Power Ranking the New Jersey Devils' Top 6 Forwards
It's been a busy July for the New Jersey Devils as they have not only undergone a major face lift but lost a franchise player for the second offseason in a row.
The departures of Ilya Kovalchuk (retirement) and David Clarkson (free agency) will leave a big hole in the Devils offense next year, but the organization is hopeful that newly acquired Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder can pick up the slack in 2013-14.
The Devils will still bring back veteran wingers Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus next season and are in the process of negotiating a new deal with Adam Henrique. New Jersey still has the depth to be competitive next year, but there is no question that there will be a change in offensive power.
Here are my rankings for the top six New Jersey Devils forwards for next season.
6. Ryane Clowe
While Ryane Clowe may not be a consistent goal scorer, he still brings the tough-guy attitude to a Devils roster that desperately needs an enforcer.
Clowe had a career high in goals (24) and assists (38) back in 2010-11 with the San Jose Sharks, but he had arguably one of his worst seasons last year before being traded to the New York Rangers. He did, however, recover after the trade was made, recording three goals and eight points in 12 games.
The biggest concern surrounding Clowe is injuries, as the 30-year-old forward had as many concussions (three) as he did goals in 2013. Despite this fact, New Jersey gave him a five-year contract over a one-year "show me" deal.
If healthy, Clowe will potentially be a surprise for the Devils and will fill the void left by Clarkson in the offseason. While he won't be relied on to score goals, I still think he will protect the young guys like Henrique and Jacob Josefson and open up the ice for fellow big man Dainius Zubrus.
While he may not be the best forward on the team, he definitely makes the top six.
You can follow Ryane Clowe on Twitter, although he will likely stop using it per club rules: @ryaneclowe29
5. Adam Henrique
The next forward on this list is the potential future face of the franchise.
While he is yet to sign his new deal with the team, negotiations have been on-going for about a week with young forward Adam Henrique.
Henrique came on the scene during the 2011-12 playoffs, scoring the game-winning goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal and Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. However, a thumb injury forced him to miss four to six weeks during the lockout, and he never seemed to recover.
Despite high expectations for the 23-year-old forward last season, Henrique only managed to record 16 points in 42 games in the shortened season. To put that into perspective, defenseman Andy Greene had the same amount of points with eight more assists.
Whenever a player suffers an injury during the lockout playing outside the NHL, recovery and preparation is bound to go out the window. Henrique didn't have much of a training camp to prepare for the 2013 season, and I think his fatigue showed as he had just two points in his final 16 games.
I believe that with a full offseason and training camp to prepare Henrique will make an impact similar to the one he made in 2011-12. He has great playmaking ability on this team, and the Devils will need that if they want to succeed.
With the amount of centers New Jersey has on this team, there is a chance that Henrique will be moved to one of the wings if called upon to fill the hole left by Kovalchuk. Whether he gets first-line minutes is yet to be seen, but I think the Devils are ready to call upon him to carry the load.
He is without question one of the better forwards on this team when healthy, but it's going to take a really great season for him to become the face of this franchise.
4. Dainius Zubrus
In terms of consistency, Dainius Zubrus has been one of the best on this team since signing in 2007.
Zubrus has played in at least 79 games in four of the five full seasons he's been in New Jersey, missing time due to injury only once in 2009-10.
The 35-year-old did miss extended time last season during the shortened season, and it was clear that he was missed in the lineup as the year went on. He did, however, score five points in the team's final 13 games when he did return from a wrist injury.
Zubrus had his best season with the Devils in 2011-12, scoring 17 goals and recording another 44 points while helping New Jersey reach the Stanley Cup Final. He found consistency playing with Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora, and the Devils hope he can step up his game this year without Kovalchuk and Clarkson in the lineup.
While he isn't going to light up the scoreboard, Zubrus is almost guaranteed to provide close to 30 points a season for New Jersey. The Devils can count on him to play well and not make mistakes, and that's what makes him such a valuable asset to this organization.
With Kovalchuk gone, I expect Peter DeBoer to use Zubrus much more than he has in the past—it just depends on who he is paired with on opening night. Elias will likely move to the top line, but perhaps putting Zubrus (6'5", 225 lbs) with Clowe (6'2", 225 lbs) and Steve Bernier (6'3", 220 lbs) would give the Devils a big, powerful third line.
The good thing about Zubrus is he can play center or the wing, so expect him to move around as the season goes on. Now that he is completely healthy and has a new three-year contract with New Jersey, I expect him to have a big year.
3. Michael Ryder
The other big name acquired this offseason was Michael Ryder, who is one-and-a-half seasons removed from a 35-goal year in Dallas.
Ryder had a career year with the Stars back in 2011-12, scoring 35 goals and 27 assists while playing in all 82 games for Dallas. He was traded to the Montreal Canadians midway through last season where he finished with a total of 16 goals.
If there is anyone who will come close to replacing Kovalchuk in the lineup, it will be Ryder.
Ryder is a bit of a healthy workhorse, appearing in at least 79 games five times in his career and averaging over 15 minutes of ice time per game. He was heavily relied on by the Canadians, Bruins and Stars throughout his nine-year career, and I think the same will be said this year in New Jersey.
If you put Ryder on a line with a playmaker to open up the ice, there is a good chance you'll get the production that the Stars got back in 2011. Remember, Kovalchuk's best year with New Jersey in terms of goals was 37 in 2011-12, and Ryder was right behind him on a worse team that same season with 35.
I don't think Ryder will provide the presence Kovalchuk had in terms of ice time or on the power play, but he does provide a good option to score goals and provide normal first-line minutes. If you pair him with Elias in 2013-14, there's a good chance the Devils will celebrate their investment.
It's also worth noting that Ryder has appeared in 75 career playoff games, which ranks him third on the team in terms of playoff experience. With the Devils looking to get back into the playoffs, it will help to have a playoff veteran replacing Kovalchuk in the lineup.
He will still have to prove himself as a Devil, but I think he'll be a top contributor to this team next season.
2. Travis Zajac
Travis Zajac took some (unfair) flack last season after signing a big eight-year contract extension.
The top-line center managed to record just seven goals and 13 assists in 48 games last year, way off the pace of 60-plus points he had in 2008-09 and 2009-10. What's worse is that Zajac managed just three points and a minus-six with Kovalchuk out from March 25 to April 18.
The Devils need the guy they gave $46 million to show up next season if they want any chance to compete in the newly realigned Eastern Conference. New Jersey will need every goal and assist it can get out of its top center, and getting 60 points from him would be a godsend in the first year without Kovalchuk in the lineup.
I don't like using a lockout-shortened season to highlight a player's struggles. In my opinion, there were better players than Zajac who had down years last season.
Zajac has proved himself as an elite center in the NHL and was much deserving of his contract, but what he does this season will prove whether or not the Devils made the right move by extending him so long.
The combination of playmaking and goal scoring will make him a threat this season, and if he's paired with Elias and Ryder, I think that line has potential to be scary.
On a team with extreme depth at center, Zajac remains the go-to guy, and I believe he is the second-best forward remaining on the roster.
1. Patrik Elias
This is officially Elias' team.
Elias seems to be getting better with age, recording 78 points in 2011-12 and another 36 (on pace for 72) during the lockout-shortened season.
When Zach Parise left for Minnesota the Devils knew they'd be able to at least compete with Kovalchuk and Elias in the lineup. Now, with Kovalchuk heading to Russia and new players like Clowe and Ryder coming in, it will be up to Elias to take the reins and lead this team to victory.
Remember, this isn't Elias' first rodeo. Before the emergence of Parise and the trade to get Kovalchuk, Elias was the go-to offensive threat in the organization. There is a reason why he's an alternate captain and has won two Stanley Cups in New Jersey.
With the depleted offense going into next year it's not likely that Elias will record another 78 points, but saying he will reach at least 60 isn't a stretch. Giving the 37-year old more ice time and putting him with a goal scorer like Ryder will help his assist totals, and getting more power-play time will help his goal count as well.
There is no argument that Elias is now this team's best forward and will rely on him the most to help right the ship in New Jersey. He may have a new contract, but most importantly he has a new purpose to carry this team and get them back to the playoffs where the Devils belong.
The biggest name missing from the top six is Andrei Loktionov, who had a very up-and-down first season with the New Jersey Devils last year.
Loktionov started his tenure with the Devils on a high note, recording a point in five of his first six games with a plus-three rating. However, Loktionov would finish the season with just one point in his final 10 games and was a healthy scratch against Philadelphia late in the year.
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello gave Loktionov a "show me" contract this offseason, a one-year deal for under $1 million. This will give the team and its fans a chance to see Loktionov for a full season with the team without Kovalchuk in the lineup.
In my opinion, Loktionov hasn't "shown me" enough to break the top six on this team. Yes, he will likely get a large amount of minutes next year with so many roster holes, but unless he can be more consistent and put up more than four assists in 30 games, there's no chance he gets a shot over Zajac and Henrique.
Loktionov is knocking on the door in terms of skill, but unless he can consistently help this team win, he isn't a top-six forward in this organization.
You can follow me on Twitter @jkuchie.