2011-12 New Jersey Devils Preview
After spending a large portion of last summer wrapped up in the Ilya Kovalchuk saga, the New Jersey Devils expected to compete for a Stanley Cup title.
Instead, the Devils, who ultimately signed Kovalchuk to a 15-year, $100 million contract, were given a lesson in humility. Despite the presence of the high-priced sniper, New Jersey finished dead last in the league in scoring and missed out on the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
The only bright spot was a 28-10-3 run to end the season, but that came under interim head coach Jacques Lemaire, who came out of retirement midway through last season to take over for the fired John MacLean. Now, Lemaire, who is the Devils' all-time leader in games coached and victories, is once again retired and Peter DeBoer has taken the reins.
Thanks to a difficult salary cap situation, New Jersey's Hall of Fame general manager Lou Lamoriello did little to change the roster in the offseason.
The hope is that DeBoer can keep the momentum going that was built last year under Lemaire, but the fear is that this year's club will revert to the form that got them off to a dreadful 10-29-2 start last season.
As if the future could get any bleaker, this could also be the final season for future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur, who is 39 and in the final season of his contract.
FORWARDS - Kovalchuk originally came to New Jersey in a trade with the Atlanta Thrashers in February 2010 and has been disappointing so far, compiling 41 goals and 87 points in 108 games as a Devil.
A six-time 40-goal scorer, the Devils are counting on more than the 31 goals and 60 points that Kovalchuk delivered in 81 games last year and they'd also like him to improve his defensive game after logging an atrocious minus-26 rating. New Jersey expected the Russian left winger to help turn the club from a trap-happy defensive club to an up-tempo squad, but New Jersey's paltry 171 goals in 2010-11 is a clear indication that didn't happen.
However, the Devils are expecting a big boost on offense this year with the return of Zach Parise, who is also a left winger. A knee injury limited Parise to just 13 games last season, but the 27-year-old Minnesotan averaged 41.5 goals and 88 points over his previous two seasons. It's possible that 2011-12 could be Parise's last year in Jersey, as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer.
The Devils will have to deal with an injury to centerman Travis Zajac for the early part of the season. Zajac, who finished third on the Devils with 44 points in 2010-11, underwent surgery in mid-August to repair a torn Achilles tendon and recovery time is expected to be anywhere from three-to-six months.
That leaves Patrik Elias as the club's obvious No. 1 centerman. The 35-year- old Elias led New Jersey last season in points with 62 (21 goals, 41 assists).
New Jersey's next-best offensive players last year were Brian Rolston and Dainius Zubrus, who recorded 34 and 30 points, respectively. Zubrus is back for another year, but Rolston was dealt to the New York Islanders in July.
The Devils are hoping for a big leap forward from sophomores Nick Palmieri and Mattias Tedenby this year. Tedenby recorded 22 points (8g, 14a) in 58 games, while Palmieri had 17 points (9g, 8a) in 43 contests.
Jacob Josefson and David Steckel are next in line at center after Elias. Josefson was the 20th overall pick of the 2009 draft and had three goals and 10 assists in his first 28 NHL games last year. Steckel, 29, had just one goal in 18 games following a trade with Washington last year.
One of the few moves Lamoriello made this offseason was to sign tough guys Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen. Boulton has 1,150 penalty minutes over 549 career games and posted 10 points (6g, 4a) and 87 PIM in 69 games with Atlanta last year. Janssen had one goal, three assists and 131 PIM in 54 games with St. Louis.
Stephane Veilleux, Rod Pelley and David Clarkson will also see time up front for New Jersey and it's possible that camp invitees Steve Bernier and Petr Sykora could wind up on the roster at some point.
DEFENSE - Kovalchuk isn't the only player in New Jersey with a big contract and something to prove.
Fellow Russian Anton Volchenkov inked a six-year, $25.5 million deal to offset the loss of New Jersey's former No. 1 defenseman, Paul Martin, but Volchenkov had a disappointing season. Volchenkov battled injuries and recorded eight assists in just 57 games, but the 29-year-old has never been a big scorer. New Jersey brought Volchenkov in to provide toughness and steady defensive play, things the Devils still feel he can provide when healthy.
Henrik Tallinder was another free agent signing in the summer of 2010 and he posted five goals and 11 assists while playing in all 82 games for the Devils last year. After leading the club's defensemen in ice time (22:32 per game) in 2010-11, the veteran Swede will be called on to be a top-four defenseman for Jersey again.
This summer, the Devils also re-signed Andy Greene to a four-year, $12 million contract. Greene led the New Jersey blue line last year with 23 points (4g, 19a), but he also was a minus-23 for the season.
Mark Fayne, 24, will try to build off a solid rookie campaign in which he notched four goals and 10 assists and was also a plus-10 in 57 games.
Gone is longtime New Jersey blueliner Colin White, who was bought out of the final year of his contract this summer and later signed with San Jose. Greene had been with the Devils organizations since they drafted him with the 49th overall pick in 1996.
The Devils are also expected to give 18-year-old Adam Larsson a realistic chance to play this year. Larsson was taken with the fourth overall pick this summer after playing 37 games last year in the Swedish Elite League.
Larsson, who has drawn comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom, is New Jersey's highest draft choice since taking Scott Niedermayer with the third overall pick in 1991. The young Swede is expected to play in North America one way or another this year, as he'll have a spot with New Jersey's AHL affiliate in Albany if he doesn't make the NHL squad.
New Jersey is also hoping to get a boost from the return of veteran defenseman Bryce Salvador, who sat out all of last season with an inner-ear concussion. Salvador had four goals and 10 assists in 79 games with the Devils in 2009-10.
One of DeBoer's goals this year has to be improving the power play, which was ranked 28th in the league in 2010-11. One of the reasons for last year's struggles is that the Devils' defense had a difficult time moving the puck up ice. Unless Larsson can change that as an 18-year-old, the lack of a steady puck-moving defenseman is going to hurt New Jersey on the man advantage once again.
GOALTENDING - Among the many league records Brodeur holds is the NHL's all- time mark in wins, shutouts and games played, but the future Hall of Famer's career is nearing its end.
The Montreal native isn't going to make a decision about his future until after this season, but considering Brodeur will turn 40 in May, it seems more likely that 2011-12 will be the last go-round for the goaltending legend.
Brodeur was limited to just 56 games last year due to a bruised elbow, marking the second time in three seasons that his campaign was cut short because of injury. Despite his 23-26-3 record, Brodeur's 2.45 goals-against average was respectable, although his .903 save percentage was considerably lower than his career mark of .913.
The Devils' backup goaltender, Johan Hedberg, is only slightly younger than Brodeur. The 38-year-old was re-signed for one year this summer after going 15-12-2 with a 2.38 GAA and .912 save percentage in 2010-11.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Devils won't be as bad as they were at the start of last season, but with Lemaire gone it also seem unlikely that they can duplicate the impressive stretch run either. New Jersey's 2011-12 season will fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes and that means the club will be one of the team's fighting over the last few playoff spots in the East. With so many questions about depth at both ends of the ice, it seems likelier that the Devils will suffer through a second straight year outside the postseason.