The Devils obstacles in the new Atlantic Division
The New Jersey Devils will face a new set of obstacles in the upcoming season due to the recent realignment of the NHL which moved the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets into the Eastern Conference.
The Atlantic Division also has a new look with eight teams: New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, and our own Devils.
The new Atlantic Division is a tough division on paper, and I have some concerns about the Devils having to compete in this new division in the short term future. The Penguins had the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2013, the Rangers and Capitals are very solid playoff caliber teams, and the upstart Islanders also made the playoffs then pushed the Penguins hard in the first round.
The Hurricanes and the Flyers usually always play tough games against the Devils; there is a lot of history between New Jersey and those two hockey teams as well. The Columbus Blue Jackets had a great abbreviated 2013 season following the lockout by surprising many and riding their Vezina winning goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, nearly to a playoff spot in their final year in the Western Conference.
Furthermore, another result of the realignment is a larger Eastern Conference (16 teams) versus the Western Conference (14 teams). The number of playoff spots remains 8 per conference, so it is going to be very competitive in the East with half the teams missing the playoffs.
The formula for success in the “new” Atlantic Division
The Devils can be successful in the “new” Atlantic Division next season if they address a few areas:
- Scoring crunch: It is no secret that the Devils miss the production of Zach Parise from a scoring perspective, and if they lose David Clarkson to free agency, then they really need to upgrade the roster by acquiring a top 6 forward via trade or free agency. One player that comes to mind that could help them and could be potentially available is Nathan Horton. He could provide some consistent scoring punch, and the Devils would also need a bounce back year from Adam Henrique.
- Aggressiveness: The Devils need to be more aggressive and assertive both with the puck and when they do not have the puck in their possession. They were the most successful in their Eastern Conference Championship run in 2012 and in their great start out of the gate last season when they fore checked, back checked, and ate teams up using the cycle. They have to get back to forcing turnovers, controlling the neutral zone, and forcing the puck in deep to create scoring opportunities.
- Defense/protecting a lead: The Devils have to improve upon protecting the lead in close games against divisional opponents. They have to pinch in more and be more consistent in closing off passing lanes. They also need some better physicality on defense which they are capable of delivering even with the current roster makeup.
- Special teams play: The Devils and their coaching staff should rotate in some other players into the Power Play units or at least change the points on those units, which they will need to address if Marek Zidlicky departs the team anyway. I have often written that the Devils are too passive during the power play and that they need to shoot the puck more often with the man advantage. Instead they hold the puck and wait for the best quality chance and lose possession of the puck and let that advantage slip away. The penalty kill unit needs to be more adept at denying the puck deep in the zone and needs to be more mindful of the oppositions propensity to “crash the net” in those situations off a shot from the point.
- More scoring on the road: New Jersey was a terrible road goal scoring team last year with 46 (only Florida with 45 goals on the road was worse in the entire NHL) and the Devils allowed 64 goals on the road (www.nhl.com). A goal differential that large will not help a team win too many road games. Many factors could combine to remedy this: the addition of a scoring forward, a full season of scoring punch from Ilya Kovalchuk, a full season of contributions from Andrei Loktionov, and the addition of some kind of scoring from the defensive corps. The before mentioned aggressiveness and changes to the power play units will help increase scoring on the road as well, but the roster needs to be upgraded to fix the lack of scoring by this team moving forward.
The Full Effect of Realignment
The new realignment in the NHL also calls for every team to face every other team in the league and to travel at least once to every other city in the league.
I know many fans who do not like this new scheduling rule because it decreases the number of games played against divisional rivals and intra-conference rivals.
However, I like this approach because I think it creates the potential for new rivalries, and it brings all the stars from around the league into each city in the league. The other major sports leagues do the same thing with their regular season schedules, and I believe it is great for the fans too. If a team out West is playing really well, say for instance, the St. Louis Blues, you could get tickets for the night where that team comes into New Jersey or wherever your home city may be. You can see superstar players from other teams play against your favorite team, I think it is a good change, but I would be interested in what all of you think of my commentary here.
The realigned NHL is going to be like every other change hockey has been through, it is going to take some getting used to at first, but in the end we will understand the benefits of these changes.