To the rejoice of hockey fans everywhere, the seemingly never-ending offseason is over and the start of training camp is less than a week away. For the New Jersey Devils, this year’s camp is the time to officially close the door on the past and welcome in several new faces who are expected to help the franchise return to the postseason.
The build up and anticipation surrounding training camp is always exciting, but this year the feeling is palpable. The Devils will be on a mission to exert themselves in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference. However, every team has some questions that need to be answered in camp and New Jersey is no exception. From tryouts and young defensemen to line combinations and forward Patrik Elias’ future, camp should provide some insight and answers.
Tryouts vs. Young Defensemen
Last season, forward Lee Stempniak was a key player for New Jersey. Without him, it would have been hard to imagine the team pushing for a playoff birth as long as it did. He is proof that a tryout can add instrumental value to a team.
Although Stempniak is no longer with the club, the Devils will assumingly host a bevvy of tryouts again this year. Currently, goalie Anders Lindbäck and forward Brian Gibbons are among the invited players. While Gibbons will be looking to find a place within the team’s forward depth, Lindbäck’s is likely there to help account for goalie Cory Schneider’s absence as he plays for Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey.
Unlike previous seasons when fans wanted to see the team bring forwards into camp, this year the focus has shifted to defense and whether the franchise will call in a player, like Kris Russell, to help the team withstand losing defensemen Adam Larsson and David Schlemko. The Devils should not force the issue, though. While an insurance defenseman would be beneficial and New Jersey would likely find that addition through a PTO, the team also needs to look at its young defensive group as well.
Larsson was one of the Devils’ most promising young talents. There is no denying that his absence will hurt at first. Furthermore, there is no hiding the fact that New Jersey’s defense may undergo an adjustment period. But camp should highlight the franchise’s core of young defensemen. One defensive roster spot will undoubtedly go to a young player and it is Seth Helgeson’s job to lose at this point.
Additionally, defenseman Steven Santini is another young player that will be under the training camp microscope. He has been one of the more highly anticipated rookies since he was drafted by the Devils in 2013. New Jersey needs to inject some physicality into its game and Santini would provide that if he does make the roster. However, a tryout would inevitably be Santini as well as defenseman Vojtěch Mozík’s biggest obstacle to making the big club.
It is fair to say that the Devils need to take the safe route and sign a veteran defenseman. Nonetheless, the team does have options and should not commit to any veterans before assessing its young players over the next several weeks.
Line Combinations & Elias
The defense should also not be under the extreme pressure it has encountered in previous years due to the team’s improved offense. Fans and analysts will likely not get a true preview of what combinations head coach John Hynes is envisioning until late in training camp as he will be shifting players around throughout the preseason. However, camp will deliver a glimpse of potential combinations as well as on-ice chemistry and compatible playing styles.
Fans will likely see the duo of forwards Adam Henrique and Taylor Hall take the ice together. There has no been indication that the plan is for Hall and Henrique to play on the same line during the regular season, but considering their history with the Windsor Spitfires, it would make sense to assume that the two would be together at some point.
Additionally, fans should get a preview as to whether Reid Boucher is, in fact, going to play within the top six as well as where Hynes foresees forward Devante Smith-Pelly slotting in and who rookie Pavel Zacha will be playing with. Unlike years past, though, Hynes has a solid forward depth to play with and shift around as he sees fit.
One player that will not be in camp is veteran forward and lifelong Devil Patrik Elias. The Devils said they are not rushing Elias’ recovery from knee surgery and are keeping an open mind even though he is still without a contract entering the season. While it is true that Elias and New Jersey are in a position where neither side has to rush the decision, the sooner the issue can be resolved the better. However, it does not seem likely that this will happen during camp. If his rehabilitation goes well, then Elias still has value on the ice for New Jersey and there is no question that he has tremendous value to the franchise off the ice as well.
The biggest thing though for fans is that hockey is back. While the Devils still have issues to address, if the offseason is any indication, then it should be an eventful training camp and preseason but most importantly an exciting 2016-17 regular season.