NHL Preview: Devils, with New Captain Zach Parise, Look to Make Playoff Return

Matt StypulkoskiContributor IOctober 5, 2011

Parise is a key cog for the Devils, who cannot afford to risk losing him.
Parise is a key cog for the Devils, who cannot afford to risk losing him.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A year after failing to make the playoffs for the first time since the 1995-96 season, the New Jersey Devils look to get back into the postseason behind Zach Parise.

The 27-year-old Parise, who missed all but 13 games during the 2010-2011 campaign due to injury, was named the new Devils' captain on Wednesday afternoon. However, there has been speculation as of late that should New Jersey stumble at the beginning of the season as they did last year, Parise may be put on the trading block, as he will be a free agent after this season and the ability of the Devils to resign him may depend on their playoff hopes this season and Parise's assessment of the organization's ability to continue playing into the late spring over the coming years.

So for the Devils this season takes on extra meaning, as they are not only playing to return to the playoffs after their first absence in 15 years, but also to convince their former first-round draft pick of the club's ability to be relevant throughout the next few years. 

And if they cannot convince Parise that they can be a successful team and he chooses to leave the club—or they are forced to trade him—then it could destine the perennially strong franchise for some serious struggles in the years ahead.

And despite having several strong and proven players on their roster for this season, the Devils have several question marks on their squad that will need to play well and have solid seasons in order for the team to make it back into the Eastern Conference's top eight.

First, as always, the Devils have a future Hall of Famer and potentially the best goaltender of all time between the pipes. However, Martin Brodeur showed signs of possibly slowing down last year, as the 39-year-old posted a 2.45 GAA and .903 save percentage, both of which are subpar by Brodeur's standards. If the Devils hope to climb back into the top half of the Eastern Conference, they will need Brodeur to prove that last season was nothing more than an off year, and not a sign of his aging.

Martin Brodeur will need to return to form if New Jersey hopes to make the playoffs.
Martin Brodeur will need to return to form if New Jersey hopes to make the playoffs.Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

The Devils are also welcoming back another of their aging former stars this year, as has become common practice for the organization as of late after having both Bobby Holik and Jason Arnott return for stints on the squad during the past two seasons.

This year the Devils have given Petr Sykora, who spent last year playing in both the Czech League and the KHL, the opportunity to rejoin the organization after initially offering him a tryout contract shortly before the opening of camp. 

The team was impressed with the 34-year-old forward—who was originally drafted by the organization in 1995, won two Stanley Cups and spent seven seasons in New Jersey before eventually leaving to play for Anaheim in 2002—during camp, so much so that they signed him to a one-year deal on Wednesday morning. Sykora, who could potentially end up playing on a line with Patrick Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk, will need to be productive on the wing and help that line combination to rack up goals if the Devils hope to compete in the loaded Atlantic Division.

Perhaps the biggest question for New Jersey this season, however, is which version of Ilya Kovalchuk they will have on the ice, the Kovalchuk who scored just nine goals in the the first three months of last season or the Kovalchuk who exploded for 22 goals and 40 points in the final four months.

The Devils are certainly hoping that they get the latter version of Kovy for the entire 2011-2012 campaign, as the team is without question better when he is rolling. During those first three months of last season while he was struggling, the Devils limped to a 10-25-2 record. But when Kovalchuk returned to form, the team followed suit, going 28-14-3 over the season's final four months.

If the Devils can successfully fill these voids, it should make for a bounce-back season and a return to their normal place in the playoffs. But if they fail to plug the holes and lose Parise, then fighting for a .500 finish could become the new norm in New Jersey.