The New Jersey Devils fell hard last season, after a long run as one of the NHL’s best franchises and making the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012. The offseason has been incredibly hectic. It started with the great high of trading for Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider. Then it hit a big low with the shocking retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk and his return to Russia. Can the Devils regain their status as a contender after missing the playoffs?
If they do, it will have to be with defense. This is the area of the team that was already the strongest. New Jersey ranked a respectable 13th in goals allowed, and more important—at least from a predictive standpoint here in July—they were the best in the league at preventing shots. I cite that as more predictive, because with Schneider able to step in for a fading Martin Brodeur, I think it highly likely that the goals against ranking will rise to similar elite status.
The other reason a turnaround will have to be on defense is that the offense is awful. The last two offseasons have been brutally tough, first losing Zach Parise following the 2012 season and now losing Kovalchuk. These two were the core of their offense in the ’12 playoff run.
Patrik Elias did not play well in 2013, but the forward is capable of stepping up his game and now absolutely must do so. New Jersey picked up Michael Ryder at forward. He’s a nice supporting piece, but I suspect not one who’s able to deliver as much offense as the Devils really need.
The problems with scoring goals mean that New Jersey has to execute well in every area, and we can start with a penalty kill that was only 16th a year ago. Some of that can be fixed with Schneider in net, but it still bears nothing that the penalty kill was, relative to the rest of the league, worse than the regular defense. That can’t happen in 2013-14, not when goals will be at a premium.
New Jersey isn’t going to be an outstanding team, but they can compete. Defense takes you a long way in any sport and goaltending really takes you a long way in hockey. Now, we just need to be assured that the Devils won’t give in to sentiment and past performance by keeping Brodeur ahead of Schneider on the depth chart. It’s time to make the change.