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October 1, 2013 | 8:55pm ET
2013-14 Season Preview: New Jersey
By Patrick Kearns, TheFourthPeriod.com

The New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs two of the last three seasons, which is been a rarity in the Garden State over the past two decades. Of course those two misses sandwiched a Stanley Cup Final appearance, but the team had a drastically different look coming into the 2013-14 regular season.

In perhaps the most shocking move of the offseason, prolific offensive winger Ilya Kovalchuk announced his retirement from North American hockey, subsequently signing with SKA St. Petersburg.

Kovalchuk had been the offensive catalyst for the devils and was relied on heavily for his play at both ends of the rink. In his time with the Devils, he honed his defensive game, making him a dangerous two-way threat. His presence on the ice will be sorely missed, as the Devils lack game-breaking offensive talent up front.

For the Devils, their offseason additions of Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder and Damien Brunner -- who accepted a professional tryout -- will have to pay dividends.

In a summer filled with the headlines, the Devils used the ninth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft to fill a franchise need for both the immediate team and the future of the club. Goaltender Cory Schneider was brought in from Vancouver to presumably split time with one of the all-time greats Martin Brodeur, as night falls upon his historical career.

Last seasonís playoff-miss was greatly because of inconsistency and poor goaltending, as the team led the NHL in shot differential with 5.1 more shots for than against per game. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings were just a tick behind them at 4.9.

The team will compete in a wide-open Metropolitan Division, with plenty of uncertainty. Even favored teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins or New York Rangers have question marks and just one injury could change the entire narrative of the season.

FORWARDS

The Devils forward corps went through a massive renovation in the offseason, as a result of the aforementioned Kovalchuk retirement. Some of the old guard still remains, with Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac slotting into the top-six, but there will be a lot of new faces expected to generate offense.

Without any clear top threat, the Devils will need offense by committee to win a lot of hockey games. The team is dense with second-line wingers, but lack real top-line offensive threats. Of course the Devils have done more with less in the past, so itís tough to count them out offensively.

The Devils also have one of the more exciting fourth lines in hockey with Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier who bring talent along with tenacity.

1. Michael Ryder - One of the more underrated acquisitions in the offseason came in the form of adding Ryder, the 33-year-old Canadian winger. Ryder, joined the club for 2-years and $7 million after putting up 21 points in 27 games to close out the season with the Montreal Canadiens.

2. Ryane Clowe - The health of the Ryane Clowe will be something for Devils brass to keep an eye on. If healthy, Clowe can be a 20 goal scorer for club, while working the greasy areas of the ice. He suffered three concussions last year.

3. Adam Henrique - Itís time for Adam Henrique to take over the Devils offense and prove that he can be a top-line winger. Injuries put a damper on the season for Henrique last year, but the young winger has made some big plays in his career.

DEFENSE

Anton Volchenkov is 31, Bryce Salvador is 37, Marek Zidlicky is 36, Andy Greene is 30 and Peter Harrold is 30. Five defenseman over the age of 30 is not a good sign for the footspeed of a defense that has to play in the same division as Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, John Tavares, Rick Nash and Claude Giroux.

1. Adam Larsson - When the Devils chose Adam Larsson fourth overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, he was expected by the organization to contribute right away, hence the burning of an entry-level contract year. Last year, he split his time between the Albany Devils of the American Hockey League and the NHL club. If he takes a big step forward this season, he can instantly grab the number-one defenseman role on a Devils defense corps whose best years may be behind them.

2. John Merrill Itís not all bleak for the defense however. John Merrill, the former University of Michigan Defenseman is arguably their best prospect and is looking to make the jump to the pros this year. He possesses a high upside and could certainly earn himself some playing time this season.

GOALTENDING

While Brodeur is the No.1 goaltender in title, the Devils success will hinge greatly on the play of acquisition Cory Schneider, who will split starts with Brodeur. Schneider is brings over a tremendous amount of talent.

Brodeur, the ageless wonder, began to show his age last season when he spent part of the season nursing a pinched nerve. He will no doubt benefit greatly from less starts, and the really only interesting storyline to watch will be who gets the call if the Devils make it to the playoffs.

The Devils goaltending will be a significant upgrade over last yearís which saw Brodeur post a .901 save percentage and Hedberg post a paltry .883. There is a solid chance that Brodeur tops that number from last year if he can stay off the shelf. Taking the over for Scheider -- compared to Hedbergís numbers -- seems like an incredibly safe bet.

One thing to keep an eye on would be how DeBoer splits the starts. If a goalie gets hot and rattled off eight wins in a row, itíll be pretty hard to switch to the other guy. However both goaltenders need to stay fresh, so itíll be a balancing act all season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

After setting an all-time record for penalty kill percentage in 2012-13, the Devils dropped to 16th in the NHL last year. Their poor goaltending played a factor in that, but the loss of Kovalchuk, who became a dangerous penalty killer will certainly hurt the team. The penalty kill will need to be a strong point for the team and will likely improve as the goaltending improves.

On the man-advantage is where Kovalchuk will greatly be missed. The dynastic forward did it all on the power-play. He played the point, rotated into the slot, and even worked defenseman in the front of the net. The lack of Kovalchuk alone with hurt the powerplay, which doesnít have a real quarterback.

The Devils will have to hope the addition of a player like Brunner will impact the power-play positively, as he brings a significant amount of offensive creativity. The team was 21st on the power-play last season and if your team struggles offensively, itís paramount to have a strong attack when you get the opportunity for a power-play.

PREDICTION

The Devils are a team on the cusp this year, with so much uncertainty. They will be battling for a playoff spot down to the bitter end, but ultimately they likely just miss the cut, as their top talent is simply lacking. They have a tough road ahead with a lot of older players, so health will be a key factor for them more than most teams.

DeBoer has shown that he can get a lot of his players in the past and this season expectations for the coach will be no different from management. If the team manages to sneak in, he will likely be the one to thank.

Patrick Kearns is the New York Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period.


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