NJ Devils: 8 Reasons They Could Have What It Takes to Get Back to the Finals
There have been a number of changes to the Devils' roster and coaching staff. The team lost captain Zach Parise, Alexei Ponikarovsky and potentially Petr Sykora to free agency and saw assistant coaches Adam Oates and Larry Robinson take new coaching jobs in Washington and San Jose.
However, the Devils were able to resign Martin Brodeur and Bryce Salvador while also maintaining the fourth line by bringing back Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier. Although changes were made, New Jersey managed to keep a majority of their Eastern Conference Championship team together.
Parise may be gone, but New Jersey still has what it takes to get back to the Stanley Cup Final. Here are eight different reasons why we may see the Devils hoisting the Prince of Wales Trophy next season.
Whenever a team loses its captain in the offseason, it could becoming a crushing blow to both the locker room and the fan base. A team's chemistry can rely on adding and subtracting players, and losing such a reliable leader would normally lead to a disappointing change in the organization.
Now that Zach Parise has left for Minnesota after just one year as Devils captain, it will be interesting to see how New Jersey handles their leadership roles. However, the defending Eastern Conference champions have a good number of veterans willing to lead the team back to the Final.
"I don't want to pin it on anyone," Parise told CBS after signing with the Wild. "You've got Travis Zajac, Bryce Salvador. Ilya Kovalchuk is going to be there a long time, Andy Greene. Any guy in there would do a great job of it."
Along with the long-time leadership of Martin Brodeur, the Devils have two former team captains on the roster in Kovalchuk (2009-2010 with Atlanta) and Patrik Elias (2006-2007 with New Jersey). They also have long-time Devil Petr Sykora (barring free agency) and veteran Bryce Salvador who could potentially take the job.
It also helps that former captain Scott Stevens is returning to the team as a full time assistant coach this year. Either way, New Jersey has plenty of guys in the locker room that could lead the team to victory
2. Experienced Goaltending
Going into this past offseason, one of the top priorities was to re-sign Martin Brodeur and allow him to finish his career in New Jersey. Many believed once that move was completed, back-up goaltender Johan Hedberg would test the market and sign elsewhere.
However, New Jersey was lucky enough to bring back both goaltenders to two-year contracts, leaving them with the most experienced goaltending tandem in the NHL.
Although they are both at near the tender age of 40, Brodeur carried the Devils through the playoffs while Hedberg become one of the best backups in the league with a 17-7-2 record and 2.22 GAA in the regular season. Both goaltenders also have the playoff experience to carry a team, Brodeur with over 200 playoff games and Hedberg with 23 appearances with four different teams.
If Hedberg were to test free agency, Brodeur would be forced to mentor a young goaltender while carrying the load during the regular season. However, New Jersey is still attempting to groom the likes of Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood, two goaltenders who will likely not be NHL ready this season.
The Hall of Fame goaltender benefits from having Hedberg around simply because he can trust the team to succeed without him in net every night. Having two 40-year-old goalies may seem dangerous, but if they can play up to the level they played last season, there is no reason why they can't return to the Final.
3. Depth on Defense
Defense may be the strongest aspect of the Devils' organization going into the 2012-2013 season.
After dealing with free agency and the team's restricted free agents, New Jersey will return all eight of their defensemen from last year's team, including Bryce Salvador, Mark Fayne and Peter Harrold. In fact, every defenseman on the team appeared in at least one game after the first round against the Florida Panthers.
The Devils suffered from injuries to Henrik Tallinder and Adam Larsson last season, so having the extra depth will give them an advantage that other teams don't have. Most teams like Philadelphia struggle when a top defensemen goes down (see Chris Pronger,) but New Jersey should have the depth to make a deep run into the playoffs.
4. Bringing Back the 4th Line
The fourth line stole headlines during the 2012 NHL playoffs, going from no-name forwards to the league's best combination.
Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter combined for 10 goals in the playoffs, helping New Jersey reach the Final against Los Angeles while Ilya Kovalchuk dealt with a back injury.
After proving themselves, the three players were all re-signed this offseason by Devils GM Lou Lamoriello. As of now, they will return as one of the best lines the Devils have to offer for the 2012-2013 season.
Most of the Devils may have shown great chemistry during the playoffs, but there wasn't as strong of a bond as the fourth line showed toward the end of the year. With these three players back, the Devils will have something many teams don't have: depth on all four lines.
Plus, even if head coach Pete DeBoer splits the line up, the Devils will still have three players on the rise ready to contribute with whoever they are paired with.
5. Potential Improvement on Powerplay
No success is guaranteed, but if the Devils wanted to improve the power play, they brought in the right guy.
Matt Shaw, three year assistant with the San Jose Sharks, joined the Devils coaching staff after Adam Oates took the head coaching job in Washington. Oates was in charge of handling the team's power play unit in his time in New Jersey, and Shaw will take over that responsibility in 2012-2013.
Fans grew extremely restless with the lack of improvement made by Oates. The Devils never ranked higher than 10th in the league when it came to power play success, including a 14 percent success rate in 2010-2011.
Shaw led the Sharks to the second best success rate last season at 23.5 percent, helping San Jose reach the playoffs with a 43 win season. With weapons like Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, and Travis Zajac on the power play, Shaw should strive with his new power play unit.
6. Ilya Kovalchuk
Whether fans are ready to accept it or not, this is officially Ilya Kovalchuk's team.
When New Jersey signed Kovalchuk to a long-term deal, they knew what they were getting. Now, after two full seasons with the team, the Devils are ready to turn the organization over to Kovalchuk for good.
Kovalchuk was unable to stay healthy through the playoffs, but when he was near 100 percent, he was nearly unstoppable. Kovalchuk ripped through the Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers through the first two rounds, but it was painful to watch him skate in the Eastern Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final.
Now, with Kovalchuk almost fully recovered from a back injury that plague him toward the end of the year, it will be his team to run as a new season approaches.
When he was on his own in Atlanta, Kovalchuk averaged 42 goals per season, eight goals more then he averaged in his first two years with New Jersey. With Parise gone, Kovalchuk may be ready to take off and continue to be the goal-scorer the Devils will desperately need next season.
7 . Schedule
When the 2012-2013 schedule was released, there was a number of games that stood out in favor of the New Jersey Devils.
For one, New Jersey will open the season with eight home games in the first 12 games. Those games include match-ups against the Rangers, Bruins, Penguins, Panthers, and Wild—four of which are former playoff teams and one whose match-up just got a lot more interesting. If they can win a majority of those games, it would be starting the season on the right foot.
The same can be said for the end of the year. New Jersey has 12 home games between March and April, setting them up for potential season changing home-stands. Most of those games will come against non-playoff teams from last year as well, opening a door that the Devils will have an easy time getting through.
Also of importance is the month of February. Of the 14 games they play in 28 days, 10 of them will be played in Prudential Center. Over the past two years, the Devils were 19-5-2 in the month of February, so if they can play anything like they have over the past few seasons, New Jersey can potentially separate them from the rest of the pack.
8. Front Office
This last reason may seem ridiculous, but only if you don't think about it.
Last season, New Jersey was struggling to find success from their third and fourth line. In return, the Devils' front office brought in Alexei Ponikarovsky, Ryan Carter, and called up Adam Henrique to change the structure of the team. The result turned out to be a Stanley Cup run.
Right now, the New Jersey Devils have a team that can make a run if they all live up to potential. The offseason is not over year, so players like Alexander Semin or Andrei Kostitsyn could still wind up in New Jersey.
However, regardless of whether or not a move is made over the next month, Lou Lamoriello and the rest of his team will find a way to build a contender like they have for the past decade. Trades could be negotiated, changes could be made, but at the end of the day the Devils have one of the better offices to do what it takes to win.