We continue on with our NHL previews today, taking a look at the New Jersey Devils of the Metropolitan division. This team has a fanbase that certainly dislike ours, but I doubt anyone is going to apologize for the signing of Zach Parise.
However Devils fans have had a rough couple of years, going from playing in the Stanley Cup finals to not making the playoffs in one season. There has also been the Kolvachuk drama this off season. We may never been friends Devils fans, but we kind of understand where you are right now.
Thanks to John Fischer, managing editor over at In Lou We Trust, for his rundown on the Devils.
The New Jersey Devils' offensive threat is their possession game. The skaters have been good at keeping games to relatively low amounts of events (shooting attempts). Patrik Elias typically has led the way, but Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique have been good at driving the play forward. In terms of who will put the puck in the net and who will take shots, that's more difficult. The hope for this year is that the combination of Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder, and Jaromir Jagr can provide enough shots and goals at both even strength and power play situations to augment Elias, Zajac, and Henrique.
The Devils' defense hasn't been productive on offense despite the efforts of Marek Zidlicky, and their bottom six is, well, a bottom six. Whatever little they can contribute is what it is. How the Devils will do this season will be based on how much better - or more lucky - they are at turning shots into goals. Their shooting percentage as a team was woeful last season and now they're without two big volume shooters in David Clarkson and Ilya Kovalchuk. So the team's got to attack more along with limiting the opposition.
The defensive threat is really a team game. Last season, every defenseman not named Bryce Salvador was positive in driving the play forward and in the big picture, all were good at limiting shots on net. Andy Greene really is the standout defender as he's consistently played against top competition and top minutes while not getting pinned back like Salvador or burnt on a regular basis like Marek Zidlicky. Since he doesn't put up a lot of points, he gets overlooked a bit for his contributions. I'd say he's the unsung hero of the team given how much he plays and how solid he's been.
The team's committed to playing in their own end, so the Devils have been rather stingy when it comes to shots allowed. They don't collapse over and over like New York and they're not going to go around and just crush guys. They tend to be positionally sound and rotate well. The team can be better provided Mark Fayne plays regularly, Salvador gets less minutes, Adam Larsson improves, and somehow Anton Volchenkov goes away.
Goaltending was nightmarish at times last season.
Martin Brodeur was league average at even strength; Johan Hedberg wasn't - and it showed while Brodeur was hurt; and both were picked apart when shorthanded. There should be a big improvement this season as the Devils acquired Cory Schneider in the 2013 Draft. Schneider has been very good as a backup to Roberto Luongo in Vancouver until this past season when he was the starter. I doubt he's going to fall apart in New Jersey and he really only needs to be about league average to be a massive improvement of Hedberg and Brodeur. If it were up to me, I'd split starts such that Schneider gets the lion's share of games. With over 20 back-to-back sets, Brodeur will definitely get in games but the time is now to make Schneider the main man while one of the most accomplished goaltenders in the history of the game is in the twilight of his career.
Pete DeBoer has been very good as a coach in New Jersey. We know now that teams that regularly out-attempt their opponents at even strength tend to be superior and we know that coaches really can't do much about the breaks. The Devils have been a very strong possession team in recent seasons. Even though the team missed the playoffs, they regularly out-played opponents, doing everything but getting a goal for themselves and making sure they don't make a critical error. Some fans were unhappy with how he rotated out some defensemen and forwards, but he doesn't control who's on his roster. DeBoer didn't decide to have eight defensemen, for example. I fear that his seat will be a little hotter now that the goal for this season is to definitely make the postseason. The main problems that sunk last season's teams weren't up to DeBoer, in my opinion.
As far as the assistants go, they could be a bit better. After long-time and excellent defense coach Larry Robinson moved on, the defense did well enough under Scott Stevens. I have no issue with Chris Terreri as goalie coach. Special teams were an issue. The PK got out of sorts plenty of times, forgetting to cover men open in the slot. Matt Shaw didn't really help the power play much as they continued to struggle getting set up regularly, they really relied on Kovalchuk to do a lot, and - again - the team just couldn't find the net. Hopefully, another year under Stevens' belt and the hiring of Mike Foligno will help out a bit more along with new players.
The Devils have plenty of prospective defensemen. Defensive-minded Alexander Urbom and offensive-minded Eric Gelinas have been in Albany and New Jersey likes both of them. Jon Merrill is now a professional after three not-so-smooth years at Michigan and his skills at both ends of the rink are tantalizing. Damon Severson has been a force in the WHL and Reece Scarlett looks to make Albany after putting up points for Swift Current. Seth Helgeson (just finished four years at Minnesota) and Raman Hrabarenka (signing from last summer) are two more big bodies from the back to fill the system. On top of all of that, the Devils chose big BC-bound defenseman Steve Santini in the second round in 2013.
While not all prospects will bear out, it's likely the Devils will find a few defenders for the future in this group. Other positions are lacking in talent. Stefan Matteau is really the only sure-fire future NHL prospective forward and that's based on not getting creamed in 17 games as an 18-year old last season. He should have a great growing season in Albany this year.
Some have criticized the Devils for taking Matteau instead of forfeiting that pick in 2012. Beyond Matteau, there's only two forwards of note and neither are guarantees to make it to the next level. Reid Boucher, who has a fantastic, NHL-caliber shot but not much else and Blake Pietila, who could be a checker one day but that day is not yet. In goal, Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood are expected to be .
Kinkaid didn't really do all that well in the AHL last season, so I wonder whether he has a future beyond being a #3 guy in the system. Wedgewood only put up a 90% save percentage, but he was on an awful Trenton team in the ECHL. I think he may get the nod at the next level. I know he is the Devils' best prospective goalie.
The depth of the team is a bit of a concern at forward. They have 13 NHL forwards, but if/when they start getting banged up, the Devils don't really have anyone in the system they can call up to be decent in a fill-in spot. Rod Pelley and Tim Sestito have been used on the fourth line in the past and both have provided little. They also have a goon in Krys Barch, who contributes little despite being worlds better than Cam Janssen. As for goaltending, the Devils have been fortunate they've only had to deal with one injured goalie so I'm not too concerned about that position. For most teams, going three or four-deep is a problem anyway. The organizational depth is a lot better on defense. The Devils do have seven NHL-caliber forwards who all played last season plus Urbom, Gelinas, and possibly Merrill can step in as necessary.
Martin Brodeur is a fan favorite since, well, he's been around for everything and won everything here. He's the man. As is Patrik Elias, who's been with the team for over 15 years and has been the team's top forward for most of them. Plenty of fans dig on Adam Henrique for his strong rookie season, knocking out the Rangers in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and for being a young top-six forward who's already doing everything. It'll be more justified if he can become a regular 20+ goal, 50+ player while getting minutes in all situations.
The must-follow writers on Twitter at Tom Gulitti (@TGfireandice) and Rich Chere (@ledgerNJDevils). Both are beat-reporters for the Bergen Record and Star-Ledger, respectively. Their information is solid, they don't pass along junk rumors, and they are active.
Any Devils fan or anyone who wants to know what's been going on with the Devils should be reading Fire & Ice (Gulitti's blog) andNJ.com/Devils (Chere & other writers) regularly. ILWT is only third to them.