As we enter a new NHL season and their 34th in the Garden State, the New Jersey Devils are at a bit of a crossroads. The franchise has not made the playoffs for the last four seasons after qualifying for the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals and have made some changes to rectify that, hoping this is the year that the team gels and everything goes right.
Since losing the 2012 Cup Final to the Los Angeles Kings, a few major changes have occurred: Marty Brodeur has left and subsequently retired, giving up the mantle to Cory Schneider (acquired in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks during the 2013 NHL Draft); coach Peter DeBoer gave way to the coaching “troika” of Lou Lamoriello, Scott Stevens and Adam Oates who gave way to current bench boss John Hynes; Lamoriello gave up his position as team general manager to Ray Shero and, in turn, left for Toronto to become the Maple Leafs’ new GM; superstars Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise left the club, with Kovalchuk retiring from the NHL to go play in the KHL in his native Russia and Parise going to the Minnesota Wild as a free agent; and finally, and not least of all, was an ownership change witch facilitated the pushing out of the old regime (Lamoriello) and the promotion of the new group (Shero, Hynes).
The Devils are hoping that all of these changes will pay off this year in a return to the playoffs. As the saying goes, once you are in, anything can happen. Teams can get hot with good goaltending, but just qualifying is the most important part.
Listed here are the three key areas where the Devils’ playoff hopes will hinge.
- The offseason acquisition of former first overall pick Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers was telling. The Devils are trying to make a statement this season. But Hall’s performance will also go a long way in determining how far the Devils go this year. There is no doubt that he was brought in to change the culture of a club that finished last overall in the NHL in 2015-16 in offense. The Devils have been a primarily defense-first team for the better part of three decades. Hall is here to score goals.
Another key for the Devils offensively is whether or not Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique can repeat their 30 goal seasons. Henrique will be playing with his OHL Windsor Spitfires teammate Hall, and the two have some good chemistry together. Should all three stay healthy and productive, the Devils should not have any problem in scoring goals, which is something you really could not say about any Devils team of the past few seasons.
If the Devils can also get some supplementary production from veterans like Travis Zajac, Michael Cammalleri (a still-dangerous sniper who just needs to stay healthy to add to the Devils’ offense) and Devante Smith-Pelly and youngsters like Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood, then they should be good to go on the scoreboard.
- At the other end of the rink, defense is something the Devils have never had to worry about in the past. However, this year it could become a question mark.
The Devils had to give up Adam Larsson in order to get Taylor Hall. Larsson was progressing along to be one of the Devils top defensemen. Paired with Andy Greene, they were the Devils’ top shutdown pairing and he played significant time on the penalty kill.
Without him, the Devils have a mix of veterans like Greene and Ben Lovejoy (acquired via free agency from the Pittsburgh Penguins) and youngsters like Seth Helgeson and Steven Santini. Add late acquisition Kyle Quincey (another NHL veteran) to the mix and you get a defense that is a good balance between youth and experience.
But young NHL defensemen take a while to develop their game, longer than forwards. Can the veteran experience overcome youth and inexperience? This season should give some of the young blueliners plenty of learning experiences and the guys to learn from.
Captain Andy Greene will continue to play a huge part in the Devils defense corps. He is durable (at 32 years old, he played in all 82 of the Devils games last year) and defensively capable – he rarely makes mistakes and is always in good position to make the right play when he has to.
- Should he stay healthy, goaltending is the least of the Devils worries. Cory Schneider is pretty good at what he does. And what he does is keep the Devils in games they have had no business being in the last few seasons.
Should he get some goal support (and with a guy like Taylor Hall handling that like it is expected he will) he will have no problem getting some wins for the Devils.
As I write this, the Devils have not cut down to one backup goalie, although both Scott Wedgewood and Keith Kinkaid filled in admirably when it was needed last year (when Cory went down with a knee injury in the middle of the season).
The Devils’ Al-Star goalie will be the point on which the season hinges on. If Schneider is healthy, the Devils have a chance to win every night. Goal scoring will make his job that much easier.
While some were already punching the Devils ticket back to the playoffs the moment they acquired Taylor Hall, it is important to remember that things will take time to develop. Although Hall certainly gives them a much better chance to compete, they still have some question marks. How will the young defensemen step up and progress? Can New Jersey get secondary scoring from players other than Hall, Henrique and Palmieri? Will Cory Schneider stay healthy and continue to play at the level he has the last few seasons?
Since it is October, we should be getting the answers to these and many more questions very shortly. The Devils’ season kicks off on Thursday, October 13 at the Florida Panthers (a team they will see this Saturday in their final preseason warmup as well).