Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 New Jersey Devils

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page.  Up next as we meander through the Metropolitan Division, the New Jersey Devils.

Last Season:

Puck Drop PreviewIf you ask most Devils fans, or anyone around the NHL for that matter, what sunk New Jersey in 2013-14, you’re likely to get the same response: The shootout. It’s not hard to see why either, what with an historically terrible 0-13 record in the skills competition, not to mention an anemic 4 goals on 45 shots. The cries rose out of Jersey after the conclusion of the season, “if we had just scored a few more shootout goals, we could have been in the playoffs!”

Which is true, to a degree. The team finished just 5 points back of the Detroit Red Wings for the final wild card spot in the East and could have used those extra points, but it was hardly the only factor causing the Devils to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season, something unheard of during the Martin Brodeur era.

Which is where we come to the crux of the problem in Jersey last season. Prior to the 2013-14 campaign, the Devils finally got their man, Marty’s heir, the next great New Jersey goaltender who would again lead the team to the promised land in the form of Cory Schneider. The problem? Brodeur was too boo-boo faced to let Schneider truly take the the reigns as starting goaltender, instead forcing his way into games that he had no business being in based off of his performance.

Yes, Brodeur is one of the best goalies of his generation, but was a shadow of his former self. Compare these stat totals from last season:

Schneider: 45 games, 1.97 goals against average, .921 save % – Note: That GAA was third in the NHL last season, better even than Vezina winner Tuukka Rask.

Broduer: 39 games, 2.51 goals against average, .901 save % – Note: That GAA was the second worst of Broduer’s career, while his save percentage matched his career low (if you don’t include his brief 4 game apperance in 1991-92).

Generally 3 goals is worth about 1 point in the standings, and 6 goals is worth a win (for each point above or below the league average goal differential. An even goal differential is usually worth about 92 points in the standings). With Brodeur giving up more than half a goal per game more than Schneider, there’s no doubt that if the latter had taken a larger portion of the workload (and assuming he was also able to keep his statistics steady, which, given Schneider’s track record to date, seems likely), the Devils would have been able to get those extra points they needed.

So, while the shootout is a major concern, and secondary scoring is also a big problem (the Devils finished 27th in goals per game and had just two 20-goal scorers), it was the goaltending, and specifically Brodeur, that ultimately let the team down in 2013-14. We’ve seen many times in NHL history when a low scoring team can be successful on the back of their defensive structure and, at the fulcrum of it all, their goaltender. Last season for the Devils, it was not to be.

Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 New Jersey Devils

Offseason Changes:

“Rebuild” is not a term in General Manager Lou Lamoriello’s vocabulary, so it’s no great surprise that the Devils had a relatively quiet summer, even after another disappointing season. While other teams were wheeling and dealing, New Jersey was entirely silent on the trade front, and chose instead to augment their current roster with a small handful of free agent signings.

They brought in a veteran scoring winger, the reliable Mike Cammalleri, on a 5-year, $25 million deal to add some scoring punch up front. It still doesn’t address the monumental offensive black hole left in the wake of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk departing the organization over the last two years, but Cammalleri is probably good for 20-30 goals, something this roster sorely needs.

In an attempt to corner the market on Czech players, Lamoriello also brought in winger Martin Havlat. The 33-year-old is oft maligned for his vast injury history, but he’s also a six-time 20 goal scorer, and the gamble (1-year for $1.5 million) isn’t high stakes. If he can play 60+ games (which is asking a lot) and produce, it’s just a bonus. If he can’t, well then the team hasn’t really lost anything.

The team also dabbled in a little addition by subtraction, with the compliance buyout of defenseman Anton Volchenkov. When a stay-at-home type defenseman with absolutely no offensive acumen starts to become a detriment in his own zone, and is making $4.25 million against the cap, it’s probably time for that player to move on. His absence also provides some space for a younger player to slide into the lineup.

So the team did well to add some offensive depth, while losing absolutely no player of value off the roster. Unless you include Brodeur, which I don’t. Letting Brodeur walk as an unrestricted free agent was probably the best move that Lamoriello made all summer. Yes, he’s a franchise icon, yes he’s a legend, and yes, it would have been wonderful to see him finish his career in black and red (and occasionally green), but it’s the Cory Schnieder Era now, and his presence on the roster would have just been another distraction, as it was last year.

2014-15 Lineup Projection:

New Jersey is ultimately a team in transition, and the roster will likely reflect that throughout the season. There are a number of aging veterans at the core of this team, but there is also a number of younger players at the fringes, ready to step in and take their spot in the lineup, if they haven’t already. Also, former Devils star Scott Gomez and Czech defenseman Tomas Kaberle have been invited to training camp, which could change up things quite a bit should they make the team.

Mike Cammalleri – Travis Zajac – Jaromir Jagr

Ryane Clowe – Patrick Elias – Martin Havlat

Tuomo Ruutu – Adam Henrique – Damian Brunner

Dainius Zubrus – Stephen Gionta – Michael Ryder

Zidlicky – Greene

Merrill – Salvador

Larsson – Gelinas

Schneider

Kinkaid

Players to Watch: 

  • Jaromir Jagr: Because, Jagr. The 42-year-old has long ago established himself as a generational talent, and the greatest European forward in NHL history, so why does he continue to toil away? For one simple reason, the love of the game. Jagr still plays with a youthful exuberance, combined with sublime talent that makes him such a pleasure to watch. He led the Devils with 67 points last year, and finished second in goals with 24. If he can match or surpass those totals again this season, Jagr has a very real opportunity to pass Mike Gartner, Phil Espositio and Marcel Dionne to sit 4th all-time in NHL goals, and to pass Dionne and Ron Francis for 4th all-time in points (just image if he hadn’t lost all those NHL games due to lockouts and the KHL, Jagr might stand alone behind Gretzky, statistically). Though he’s at the nadir of his career, Jagr is in the pantheon of hockey greats, and is worth watching every single time he’s on the ice.

 

  • Adam Henrique: At the other end of the scale we have Henrique, who was born during Jagr’s rookie season. Henrique finally took the next step in his development in 2013-14 after a disappointing sophomore campaign and led the Devils in goals with 25. The question now becomes, what is his ceiling? Never a huge scorer in junior (his best total in Windsor was 38 goals and 77 points in 54 games), can we realistically expect Henrique to take the next step, to hit the 30-goal and 60-point plateaus with consistency, or was last season an aberration? For the Devils and their future, the answer to this question is extremely important, and likely to be determined next season. Patrik Elias is going to be gone soon, and Henrique has to show he’s ready for a full-time top-6 offensive role.

 

  • Cory Schneider: Finally, finally, ten years after being drafted and after serving as apprentice to two great goaltenders in Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, finally Schneider has the clear-cut, number-one starting goaltender job on an NHL team. To say it’s been a long time coming for the 28-year-old would be an understatement, and surely nobody is happier or more excited than Schneider himself. With a career 2.12 GAA and .925 save % at the NHL level, Schneider has never been anything but elite during his time in the league. The question will be, with a career high 43 games last season, can Schneider continue that level of play over 65+ games? Every indication points to yes, and the Devils are certainly counting on that if they want to return to the playoffs this season.

On The Rise:

  • Eric Gelinas
  • John Merrill
  • Reid Boucher

Gelinas came seemingly out of nowhere to have a fantastic rookie season on the blueline for the Devils. He finished 3rd on the Devils in defensemen scoring (and second in points per game), while also finishing tied for 3rd (albeit in less games) among rookie defensemen in the NHL with 29 points. He’s already become a quality power play quarterback, with 5 of his 7 goals, and 17 points coming on the power play.

Despite that success, he curiously bounced between the NHL and the AHL last year. This season, expect Gelinas to stay with the Devils for the duration, as the 23-year-old represents the future on the blueline in Jersey.

However, he isn’t to be outdone by 20-year-old Merrill. After growing his game at the University of Michigan, Merrill made the jump to pro in 2012-13, and spent most of last year between New Jersey and Albany. Though not as flashy as Gelinas in the offensive zone, Merrill is a great all-around defenseman that plays a solid two-way game, and distributes the puck very well.

Last year, his rookie season, Merrill produced 2 goals and 11 points in 52 NHL games with the Devils. He also seemed to have the confidence of the coaching staff, averaging 19:13 of ice time per night (compared to just 16:55 for Gelinas), much of it at five on five. Given the lack of depth on the blueline in Jersey, there’s a roster spot waiting for him when training camp opens, he just has to take it. Gelinas and Merrill form a good one-two punch and, combined with Adam Larsson, make up the future of the defense core in Jersey.

Reid is a slightly undersized sniper that the Devils are hoping can take the next step this season. There is little doubt in Reid’s goalscoring ability, after potting 68 goals in 62 games during his final junior campaign in Sarnia. Like Gelinas and Merrill, he split last season between New Jersey and Albany, and produced quite well at the AHL level with 22 goals 38 points in 52 games, though that scoring didn’t quite translate to the NHL game (2 goals and 7 points in 23 games for the big club).

The questions for Reid are whether or not he can continue to score consistently at the pro level, and whether or not he can snag a roster spot out of training camp on a team loaded with veteran wingers. He’ll be 21 by the time the puck drops on the new NHL season, so there’s no rush to get Reid into the lineup just yet, but his offensive awareness, impressive shot, and overall growth seem to indicate that he’ll be a regular contributor on the Devils sooner rather than later, and he’ll be the first option to fill any hole that might open up in an offensive role.

On The Decline:

  • Patrick Elias
  • Michael Ryder
  • Ryane Clowe

As much as it pains me to say it, it looks like Elias’ time with the Devils could be coming to a close soon. Through all the changes over the last two decades in New Jersey, there have been but two constants on the ice, Brodeur shutting the door and Elias producing offense. Now with Brodeur gone, Elias is the last remaining member of the 2000 and 2003 Stanley Cup championship teams, and he soon may be on his way out.

The 38-year-old posted an 18-35-53 statline in 65 games last year, solid numbers, but also his worst offensive campaign since way back in 1998-99 (not including lockout or injury-shortened seasons). He’s still the team’s defacto second line center, but at this point he’s merely keeping the seat warm for Henrique to take over, and it may happen as early as this season (if it hadn’t happened at times already last year).

Ryder’s career has always gone hot and cold. He started his time in the NHL with a bang, netting 85 goals over his first three full seasons in Montreal, before struggling and then getting shipped off to Boston. His first year with the Bruins, he scored 27 goals, but then again regressed. After winning the Cup with Boston (a post-season in which he had 17 points in 25 games), he was again traded, this time to Dallas, and responded with a career high 35 goals. His lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, during which he was (surprise) again traded, was solid enough for the Devils to take a chance on him.

Unfortunately for the Devils, they were getting the struggling version of Ryder, and not the 30-goal scorer. He managed just 18 goals and 34 points over the full 82 game season in New Jersey last year, a year in which they could have desperately used Ryder’s scoring punch. At 34 years old, Ryder is running out of time to show he can still be a top six forward, and this season, the last on his contract with Jersey, has the potential to signal the beginning of the end for Ryder.

For years, Clowe was a solid power forward in San Jose, hitting 50 points for three consecutive seasons between 2009-2011. That was the player the Devils thought they signed last summer, not the player he has unfortunately become. The lockout-shortened 2013 probably should have been a clue, as he managed only 3 goals in 40 games split between the Sharks and the Rangers, yet it was somehow enough to garner Clowe a 5-year contract with an AAV of $4.85 million from New Jersey.

People didn’t think he could live up to that contract, and so far they are right. He managed to suit up for only 43 games with the Devils, and only netted 7 goals and 26 points. The 31-year-old Clowe still has time to turn things around, but after three seasons of less than stellar offensive numbers, it’s pretty apparent that he’s in decline and will have to put in a great effort this season if he hopes to be worth the value of his contract.

2014-15 Season Expectations: 

The Devils are in the unenviable position of having a roster full of aging veterans and underachievers, with a shallow prospect pool that isn’t quite ready or able to step in and take over the team (with a few exceptions). That being said, they have an elite goaltender in the prime of his career, and we’ve seen time and time again how far that can take teams in the NHL.

It’s expected that Jagr and Elias can produce decently for at least one more year, while Zajac, Henrique, and newcomer Cammalleri round out an offense that hopes to improve from within. If Clowe and Ryder are able to turn things around, all the better. However, offense will still be a concern for New Jersey, and will remain so until they can find adequate replacements for Parise and Kovalchuk (and yes, the spectre of those two men still haunts the 2014-15 edition of the Devils). While the team isn’t primed for a Cup run, just a bit more offense could potentially put them over the playoff hump.

But, as it always does with the Devils, the success of the team will come from the defense, and the goaltending. The team was 6th in goals against per game last season, and also had the best penalty kill in the NHL at 86.4%. With a mix of youthful energy and veteran leadership on the blueline, they should be able to stay near the top of the pack in both categories.

In the end though, it all comes down to Schneider. This could very well be the season that Schneider finally gets legitimately discussed as a Vezina candidate, and he holds the keys to the Devils’ playoff hopes. In a tough division featuring the powerful Penguins, the Cup finalist Rangers, the improved Islanders and Blue Jackets, and the always dangerous Capitals, expect the Devils to fight for the final wildcard spot in the East right until the bitter end.

Up next in Puck Drop Preview: The New York Islanders

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