The New Jersey Devils are one of the most interesting teams to make predictions about for 2012-13. They lost their captain and one of their best scorers to free agency this offseason, but return most of the roster that pushed through the NHL playoffs and won an Eastern Conference Championship against all odds. Their legendary goaltender is another year older, their offense is weaker, their defense is still extremely mediocre, but the Devils still look like a playoff team to me.
The Devils have only missed the playoffs once since their first Stanley Cup Championship in 1995, and save for an epic mistake in coaching personnel, the Devils have been one of the most consistently-successful franchises in hockey. It’s hard to see a Devils team that returns a legitimate coach, one of the best scorers in hockey, and the winningest goaltender in league history missing the playoffs.
Beyond the high expectations that the Devils cultivate as a franchise, they’re also coming off one of their best seasons of the last decade. During their impressive run through the playoffs, the Devils eliminated two division rivals – the heavily favored New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. Nearly every player from that magical run is back in black and red.
The loss of Zach Parise is certainly a crushing blow to the Devils’ 2013 Stanley Cup hopes, but the team is balanced enough to live without him. Adam Henrique is poised for another excellent season, Ilya Kovalchuk is still one of the best scorers in hockey, and Patrik Elias still produces in the top-six. Travis Zajac should be able to replace most of Zach Parise’s 60+ points if he remains healthy for the whole season. While the Devils had both Zajac and Parise for their playoff run last season, they were without Zajac for the entire regular season. Returning their top centerman will be a boost to one of the league’s worst faceoff teams, in addition to the obvious offensive value a player like Zajac has.
The question is not about scoring for the Devils, who tallied 228 goals last season. Instead, the Devils will need to be more consistent defensively to make the playoffs. Martin Brodeur is another year older, the defense is mediocre-at-best, and the scoring is only enough to win games if the Devils play sound hockey on the defensive end. I’m not worried about the Devils replacing Parise, but I do wonder if they can continue to hang Brodeur out to dry as frequently as they did last year. The rest of the Eastern Conference improved, and the Devils will not be able to coast to the postseason this year. Still, they have the talent and pedigree to contend in the playoffs.
Ultimately, the New Jersey Devils are still a playoff team. This is a franchise that has cultivated a winning atmosphere and returns a championship roster. Additionally, they have the personnel to replace top-line deficiencies from within. Having Zajac for a full season while young players step up will carry the Devils to the playoffs. Ultimately, the Devils look like the fourth-best team in the Atlantic Division, which should be good enough for a lower seed in the 2013 postseason.