Most of the talk surrounding the New Jersey Devils has been negative. They lost their best player to "early NHL retirement," gave Ryane Clowe a contract that they'll probably regret in a couple years and traded away their top-ten pick for goaltender Cory Schneider. Factor that in with them having some pretty ugly results last season and you have the Devils getting mostly negative press this summer. Some of it is warranted, as Kovalchuk departing for Russia came out of nowhere and will probably hurt the team but the Devils have plenty of things to look forward to this season.
The hockey gods can be so cruel at times and the Devils seemed to be on the short end of the luck battle every night. They were a team that could not score at even strength or on the power play and they received some of the worst goaltending in the league on top of that. If they were to play a full season with the same roster, there is a pretty solid chance that they would have finished higher in the standings than where they did last season. With that being said, their goaltending and lack of offense still would have hampered the team from being a serious contender and GM Lou Lamoreillo did a fine job of filling both of those needs this off-season.
This is why the trade for Schneider was made and while this will likely be his first year as a full-time starter, he should be an improvement over the Brodeur/Hedberg tandem that posted a combined save percentage of .893 in 2013. New Jersey also acquired a few guys who can put the puck in the back of the net in Jaromir Jagr & Michael Ryder, who should be able to help make up for some of the players they lost last off-season. Is it enough to make New Jersey a playoffs team again? We'll explore that issue and more after the jump.
New Jersey Devils At A Glance
One of the reasons why I think the Devils are due for a better year offensively is because they were one of the best teams in the NHL at controlling territorial play at even strength. They weren't scoring, but they were able to keep play in the offensive zone, create chances & put pucks on net whenever the terms were even. That doesn't mean much in a shortened year but in a full-season, being able to consistently tilt the ice in your team's favor can go a long way. Just ask some of the former Stanley Cup winners (Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc.). New Jersey did lack goal-scoring talent and were relying on a fragile goaltending tandem but in an 82 game season, this would not be a team that finished last in the Atlantic Division.
The addition of Schneider alone could make them at least one win better than they were last season. He is still pretty unproven (98 GP) but it's hard to argue with what he has done in his career so far. Since the 2004-05 season, only Tuukka Rask has a higher save percentage than him. Whether or not he can sustain these numbers as a full-time starter remains to be seen, but he is a great talent to have in between the pipes.
Scheider and the Devils tight defensive style should keep them in relatively good shape, but fixing the offense was still a major priority for them. They were able to create chances and dominate opposing teams territorially but they just could not put the puck in the back of the net. This is partially due to terrible shooting luck (their 5v5 team shooting percentage was below 7%), but they were also relying on guys like Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt D'Agostini, Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier and Steve Sullivan to play top-six roles for various parts of the year. None of whom are considered great offensive players,s o New Jeryse definitely lacked some talent up front.
They also lost two of their better forwards this off-season in Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson and while the former will be tough to replace, Lamorello did more than enough to cover up losing Clarkson by signing three wingers to significant contracts.
|Who's In?||Who's Out?|
|LW Ryane Clowe||G Johan Hedberg|
|RW Michael Ryder||LW Ilya Kovalchuk|
|RW Jaromir Jagr||RW David Clarkson|
|LW Rostislav Olesz||RW Steve Sullivan|
|G Cory Schneider||RW Matt D'Agostini|
|LW Alexei Ponikarovsky|
|D Henrik Tallinder|
|RW Tom Kostopoulos|
New Jersey lost quite a few players this summer, but they also made a few significant additions and Schneider will likely play the biggest factor of where they end up in the standings. Adding proven goal-scorers like Michael Ryder & Jaromir Jagr were also good acquisitions for the Devils, as both of them should be an upgrade over their other "top-six wingers" and do enough to replace what they lost in Clarkson.
Replacing Kovalchuk is going to be the toughest part. He was a mediocre possession player last year, which could lead a few to believe that he isn't that big of a loss, but Kovalchuk's goal-scoring and play-making will be missed. Not only that but New Jersey used him in almost every situation last season, including heavy-minutes on both special teams units, and he was a big reason why the Devils had one of the most dangerous penalty kills in the league last season. He is also their best neutral zone performer by a long shot judging from the games I have tracked.
New Jersey will have to move on without him, though and while they do have some nice forwards in their top-six, Kovalchuk's goal-scoring and play on the penalty kill will be missed dearly, as the Devils don't really have anyone who can replaceable that.
What they do have, though, is one of the best forwards to even play the game in the last 20 years in Jaromir Jagr. At 41 years old, there are always going to be a lot of questions about how much Jagr has left in the tank, but he can still skate well and looked good in the post-season with the Bruins last year. We'll have to see how he holds up over a full-82 game schedule, though. Both him and Michael Ryder will probably trade spots on the first and second lines throughout the year. Ryder has been one of the more underrated goal-scorers in the league for awhile and should be a good fit in New Jersey's top-six.
The other big move they made was signing Ryane Clowe to a five-year, $24.5 mil. contract. I don't have much issue with Clowe as a player, but this contract was indefensible. Clowe is someone who I would love on my team's third line, but he hasn't done quite enough for me to say that he is worth that kind of money. He is also coming off the worst season of his career (three goals) and I'm not sure how he was able to get a raise over his last contract. That being said, Clowe is due for a better year and could turn out to be a nice fit for the Devils.
Both Clowe and other new signing Rositslav Olesz give the Devils some great size at the left wing position. Olesz spent all of last season in the AHL because of cap issues, but he is a good low-risk gamble at $1 mil. If he can be as good as he was in Florida, then he should be a fine addition on the third line for New Jersey.
As for players lost, I think Kovalchuk is the only one who will sting. The team did enough to replace Clarkson while Sullivan, D'Agostini, Kostopoulos and Ponikarovsky should also be easy to cover up for. Defenseman Henrik Tallinder was also traded and he isn't too big of a loss either. He was injured for about half the year and had trouble getting playing time even when healthy. New Jersey will probably give his ice time to someone like Adam Larsson.
After the departures of Kovalchuk & Clarkson, New Jersey's key big minute guys are Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac. Elias will likely play left wing on the first line with Zajac while one of Jagr or Ryder plays the other wing spot. Whether or not they can handle the big minutes they command remains to be seen, but Ryder had a similar role in Dallas and did well. They might also turn to someone like Dainius Zubrus to play tough-minutes with Elias because he has done it before and is a very good two-way player.
I would also look for Jacob Josefson to play a bigger role, but there isn't much room for him to expand on the depth chart with Zajac, Henrique, Loktionov and Carter taking up the four center spots. Loktionov seems like the most likely to shift to wing since he isn't very good at faceoffs and is worse defensively than Josefson. The Devils seem to like him there, though and he had a decent "breakout" campaign last season.
Here you can see why losing Tallinder isn't that big of a blow for the Devils since they weren't using him in a big role at all. However, they still had 35-year-old Bryce Salvador playing the tough minutes and that is a problem because he doesn't really have the foot speed to keep up with skilled forwards. He also isn't very good at moving the puck out of the zone either and teams with a good forecheck can take advantage of him.
One defense pairing that can beat a good forecheck is Mark Fayne & Andy Greene. They are relatively unknown in the national circuit, but they are probably one of the better shutdown defense pairings in the Eastern Conference and two of New Jersey's best defensemen. Both can move the puck well and do a great job of closing gaps on opposing forwards to prevent them from doing much in the offensive zone. They should take over as New Jersey's #1 defense pairing next season with Salvador & Zidlicky getting older and Volchenkov stuck on the third pairing.
|Left Wing||TOI/G||Corsi%||Center||TOI/G||Corsi%||Right Wing||TOI/G||Corsi%|
|Patrik Elias||18:43||59.3||Travis Zajac||19:31||57.1||Jaromir Jagr||18:26||52.9|
|Ryane Clowe||17:01||53.4||Adam Henrique||18:19||57||Michael Ryder||15:49||52.1|
|Rostislav Olesz||N/A||N/A||Andrei Loktionov||14:15||59.2||Dainius Zubrus||16:47||55.5|
|Mattias Tedenby||8:59||N/A||Ryan Carter||13:03||55.1||Steve Bernier||13:45||54.1|
|Stefan Matteau||9:11||51||Jacob Josefson||12:58||50.3||Krys Barch||5:51||49.3|
New Jersey needs to get better seasons out of their top two centers, Travis Zajac & Adam Henrique, to be competitive this year. Driving the play wasn't an issue for these two last year, but they struggled to put up points while getting a lot of ice time. I think both are set for rebound campaigns, as I don't expect the Devils to continue shooting at 5-6% with Zajac on the ice next season and Henrique will benefit from having stronger linemates like he did in his rookie year. Him and Ryder or Zubrus could be very good in a second-line role.
It wouldn't surprise me if one of the Devils bottom three centers moves over to the left wing next year if neither Tedenby or Matteau can break into the NHL full-time. Olesz is also a question mark on the third line because he hasn't played in the NHL in about two years. I think they want Josefson to be in the lineup full-time and him, Carter or Loktionov moving over to the wing would help accomplish that. I'd also look for Tedenby to challenge for a top-nine spot. He scored at a decent rate with fourth line minutes last season and there is an opportunity for him to break into the league with New Jersey needing left wingers. Stefan Matteau might earn that spot over him, though.
|Left Defense||TOI/G||Corsi%||Right Defense||TOI/G||Corsi%|
|Andy Greene||23:02||55.8||Mark Fayne||18:05||58.2|
|Bryce Salvador||21:19||49.3||Adam Larsson||18:06||51.8|
|Anton Volchenkov||16:03||55||Marek Zidlicky||20:59||57.5|
I already discussed Greene & Fayne earlier and how I expect them to be New Jersey's top defense pairing. The numbers they posted last year show why I think that, as they were terrific at keeping the puck out of their own end and helping the Devils dominate even strength territorial play. After these two, the Devils defense is a little more sketchy.
Salvador was their only regular defenseman last year to not win the possession battle, Larsson had issues staying in the lineup, Volchenkov was held to a third pairing role and Zidlicky can be a bit of an adventure whenever he has the puck. I expect Salvador to have his role decreased next season because I'm not sure if he is up to playing tough-minutes anymore and Larsson should be able to take over for him in due time.
Volchenkov was decent in a third pairing role last year but is too slow to be effective outside of that. Zidlicky is somewhat of a wild card because he was good enough to play in the top-four last year but he is 36 now and isn't as fast as he used to be. When he is on his game, he is very good at moving the puck up ice and keeping play in the offensive zone, but his turnovers and mistakes can be costly at times. Regardless, I would expect him to be a regular in New Jersey's lineup.
I'm not sure how many games Brodeur will start, but I think New Jersey's goaltending will be better regardless of that. They had a team save percentage of .894 last year mostly due to Johan Hedberg and Schneider should be a huge upgrade over that. He will likely be the difference maker for the Devils this year.
Reid Boucher has the highest NHLE on this list, but it may be another year or so before he is in the NHL since he is only 19. He was very impressive during a brief stint with the Albany Devils, though so he might be up sooner than you think. Harri Pesonen also got a coupel games with the Devils last year and might be called up to fill in one of the bottom-six spots if Tedenby, Olesz or Matteau don't work out. Then again, we could easily see Cam Janssen and Tim Sestito back with the Devils since they seem to love their enforcers.
The Final Word
The Devils can be a playoff team next year and it would not surprise me at all if they finish in the top half of the division. The defense corps is a little sketchy and the goal-scoring issues are still there but they did a lot to improve themselves this off-season. Their offense is much better and they drastically improved their goaltending, which could add a couple of wins to their record and make a difference on where they end up in the standings. They also had some abysmal luck at even strength last year and should be better based on that alone. Yes, losing Kovalchuk will hurt but they were a great possession team even without him and added a few forwards to help make up for him leaving. Is it enough to completely replace him? I'm not sure, but it might be enough to put New Jersey in a good spot next year.