5 New Jersey Devils Storylines That Won't Go Away During the 2014-15 Season
The New Jersey Devils have had a disappointing season, with several motifs frequently floating around the team.
Injuries have been a constant storyline for New Jersey this year, with changes in both player personnel and coaching coming as a result. These themes, and others, have followed the Devils all season long.
This list will look at storylines that have surrounded the Devils on a regular basis this year while focusing on their implications for the team going forward.
5. Can the Devils Finally Stay Healthy?
New Jersey's injury problems have been constant and harsh the entire season.
In fact, this storyline would be higher on the list if the Devils' injury woes had not all but taken them out of playoff contention by the All-Star break. Of course, there are more factors to the Devils' struggles than just injuries, but there is little doubt they have played a huge role.
With the fate of the season all but sealed, though, a hope for health among Devils players now has more to do with assessing the talent on the team than the result of the rest of the season.
It has been not only injury but also illness that has forced Devils players out of the lineup on a regular basis. New Jersey has been hit hard by both the NHL's bizarre mumps outbreak and the flu.
The Devils have only two players who have played in every game this season, Marek Zidlicky and Andy Greene. Many other key players have missed significant time.
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When New Jersey returns to action on Wednesday, the team will be as healthy as it has been in months, with only four players out with injury.
With the way this season has gone, the question of whether it will stay that way will certainly linger.
4. What Prospects Will Be Given a Chance Before the Season Ends?
This storyline has been around for much of the season, as it is directly related to the Devils' injury issues.
But, with the playoffs essentially out of reach, the opportunity for young players to grow is now more important than the health of specific players. So, this question comes higher on the list than New Jersey's health woes.
On defense, it has been a good year for prospects making the move to the NHL.
Damon Severson, only 20 years old, played the first 32 games of the season on New Jersey's top defense pairing. His injury opened the door for 22-year-old Adam Larsson, who was already having his strongest NHL season, to make positive contributions on the top defensive pairing as well.
Severson has a minus-four rating, while Larsson has a minus-two rating. While these numbers are not spectacular at first glance, when one considers that the Devils have not been good for most of this season, and that both players have mostly faced the opposition's top forwards, their plus/minuses are actually quite impressive.
Serviceable performances from Jon Merrill, 22, and Seth Helgeson, 24, have rounded out the solid performances from young defensemen.
At forward, on the other hand, the cupboard appears to be pretty bare.
Top prospect Reid Boucher has only appeared in four games after getting off to a poor start in Albany with the Devils' AHL affiliate. Stefan Matteau has also struggled in Albany and not yet appeared with the Devils this season.
Joe Whitney, 26, scored a goal in four games with New Jersey before being sent down to Albany again. Paul Thompson, 26, leads the AHL in goals but is on an AHL-only contract. Tom Gulitti at the Fire & Ice blog reported last week that general manager Lou Lamoriello has had preliminary talks with Thompson and his agent about signing him on a two-way deal, but nothing is imminent.
Now that the defense corps is relatively stable, the potential for young forwards to make an impact is something that fans and management will surely be focusing on, particularly if New Jersey makes any moves at the trade deadline.
3. What Happens If Bryce Salvador Returns This Season?
While injuries in general were covered in a previous slide, Bryce Salvador's injury situation has an added quirk to it that sets it apart.
Salvador's predicament is more political than anything.
The 38-year old defenseman has missed most of the season with a nagging back injury (per Guilitti at the Fire & Ice blog), but his play before getting hurt was not impressive. In just 15 games, he earned a minus-five rating and was the team's main penalty-killing defenseman at a time the Devils struggled mightily shorthanded.
In most situations, there would be no issue here. When healthy, Salvador would simply not return to the lineup on a regular basis. The problem is that Salvador is team captain.
It is an uncomfortable situation for a team to healthy scratch its captain, but to play Salvador over any of the excelling young defensemen, particularly after Severson returns from injury, would be inexcusable.
Either way, Salvador's return to health could cause discord in the locker room regardless of how the coaching staff decides to handle it.
Team spirit has always seemed to be strong among the Devils, even as the team has struggled, so the storyline of Salvador's return is more important than anything mentioned previously. If the team struggles and issues emerge in the locker room, New Jersey's young players may begin to look for their first ticket out of Newark.
With no clear indication of when Salvador will return, or if he will at all, the specter of the captain's circumstances will not be going away any time soon.
2. Who, If Anyone, Will Get Traded at the Deadline?
The NHL trade deadline is March 2. Unless New Jersey can win 12 or 13 of its 16 games before then, it will be well out of the playoff race and definitely a deadline day seller.
So, in the time leading up to that, who will be traded?
Michael Ryder, Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky are all older players with significant offensive ability and possible targets for teams looking for a three-month mercenary.
Ryder's contract is up at the end of the season, and he has clearly not enjoyed his time in New Jersey. So, the Devils may look to get something for him before he departs via free agency after the season.
Jagr, unlike Ryder, seems to have enjoyed his time as a Devil, but management may feel that a prospect or draft pick that he can earn the club in a trade is worth more than his play will be next season. Given that Jagr turns 43 in February, it is something the Devils must at least consider.
Zidlicky is an excellent playmaker on the blue line but can be a defensive liability. Still, even at 37 years old, he brings an offensive style of play that few defensemen can, and there will likely be teams interested in his service at the right price.
The Devils are an old team and must start looking to the future. Though this storyline will not change the outcome of this season, it has clear effects on next season and beyond. For this reason, it is a more important thing to watch for than anything before this on the list.
1. Who Will the Next Head Coach Be?
Much like potential trade deadline moves, a decision on the next head coach of the New Jersey Devils will help plot a course for the team in the coming years.
It is this storyline, which will follow the team to the end of the season and possibly into the offseason, that will likely be the single biggest consequence of the 2014-15 season.
Will it be Scott Stevens?
One certainly cannot argue with the way he has Larsson playing. The Swedish defenseman is showing the best offensive form (five assists in his last seven games) and the best defensive form (plus-two rating in his last seven games) of his young career.
Surely Stevens could continue to improve the play of Severson, Merrill and Eric Gelinas as well, if he is chosen as the team's next head coach.
Is his co-coach, Adam Oates, more deserving, though?
The team has scored four or more goals in four of its last seven games under his offensive guidance. While that is not a rate that fans can expect to see regularly, it is definitely a sign of his progress with the forwards.
Both men are surely being watched closely by Lamoriello as he mulls over his options.
Oates, Stevens, the media and the fans all know this as well, so this will be a storyline to watch closely as the season moves forward.