In approximately 40 days from now, the New Jersey Devils will take the ice against their nemesis, the Philadelphia Flyers to open the 2014-15 NHL regular season in the City of Brotherly Love. Each year around this time I get increasingly excited for the start of the hockey season with each day that passes.
This summer is no different as I am excited to see how the Devils busy offseason activity will prove itself out on the ice. The fact that this team missed the playoffs last season is tempered by the fact that I think this revamped roster is going to be improved and truly contend for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
This offseason was different than the summer of 2011 after New Jersey missed the playoffs in 2010-11 the organization brought in a new coach, but they made most of their impact roster moves during the season of 2011-12 and not in the summer months. This summer was a busy one for the Devils where they added offensive players, a veteran backup goaltender, and committed long term contracts to key personnel on their roster.
All of this activity leaves some questions as to how this team will perform, but I have seen many editions of the Devils through the years, and I have a very good feeling about this team. I tend to like rosters made up of veteran players though, and that is certainly what this New Jersey club will look like in 2014-15. The risk to having an older roster of course is the potential for older players to have nagging injuries or injuries that take them longer to recover from than a younger player.
The biggest question perhaps is the fact that Cory Schneider has never played a full season as a starting goaltender in the NHL, and he was handed a big 7 year contract this summer as New Jersey bid farewell to the legendary star Martin Brodeur. This season will answer that question in one way or the other, but if you look at Schneider’s statistics he has a .921 save percentage and a 1.98 goals against average. In fact, his save percentage mark is the best of any other goaltender with at least 100 appearances in the entire league. I think the Devils are in very good hands at the most important position on the ice.
The bigger issue for the Devils is the scoring gap, which I wrote and covered extensively last season. The team’s futility in tie games which went to the penalty shootout last season has been well documented, a few wins in those games and the Devils would have been playoff bound.
New Jersey finished last season with 35 wins and 88 points, the Detroit Red Wings had 39 wins, so the team was not far off the playoff pace for a wild card spot, but scoring was a definite issue. The Devils had 197 total goals last season while the Red Wings had 217 total goals, and the New York Rangers had 214 total goals and made that deep playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final.
The question for the Devils which will define their upcoming season is: where do they find 20 to 25 more goals? The answer will probably be in the form of a combination of factors rather than just one or two players filling that scoring void.
In addition, the Devils have to improve their ability to score in 5 on 5 ice situations, last season they had just 128 goals in that setting; only the Buffalo Sabres had less goals in 5 on 5 play in the entire NHL with 99 goals.
The top six forwards represents an area of definite improvement on this roster which will help with regard to 5 on 5 scoring. The media has questioned the centering of the second line consisting of Martin Havlat, Patrik Elias, and Ryane Clowe but I understand the coaching staff’s mentality with putting Havlat on that line with Elias since they have chemistry from playing on the Czech Republic team together in international competition. It will force Elias to man the pivot and play out of position, but I think his dynamic passing skills will outweigh some other deficiencies he may have in that transition.
The seemingly ageless Jaromir Jagr should not be counted on for another 67 point season like he provided in 2013-14, but he has been remarkably consistent over the past 3 years and he will have the extra motivation of wanting to earn that performance bonus money his contract promises.
It seems like I am stating the obvious, but the scoring gap could be solved by a bounce back season from Travis Zajac for the money he is being paid he needs to produce more than 48 points, and I think he can and he will this season barring injury. He will be helped by the presence of a deeper top six core, and having Jagr and new addition Mike Cammalleri on his line.
Cammalleri is a pure sniper, and I think being on this line and in a new situation in New Jersey, he will get back to his 25+ goal scoring form. If he can do so, that will take a significant amount of pressure off some other forwards and will make any contributions the team receives from players such as Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder, or Tuomo Ruutu seem like the equivalent of extra credit.
The improvement in the top six, granted they stay healthy, will benefit Adam Henrique who is coming off a 25 goal season because he will shift down to the third line and play against the opposing teams respective third line. He had a great season last year against second line opposing players, I look to him to be an “X factor” for the team this season in his new role.
The Devils handed Andy Greene a contract indicating that he is the top defenseman on the team. He is also counted on to play a role offensively, especially passing and distributing the puck to begin breakaways for the team which I expect will continue in the future.
Greene will also be counted upon to mentor the younger players on the roster such as Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas both of whom have some offensive capability out of the defensive end of the ice, which New Jersey sorely needs because other teams gain that offensive contribution from their defensemen more than the Devils characteristically receive.
This New Jersey team has changed defensively over the summer with the departure of Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov. The commitment of the team to Marek Zidlicky over the summer proves that they have big expectations for his role moving forward, and whether you like him or not, the Devils do not have another player on the roster with his skill set on both sides of the ice.
The Devils offseason was a busy one, and I think they addressed several needs in order to retool this roster to compete in the intensity of the Eastern Conference. This team is going to be better than many people expect if they stay healthy and everyone plays to their strengths.
The forechecking style of Peter DeBoer’s system should create increased puck possession which should lead to goal scoring opportunities with the right personnel in place. The staff and I here at Pucks & Pitchforks will continue to cover the Devils as they enter training camp, the preseason games, and then the start of the regular season.
We will look at individual players, advanced statistical metrics, and the opponents in the Metropolitan Division as well as the rest of the league. We are closer to the start of hockey season with each passing day, and I hope you will continue to check our website for the latest information as the Devils prepare to open another season. Have a happy and safe Labor Day weekend!
(Statistics, records, and some background information courtesy of NHL.com, CBS Sports.com, and SI.com)