It may be hard to believe, but the start of another hockey season is just around the corner. Opening night is about two months away, so with that comes the thought of what will be the key questions for the New Jersey Devils to answer/address this upcoming season.
It's been an offseason with a lot of changes, including once again a new head coach in Peter DeBoer. Then again, that isn't necessarily anything new for a team that has had a revolving door at that spot for the last few years for a variety of different reasons.
Newcomers include the likes of Adam Larsson (drafted No. 4 overall), as well as potential rookies like Alexander Urbom and Adam Henrique.
Let's also remember players like Zach Parise, Bryce Salvador and Matt Taormina who are set to return from significant injuries, missing most of last season with knee, head and ankle injuries respectively.
Add to the mix returning youngsters like Jacob Josefson, Mark Fayne, Mattias Tedenby and Nick Palmieri and it gives the Devils and their fans a lot to get excited about.
We also should not overlook the one thing the Devils have this year that they have not had in recent years, and that is cap space, allowing them to have a major in-season acquisition should the opportunity present itself.
As it stands now, the depth chart looks something like this.
Forwards (15): Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Jacob Josefson, Mattias Tedenby, Nick Palmieri, Dainius Zubrus, David Clarkson, Rod Pelley, David Steckel, Eric Boulton, Vladmir Zharkov, Cam Janssen, Adam Henrique
Defensemen (11): Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder, Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, Mark Fayne, Matt Taormina, Adam Larsson, Alexander Urbom, Matthew Corrente, Mark Fraser, Jay Leach
Goaltenders (two): Martin Brodeur, Johan Hedberg
There will be a lot more players invited to training camp and all, but as of today, these are probably the 28 most likely guys to make the 23-man roster.
There still could be a tweak to the roster, or a younger player could always step up and earn a roster spot with a great training camp.
With the amount of talent the Devils had at forward last season, it is simply amazing how much the team struggled to score goals.
They finished dead last in the NHL in goals scored, and for a team that features the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac, that simply cannot happen again.
It will be up to the new coaching staff to figure out the right combinations of players to work together and produce regularly. The biggest area that needs improvement offensively will be the power play, which showed absolutely no consistency whatsoever last year.
In fact, the best production from the power play came during a five- to seven-game stretch in early to mid December when the team was struggling the most, and the offense at even strength during that time was practically non-existent.
Guys like Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk should be expected to get back to their 40-plus goals per season of their past.
Others like Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac should be in a position to eclipse the 20-plus mark in goals, while players like Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, David Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus or Nick Palmieri should have a shot at eclipsing at least 15 or so.
It will be this middle tier of guys that will likely make or break the offensive output for the team if they want to return to the playoffs.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that much of the struggles the Devils suffered through on offense was a direct result of their defensive woes.
The team wasted way too much time and effort in its own zone and failed too often with their breakouts, leaving little time for the forwards to make any kind of offensive play before needing to get off the ice for a line change.
That is the biggest area the team can improve on in 2011-12 if they want to have more offensive chances, which should hopefully lead to more production on the scoreboard.
Zach Parise missed 69 games last year due to a torn meniscus in his knee. It is hard to quantify the amount parise was missed last season because his production exceeds what the numbers alone indicate.
He had a more extensive surgery to repair, rather than remove the damaged portion of his knee, which should benefit parise over the long-term, but it does at least leave a question as to his health after such a long period of the season missed.
There is little doubt parise will be extra motivated this year, asthe chance to be an unrestricted free agent awaits parise if he so chooses. I am still confident GM lou lamoriello and parise will agree to a deal at some point this season, but until that happens, it has to be at least an issue of concern to the team and their fans.
Rumors of ownership issues from minority partners have been put out there as potential reasons for the recent one-year deal, but it remains to be seen if that is the issue or not. Either way, expect Parise to have a big season and for the Devils to ultimately pay Parise more because of it.
As for injuries, players like Bryce Salvador and Matt Taormina will be returning after missing significant time. In fact, Salvador missed the entire season stemming from concussion issues. It remains to be seen how well he can return or if he can even return at all.
In the case of Taormina, he suffered a debilitating ankle injury after a freak collision with Andy Greene during a practice and missed the remainder of the season. While undersized, Taormina will have to prove himself all over again for a new coach, who didnt see the promise Taormina had shown during his short stint.
In the end, injuries are a part of the game, and it's likely the Devils will have to deal with them at least to some extent over the course of the season. It obviously will be one of the keys for the upcoming season.
Last year was a bit unusual to say the least for Martin Brodeur, who looked at times like he may be reaching the end of his legendary career.
In fact, there were a few different points during the year that backup Johan Hedberg easily outplayed Brodeur. With this season being the last one in Brodeur's current contract, it is obvious Brodeur will have to show what he has left in the tank.
To be fair, Brodeur was one of the key cogs in the second half surge that ultimately fell short of a playoff berth. To return to the postseason, Brodeur must be the player he showed during that stretch more consistently over the course of the entire season.
Part of helping to ensure Brodeur's success will be a juggling act for head coach Peter DeBoer to keep him rested enough throughout the season. Could this finally be the season where Brodeur is limited to 50 to 55 healthy starts to keep him fresh?
Given the backup is Johan Hedberg, it probably makes the most sense. Hedberg stood up when counted on and provided quality play between the pipes when he was called upon. It is imperative that Hedberg plays well to allow Brodeur the rest he will need to hopefully have enough in the tank for a potential long postseason run.
There is no question that Brodeur still has the talent to produce in the NHL, but is he still able to do it consistently and also to stay healthy over the course of the entire season?
The former iron man Brodeur has fallen victim to some injuries the last couple of years, whether it was his tricep, his knee or elbow.
If Brodeur can return to the level that made him one of the best, if not the best goalie in NHL history, it will answer a lot toward what the Devils are able to do in 2011-12.
The Devils have had their share of problems on the backline the last couple of years, as the team has been lacking a true puck moving defenseman since the departure of Paul Martin, who left via free agency last offseason.
Andy Greene made every effort to replace Martin, but he was unable to do so over the long season. In fact, Greene was one of the biggest disappointments on the team last year, and that's saying a lot considering how the season went for New Jersey.
With the recent buyout of Colin White and the departure of Anssi Salmela to the KHL, it leaves a lot of opportunity for new blood for the Devils on defense.
Mark Fayne, Alexander Urbom, Matt Taormina and Adam Larsson will be given opportunities to win jobs in training camp alongside veterans like Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder, Greene and possibly Bryce Salvador.
It also could be a last chance for guys like Matthew Corrente and Mark Fraser, who have yet to take advantage of recent opportunities, mostly due to injuries. Guys like Jay Leach are around for depth purposes but aren't expected to carry the load on the backline.
The development of the young defenders and possible return of Bryce Salvador will play a major role in how the Devils do this season.
Last offseason, GM Lou Lamoriello made it pretty clear the team needed an upgrade on defense, especially in the area of puck moving ability, it was something Lamoriello and Lemaire (as well as anyone who watched the team regularly) noticed as a leading culprit for the team's struggles last year.
How the re-tooled defense performs under Coach DeBoer will go a long ways toward how the Devils perform in this upcoming season.
This time last year, things seemed pretty set at the head coach for the New Jersey Devils. John MacLean had just been hired to be a head coach at the NHL level for the first time.
What took place soon after would qualify as pretty much a disaster, as the Devils never had any success under MacLean, who was let go as head coach on Dec. 23rd, 2010.
MacLean wasn't handed the easiest situation for a rookie head coach to walk into, but he definitely made his share of mistakes along the way.
Jacques Lemaire took over for MacLean and helped bring the Devils first back to respectability and then to a point where they made a near miracle climb toward a playoff spot, only to ultimately fall short.
Lemaire was part of the conversation for the Adams Trophy last season, which given how the Devils performed for the season, adds another botch to an already impressive coaching resume for Lemaire, as he once again retires and rides off into the sunset to spend time with his family.
Fast forward to this season and Peter DeBoer, who spent the last three seasons as head coach for the Florida Panthers, takes over behind the bench for the Devils.
DeBoer must learn from the mistakes of John MacLean and earn his credibility in the locker room. It was rumored Ilya Kovalchuk and John MacLean butted heads some, so that will definitely be a key relationship for DeBoer to form.
How he gets along with Kovalchuk will go a long way towards success for the team and specifically DeBoer.
It must be made clear to Kovalchuk (and the team) from the get go that there is no Jacques Lemaire to save this franchise, the players must respond to what Peter DeBoer is bringing to the mix. It is DeBoer's team to impose his reign, and he needs to make it clear he is in charge.
At the same time, he must show the team he has a good plan in place and will put his players in the best possible chance to succeed.
It is critical that this team gets off to a good start to begin with, to exercise the demons of the incredibly poor start last season, which the team never recovered from until January, and by then it was too late.
It doesn't necessarily have to be a lights out start, but the team must be above .500 in the month of October to avoid any thoughts of last year from rising up.
There were a lot of changes made to the roster from last year and it will be on DeBoer to make this a cohesive unit from the start.
That, in my opinion, is the biggest question the Devils face going into next season because the other questions all will be dictated at least to some extent by the actions of Peter DeBoer.
As a result, how he impacts the team and more importantly, how the team responds to him will dictate how the Devils do in 2011-12.