NEWARK, N.J. – A week after the New Jersey Devils lost star forward Ilya Kovalchuk to sudden retirement, general manager Lou Lamoriello is still plotting out the future for a team that advanced to the Stanley Cup final just 13 months ago.
The Devils watched Kovalchuk last week sign his voluntary retirement papers, which allowed him to break free of the NHL and to sign a new deal in his native Russia. New Jersey also lost forward David Clarkson to free agency, as he signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs earlier this month.
The Devils added some players up front in free agency as well, namely forwards Ryan Clowe, from the New York Rangers, and Michael Ryder, from the Phoenix Coyotes. But still, Lamoriello is in a bind as he looks to move past two players who combined for 93 goals the past two seasons.
“The biggest transition they have to make is certainly not (to) be intimidated,” Lamoriello said of his young prospects, who worked at the team’s developmental camp this week. “There are people that have had success in the league, people that they have watched play. This gives them an opportunity to feel good about themselves and make it easier as opposed to past years when they had to come in at training camp.”
Reid Boucher, the Devils’ fourth-round choice in 2011, led the Ontario Hockey League last year with 62 goals in 68 games for Sarnia and has a chance now to impress Lamoriello and coach Peter DeBoer.
“For sure, you want to come out, have a good camp and prove yourself a little,” he said. “Anything helps at this point. My goal is to play in the NHL this year. Maybe (the player departures) has me working a little harder here. I don’t know if I can step right in and fill (Kovalchuk’s) slot, but I’m going to do the best I can to compete for a job.”
Boucher, who signed with the Devils late last season, is a native of Michigan who has spent time with the United States Development Program. He will turn 20 in September, so he might be headed back to the juniors for more seasoning.
“But I can see some light now at the end of the tunnel,” Boucher said. “Maybe it might have been a long shot before (Clarkson and Kovalchuk), but not now. I am looking to have the opportunity to prove myself in the NHL and that’s what I am going to do.”
Boucher said that he has been improving as the camp has continued.
“It’s not quite my best, but I’m holding my own,” Boucher said. “I’m still trying to get my legs underneath me. We’re moving at a good pace.”
Another rookie forward is Myles Bell, a native of Calgary who was the Devils’ sixth-round selection last month.
Bell is also just 19 years old and was passed over in the draft in both 2011 and 2012 after suffering injuries in a car accident that killed his girlfriend. Bell received two years’ probation for driving in that accident as a 17-year-old in April 2011.
“It happened and I’m working now on taking my life in a positive direction,” said Bell, who scored 38 goals in 69 games with Kelowna of the Western Hockey League last season. “I have to keep what happened in the past.”
Before the accident, Bell was expected to be a first-round draft pick. The Devils took somewhat of a gamble on the forward who is known for his slap shot.
“Being passed over in the draft has put a chip on my shoulder,” Bell said. “There’s an opening now here, an opportunity that I have to take advantage of. But there’s a lot of hard work left before I can make that a reality.”
Bell said that he was taking a nap recently when his cellphone was rattled with texts about Kovalchuk’s decision.
“My agent (Gerry Johannson) then called me and said that the Devils now have a little more room now and that it could open up something for me in the system,” Bell said. “There’s a hole on the right side here and I have to take advantage of it. But there’s only so much I can control.
“It’s everyone’s goal, to be on an NHL roster. I know it’s a business.”
Lamoriello wouldn’t speculate further as to what the team will do with the salary now vacated by Kovalchuk, but he did say that the rookie camp, which was not held last season due to the lockout, offers the young players a chance to make a name for themselves before training camp.
He also said the players who skated in Wednesday’s early session are part of “the group that will be invited to training camp,” so that means Boucher and Bell will be back when training camp begins in September.
Lamoriello also said that he hopes to have contracts signed by restricted free agents Adam Henrique and Jacob Josefson by the end of the week and there might be an announcement about the team’s new assistant coach.