After an extremely disappointing 2013 campaign that saw New Jersey fall from competing in the Stanley Cup Finals to missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs entirely, the Devils will likely be making several off-season changes that will see newcomers and up-and-comers playing at the Prudential Center next season. The transition will likely see the offense boosted by scoring potential and the defense boosted by youth, two changes that were quite clearly necessary during the troubling second half of the 2013 season in New Jersey. Here is what I hope to see this summer.
I’ll start by identifying the likely goaltending tandem for next season, as this area promises to see the least amount of change going into next season: Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg. On May 5th, Hedberg will be turning 40 years old. Many people would be shocked to know that a team is willing to have such an old backup goalie in a role that is often filled by a younger, up-and-coming goaltender. However, that surprise would likely be wiped away by the knowledge that Hedberg, in his own way, is the younger goalie. The Devils’ legendary starting goaltender, Martin Brodeur, will be 41 years old on May 6th and shows few signs of slowing down. A lot of fans and analysts have been quite critical of the goaltending this season. When Brodeur went down with a back injury, sidelining him for a month, many people expected Hedberg to be a suitable backup after his sensational season in 2012-2013. The Devils struggled greatly without Brodeur, but not at the fault of Johan Hedberg in my opinion. Hedberg received a lot of criticism for the “soft” goals he left up now and then, however he was certainly not the reason the Devils struggled during Brodeur’s time away – their offensive struggles are what ended their season. As Brodeur and Hedberg man the crease next season, one can only hope that Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood, the highest regarded goaltending prospects in the Devils’ system, are improving enough to lighten the blow to the Devils’ organization when Brodeur finally retires.
The biggest problem with the New Jersey Devils’ game, which has been under scrutiny for years now, is the lack of offense. Even before losing captain Zach Parise to free agency, the Devils had trouble scoring goals. After doing nothing to replace the departure of Parise and Sykora, who accounted for 52 goals last season, GM Lou Lamoriello left the Devils with too many role players and not enough pure-goal scorers. Anyone who watched a game could easily tell that the team lacked players who could really shoot the puck, other than Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk’s value to the team was proven when he missed 11 games due to a shoulder injury during which the Devils were 1-6-4. Travis Zajac scored only seven goals in 48 games, which is not nearly enough to earn the contract extension he signed during the off-season, worth about $5.75 million per year. The Devils’ rookie sensation, Adam Henrique, took a step backwards this season, rather than forwards, as he put up only 16 points in 42 games compared to his 51 points in 74 games last season. The one bright side is the development of prospects in the Devils’ system. Adam Henrique and Andrei Loktionov are both very young and have potential to be solid secondary scorers, while highly touted prospect Reid Boucher will hopefully improve his skating skills enough that he can bring his ferocious shooting abilities to the NHL. I am also a big fan of 2012 draft pick Stefan Matteau’s skill set, as the Devils have been lacking a power forward for years. It is clear that Lamoriello will have to put more scoring threats on the ice next season, which will likely come from the signing of free agents and a youth movement in New Jersey that I desperately hope to see.
Last is the defense, which I sincerely hope sees the most change of all going into next year. The Devils have always been known as very strong defensive team, but they were once also known for the offensive play of their defencemen. Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin, and Scott Neidermayer were the best-known names of offensive defenseman who could play responsibly in their own zone but were also talented at getting the puck on net. The Devils currently rely on the offensive play of defencemen like Andy Greene and Marek Zidlicky who are both quite undersized for defensemen. Zidlicky’s lack of responsibility in the Devils’ zone is only overlooked because the Devils so severely lack offensive potential like his on the blue-line. I am hoping that prospect Eric Gelinas can crack the lineup next season, as his offensive abilities have been hyped for a couple of years now. Adam Larsson is due for a complete season in which he proves his offensive ability that he portrayed so well in Sweden. With difficult contracts to deal with, I assume Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov will return next season so I hope that their veteran status is not once again overshadowed my diminishing talent and speed. I can only hope that Zidlicky, Tallinder, and Volchenkov are no longer around next season so that Larsson, Harrold, Gelinas, and maybe even Alexander Urbom will be able to begin the youth movement for the Devils’ blue-line.
This will be a very important for the New Jersey Devils, as they are an organization that has prided themselves in their consistency. The Devils, despite missing the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, have a long track record of making the playoffs over the last two decades that saw them win three Stanley Cups. There is no question that Brodeur can still play and that Ilya Kovalchuk is an offensive superstar, but there is much more they Devils need before they can compete again. I sincerely hope that the highly regarded prospects and young players the Devils have on their roster and minor league roster can make a difference next season, to go along with the free agent additions Lamoriello makes; Devils fans know, however, not to expect a big splash in free agency as that’s just not “Lou’s” style.