After 16 straight hours of negotiating last weekend, the NHL and NHLPA finally reached a tentative agreement on a new CBA. This however was technically not the end of the lockout. Work still needed to be put in to make it official, such as the ratification of the new CBA from the NHL Board of Governors and the NHLPA, as well as the NHL and NHLPA signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).
This past week, both of these things happened, making it official. Hockey is back.
With that, I am here to preview the New Jersey Devils and what is in store for them during the upcoming 48-game season, which kicks off on Saturday, January 19th at the New York Islanders.
New Jersey lost many of its assets during the offseason, both players and staff. Players such as Zach Parise, who served as the teams Captain last season, signed a long-term deal with the Minnesota Wild. Forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, who was acquired late last season before the playoffs, also signed elsewhere, with Winnipeg. Lastly, veteran Petr Sykora, who was brought in last year via tryout and had an unexpectedly productive season, will most likely not be back with the team.
To go along with these losses on offense, New Jersey saw two of their assistant coaches in Larry Robinson and Adam Oates depart. Robinson, who was also the head coach of the Devils when they won the Stanley Cup in 2000, landed the assistant coaching job in San Jose, while Oates, who joined the organization in 2010 as an offensive-minded assistant coach, was hired as the head coach of the Washington Capitals. Replacing these coaches are Matt Shaw, who served as an assistant for San Jose the past 3 years and produced one of the better power plays in the league, and former Devils captain and Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens. Stevens, who led the team to 3 Stanley Cups, has held positions within the organization for years and with the departure of Robinson, was promoted to assistant coach.
The holes in the coaching staff have been filled, but the ones left by Parise, Ponikarovsky, and Sykora still remain. New Jersey did sign two forwards in Krystofer Barch and Bobby Butler, but other than that, no serious attempts to replace the point production lost from those players (59/216 regular season goals in 2011-12) have been made.
Besides the losses of Zach Parise, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Petr Sykora, New Jersey returns everyone else they had on offense from last year. What can be said about the offense this year is that the Devils are weak at the wing position while quite strong down the middle. Parise, Ponikarovsky, and Sykora were all wingers and, like I said earlier, no significant moves have been made to replace them, leaving the team, at least to start the season, in need of help at the wing.
With these players gone, other players must step up and produce. The fourth line of Carter-Gionta-Bernier must still contribute, even though it pains me to say they will probably be split up to start the season. Other young guys such as Adam Henrique, who is currently injured, and Jacob Josefson will also have to provide a spark to the offense. Josefson, who was a first-rounder in 2009, has shown improvements in the AHL and as long as he stays healthy, should be a regular in the lineup, most likely on the third line. With Henrique out to start the season, having other guys step up early is crucial to the Devils season. We all know how talented Henrique is based off his stellar rookie season last year, but with him out the first few weeks, some other players, like Josefson, will need to contribute. Another player that comes to mind is new guy Bobby Butler, who has played great in the AHL with Albany during the lockout, scoring 15 goals and 23 total points in 31 games played.
In the end, the offense will definitely rely upon its veterans to produce points. Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Dainus Zubrus, David Clarkson, and most importantly, Ilya Kovalchuk, all had great years last year and will need to continue that this year for New Jersey to be successful. Kovalchuk, who is a Captain candidate along with Elias, will be the centerpiece of an offense that doesn’t look to be at all an exciting or explosive one. For New Jersey to succeed offensively, it all comes down to him. If he doesn’t produce, New Jersey will struggle mightily, but if he does as expected, the Devils should be in contention throughout the short season. Here is what I have for projected lines:
On opening night:
When fully healthy:
The Devils have always been a defense-first organization. With great depth and experience along the blue line, New Jersey will certainly be one of the best defensive teams in the league once again. The Devils bring back its entire defensive corps from last year, which was viewed as a very underrated group, and on paper, can run 8 guys deep. Henrik Tallinder, who was injured for most of last season, returns healthy in 2013 and will be used in the top 4. Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov also caught the injury bug during the lockout. Fayne injured his wrist and Volchenkov his knee, but both will be back for the start of the season. Fayne was rock-solid towards the end of the season and into the playoffs, so look for him to be a top 4 guy as well. Volchenkov provides the physical presence any defense needs, but will most likely be on the third defensive pairing.
Other defensemen such as Andy Greene, Marek Zidlicky, and Adam Larsson will be looked upon to add some offense, as this years Devils will certainly need it from anywhere it can get. In my opinion, Greene is one of the most underrated defensemen in the league. He is extremely smart, an excellent skater, and can help out on both sides of the ice. Greene also has 3 years left on his 4-year deal that he signed in 2011. Look for him to continue to grow as a player and contribute in a big way for New Jersey.
Rounding out the blue line is Bryce Salvador and Peter Harrold. Salvador was signed to a 3-year extension and Harrold to a one-way deal in the offseason. Salvador, 36, caught fire offensively in the playoffs, which is probably why he was retained at such an old age. That, and the possibility of him being an assistant captain this season. With the depth that the Devils have on defense, it’s hard to predict what blue liners will play and who won’t. Unless Salvador is given an “A”, or maybe even the “C”, I can’t see him starting every game. Harrold as well can’t be seen as regular in the lineup, even though he did impress late last year when injuries plagued the defense. Here is what I predict the pairings will look like on opening night.
The song remains the same for the goaltending situation in New Jersey. Veteran and future Hall of Fame netminder Martin Brodeur, 40, will hold down the fort this season after signing a 2-year extension with the only team he has ever played on during his time in the NHL. Backing him up once again is Johan Hedberg, who is seen as one of the most dependable backups in the league, even at the age of 39. Last season, Hedberg started in 27 games and won 17 of them, while also posting career bests in save percentage (.918) and goals against average (2.23).
The focus however will again be on Brodeur. Last year, Marty posted 31 wins in 59 regular season games played, good for 13th in the league. For New Jersey to be successful, Brodeur will have to keep up his solid goaltending and try not to let his age get the best of him, especially in the early stages of the season. During the last shortened season in 1994-95, Brodeur didn’t post stellar numbers, with only 19 wins in 40 games started, but then again, he was only in his third year in the league. He has come a long way since then, as he is currently the NHL’s all-time wins leader, and will certainly perform better than that this time around. His performance in the playoffs last year is also very reassuring. He ranked first in goals against, as well as outperforming and outlasting Vezina trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist in the Eastern Conference finals.
I predict that both Brodeur and Hedberg will see a good amount of time this year, with Brodeur playing around 25-30 games and Hedberg the remaining ones. Both goalies are experienced and talented enough to be relied upon on a daily basis, but as it has been for New Jersey since he came into the league, their success will be determined by how well Brodeur performs.
The Devils special teams last season performed on both ends of the spectrum. The power play last year was mediocre, ranking 14th in the league with a 17.2% success rate. On the other hand, the penalty kill was spectacular and arguably the best of all time. New Jersey ranked first in penalty killing percentage (89.6%), power play goals allowed (27), and short-handed goals scored (15). However, due to the loss of Zach Parise, both the penalty kill and power play will suffer in some way. He provided a lot of minutes and productive numbers for both the penalty kill and power play, scoring 3 on the kill and 7 on the power play.
In this upcoming season, I expect the penalty kill to drop a little bit in its success, as expected, but still get the job done and be ranked in the top 10 in the league. I expect the power play to make big improvements as well. A 14th ranked power play isn’t all that bad, but the way it performed in the playoffs was painful to watch, aside from this beauty scored by Kovalchuk against the Rangers, who will again be the focus on the power play.
You have to believe that GM Lou Lamoriello will make a move with the abundance of defensemen and amount of cap space they have (Just over $14 million). If New Jersey is going to make a move, look for it to come around mid-season. However, if the team struggles to score early on, obviously something will need to get done before it’s too late. New Jersey tends to stay quiet with acquisitions, but with Lamoriello at the helm, anything can happen.
I would be lying if I said that this team is a favorite to come out of the East, or even the Atlantic Division. This team, at the moment, looks different than it has in the past and lacks the depth on offense a team needs to go deep into the postseason. Yet, I believe New Jersey is certainly a playoff team. Every year the Devils get overlooked and every year they continue to succeed and prove the doubters wrong. The culture of the New Jersey Devils organization is a winning one, and for the Devils to not be in the playoffs, which have missed it just once in the past 14 seasons, just wouldn’t feel right. In a short season such as this one, positioning in the playoffs doesn’t quite matter as much as it does in a regular 82-game season. Simply getting in would be an accomplishment this year, and I believe New Jersey will get a shot to defend its Eastern Conference crown. Look for the Devils to finish 4th in the tough Atlantic Division, but still be good for yet another playoff birth, somewhere between the 6 and 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.
About the Author
Written by Mike Mastrandrea
Mike Mastrandrea is currently a Junior at Indiana University studying Sports Communication and Marketing. He was raised in New Jersey and is a dedicated New Jersey Devils, New York Jets, New York Mets, and Indiana Hoosiers fan. Mike's other interests include movies, hanging out with friends, and Chel.