New Jersey posted an impressive 29-17-3 record over the final 49 games of the regular season last year. Still, it was not enough to catapult them into postseason play. Besides totaling only nine wins in their first 33 games, the Devils suffered through coaching changes, injuries to their top stars, and a sputtering offense. Their 2.08 goals-per-game average was the worst in the NHL.
With a new regime and healthy lineup for 2011-12, New Jersey is looking to make its way back into the East’s elite.
For once, the Devils will rely on their forwards to win games. Zach Parise is back from a serious injury and Ilya Kovalchuk is looking to maintain his second half dominance from 2011. New coach Pete DeBoer has already announced that he will split the two instead of piecing the pair on a line together like last season. The strategy appears to be a smart one as leading point scorer Patrick Elias will move to the middle in order to center one of the stars. His move is made necessary by a Travis Zajac Achilles injury that is likely to keep the latter out three to four months.
Promising talents Jacob Josefson and Nick Palmieri will join Dainius Zubrus to round out New Jersey’s top six forwards. Josefson and Palmieri both showed potential last year and could gel with Kovalchuk and Parise. Mattias Tedenby is another young prospect who flashed his talents last season.
The trio of rookies combined for 20 goals in 2011-12 even though none of them played more than 60 games. Josefson and Palmieri will both be expected to pad their point totals significantly this year.
Palmieri in particular has 20-goal ability and may play on a line with Elias and Kovalchuk. The $100 million man gave Devils fans a glimmer of hope last year when he scored 17 times after the All-Star break. That total gave him the fifth most goals in the NHL after the break. With a healthy Parise to take away pressure this season there is no reason that the Russian superstar shouldn’t hit 40-goal territory again.
Elias scored 71 goals over his last three seasons even while missing a total of 29 games. The 35-year-old was an All-Star last year and still has the talent to hit 75 points. If Palmeri is placed on a line with Kovalchuk and Elias the results could be spectacular. Keep in mind that veteran forwards Petr Sykora and Dainius Zubrus are in the mix as well.
One factor that my weigh on the Devils is the Parise contract situation. Many are viewing his refusal to sign more than a one-year-deal as a sign that he wants out of New Jersey. There are fears that he may be traded or shut down if the Devils are on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
This idea seems absurd to me. Parise was the American crying the hardest after Team USA lost to Canada in the 2010 Olympic Gold-Medal game. His defensive prowess shows that he is a team player and will work his hardest to win. Certainly many players of his offensive pedigree are afforded a break when playing in the defensive zone but he takes none. Lastly, when is the last time a player slacked off in a contract year?
Parise was the best American in the game when he went down with his injury. The Devils will be much improved with him back in the lineup. Add in an improved Kovalchuk, sound veteran Elias, and rising young talents and New Jersey just might finish in the top half of league scoring.
Prized new addition Anton Volchenkov only played in 57 games last season and Bryce Salvador missed the entire year with an ear infection. With the two healthy for a full campaign the Devils defense should once again be daunting. Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder are also back, giving New Jersey a respectable stable blueliners.
The real question is how will 2011 fourth-overall pick Adam Larsson fare with the squad. Larsson was considered the most NHL ready prospect in the Draft and will likely play with the NHL club this season. He is a Calder Trophy candidate and could make the same impact for the Devils as Tyler Myers made for the Buffalo Sabres a few seasons ago. Larsson may not have the same offensive talent as Myers but his prospects as a stingy, physical defenseman are promising. He also has some professional experience already as he played in the Swedish Elite League last season.
Maybe the defensive core isn’t as stout as New Jersey is used to. But, with a solid offensive-defenseman in Greene and a physical, shutdown blueliner in Volchenkov, the unit is capable of impressing. Salvador’s return and the addition of Larsson are huge for the team. With injuries plaguing star players last year, the defense did not have time to develop chemistry or work together. If health is not a factor, this could be one of the better units in the Atlantic Division by the end of the 2011-12 season.
Martin Brodeur of 2011 is not the Martin Brodeur of the mid-2000′s. The future Hall of Famer is now 39-years-old and has only played more than 60 games once in the past three seasons. As with the rest of New Jersey, Brodeur trended upwards at the end of last year. He posted 18 wins over his last 28 starts but still finished 23-26 for his first losing record ever.
An upgraded defense and healthy offense should help Brodeur’s numbers. He can’t, however, be expected to play 70+ games this season. There’s also bound to be rough patches without defensive guru Jacques Lemaire on the New Jersey bench. The blueline may be improved as a whole but the focus on team defense will certainly not be as fierce without Lemaire. Instead, the Devils will take more risks and provide a heavier forecheck.
Johan Hedberg will backup Brodeur once again this season. At 38, Hedberg is no young goalie himself. The Swedish netminder played well in his time last season, winning 15 games and posting three shutouts in 34 appearances.
Peter DeBoer was certainly not the coach many had in mind when Jacques Lemaire retired. The former Florida Panther bench master has a career losing record in the NHL and never guided the Panthers to post-season play. Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello hired him anyway.
Before judging DeBoer on his lack of production though, look at the hand he was dealt in Florida. He endured three different General Managers. After firing DeBoer, the team acquired 11 players through free agency just to reach the new salary cap floor. And, no player on the team reached either 50 points or 25 goals as they finished twenty-seventh in the NHL in scoring. Still, DeBoer nearly headed a similar team to the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Only a tie-breaker kept the Panthers from post-season action that year.
Most of DeBoer’s faults can be blamed on the talentless teams he’s coached in his first three NHL seasons. Whether the attribution is fair to his coaching resume or not is hard to say. What we can look at is DeBoer’s style.
Heralding from the trap-crazy Southeast Division, DeBoer has an emphasis on everything Penguins fans have come to hate. His teams provide a heavy forecheck and are aggressive when pressuring the puck, relying on turnovers to spark offense. In New Jersey, his style will concentrate mainly on defense.
“I think every coach has his own identity and his own characteristics. We want to pursue the puck. We want to dictate the pace of the play. But at the same time the foundation of that is still good, solid defensive hockey and playing the right way, and I think that meshes perfectly with what they do here.”
Categorizing DeBoer as stricly a defensive coach would be foolish though. As seen in his quote above, he likes to possess the puck and control the game. Suddenly New Jersey is sounding like the Devils of old. Now equipped with some of the potent offensive weapons that he was lacking in Florida, DeBoer has the potential to lead the Devils back to the playoffs. Instead of the quick fix many were looking for, the newest Devil was hired as the man for the future.
There is a common theme among the Atlantic Division contenders this season: health. New Jersey is not the exception. Parise, Salvador, Brodeur, and Volchenkov are all recovered and ready to terrorize the Eastern Conference. A new coach is on the bench and the Devils young talent is looking to fill in the gaps.
Zajac’s injury puts a damper on the start of the season but there is cause for excitement in New Jersey.
Offensively, the team is more powerful than they have been in years. Unfortunately, in a talent laden division like the Atlantic, the Devils are looking up at much more potent offenses.
Defensively, the core needs time to gel. There are impressive pieces on the back end but it remains to be seen how they will work together.
Overall, New Jersey is a fringe playoff team. They will need Kovalchuk to resort back to his Atlanta days and Larsson to play like a Calder winner if they hope to crack the East’s top eight.