The New Jersey Devils entered the 2011-12 season on the heels of a very long summer; after having missed the playoff for the first time in more than a decade. Despite the down season the philosophy for the Devils entering any season remains the same – put yourself in a position to play for the Stanley Cup. True to form, New Jersey did just that.
Under the reigns of first-year head coach Pete Deboer, the Devils picked up the pace offensively. New Jersey scored a league worst 174 goals in 2010-11. Deboer instantly changed the teams make-up. Instead of relying on a tight checking defense, he insisted his team play a more up-tempo and aggressive forecheck. The team bought in right away and the offense produced 54 more goals than the season prior. Led by Ilya Kovalchuk’s 37 goals and 83 points, the Devils produced a well-balanced attack that included three players with 30 or more goals (Zach Parise 31, David Clarkson 30), five players with 20 or more goals (Patrik Elias 26, Petr Sykora 21) and seven players with 15 or more goals (Dainus Zubrus 17, Adam Henrique 16).
Interestingly enough, in the last two seasons the Devils defense remained ‘status quo’, surrendering exactly 209 goals against in both years. The biggest difference was clearly the offensive output. For the first times in years the Devils were winning because of the offense and not in spite of it.
Martin Brodeur bounced back from the first losing season in his long and storied career with a 31-21-4 with a 2.41 goal against average. His partner - Johan Hedberg - was no slouch either. His 17-7-2 record and 2.22 GAA was just as good as it looks on paper.
New Jersey finished the season with a 48-28-6 record, good enough for 102 points and the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The 21 point improvement over the previous season was the second highest jump in the NHL behind the St. Louis Blues 22 point swing.
The Devils finished the season by winning seven of the last 10 games and rode the positive momentum all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Along the way they dispatched the Florida Panthers in an epic seven game series. They bowled over the Philadelphia Flyers with ease in five games and exorcised 19 years of demons with a six game triumph over the New York Rangers. Ultimately they succumbed to a true team of destiny, the Los Angeles Kings.
By all measures the season was a huge success. The real question is, “where do they go from here?”
New Jersey has done very little in terms of adding new players. With the exception of the signings of tough guy Krys Barch and Ottawa Senators cast-off Bobby Butler. The Butler signing may prove to be one of those moves that right now seems insignificant, but a few months down the line could look like a steal. Devils President and GM Lou Lamoriello believes Butler has top-six potential. We shall see.
Perhaps the biggest moves made this summer by the Devils was re-signing their own players, especially the entire fourth line of Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter. The trio were sensational throughout the playoffs and a key reason the Devils went as far as they did.
New Jersey also re-signed both Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg to two-year contract extensions, finally giving the team some stability in net. This also means they have the oldest goaltending tandem in the league – details, details.
Last and certainly not least, Bryce Salvador re-upped for three more seasons. A year ago it looked like his career was over and now he a potential captain candidate. He is truly the teams anchor on the blueline.
Obviously waving Eric Boulton hurts…..Just kidding
The Devils were stung when captain and life-blood of the team, Zach Parise, decided to jump ship and sign with his hometown Minnesota Wild. It won’t be easy to replace 30 goals and 80 points a year. He was drafted by New Jersey to be the next great Devils player. Now he is just another great former Devils player. All kidding aside, replacing his leadership and offensive output will be a challenge, but its not the end of the world. The team has enough talent to move forward and never look back.
To a lessor extent, losing Alex Ponikarovsky to free agency was a bit of a surprise. He added some grit when he was acquired midway through the year. It looked like he was a player that fit in well. Unfortunately for him, the Devils have a plethora of forwards – making him expendable.
My first inclination was to call Adam Henrique the ‘X factor,’ but he is already a star. Instead I’m going with Adam Larsson. The Devils first round draft pick in 2011 had his share of ups and downs during his rookie season. He was brilliant one moment and a human pylon the next.
In 65 games, the 19-year-old led all Devils defenseman in scoring with 18 points (2g 16a). Even though the point production was lower then expected, he showed improvement as the year went along and even scored an important goal in the playoffs against the Flyers. If the Devils are going to continue to compete among the NHL’s elite, they will need him to be even better this season.
There is no room for a sophomore slump at this stage of the game.
This is the perfect spot for Adam Henrique. It may be hard for the 22-year-old to follow the rookie season he had. Henrique finished the year with 16 goals and 35 assists, good enough to be selected as a Calder Trophy finalist. He made a name for himself with his defensive play, especially of the penalty kill. Henrique led New Jersey with four shorthanded goals and finished fourth in plus/minus with a plus-8.
The rookie center followed up his sensational regular season with an even more impressive post season. In 24 playoff game he added another five goals and eight helpers. Three of the five goals were game-winners, including two series clinching overtime goals against the Panthers and Rangers. Talk about clutch.
To say the sky in the limit for Henrique is an understatement. His maturity and poise are paramount to his success and further proof that he is going to be one of the next great NHL Players. I think its safe to expect him to play an ever larger role in the offense from this point forward. I could easily see him approaching 70-75 points this season.
Its hard to say where the Devils go from here. The loss of Zach Parise is not one that can easily be overlooked. Lucky for New Jersey fans, the Devils locker room has plenty of character in it and now there is no questioning who’s team this really is. Kovalchuk should thrive as the main offensive weapon. He carried the team when Parise was out with a knee injury two seasons ago and he will have no problems doing it again.
The Devils have a solid mix of age and youth and while its defintely a stretch to believe this team could repeat as Eastern Conference Champs – it certainly isn’t entirely out of the question. Higher expectations or not, the goal always remains the same in New Jersey – put yourself in a position to play for the Stanley Cup. Nothing has changed.
The Rant Sports 30 in 30 series will examine one NHL team per day. Tomorrow: the Florida Panthers
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