To say the least, it has been a tumultuous year for the New Jersey Devils. Left for dead by prognosticators following the off-season free agent exit of team captain Zach Parise, the Devils set out in 2012-13 to (as always) prove the critics wrong. After storming out of the gate to a 9-2-3 mark, the balloon burst as key injuries derailed the Devils’ season.
First a back injury to team backbone Martin Brodeur sidelined the starting backstopper for over a month, leaving the team often victimized by back-up goalie Johan Hedberg’s inconsistent play between the pipes. When Brodeur finally returned with New Jersey still hanging on to a top-eight playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk went down with a shoulder injury.
For those who for some inexplicable reason find cause to doubt Kovalchuk’s all-around value to the Devils (that means you, Pierre McGuire), the Kovy-less Devils went on to lose every one of their ensuing 10 games. With the campaign winding down to a close, the Devils find themselves out of the playoff picture just one year after coming within two victories of the Stanley Cup.
It would be foolish to consider the 2013 Devils a failure. Their season could, quite simply, be divided into three sections:
- With Kovalchuk and Brodeur in the line-up: 15-4-4
- With Brodeur out of the line-up: 3-8-2
- With Kovalchuk out of the line-up: 1-6-4
These records do not require much analysis. A learning-impaired dodo bird could pretty much divine that the Devils are a very good team with their future Hall-of-Fame netminder saving pucks and their all-universe forward shooting them for goals. Yet without either of the two superstars? Well, they pretty much suck.
It is important to note, however, that the Devils’ immediate future is far from dire. Not only does their mediocre finish assure them of a high choice in the extremely highly regarded 2013 entry draft (conveniently being held in New Jersey), but they have some incoming talent on the way from GM/resident genius Lou Lamoriello’s prospect pipeline and a favorable salary-cap situation going into the 2013-14 season.
Boucher And Merrill Set To Be Devils In 2013-14
Jon Merrill is a blue-chip, two-way defenseman who has starred for both the University of Michigan and in international play for the United States. A shrewd second round pick (2010, 38th overall), he projects into a top-pairing, all-situation blueliner who offers a coveted combination of skating, hockey IQ and size (6’4″, 210). Last month, the Devils inked Merrill to an entry level contract, and he is certain to challenge for a spot on the Jersey blueline in 2013-14, where he and 2011 4th overall pick Adam Larsson are sure to be cornerstones into the foreseeable future.
Speaking of the 2011 NHL draft, Reid Boucher (4th round, 99th overall) is the early favorite to emerge as the late-round steal of it. His stock skyrocketed this season, as his 62 goals for the OHL’s Sarnia Sting this season broke the franchise record set by a guy hockey fans may have heard of: Steven Stamkos. Though a bit undersized and still lacking in some areas of the game (especially in the defensive zone), Boucher has a wrist shot which right now would be among the best in the NHL. Boucher’s lightning-quick release and accuracy have been compared to names like Joe Sakic and Paul Kariya. Though he will never play with the all-around game of those guys, it is feasible that his upside is comparable to names like Phil Kessel and Michael Ryder. It would not be shocking to see Boucher skate with one of the top two lines in New Jersey next season.
The Devils Look Good For The 2013-14 Salary Cap
With the NHL’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement bringing the salary cap down from $70.2 million to $64.3 million, many NHL teams are faced with tough decisions regarding personnel. Not the Devils. With just $39.5 million committed to contracts in 2013-14, New Jersey’s brain-trust has plenty of room with which to work.
If, as many expect, the Devils use their two contract buyouts on aging defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, they will save another $7.6 million giving them more than a whopping $38 million to improve their roster in the off-season. How will they use it?
- Goaltending (Holes To Fill: None): NJ is set between the pipes with Brodeur entering the final season of perhaps the greatest netminding career in NHL history, and veteran back-up Johan Hedberg is beloved in the locker room and by the fans.
- Defense (Hole To Fill: One): Assuming the Devils buy out Volchenkov and Tallinder, they will have four d-men under contract: Bryce Salvador, Andy Greene, Mark Fayne and Adam Larsson. All indications are that Merrill will make the team and have an immediate impact, bringing the total to five. The Devils can then either resign impending UFA Marek Zidlicky ($4.0 million in 2013), or use some of their free-money stash to fill his role with that of a similar UFA like Mark Streit. Also, with Lamoriello running the show, it is never prudent to rule out a trade. Would a package of young talents Josefson, Tedenby and Urbom be enough to pry the oft-dangled Keith Yandle out of Phoenix?
- Forwards (Key RFAs: Four; Holes To Fill: Seven): It’s here Lamoriello has his work cut out for him. All four of his RFAs should be expected back. RW Matt D’Agostini ($1.65 million) should sign for similar money. Expect C Andrei Loktionov ($817K) and C Jacob Josefson ($900K) to get slight raises. Only C Adam Henrique $854K) is due a large bump in salary. Signing the four of them will likely cost around $8 million in sum and give the Devils a total of nine forwards. Of their UFAs, it is safe to assume that longtime Devil Patrik Elias will re-up at a cap-friendly number. Trade deadline acquisition Steve Sullivan looks set to hang up the skates after the season, while in-season acquisition Alexei Ponikarovsky should be offered a similar deal to his 2013 sum of $1.8 million. The two question marks are LW/RW Dainius Zubrus and RW David Clarkson, who can expect to be especially sought-after in the free-agent market. Expect Lamoriello to work extremely hard to get those two back into the Jersey fold, but if not he will have plenty of flexibility under the cap to try and fill the holes with UFAs like Stephen Weiss (a former favorite of Coach Pete DeBoer in Florida), Ryane Clowe (similar in style to David Clarkson) and Nathan Horton (also a former DeBoer disciple, and possibly a bargain in this year’s UFA market after a down year). And again, Boucher’s 35+ goal upside should pump some juice into the offense.
The 2013 NHL Draft Looks To Be #$@%ing Awesome
The 2013 draft is widely considered the most front-loaded with talent since the ballyhooed draft of 2003 which netted the Devils the aforementioned Zach Parise with the 17th overall selection. By common estimation, there are three franchise players: D Seth Jones, C Nathan McKinnon and LW Jonathan Drouin. Then there are two players just a hair shy of them in LW Valeri Nichushkin and C Sasha Barkov. Following them are four more can’t-miss studs in C Sean Monahan, C Elias Lindholm, D Darnell Nurse and D Nikita Zadorov.
To put it in perspective for you draft-niks, if one were to combine the talent pools of the 2012 and 2013 drafts, it is possible that only Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov and Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk would crack the top 10 representing 2012.
If the season were to end right now (4/26/13, 12:29 am EST), the Devils would own the 10th selection. Though this would leave them just outside the top tier of nine just discussed, they would likely have a choice of flashy boom/bust LW/RW Hunter Shinkaruk or power RW Valentin Zykov, either of whom would fill a major organizational need and either of whom would have been top-10 selections in 2012.
The best-case scenario for the Devils would be to win the draft lottery and walk home with a choice of Seth Jones (Chris Pronger 2.0) or Nathan McKinnon (a much better Claude Giroux). Their odds of that being low, they also might walk home with a franchise player due to the preposterous invention of the stupidest sector of the hockey universe, known as “the Russian Factor”.
What is the Russian Factor? Well, it is the completely fabricated idea that Russian players do not play defense, like, well… Pavel Datsyuk, multiple winner of the Selke Trophy as the top defensive forward in the league. And the idea that Russian forwards are not team players like, well… Ilya Kovalchuk who switched off his natural left wing to the right in order to accommodate Parise and Coach DeBoer and sacrificed offensive numbers to become one of the top defensive and penalty-killing forwards in the league. Or that they will stay in Russia to play hockey instead of coming to the NHL like… well, pretty much only Evgeny Kuznetsov in the past decade, which puts the number of Russians drafted to the NHL who choose not to play here in the past decade at just under 1%.
Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello is one of the top executives in recent sports history, so he will not fall victim to a preposterous supposition like the Russian Factor. That being said, if Nichushkin, a ridiculously talented LW who dominated at the 2013 World Junior Championships and is rated as high as #2 by International Scouting Services, drops out of the top-five, expect Lamoriello to pounce.
When Lamoriello selected Parise in 2003, first he traded up five spots with Edmonton who, as you may
not recall, used the Devils’ 22nd spot to take Marc-Andre Pouliot. The very next season, Lamoriello dealt up two spots to nab current top center Travis Zajac, leaving trade-partner Dallas to draft some guy named Lukas Kaspar, who may or may not have just bagged your groceries. Parise fell because of absurd concerns about his size (5’11”), while Travis Zajac fell in the draft because of absurd concerns about the league he played in (BCHL). Lamoriello has made a living out of valuing what other teams undervalue, and if in today’s NHL it is Russian-ness, long-time Devils’ pundits should make preparations to see the Devils make some big noise at the draft held in their home state and cruise away with Nichushkin, comparable in upside and skill-set to Edmonton’s Taylor Hall.
Never Bet Against The Devil
Devils faithful, take heart. Your team is one of the best-run in all of professional sports. In the past two decades you have played in over a quarter of the Stanley Cup finals (five) and won the greatest trophy in sports three times. Lou Lamoriello will do everything in his power to make sure the Devils are cup contenders again in 2013-14, the final season of the legendary Martin Brodeur’s career. There are more future Devils’ stars on the way in Boucher, Merrill and whomever is drafted in 2013 to join current stars Brodeur, Kovalchuk and Elias and budding stars Henrique and Larsson.
In conclusion, it is far better to suck with the hope of not sucking in the future than to suck without hope, which perhaps is a roundabout explanation as to why the New York Jets and Chicago Cubs don’t play hockey.
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Writer/lunatic, hockey columnist, mlb.com, aspiring cryptozoologist, estrogen addict, patron saint of vertigo, unintentional ghost hunter. Brooklyn, New York