NEWARK, N.J. – For the past 15 years, the New Jersey Devils reported to training camp with the expectation of competing for the Stanley Cup.
The playoffs? That was a mere formality for the three-time Cup winners, with the only unknowns being whether the Devils would win the Atlantic Division and where they would be seeded in the Eastern Conference for the post-season.
That’s all changed heading into this season. New Jersey missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 1996 and there is no guarantee that new coach Peter DeBoer can get them back with a team that has some talent but a lot more question marks.
Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg give the Devils a pair of goaltenders entering the twilight of their careers. The defence is suspect and there are a lot of questions about the offence despite having one of the league’s top goal scorers in Ilya Kovalchuk.
Zach Parise has shown the ability to be a top goal scorer, but he is returning after missing most of last season with a major knee injury.
The Devils also need to find a replacement for top centre Travis Zajac, who will be sidelined for the start of the season after suffering an Achilles’ tendon injury during his off-season training.
“The key here is to play with confidence,” said Kovalchuk, who scored 31 goals, with most coming after Jacques Lemaire replaced rookie coach John MacLean in December with New Jersey in last place. “When you do that, you can manage the game more in this system. That’s so important for us.”
The players seem to like DeBoer and his system of pursuing the puck, dictating the pace and playing solid defence.
“This team is a lot of fun to coach, and there’s been a good atmosphere around them,” said DeBoer, who was fired by Florida last season after failing to get the Panthers to the playoffs in his three seasons on the job. “The road to a roster spot for a lot of these guys is still a long one, but we feel like we’re off to a good start.”
The 39-year-old Brodeur posted a 23-26-3 mark in 56 games last season, and is uncertain whether he will ever return to the days where he played 70 games a season, especially after Hedberg played well in his backup role.
“It’s still training camp, and we’re still learning how to play with each other and get a chemistry going,” Brodeur said. “It’s different around here now, for sure, and chemistry is always a big thing with a new system.”
New Jersey has high hopes for Adam Larsson, the Swedish defenceman who was the fourth pick overall in the NHL Draft in June. He is an offensive defenceman who has shown ability on the power play, but it is uncertain whether he will make the final roster.
General manager Lou Lamoriello would rather have a player get more seasoning in the minor leagues or in junior hockey rather than push him too soon.
The nucleus of the defence will be centred around veterans Andy Greene, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador, who missed all of last season with a concussion. Mark Fayne, Matt Taormina and Mark Fraser also are expected to play but one may not be around if Larsson makes the team.
“The game plan is simple,” Salvador said. “Just to get right back at it. We have a lot to prove, and a lot to make up for. We don’t have time anymore to worry about what happened to us last year.”
The Devils certainly have talent up front with Kovalchuk, Parise and Patrik Elias and a slew of role players in David Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus, Vladimir Zharkov, Rod Pelley, David Steckel, Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen and Stephane Veilleux.
New Jersey might also head into the season with an old friend, Petr Sykora. A member of their 2000 Stanley Cup championship team, he was invited to camp on a tryout and has been impressive with his preseason scoring ability.
“You get a lot more pucks in this system now,” the 34-year-old Czech said. “It’s aggressive and everyone seems to enjoy it. I know I feel comfortable here, and whenever I get a chance to play, I’m going to make the most of it.”
The key for the offence might be how well the youngsters play. Swedes Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby showed flashes last season and Nick Palmieri was a grinder, who had nine goals in 42 games.
Josefson has looked good at centre in training camp and should help out until Zajac gets back. The team hopes he will miss only six weeks of the season.
Centre Adam Henrique, who scored 25 goals for the Devils top minor league team at Albany, also has a shot at making the team.
“We all have opportunities here to make it right,” Henrique said, “and it’s up to us to take advantage of them.”
The one thing that the Devils can’t afford to do is get off to a bad start again. They went 10-29-2 under MacLean before Lemaire came out of retirement and took over just before Christmas.
The change sparked an amazing 23-3-2 run that got them within six points of a playoff spot, but the run didn’t last.
“It’ll be a very interesting season,” Kovalchuk said. “We have a lot of young guys now, with a real bright future.”