New Jersey Devils: Five Players Who Need to Make a Big Impact This Season
The New Jersey Devils are not in a strong position.
Ilya Kovalchuk is gone, the East has gotten markedly better in the past year and the Devils don't have their first-round pick in the 2014 draft. If things completely fall apart this season, there isn't the benefit of a high draft pick to cushion the disappointment.
Therefore, it really is win or bust for New Jersey next year. But with the aforementioned Kovalchuk, David Clarkson and Henrik Tallinder leaving the team this offseason, there are a number of Devils who need to step up to help them through a tough transitional period.
Filling the shoes of a hockey legend like Marty Brodeur is no easy feat, but that's exactly what Cory Schneider will have to do in his first year in Newark.
Whilst Brodeur is still with the Devils, the draft day trade that netted the Devils Schneider signals a potential shift in the team's goaltending duties.
The Devils sent a top-10 first round pick (their only one for the next two years) Vancouver's way in exchange for the Marblehead, Mass. native. It's hard to believe GM Lou Lamoriello would make sure a sizable investment to only have him play backup to the 41-year-old Brodeur, who finally begin to show his age last year appearing in only 29 games with a .901 SV%.
With Brodeur on the decline, the Devils will fully expect Schneider to slide into the "No. 1 workhorse" role between the pipes, potentially making him play up to 55-60 games, especially if Marty struggles with injuries again.
Schneider has impressed many with his stellar play for the Canucks, but now is his chance to finally become an undisputed No. 1 for a team. And if he struggles, the Devils can no longer rely on Brodeur, whose body simply won't allow him to play anymore at the consistently high level he's played at in the past.
With Ilya Kovalchuk now "retired" from the NHL, the Devils have a huge hole in their top six.
It's a hole Adam Henrique should aim to fill.
Henrique burst onto the scene two years ago with a 16-goal, 51-point rookie season that saw him earn a Calder Trophy nomination, giving Devils fans a glimpse of their future.
However, due to a combination of injuries and the dreaded "sophomore slump," Henrique struggled mightily in his second season, scoring only 16 points in 42 games.
At times during his short career, Henrique has shown his outstanding ability to put the puck in net along with his playmaking abilities, but with two huge chunks of the New Jersey offense now missing in Clarkson and Kovalchuk, the pressure is on for Henrique to build upon his strong rookie season and develop into an effective top-six forward for the Devils.
Signed to a five-year deal worth $24.25 million after a brief three-month stint with the New York Rangers, Ryane Clowe was brought in to bolster the Devils' ailing top six as well as to help replace the Toronto-bound David Clarkson.
The parallels between the pair's games are obvious. Both stand over six feet tall, weigh in at over 200 pounds, revel in the gritty aspects of hockey and can fill the power forward role as part of a team's offense.
Losing Clarkson—a former 30-goal scorer for New Jersey—was a huge blow to the team and its offense, even before Kovalchuk's departure. Therefore, it is now extremely important that Clowe can replace Clarkson's production in Peter DeBoar's offensive system lest the Devils end up routinely getting outscored by their opponents.
Clowe, like Henrique, has an important role to play for New Jersey's top six this year.
Due to a multitude of reasons, New Jersey's prospect pool is not one of the NHL's deeper systems.
However, one of the few players expected to be able to make the jump is defenseman Jon Merrill.
Taken by New Jersey in the second round of the 2010 NHL draft (38th overall), Merrill has spent the last three years playing for the University of Michigan in addition to a cup of coffee with the Albany Devils at the tail end of last season.
Merrill has drawn comparisons to Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter for his polished two-way game and, for a team like New Jersey whose only other real NHL-ready prospect on the blue line is Adam Larsson, the expectation for Merrill is to step in and become a top-four defenseman in Newark for the foreseeable future.
Merrill certainly has the talent, hockey IQ and size to play a role with the big club this coming season. He should feasibly make the team out of camp as a bottom pairing defenseman. However, with the departure of Henrik Tallinder and the injuries that always play a part during each team's season (especially with such an ageing defensive corps), Merrill may end up being thrust into a larger role straight away with New Jersey.
The Devils will need him (and Larrson as well) to adapt quickly if they want to remain competitive this season.
Travis Zajac may be the most important player on the whole Devils team this season.
A constant presence in the Devils' top six almost immediately since he first made his debut in the 2006-07 season, the 28-year-old Zajac, along with Patrick Elias, has remained whilst players like Zach Parise, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Gionta and now Kovalchuk have left for greener pastures outside of Newark.
Zajac, despite being the Devils' top-line center, has never had to be "The Man" in New Jersey, a role that has usually been deferred to the likes of Parise.
But now that the rest are gone, it's time for Zajac to set up.
Many have applauded his professionalism, poise and work ethic in the past and those intangibles along with his substantial skills on the ice earned him an eight-year, $46 million extension earlier this year.
But now Zajac has to live up to that contract. He'll be expected to be one of, if not the, primary point producers as well as likely taking on a assistant captain role.
Zajac has to make his new teammates around him better.
Realistically, the Devils go where Zajac goes this season.