NEWARK, N.J. – While other teams made the most of the lockout-shortened season, the New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs a year after making the Stanley Cup finals.
There were injuries. There were slumps. It was not pretty.
But it was also only one part of the story. Then came the off-season.
Forward Ilya Kovalchuk stunned the team in July, by walking away from $77 million left on his 15-year contract to play in Russia. Technically, the 30-year-old retired. Realistically, he left the Devils without a star player. Forward David Clarkson left via free agency, as well.
That was the downside. The positive was that Josh Harris—owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers—and partner David Blitzer headed a group that purchased the franchise from Jeff Vanderbeek in August. They kept general manager Lou Lamoriello in charge and guaranteed that the long-time executive will have money to spend down the road for free agents.
Lamoriello had a decent off-season regardless. Despite the Kovalchuk decision, the Devils re-signed forwards Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus and defenceman Marek Zidlicky. He also added forwards Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder and Rostislav Olesz as free agents, and acquired goaltender Cory Schneider from the Vancouver Canucks for a first-round draft pick.
Finally, the Devils went out and signed future Hall of Fame forward Jaromir Jagr, as well as former Detroit left wing Damien Brunner.
“I think they did the right thing—to move on,” goaltender Martin Brodeur said. “It was impressive to see how quickly the organization moved to bring in a lot of new faces. It’s going to be an adjustment for everyone. It’s going to be interesting to see how all the pieces of the puzzle Lou brought in fit and how everything pans out.”
The Devils will be looking to make the playoffs for the 20th time in 23 years, but there are already some concerns.
Jagr, who signed a one-year contract, has been bothered by a lower body injury since training camp opened.
“I love the game and want to keep playing,” said Jagr, who has 681 goals. “I just want to stay healthy and make the people who brought me here happy. Age really doesn’t matter to me. As long as I’m willing to work hard, that’s what keeps me young.”
Here are five things to watch as the Devils prepare to open vs. Pittsburgh on Oct. 3:
REPLACING KOVY: The Devils struggled after Kovalchuk suffered a late-season back injury, losing all 10 games he missed. In eight of those 10, the Devils scored two goals or less. And their power play was virtually non-existent. But knowing he’s not coming back might be better for this team. They can officially move forward, and Ryder and Clowe should help up front. Ryder had three seasons of 30-plus goals, including 35 with Dallas in 2012. Clowe had 24 with San Jose in 2011.
AGING LEGENDS: Brodeur and Jagr are 41 years old and one has to wonder how much is left in the tank. Expect the 27-year-old Schneider to emerge as the No. 1 goaltender as some point in the season. Jagr had 16 goals last season, splitting time between Dallas and Boston.
DEVILS Defence: Defence was the trademark of the Devils’ three Stanley Cup titles, the last coming in 2003. Andy Greene has emerged as the star of a no-name unit that includes captain Bryce Salvador and Zidlicky. The Devils are hoping former first-round pick Adam Larsson emerges as the unit’s top player.
GENERAL HEALTH: Injuries were the primary reason for the team’s downfall last year and the Devils have already had a tough time staying healthy in the preseason. Jagr has gone almost two weeks without practicing. And Clowe suffered a leg injury in the first preseason game.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD: The Devils need some of their younger players contributing. Travis Zajac is an outstanding two-way player but the goals have been missing. Adam Henrique struggled in his second season after a good rookie year. Others who might step up are Stefan Matteau, last year’s first-round pick, Jacob Josefson, Mattias Tedenby and Andrei Loktionov.