The New Jersey Devils stole the show this summer at the NHL Entry Draft by landing goaltender Cory Schneider in a trade, but another offseason development managed to cast a shadow over the organization.
The Devils were praised for prying Schneider away from the Vancouver Canucks and giving the franchise a successor to Martin Brodeur, but the shocking retirement announcement of star scorer Ilya Kovalchuk was a big blow to the club's playoff chances in 2013-14.
At just 30 years of age, Kovalchuk opted to leave $77 million over 12 years on the table by retiring. Then, less than a week after ending his NHL career, he signed a four-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League.
Although there is no doubt Kovy's decision to shun New Jersey and the NHL for his home country of Russia will hurt the Devils greatly in the short term, his departure could be a blessing from the franchise down the road. After all, since Kovalchuk retired at such a young age, the Devils will only be charged $250,000 against the cap through the life of his contract. If Kovalchuk made the decision when he was 35 years or older, the entire average annual value (AAV) of his contract would have counted against the cap.
In addition to losing Kovy, the Devils also watched David Clarkson, the team's goal-scoring leader in 2013, leave the nest to sign a lucrative deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. That means New Jersey, a team that finished 28th in team offense last season, is going to need big offensive years from its returning players and offseason acquisitions Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder to stay afloat this season.
Adding uncertainty to New Jersey's 2013-14 campaign is the onset of realignment, which places the Devils in the Metropolitan Division along with its former Atlantic Division combatants (Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York Rangers, New York Islanders). Washington, Carolina and Columbus will also play in the new division, which will receive three automatic bids to the playoffs. It'll take a minor miracle for the Devils to claim one of those spots and earning one of the East's remaining two wild card postseason spots could prove to be just as difficult.
FORWARDS - Devils head coach Peter DeBoer had a great deal of success in his first season in New Jersey, taking the club to the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of 2012 before losing in six games to Los Angeles.
Last year, however, the Devils finished last in their division and that was due in large part to the team's trouble scoring goals. Without Kovalchuk, DeBoer and his staff are going to have to get creative with their line combinations to find some offense.
New Jersey finished 28th in the NHL with just 2.29 goals per game and that was with a combined 26 goals from Clarkson and Kovalchuk, who accounted for nearly a quarter (23.6 percent) of New Jersey's tallies in 2013.
In addition to newcomers Jagr, Ryder and Ryane Clowe, the Devils will call upon Patrik Elias to provide an offensive spark this season.
The 37-year-old Elias led New Jersey in points last season, notching 14 goals and 22 assists while playing in all 48 games. The Czech native signed a three- year, $16.5 million deal in the offseason and will be the club's obvious No. 1 centerman.
Elias' countryman Jagr has enjoyed a late-career renaissance since returning to the NHL for the 2011-12 season, but at 41 years of age, it's fair to ask what the future Hall of Fame winger will offer this season after signing with New Jersey for one year and $4 million.
Jagr had 16 goals and 19 assists in 45 combined regular-season games for Dallas and Boston last season, but then failed to score a goal while providing 10 assists for the Bruins over 22 playoff games. Jagr has battled nagging injuries over the past two seasons and a lower-body ailment caused him to miss a large chunk of New Jersey's training camp, putting his status for the season opener in doubt.
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello also inked Clowe to a five-year, $24.25 million deal despite the power forward suffering through a down season in 2013. The 30-year-old had no goals and 11 assists in 28 games with San Jose before being traded to the New York Rangers. Clowe did play better in New York, notching three goals and six assists in 14 games (regular season and playoffs).
Ryder landed a two-year, $7 million deal from the Devils after posting 16 goals and 19 assists in 46 games with Dallas and Montreal. New Jersey also offered winger Damien Brunner a professional tryout. The 27-year-old Brunner, who had 12 goals and 14 assists as a rookie with Detroit last season, is expected to make the team out of camp, considering the team's offensive options are limited.
The Devils are also hoping for increased offensive contributions from some returning players like Travis Zajac, Dainius Zubrus and Adam Henrique.
Zajac, who had a disappointing seven goals and 13 assists in 48 games last season, figures to be the club's second-line center behind Elias. The 28-year- old had a 25-goal, 67-points season with New Jersey in 2009-10, but he has since posted only 22 goals and 48 points in 145 games over the past three campaigns. Zajac carries an annual cap hit of $5.75 million through the 2020-21 season, a high price to pay for a guy who has had trouble scoring in recent years.
Henrique, 23, also has a lot to prove after inking a six-year, $24 million contract with the Devils over the summer. He was a finalist for the Calder Trophy following a 16-goal, 51-point rookie season in 2011-12, but fell to 11 goals and five assists in 42 games last season.
Zubrus is a big winger capable of playing a defensive role, but his offensive upside is minimal at best. He had two goals and seven assists in 22 games last season, but Zubrus could be asked to make a bigger impact on offense in 2013-14.
DeBoer will fill out the rest of his forward group with a mix of young players like Reid Boucher, Andrei Loktionov, and Jacob Josefson and low-scoring veterans such as Steve Bernier, Ryan Carter, Krys Barch and Rostislav Olez.
It's going to be a scuffle on offense for the Devils and that's assuming everybody stays healthy. If the injury bug bites, it won't take much to expose New Jersey's paper-thin depth up front.
DEFENSE - The lack of scoring potential on this roster means the Devils will almost certainly have to play a defensive style in 2013-14, with the forwards taking less chances on offense and helping out at the back end.
That could make things a bit easier on New Jersey's blue line, which is short on offensive talent but adept at playing in its own zone. The defensive rotation features steady veterans Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky and Anton Volchenkov, and the Devils are hoping youngster Adam Larsson, the fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft, can make some progress after an inconsistent start to his NHL career.
Zidlicky has the biggest offensive upside of the group and led New Jersey's blue line with 19 points (4G, 15A). Greene, who led the team in ice time, tied Zidlicky for the team lead in goals by a defenseman and also added 12 assists.
Salvador fell back to earth, offensively speaking, during the 2013 regular season after scoring in bunches during the 2012 playoffs. The 37-year-old only had three goals and one assist in 50 career postseason games heading into the spring of 2012, when he exploded for four goals and 10 assists over 24 games. Last season, however, Salvador managed just two assists in 39 games.
Volchenkov, who has three years left on a six-year, $22.5 million deal, had one goal and four assists in 37 games during the lockout-shortened campaign.
Larsson, meanwhile, recorded six assists over 37 contests and has two goals and 22 helpers over the first 102 games of his career. Still, the Swede won't turn 21 years of age until mid-November and could be ready to take the next step in his development.
The Devils are also expected to use Jon Merril, Mark Fayne, Peter Harrold and possibly Damon Severson for depth at the back end. Merril, 21, and Severson, 19, are recent second-round draft picks and could get a chance to stick with the big club.
GOALTENDING - For years, NHL fans speculated what the Devils would do for goaltending when Brodeur was finally ready to hang up the pads.
Although Brodeur, who enters this season as a 41-year-old future Hall of Famer, is not ready to talk retirement, trading for Schneider made a whole lot of sense.
Schneider, a 27-year-old American, cost the Devils a first-round pick at the 2013 draft, but that could be a small price to pay for an organization that places such a high premium on goaltending. The former Canucks netminder has excellent career numbers, going 55-26-8 with a 2.20 goals against average and .927 save percentage in 98 career games.
Although Schneider spent most of his career as a backup to Roberto Luongo, he took over the starting reins last season for the Canucks and went 17-9-4 with a 2,11 GAA. However, he missed the first two games of the playoffs with an injury before returning for the final two tilts of a four-game sweep at the hands of San Jose.
Brodeur, the NHL's all-time leader in wins, shutouts, saves and numerous other categories, had another solid season in 2013, going 13-9-7 with a 2.22 GAA and .901 save percentage.
Brodeur is entering the final season of a two-year, $9 million contract, but has hinted at a desire of playing beyond the 2013-14 campaign. It should be interesting to see if the Devils would commit to Brodeur past this season after trading for a goaltender about to enter the prime of his career.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Devils have won three Stanley Cup titles with Lamoriello as GM and Brodeur as goaltender, but that window has pretty much closed on that championship era. Kovalchuk's retirement decision was a punch in the gut and it leaves the Devils with too many questions on offense. If any franchise could find a way to push through this diversity to a playoff spot it would be the Devils, but it doesn't appear they'll have the horses to hang with the rest of the Metropolitan Division in 2013-14.