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Devils seeking 'right' fit on the power play

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Anton Stralman is among the right-handed d-men at camp.

(New Jersey Devils)
When a power play struggles the way the Devils' did last season, it’s never too early to start working on improvements.

Tuesday's veteran practices at training camp were all about the man advantage, an area in which the Devils ranked 28th (14.4%) a year ago.

Coach Peter DeBoer wants to fix that for 2011-12.

"We did go at it early, that was the plan coming out of our coaching meetings this summer," DeBoer said. "It’s obviously an area that we red-flagged as something we wanted to improve at, and we wanted to spend some time on it early."

The extra attention on the power play begins even before Wednesday's preseason opener against the Rangers in Albany (7 p.m., MSG). Equally high on the training camp to-do list: finding a right-handed defenseman to help out at the point.

"It’s a big priority," DeBoer said. "We’ve got the luxury of a lot of them in camp and a lot of guys that look like they can fill that need for us. Just in general, not just on the power play, but righties in general."

We’ve got the luxury of a lot of them in camp and a lot of guys that look like they can fill that need for us. Just in general, not just on the power play, but righties in general. - Coach Peter DeBoer
Last year, Mark Fayne and Matt Corrente were the only righties on the blue line. To remedy that, the Devils signed Peter Harrold and invited Anton Stralman to camp as a tryout.

Fourth-overall pick Adam Larsson, also a right-hand shot, joined the top power-play unit Tuesday with Ilya Kovalchuk at the other point and Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and David Clarkson up front.

"I thought he did a good job," DeBoer said of Larsson. "I thought all the power-play defensemen — Larsson, Stralman — the right-shot guys obviously give you a different look back there than they had last year. It makes a difference."

Kovalchuk believes the Devils’ power play has room to improve. But he also feels the team already has many of the right pieces.

"If you looked at our power play by the names, I think you would’ve said it could be one of the best in the League," said Kovalchuk, who scored just nine power-play goals last season, his lowest total since 2002-03 (9).

To him, last year's struggles were less about strategy and more about execution.

Defenseman Peter Harrold. (New Jersey Devils)
"The plan was always good," he said. "It’s all about us to go there and do what the coaches ask us to do, and create. Really, the power play is all about creating stuff. You can’t say, ‘Stay here and stay there,’ you have to make decisions right on time. You have to have some structure, but the most important thing, you have to work really hard because when you play sloppy, that’s when the puck rolls and gets away from you. You have to be sharp all the time."

Playing the left point on the power play, Kovalchuk would benefit from someone to get him pucks from the right side. That's easiest for a fellow righty, who can take pucks off the boards on his forehand.

"When you’ve got guys on their proper sides, as defensemen, it just opens up the ice in the neutral zone, on the power play, breaking out of your own end," DeBoer said. "You don’t have to turn to make cross-ice passes, it’s a big factor. I think it was a priority over the summer, and Lou’s [Lamoriello] filled the camp with a lot of right-handed-shot defensemen."

Kovalchuk liked what he saw from Larsson and Harrold.

"For an 18-year-old, he is unbelievable," Kovalchuk said of Larsson. "The same with Petey Harrold. Those two guys, they’re very patient with the puck, know exactly what to do. It’s fun to play with them, that’s for sure. Last year we had a different set-up with Rollie [Brian Rolston]. We were lefty and righty so it takes a little more time to get the one-timer to each other. With right-handed D, it’s easier."

When Kovalchuk came off for a breather at practice, Larsson took the left point, and Harrold moved to the right. DeBoer feels confident about using Kovalchuk for longer than the first shift on the man advantage.

"I don’t think there’s any doubt if he’s playing the point, that he’s going to have enough energy, that he’s going to be able to overstay a shift and work with both units for at least a part of the second power play," DeBoer said. "That’s just because of the position he’s playing. He’s not down low in the battles like a Parise is, around the net. I think it’s somewhere we want to utilize him and get him involved with both units, for sure."

Veterans were split in the first two sessions at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. The second unit in the first session was Steve Bernier, Petr Sykora and Dainius Zubrus, with Kovalchuk and Harrold at the points.

The second skate included a PP1 grouping of Mattias Tedenby-Jacob Josefson-Nick Palmieri up front and Stralman-Fayne on the points. Chad Wiseman-Adam Henrique-Matt Anderson were on PP2 with Corrente-Stralman or Alex Urbom-Eric Gelinas. Penalty killers were Stephen Gionta-Brad Mills, Mike Hoeffel-Mike Sislo with defense that included Mark Fraser, Andy Greene and Matt Taormina.

Forward pairings on the PK included Stephane Veilleux-Eric Boulton, David Steckel-Rod Pelley, Tim Sestito-Vladimir Zharkov. On defense, Bryce Salvador-Anton Volchenkov, Urbom-Jay Leach, and Henrik Tallinder-Volchenkov.

Johan Hedberg and Keith Kinkaid were in net for the first skate. Jeff Frazee and Maxime Clermont went in the second session.

Brodeur back on the ice
Martin Brodeur, who did not skate Monday due to lower body stiffness, took part in the third and final session on Tuesday.

"He’s had some lower body stiffness but came in today and feels pretty good," DeBoer said. "Obviously we did special teams today so that was my choice to put him in the first two groups just because of what we were doing, a lot of side-to-side, one-timers, power play stuff."

Brodeur will not play Wednesday in Albany.

Larsson works through nerves
Coming into camp as a highly-touted draft pick brings its own pressures. Taking the ice on your fourth day of practice to work a power play with the likes of Parise and Kovalchuk would unsettle the nerves of any teenager.

"I think I played pretty good," Larsson said Tuesday. "A little bit nervous in the beginning, but you get more and more relaxed after a while. Nervous? Just to play with those guys. I’ve looked up to them since I was young."

Bernier feeling good
Steve Bernier scored a goal in Monday's scrimmage, then saw power-play time in Tuesday's practice. That has the veteran tryout feeling good about his training camp so far.

"For sure it felt a little bit rusty in the beginning," Bernier said. "You can train as hard as you want during the summertime, you skate as many times as possible, but it’s never the same as practicing during training camp."

Bernier scrimmaged with Red, which received three goals from Petr Sykora in a 4-2 win.

"It was not the nicest goal, but I’ll take it," Bernier said of his tally early in the third period. "The puck was rimmed around the boards and hit the glass, and came back in front of the net. In the real season, it doesn’t matter."

Even an ugly goal can be enough to boost a player's confidence, especially when he was brought in as a possible scorer.

"We had a good a game [Monday]," he said. "We see that everyone is a little rusty, but sometimes when you score a goal, you want other people to see it, but I think the most important thing is for yourself. You score a goal, confidence goes up and you start to have a little bit more confidence in your capacity, even if it’s not a great goal. Sometimes you just need that little flame to start playing well. The most important games (exhibition) are coming up, and you need to be ready for those."

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