After an offseason that saw captain Zach Parise depart for Minnesota, there was a question looming whether the Devils still had the talent to compete in the playoffs. After all, it was just eight months ago that the Devils were competing in the Stanley Cup finals.
Would the 2013 Devils be prepared for another playoff run? Well, in what little we've seen so far, it's hard to say no. The Devils haven't yet lost in regulation, and have held their own against theoretically-strong teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins.
However, there are still areas where the Devils need to improve. If fixed, the Devils would be a scary opponent for any team. If neglected, these weaknesses might keep the Devils from making another playoff run.
The New Jersey Devils have a few good goal scorers.
In the past, Ilya Kovalchuk has been a 50-goal scorer. Patrik Elias once hit 40, and David Clarkson had 30 last season.
And no, Kovalchuk's not going to match that scoring pace with the Devils, and yes, Elias is well past his prime—though still able to contribute significantly offensively—but the talent remains. Throw in Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique (when he returns from injury) for good measure, and that's a good group of forwards.
The problem for the Devils is, that's where it ends. Last year, the Devils found some supplemental scoring from Alexei Ponikarovsky and Petr Sykora, but both players left the team after becoming free agents.
Now, once you get past the few quality forwards, the Devils have to rely on players like Dainius Zubrus, unproven kids like Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby and overall not-that-talented skaters like Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier.
The Devils have almost always had trouble scoring goals, and they've always gotten by on above-average defense. This season has been no different. But with an aging defensive corps and two goalies who will both be 40 on May 5, the defense may not be as reliable as usual. If that happens, the Devils will be hard-pressed to find people to make up for the goals lost with Parise, Sykora and Poni.
One of the few untested options available to the Devils is Bobby Butler. The Devils acquired Butler right before the lockout hit, and it seemed like he was fitting in well with the team: During the lockout, he led the Albany Devils with 15 goals.
Unfortunately, he failed to impress and did not make the squad from training camp. He is still playing well in the minors, even starting for the East All-Star team this past weekend. But whether he'll become an effective weapon on the big stage remains to be seen.
The New Jersey Devils have been struggling to find good, physical players since Scott Stevens retired. Stevens was, after all, one of the most prolific hitters in the history of the game.
Unfortunately, that search has not gone too well. Currently, the Devils are 28th in the NHL in hits: only the Calgary Flames have hit fewer players.
Additionally, prior to the Bruins game, the team leader in hits was Brian Gionta, with nine. Nine hits is good enough to tie Gionta for 116th among players this season—and that's the Devils' leader. Needless to say, these numbers need to improve.
Part of the problem is that players haven't panned out. The Devils signed Anton Volchenkov during the 2010 offseason with hopes that he would continue the punishing hits that earned him the nickname "A-Train." Rather, Volchenkov got injured in his first season with the team and though he's since regained his health, his power never seemed to return.
Add on the fact that a number of the Devils' larger players—Dainius Zubrus, Henrik Tallinder, Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac and Mark Fayne, all of whom are at least 6'3"—do not often throw around their size, and it becomes a real problem for the Devils.
How to fix this problem is unclear. Maybe it will involve trading for more aggressive players and maybe it'll involve forcing players already on the roster to play more physical roles. The Devils' fourth line from last year—consisting of Steve Bernier, Ryan Carter and Brian Gionta—were especially impressive in last year's playoffs with their physical play.
Whatever the answer, the longer Lou Lamoriello and Pete DeBoer spend trying to fix it, the longer they're at a disadvantage.
Like with the other weaknesses on the team, the problem isn't that the Devils don't have fast players. Ilya Kovalchuk is capable of remarkable speed and scary-fast acceleration. Last year, it looked like Adam Henrique could basically keep up with him. Elias and Zajac aren't quite there, but they're far from slow.
The problem is that, once you get past the top three or four guys, there's no depth. The Devils have a few young guys on the team who have the potential to be high-speed, dangerous skaters. That category includes Swedes Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby, along with a few others. And while Josefson and Tedenby show bursts of admirable speed, both are struggling to find any type of consistency.
This is an area where losing Zach Parise hurts a great deal. Parise's sheer dedication to two-way play meant that he was hustling up and down the ice at full speed every time he was on the ice.
Obviously, the Devils aren't just going to be able to replace Parise, but if they can get some of their younger, faster guys to start modeling his work ethic, it would get them off to a good start.