The New Jersey Devils find themselves at an unusual crossroads having missed the playoffs for only the second time in 16 years. This offseason is one of the most important points in the recent history of this franchise. Many key personnel decisions face the front office in the next few months, and the roster could have a very different look or it could be a very similar roster with a few tweaks.
However, if some of the issues that plagued the Devils in this lockout shortened 48 game season are not fixed, it does not matter if they add five new free agents and draft several great prospects the team will not progress in a positive direction next season.
The Devils need to make some adjustments going into next season, not with the basic structure of their style of play, but with how they approach certain situations or opponents. They have to play with more intensity than with what they showed this past season, though with the condensed schedule caused by the lockout, they could have been fatigued toward the end of the season.
During the run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011-12, New Jersey used the cycle to dominate teams like the Flyers, and then they got away from cycling the puck at times during the shortened 2013 season.
The team also fore checked better last season than they did during the 2013 campaign, at points the fore check was not executed well at all. They also had spacing issues in 2013 and lapses defensively which were not evident in the prior year. So the Devils have to make some adjustments and tighten up parts of their game next season.
Special teams and the scoring drought
The Devils and their scoring issues were reported thoroughly in the media last season. It is an obvious area of concern and an area that needs to be improved. The loss of Zach Parise to free agency and the loss during the season of Ilya Kovalchuk, who is one of the premier scoring forwards in the league, created a huge scoring drought from 2011-12 to last season.
The acquisition of a top 6 forward would certainly help the cause, but the root cause lies in something more fundamental: the Devils need to create more scoring chances. This is particularly true if the Devils cannot agree to terms with David Clarkson. The team has to take advantage of opponents by breaking away off of turnovers and creating odd man rushes, New Jersey was not as aggressive in creating those chances this year. That needs to change.
The second component to fixing that scoring gap is through improved special teams play. The Devils allowed too many goals this season which put them in a hole during games. Any team will attest that they approach a game differently playing from behind, than they would approach a game while playing with a lead.
The Devils were the top team in penalty killing in 2011-12 allowing 27 goals while shorthanded over the 82 game regular season. Conversely, the 2013 team allowed 32 goals on the penalty kill in 48 games.
The power play situation was also not good news for New Jersey either in 2013 they ranked 21st in power play scoring. The home / road splits were more discouraging with the Devils having 17 goals in 94 opportunities at home and just 11 power play goals in 82 opportunities on the road. The team ranked 14th on the power play in 2011-12, so they have slipped in their production and need to get that situation corrected.
I have been critical of the Devils and their power play all season long during the 48 game sprint in 2013. I thought Pete DeBoer should have changed up the power play units especially the points, and that they should have taken more shots on the power play. The Devils looked very tentative at times on the power play, and they over rotated the puck, instead I think they need to be a volume shooting team during the man advantage.
Overtime – the nemesis of the Devils
The Devils also played poorly in overtime going 3-10 in those games, while some would argue that the OT loss points they received kept them hanging in the playoff race with a lower win total. My counterpoint would be: they would have been in better shape if they won some of those OT games!
They need to attack the net in the extra session, yet they cannot afford to be too aggressive because they could expose themselves to an odd man break away by the opponent. I think having Kovalchuk for a full season will help that situation, but the Devils need to step up their overall intensity in those games. We all saw this year, those few games make the difference between making a playoff run, or making your off season vacation plans early. I would choose the playoff run, and I know I am not alone in that sentiment.