The New Jersey Devils rode momentum and luck to an Eastern Conference title in 2011-12. That might as well have been 25 years ago because it means very little now. Truth be told, if they play the upcoming regular season like they did a year ago they will miss the playoffs for a second time in three seasons.
There is no hiding the fact the Devils offense scored 228 goals last season with Zach Parise and his 31 goals in the lineup. There is no hiding the fact those goals will need to come from other sources. Since New Jersey did very little to bolster its offense, the difference must come from within.
It is plausible to assume that any given player, when provided the opportunity, can and will step up his game. In the Devils case, that means players like Adam Henrique, David Clarkson, the fourth line and even Ilya Kovalchuk will have to do just that. At this point I have no reason to believe they won’t.
New Jersey will also need another x-factor player or two to emerge. Last season that responsibility fell to Henrique and Clarkson, both of whom exceeded expectations and proved to be major contributors even into the playoffs. Who will it be this season? My guess is that if he stays healthy and that’s a big ‘if,’ Jacob Josefson will finally turn the corner and be the player we saw flashes of last fall.
Mattias Tedenby and the newly acquired Bobby Butler could be enormously important to the Devils success or failure this season. This could be a make a break year for the diminutive Swede after having fallen out of favor with the coach nearly every season. Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello is confident that Butler is a top-six NHL talent. If so, this would be the perfect time to make it official.
Head coach Pete Deboer did a wonderful job in his first season behind the bench. His team finished 48-28-6 with 102 points and made a trip the Stanley Cup Finals. How can Deboer possibly follow up a performance like that? It’s simple really. Work on correcting the issue that plagued his team for most of the regular season and into the playoffs; tighten up the defense and its ability to hold onto leads, big ones.
New Jersey was heavily outscored in the third period. They blew more three-goal leads than I care to remember and who can forget the close call with the Florida Panthers in round one. At one point in the season, the Devils were outscored nearly two-to-one in the final period of hockey games. A repeat performance like this and you can kiss a playoff birth goodbye. Deboer has added former Devils defenseman Scott Stevens to the coaching staff. Let’s hope this is the first step in plugging up the leaky D.
Finally, New Jersey must win games in regulation and avoid relying on the shootout for wins. The Devils led the league with a 12-4 shootout record and were tied for first with a 16-6 post-regulation record. If you take away New Jersey’s 12 extra points secured in shootout victories, they miss the playoffs by two points. This actually goes hand-in-hand with the third period issues. Many of these overtimes and shootouts could have been avoided by playing better with the lead in regulation.
On the bright side, all the OT experience paid huge dividends in the playoffs. The Devils used two consecutive OT wins to stave off elimination and advance in round one and knocked off the hated New York Rangers with a double-overtime win in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals.
I believe the Devils have the tools in place to be successful this season and get back to the playoffs. The difference between this season and last is the increased level of expectations. After such a successful playoff run how can it not be?
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