Hockey is back!
The big change for this year is the conference and divisional realignment.
New Jersey and the rest of the former Atlantic Division will be joined by the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals in the newly formed Metropolitan Division, and the Detroit Red Wings will also come over from the West for the first time.
It's refreshing to have a full 82-game schedule ahead of us with just two months until the preseason begins. Let's take a look at the most important games the Devils face this season and what to look for in 2013-14.
One of the biggest disappointments in last year's lockout schedule was the Eastern Conference not being able to face teams from the West.
New Jersey lost very high-profile games when the schedule changed, including a rematch against the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and a showdown with former captain Zach Parise against the Minnesota Wild.
This year, the Devils will get their chance to see these teams in action. Here are three games I'm circling on the calender.
November 8 @ Toronto Maple Leafs
November 8 will be the first time the Devils face off against former teammate David Clarkson.
Clarkson signed a seven-year, $36.75 million contract this offseason with Toronto after leading the Devils in goals last season. His departure wasn't ridiculed as much as say, Ilya Kovalchuk and Parise, but it still hurts nonetheless.
Clarkson always played well when the Devils visited Toronto, and it will be interesting to see how he fares playing against his former 'mates for the first time.
November 15 vs. Los Angeles Kings
It will be the first time these two teams faceoff since the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, a rematch that fans have been dying for since last summer.
The two teams look a bit different than they did in 2011-12, but the key components of Jonathan Quick, Martin Brodeur, Anze Kopitar, and Patrik Elias still remain.
The rivalry hasn't died down despite the two teams not facing each other, and I expect a great match-up when LA comes back to New Jersey.
And don't forget what happened the last time Los Angeles played in New Jersey.
@LAKings yeah you lost 2-1 June 9th.
— New Jersey Devils (@NHLDevils) June 30, 2013
March 20 vs. Minnesota Wild
Fans have been waiting a long time for this match-up.
For the first time since leaving the Devils to go home to Minnesota, former captain Zach Parise will return to Prudential Center to take on the team he left after the Stanley Cup Final.
Devils fans were crushed when Parise left New Jersey, and his absence left a huge hole in a team that would eventually miss the playoffs last season without him.
People have mixed feelings about Parise. One side can argue that he abandoned a team that made him captain and just came off a Cup run, but others can understand his move back home.
With Kovalchuk leaving this offseason, I think it will take the hatred off Parise a bit. However, I still expect a huge crowd to come out and welcome Parise back to New Jersey (good or bad).
As stated in the opening slide, the Devils and the rest of the Atlantic Division will be joined by the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Washington Capitals in the newly formed Metropolitan Division.
The Devils have some history with Carolina and Washington, playing a combined 309 games against both organizations since joining the league in 1982.
There are also some interesting coaching connections with both teams, as former assistant Adam Oates is now the head coach in Washington and former Devils Kirk Muller and John MacLean are coaches in Carolina.
I believe Kovalchuk vs. Alex Ovechkin would have been a hot ticket, but with Kovalchuk gone to the KHL I don't see that match-up adding anything more special than a game against the Islanders.
As for the Blue Jackets, the Devils will be seeing a team on the rise with last year's Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky in net and a lot of young talent surrounding him. Columbus is certainly on the rise and I believe leaving the Western Conference may help them get to the playoffs.
The main concern about this division is the Devils chances to make the playoffs. With the new realignment, the top three teams from each conference make the postseason and the other two spots will be filled by wild cards.
If the realignment started last season, the Islanders would have actually missed the playoffs by one point and the Devils would have finished 13th in the newly aligned conference with 48 points.
Red Wings 56
The new conference will add potentially two playoff teams from the West in Columbus and Detroit, and Washington won the Southeast Division last year.
Getting into the playoffs in the NHL is hard enough, but adding three quality teams to your division and four to the conference won't make things any easier.
The toughest test for the Devils will come right before the Olympic break, and it could determine the outcome of New Jersey's season.
Jan. 12 at Toronto Maple Leafs
Jan. 14 at Montreal Canadiens
Jan. 16 at Colorado Avalanche
Jan. 18 at Phoenix Coyotes
Jan. 21 vs. St. Louis Blues
Jan. 24 vs. Washington Capitals
Jan. 26 vs. New York Rangers
Jan. 28 at St. Louis Blues
The stretch begins with a four-game road trip starting in Toronto against David Clarkson and the Maple Leafs. The road trip will put the Devils against two playoff teams from last season and two games on the west coast.
New Jersey will then come home for three games to take on three more playoff teams including the New York Rangers. These three teams went a combined 82-53-9 last season and both Washington and St. Louis had winning records on the road.
It all ends back in St. Louis on the 28th when the Devils once again take on the Blues. It will end a stretch of eight games in 16 days in which the Devils will have traveled across the United States and Canada.
This stretch has potential to get ugly if New Jersey starts off the road trip on the wrong foot. I expect Colorado and Phoenix to be better than last season, and fans must remember that Coyotes made a run in the playoffs two years ago.
I see the Devils at least splitting these eight games, but there's potential here to go 2-6.
We now have the schedule and broke down the new division and conference. So where will the Devils finish in 2013-14?
I believe the Devils' success will ride on two things: How the play at home and how they handle the goaltending situation.
Martin Brodeur is going to be the starter on opening night (health pending), but Cory Schneider is ready to take over whenever he is called upon. Realistically, I see Brodeur starting 50 games and Schneider taking the ice for the other 32.
With the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and Capitals coming into the division, I don't see the Devils finishing with 102 points like they did in 2011-12.
Here's my prediction: 39-35-8 (86 points), missing the playoffs.
While they finish over .500 this season, I honestly can't see them finishing ahead of teams like the Rangers, Penguins and Washington in their own division. That would put them in a fight for two wild-card spots with six teams that finished ahead of them last season.
Losing Kovalchuk is going to hurt the Devils more than people think, and while I don't think they'll finish in the basement of the conference, I just don't think they have the team to get back in this year.