Devils: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
This may be the most important season for the New Jersey Devils since the team relocated from Colorado in 1982.
After missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996 this past spring, the Devils have brought in a new head coach (again) in Peter DeBoer, but face a season with a solid but offensively challenged blue line, little depth down the middle or on the wings, an aging all-world goalie and the prospect of having their best player bolt as a free agent at the end of the season.
For a team that has been at the center of many crises and tough spots over the past three or four years, this won't be anything new. And if there's any team that can make chicken salad out of this, well, you know, it's the Devils. But if, as we expect, this season represents a second straight playoff miss, we're guessing big changes are afoot at The Rock.
1. The big man
Until Zach Parise signs a contract extension (he officially can't until Jan. 1, having signed a one-year deal this past offseason), a cloud of uncertainty is going to hang over him and the Devils.
If the Devils flounder early on, GM Lou Lamoriello will have little choice but to shop Parise prior to the trade deadline. Interestingly, Parise does not qualify for a no-trade or no-movement clause. Our guess? Parise is in a different jersey by the end of the season and creates a frenzy next summer that makes the Brad Richards sweepstakes look like a junkyard swap meet.
Regardless of how it works out, Parise's return after playing just 13 games last season will be a relief to him and the organization.
2. The shadow
There is Parise the player and Parise the unknown contract entity. How will the two coexist? And what kind of impact will it have on the team? Parise, as we noted, insisted he doesn't expect it to be a distraction.
It's interesting, too, that DeBoer has firsthand experience with this kind of dynamic from his time in Florida. During his second season as Panthers coach, franchise defenseman Jay Bouwmeester was in the same position as Parise. While it was a constant talking point around the team, DeBoer noted it didn't have any impact on Bouwmeester's play.
"It was Jay's best year of hockey before or since," DeBoer said. "He was outstanding for us. It wasn't a distraction for Jay or the team."
DeBoer said he's hoping for a slightly different ending to the Parise story given that Bouwmeester bolted for Calgary in the offseason.
3. Trouble down the middle
Travis Zajac was penciled in to be the Devils' nominal No. 1 center given his success playing with Parise. But Zajac went down with an Achilles tendon tear and is out indefinitely. Zajac's loss is significant, but he is a player that managed only six goals after the All-Star break, and that was when the Devils were playing their best hockey of the season.
Still, his absence highlights one of the major issues confronting the Devils: a significant lack of depth down the middle.
Patrik Elias looks like he'll center Parise to start, while youngster Jacob Josefson will get a look centering the Devils' most potent scorer, Kovalchuk. David Steckel, who came over from Washington, will give the Devils strong defensive support down the middle and he's a key faceoff guy. Petr Sykora will likely see some action down the middle, too.
4. Mr. Contract
Everyone is familiar with the bumpy ride that preceded Kovalchuk's arrival in New Jersey. And whether the torturous path that led to his signing a 15-year, $100 million deal was a factor, Kovalchuk, like many Devils, struggled out of the gate last season. He scored just four times in his first 24 games and at times looked like he was trying to do too much.
As the season went along, so too did Kovalchuk's production (and, not surprisingly, the Devils' ascent through the standings); his 17 goals after the All-Star break were tied for fifth in the NHL. Still, $100 million is a lot to pay for 31 goals when you're expecting 50, so all eyes will again be on Kovalchuk when this season starts.
5. Last hurrah for the greatest of all time?
Martin Brodeur is 39 and in the final year of his contract with the Devils, and that raises all kinds of interesting possibilities. At the start of training camp, Brodeur told reporters in New Jersey he isn't sure what he'll do at the end of this season. But what about before the end of the season? If the Devils aren't in a playoff race come deadline time, would Brodeur want to play for another team that had a shot at a Cup after spending his entire 18-year career in New Jersey? The other possibility is that Brodeur returns to Vezina form, the Devils are once again a playoff team and the future unfolds as it should, as far as Devils fans are concerned.
6. The experiment
So, let's just say last season's much-debated Parise/Kovalchuk line combo experiment during camp will not be repeated this season. DeBoer said he's more interested in splitting up his potent left wingers than trying to mash them together on the same forward unit. That suits Parise fine.
"I think that'll work," he said. "It seemed like once Kovy was put back on the left wing, he was a lot more comfortable, so I don't think they want to try that experiment again."
Assuming the two big left wingers are split, the onus will be on DeBoer to get them onto the ice as much as possible.
7. Petr Sykora
There seems to be no end to the number of old Devils who can check out any time they want, but can never leave the Devils' fold. Bobby Holik came back, so did Jason Arnott. This training camp, it's Sykora, who, along with Arnott and Elias, formed the potent line that ended up scoring the winner in the 2000 Stanley Cup finals. Of course, that was a long time ago, and Sykora is near the end of the line (which is the time when most old Devils return to New Jersey). Still, it looks like Sykora, who split time last season between Plzen of the Czech league and Minsk of the KHL, will stick around after cap breaks. Who says you can't go home again?
8. Who needs scoring?
Well, getting Parise back helps. Still, DeBoer is going to have to find some more offense or there's no chance of the Devils making the playoffs. They finished dead last in goals per game by a country mile and in 5-on-5 scoring. They were 28th on the power play and actually managed to score the fewest power-play goals in the league.
DeBoer is insistent there is scoring depth on this team; if he's right, then maybe the Devils won't be in such a predicament this season and forced to win every game 3-2 or 2-1.
"There are some really interesting young kids here," he said, among them Josefson, Adam Henrique, Nick Palmieri and Mattias Tedenby. At least a couple of them will get a shot playing with Parise and/or Kovalchuk.
"If I'm a young guy in this organization, you've got a great opportunity in front of you if you can grab a job with one of these guys," DeBoer said.
9. Not all bad
This version of the Devils may not remind anyone of the teams from 1995, 2000 or 2003; but, like most Devils teams since the dawn of time, they're still going to be pretty tough to play against.
They ranked ninth in goals allowed per game, although they were just 14th in 5-on-5 goals allowed. Anton Volchenkov is a horse, although he played in only 57 games in his first year in New Jersey thanks to injury and his return to health will help matters considerably defensively. We're curious to see how former collegiate player Matt Taormina performs this season after showing some nice offensive flash in 2010-11 before he, too, was hurt.
10. The future?
If the Devils are going to turn things around -- not necessarily this season, but moving forward -- it may well start with young Adam Larsson. The big 18-year-old was the fourth overall pick in June's draft and the early returns are wildly positive. It's been a while since the Devils have had an honest-to-goodness homegrown franchise player on the blue line, but maybe that time is now.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering fourth NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Peter DeBoer was courted by a number of NHL teams before taking the job in Florida for his first NHL head-coaching gig. Three years later, he said the experience of being fired was humbling, but he also believes he learned a great deal during his time in South Florida.
"[To be back in the game and have one of those 30 jobs] is something that I appreciate greatly," DeBoer told us. "And I think Lou saw somebody who has learned a lot through three years of coaching in the league. I think New Jersey will benefit from those experiences."
There will be a lot of challenges in New Jersey, but one of the biggest may be exorcising the ghost of Jacques Lemaire. When the masterful bench boss came out of retirement last season to replace the doomed John MacLean, he led the injury-ravaged Devils on a 28-17-3 run that was nearly good enough to get them into the playoffs.
DeBoer said he's not trying to reinvent the wheel. (DeBoer quipped that "I'm not going to try and change the Devils into the 1985 Oilers.") But he's also going to have to make sure the gang buys into what he's selling and that what he's selling isn't necessarily going to be Jacques Lemaire Redux. --Scott Burnside
Best bet: Ilya Kovalchuk
The Devils were in a bad place in 2010-11 and there is no denying Kovalchuk was the poster boy for the situation. But lost in his 60-point, minus-26 fiasco of a season is the fact that he managed to pull himself up later in the season. Prior to the All-Star break, Kovalchuk had 29 points and was a minus-29 in 48 games. After the break, Kovalchuk had 31 points in 33 games and a plus-3 rating. He needs to be forgiven for the first half of last season and return to the elite standing that he has always carried. -- Sean Allen
Risky pick: Martin Brodeur
A man who has rewritten much of the NHL's goaltending record book, Brodeur enters his 19th NHL season with the usual questions surrounding him. Following a season in which his numbers took a significant hit -- he managed just 23 wins, a 2.45 GAA and .903 save percentage -- he certainly won't be drafted as high as he has been. But was this a one-year blip or a hint of what's to come? If you believe the Devils will start the 2011-12 season like they ended the 2010-11 campaign and Brodeur is durable enough at 39 to handle another full workload, then he's a surefire No. 1 option. -- Tim Kavanagh
Sleeper pick: Adam Larsson
The Devils' much-ballyhooed 2011 top draft pick (fourth overall), Adam Larsson is considered one of the more NHL-ready players of this year's crop. The 18-year-old Swede is expected to play in North America this season -- the only question is whether he'll be based in New Jersey or Albany (AHL). A big, top-pair defenseman of the future, Larsson won't score a ton in the near future. But he could see the inside of the penalty box with a substantial amount of regularity. -- Victoria Matiash
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Devils:
• June 24: Selected D Adam Larsson (Sweden) with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft.
• July 1: Re-signed D Andy Greene and G Johan Hedberg.
• July 14: Signed RW Cam Janssen.
• July 14: Re-signed D Matt Corrente.
• July 15: Signed LW Eric Boulton.
• July 19: Named Peter DeBoer head coach.
• July 26: Re-signed D Mark Fraser.
• July 28: Acquired RW Trent Hunter from Islanders for LW Brian Rolston and conditional pick in the 2012 draft.
• July 29: Re-signed LW Zach Parise.
• July 29: Named Dave Barr assistant coach.
• D Tyler Eckford (unrestricted free agent, signed by Phoenix)
• D Anssi Salmela (unrestricted free agent, signed by KHL club Avangard Omsk)
• LW Brian Rolston (traded to Islanders)
• D Colin White (contract bought out, signed by San Jose)
• C Adam Mair (unrestricted free agent, invited to Philadelphia camp tryout)