so on).

On defence, Rielly is expected to sit (there were some murmurs of 7D, but latest indication is that he’ll be scratched) to make way for Mark Fraser on the left side. Fraser will play with Ranger, while the Gardiner-Franson pairing is back for the first time this season.

In net, Jonathan Bernier will start, while tomorrow Reimer will get his first crack at the Bruins since.. nevermind.

The struggles of last season have not let up for the Devils in the early going, as they just haven’t been able to score enough since losing Zach Parise and now Clarkson and Kovalchuk (Jagr has helped with 11 points, but the Devils are below 2 goals a game). Peter DeBoer could find himself on the outs soon if something doesn’t turn around, this only a short few years since the Devils were in the Stanley Cup Finals and playing greater than the sum of their parts. The Devils were a great forechecking team in that playoff run and played a high-pressure system that thrived on turnovers; they seem slower from what I’ve seen, have put in some pretty uninspired performances, and obviously are down three of their best scorers from past seasons. They’re actually below the Leafs in shots per game as well. Goaltending hasn’t been as good as the talent would indicate, as Cory Schneider and Martin Brodeur are in the low .900 despite the Devils allowing only 24.5 shots a game (2nd best in the league).

With all the rest time, the Leafs will have no excuse to be flat, unless you think the pregame ceremonies are the cause of slow starts (apparently there will be a lengthy one). The biggest challenge will be trying to mesh with so much of the lineup in flux.

 
Leafs
Devils
Record10-5-04-7-4
GF/G3.13 (7th)1.93 (27th)
GA/G2.40 (8th)2.60 (15th)
SF/G26.1 (28th)25.1 (29th)
SA/G36.8 (29th)24.5 (2nd)
PP23.5% (5th)17.0% (18th)
PK87.1% (4th)84.1% (12th)
5 on 5 F/A1.12 (12th)0.63 (27th)
Sh%12.0% (t-1st)7.7% (23rd)
Sv%93.5% (3rd)89.4% (27th)
FO%45.0% (27th)44.0% (30th)
Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]