The New Jersey Devils are about to embark on the opening of a new season tomorrow night and will have many new names and faces on the roster when the puck drops in Pittsburgh. The team is, in many ways, returning to their roots and their identity by requiring a total team effort to win games.
I have been a fan of this team since the very beginning, and over all those years, I have seen so many changes. I remember during my high school and college years, those editions of the Devils won by playing a total team game. I was drawn to that, and I appreciated that style and approach.
New Jersey has never been a big player on the free agency market, the franchise has had very few “mega star” type players over the course of their history. I actually liked that about the Devils too, that it was never about one or two players, it was about the whole team.
The acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk back in February 2010 was a deviation from that more team oriented approach. Now, in fair balance, I was very excited about the move to get such an elite offensive talent like Kovalchuk, he could do things on the ice that very few players could do.
Reliance on Stars
The New Jersey Devils at that point were reliant on two star offensive players, Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, which was a complete change from the way the franchise had typically approached shaping the roster.
It is very well documented that the Devils lost both players in consecutive off seasons, Parise left via free agency in the summer of 2012, and Kovalchuk inexplicably “retired” to break his contract and return to Russia in the summer of 2013.
The Devils had to scramble to find adequate replacements, but Lou Lamoriello did a great job of obtaining talented players to fill those holes.
Return to the Roots
In typical Devils fashion, Mr. Lamoriello obtained Michael Ryder, Ryane Clowe, Jaromir Jagr, and Damien Brunner. He also made the draft day trade for Cory Schneider.
This team is going to return a defense that has a great mix of veterans and young talent. They will look for Adam Larsson to step into a prominent role in that unit this season. This defense may not remind anyone of the teams back in the mid-1990s, but it will play hard and it will play smart.
The Devils will look to keep opposing teams in close games by playing tight defense and disciplined special teams. Head Coach Pete DeBoer has talked in the media about the fact that all three phases have to work together in order for this team to win games, and he is right, that is how the Devils have achieved success in the past. I think this team can work together and win games.
From an organizational and business operations perspective, it is always harder to recondition a fan base to changes in the overall approach or structure of a team. Any good front office wants to put a good product on the ice to sell tickets and keep the fans happy.
It would be harder for other franchises to make the shift from a star oriented roster, to one that is going to be successful based on the performance of several different role players. In this scenario, the Devils fan base has supported many teams similar to the one that will hit the ice tomorrow night. I think it actually represents the toughness and the grittiness of New Jersey better than if we had a bunch of prima donnas skating around out there.
I am very excited for the start of the Devils hockey season, and I look forward to providing analysis of the team, the individual players, and their opponents as the season moves forward.
I have been reading many articles out there with predictions for the season, and I am really surprised to see how many reporters have tagged the Devils as being a last place team or a second to last place team. In fairness, I did see a couple of reports that had them finishing in 4th or grabbing a wild card playoff spot. I think that is what this team is capable of achieving.
If they can keep their veteran players healthy and productive, and they get solid performances from Larsson, Adam Henrique, and Travis Zajac ; that result is certainly possible. I think this team can make the playoffs if it all goes right.
In the end, neither the Devils players, front office, nor their loyal fans ever care about what anyone else writes or reports about us. The Devils can be looked at as an underdog, or a rebuilding team, they can label us all those things because we have always liked it better that way. The Devils have always risen to defy those expectations, and I think they will again this season.