While New Jersey’s offense now looks ready to go, the Devils defensive corps took a hit this off-season. Offensive-minded defenseman Marek Zidlicky, who’s 42 points were fifth best on the Devils’ roster a season ago, re-signed with New Jersey. But with the loss of Mark Fayne to Edmonton and departure of Anton Volchenkov via compliance buyout, the Devils have now several voids on the blue line that need to be filled.
Less than three weeks remain until the start of training camp, so let’s preview which players on the current roster are set to step in and break out this season in this edition of NJ Devils Season Preview:
Although he (primarily) manned the blue line, Gelinas was an offensive force in 2013-14. He netted seven goals and added 22 assists for a total of 29 points, good enough for eighth best on the team. But while Gelinas was a key component to New Jersey’s offensive strategy last season, particularly with a man-advantage, his occasional defensive lapses were a cause for concern at times. Although he appeared in 60 games, he spent a good portion of the season’s stretch run out of the lineup as a result of his struggles.
Gelinas’ misfortune on the blue line resulted in Coach Peter DeBoer experimenting with the defenseman’s offensive skill at right wing at times during the latter half of last season. But with the Devils making additions offensively this off-season, the abundance of forwards leaves no such opportunity for Gelinas this year.
There is no doubt that Gelinas’ powerful shot from the point is an asset to this team, especially on the power play. If he can improve upon his defense, which he should absolutely be capable of heading into his second full NHL season, look for the 2009 second-round pick to be firmly entrenched in New Jersey’s everyday lineup.
Merrill finds himself in a similar situation as Gelinas. He made his NHL debut last November, filling a void in the Devils’ defensive corps created by multiple injuries. He appeared in 52 games last season, and for the most part, he was solid.
Although Merrill was an overall -3 for the season, he was particularly strong down the stretch. He posted a +3 rating in his final 12 games, momentum that he can hopefully carry into this coming season. Another bright spot for Merrill was his ability to stay out of the penalty box. He tallied only 12 penalty minutes, which was a team-best among Devils’ players who appeared in 50 games or more.
At age 22, Merrill has only scratched the surface of his potential, and should be in line to build upon the gains made in his rookie season.
Larsson, the fourth-overall selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, made the team out of training camp heading into the Devils’ 2011-12 season. He was a key contributor to that team, playing in 65 games and tallying 18 points during the regular season, and also netted a key goal in New Jersey’s Game 2 win over Philadelphia in the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Coming off the success of his rookie season, however, Larsson has taken a step backwards each of the last two seasons, but not necessarily as a result of his own doing. He found himself situated in Albany’s lineup for the majority of the past season, appearing in just 26 games at the NHL level – predominantly as a result of injury and the shear fact that the Devils simply had too many defensemen.
Larsson will be battling with Gelinas and Merrill for time on the blue line. But entering his fourth NHL season and still only at the ripe age of 21, Larsson could be in for a breakout season with consistent playing time.
Josefson has always been an interesting case. He has appeared on the ice for the Devils sporadically in each of the past four seasons, tallying seven goals in 118 games. But Josefson’s lack of results can possibly be attributed to his lack of playing time. He has averaged a mere 12:31 of ice time per game during his NHL career, playing predominantly on the fourth line.
The Devils handed Josefson a two-year deal in July. This, combined with New Jersey opting not to re-sign fourth line regular Ryan Carter this off-season (yet), shows that the Devils appear content with giving Josefson a chance to appear regularly in the lineup. The Devils’ announcement that Scott Gomez will be in camp on a tryout basis may provide Josefson with some competition, but given Gomez’ lack of results the past four seasons, Josefson should have the upper hand in the battle.
Josefson’s ability to play at the NHL level remains a question mark, but the possibility for a breakout season fully exists for the 23-year-old.
On offense, Reid Boucher is the most likely prospect to be a difference maker for the Devils at some point, but when will that point be? Boucher appeared in 22 games for the Devils last season, scoring two goals and adding five assists. But Devils fans are well aware of Boucher’s high ceiling, as he tallied 62 goals in 66 games for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL in 2012-13. The 62 goals broke a team mark held by Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos. With the plethora of forwards the Devils currently have, it is unlikely that Boucher will make the team out of training camp, but entering his age 21 season, he could be ready to take the next step.
Defensively, Damon Severson has been a name thrown around by many this summer as a sleeper pick to make the Devils roster. The 20 year old blue-liner is also offensively gifted, as evidenced by his 15 goals last season in time split between the WHL’s Kalowna Rockets and Albany Devils. He has some obstacles to overcome (Gelinas, Merill, Larsson), but with solid play, he also can make a difference for New Jersey in 2014-15.
With a deep farm system, the possibility always exists of somebody else making a case for a roster spot in training camp. Who do you think will be a difference maker for the Devils this season? Join the conversation below.