As the New Jersey Devils prepare to open training camp, it not only signals the start of a new season but also the closing of what could be described as one of the most franchise altering offseasons to date.
By now, fans have some idea of what the team will look like and how the season should play out. However, the Devils are still surrounded by uncertainty. This is not a team that any analyst picked as one to watch. Nonetheless, there are certain objectives that the Devils should strive to meet, both individually and the team as a whole.
Sound the Goal Horn
To state the obvious, New Jersey needs to increase its goal production. The Devils have several key players who must perform at a certain level for the team to achieve any kind of success. Forwards Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri, Travis Zajac, and Patrik Elias need to help boost the struggling offense.
Each player has a different role on the team. But while their playing expectations should be different, all of them need to score a minimum of 20 goals. Realistically, fans will want to see this number even higher from the core team members. It also would not be wrong to suggest that Henrique and Cammalleri need to be within the 25- to 30-goal range. They all have to be reliable and consistent because they will be expected to lead by example on the ice.
Putting the numbers aside, Elias is in a different situation than the other players because of where he stands in his career. For the majority of the second half last season, he played on a predominantly checking line and against the opposition’s top players. Last year, New Jersey’s entire offense struggled and Elias was not immune. His numbers mirrored the team’s performance.
If Elias is going to be playing the same kind of role that he did last year, his offensive expectations would have to be altered to reflect that. Make no mistake though, the Devils icon is still a capable player and an asset to the team. Elias has stated numerous times that he feels he can play at a high level and the Devils need him to do just that. If the team excels and Elias still struggles, then there is room for debate. He is the only tie back to New Jersey’s glory years now and the importance of that cannot be understated.
From the Blue Line to the Blue Paint
If someone is looking for a positive going into this season, other than the obvious one in net, the defense is in good shape. It would be hard to say that the defense has the potential this season to be a shut down group, like some of the Devils’ legendary defensive units. Nevertheless, this year should be the season they all progress towards that identity.
Additionally, all of the defensemen have the ability to put up points and contribute on the scoreboard from the blue line. The pressure will be on defensemen Adam Larsson and Andy Greene as the top pairing. The top unit will log the most minutes and face the toughest opponents. Greene is New Jersey’s best defensive player but Larsson needs to close that gap. As the core defensive group develops, mistakes will be made, which means Greene and Larsson have to be solid and limit their own mishaps.
Greene established his presence and proved to be an elite NHL player two-years ago. It is almost unjust to add even more pressure on the Michigan native, but unfortunately that is exactly what is going to happen. He is the only true defensive veteran on the team and that comes with a great deal of responsibility. Greene and goalie Cory Schneider will both be heavily relied upon.
By midseason last year, Schneider was playing phenomenal hockey. The fact that he looked invincible made it very easy to forget his early season struggles, which mimicked his first year in New Jersey as well. Schneider has to try to avoid a slow start this year. He will not be facing an easy task considering the team will be adjusting to a new system. But he has shown time and time again that he can win games and what level he is capable of playing at.
Unlike last season, Schneider should not have to carry the entire load in the crease for the first several weeks without a break. Head coach John Hynes has to be willing to allow Schneider more nights off than former head coach Peter DeBoer did last year. New Jersey will want to keep Schneider as fresh as possible because at the beginning of the season he will likely be facing a lot of shots and be expected to help bail the team out.
The Team Checklist
There were shots fired wide and posts hit. But those common league wide events were happening too often to the Devils. New Jersey was riddled by missed chances and it is imperative that the Devils take every opportunity to capitalize, especially when they have a man advantage.
Even though New Jersey’s even strength offensive game struggled, the specialty teams remained strong. After beginning the season at the bottom of the pack, the team’s penalty kill returned to its previous form and the powerplay excelled throughout the year. Both units need to pick up where they left off. The penalty kill hurt the Devils badly at the start of last season. It played a large part in several of the team’s losses.
New Jersey will more than likely look raw at the start of the year. It would be naïve to think otherwise considering there will be several new faces and an entirely new system. The Devils will be facing a big challenge because the Metropolitan Division is not weak. Basic objectives like outshooting an opponent, limiting turnovers, dominating the face-off circle, and staying out of the box can make a big difference on the outcome of a game.
It would be pointless to attempt to predict how New Jersey will perform this year or even where the team could finish in the standings. No one can honestly answer that. Nevertheless, sometimes the club not facing any expectations is actually the one to watch.