By Max Herman
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After the most disappointing season in well over a decade, the New Jersey Devils opened their regular season schedule this past weekend and began their quest to return their organization back to the postseason.
Over the summer, Lou Lamoriello and Co. did their best to ensure that last year’s playoff no-show would be a distant memory by the time next April rolls around, but it appears as though getting one of the top eight spots in the Eastern Conference could prove to be more difficult this year than it has been for this team in the past.
The Devils will make the playoffs if…
1) …they can play better than .500 hockey in the first half of the season. The Devils were plagued by a horrendous start to last year that saw them go 10-29-2 in their first 41 games. In fact, if the Devils had won just six more of those games in the first half, their second-half surge would have been enough to earn them a playoff spot. But then again, if I had wheels, I’d be a wagon.
2) …Zach Parise puts up Zach Parise-like numbers and gets a contract extension by the trade deadline. The first part of that statement seems to me to be the easier of the two to expect. Watching Zach play against Carolina on Monday afternoon was, as head coach Peter DeBoer put it, “As close to Zach Parise at the top of his game that I remember him.”
But the key is to lock him up for the long-term. If the trade deadline approaches and Zach doesn’t have a contract for next season, the Devils might be afraid to lose him for nothing during his unrestricted free agency period next summer. As ludicrous as it seems at the moment, that is a scenario where the Devils could panic and feel they have no choice but to trade Captain Zach.
3) …they get better play out of both of their special teams units. While the penalty kill had some stretches last year where they were able to shut opponents down, the lack of consistency on the power play may have been the biggest reason why the Devils were last in the league in goals scored last season. No one scored fewer power play goals than the Devils, and they even allowed 8 shorthanded tallies.
4) …Ilya Kovalchuk plays like the Ilya Kovalchuk we saw in the second half of last season. Kovy was nothing short of a head-case until Jacques Lemaire showed up and kicked his rear end into gear. Obviously there’s no Jacques this year, so Ilya will have to prove that he can do it under the tutelage of Peter DeBoer. Much like Parise, he also had a strong game on Monday, and I look for him to play like the guy the Devils thought they were getting when they originally traded for him.
I’m not much for the future-telling business, but I’ll go out on a limb and take a couple of educated wild guesses on what will go down this season…
1) Adam Larsson will establish himself as a top-two defenseman and perhaps even the best on the team. He figures to play a big role on the power play as well.
2) Parise and Kovalchuk will combine for 75+ goals. Wishful thinking? Maybe. But assuming both these guys stay healthy, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be able to do exactly that.
3) Petr Sykora will score 20+ goals. One of the best stories out of training camp, the soon-to-be 35-year-old Sykora came back after a year off and made the team by having a dynamic preseason. He should get plenty of scoring chances, being that linemates Patrik Elias and Parise are both very good at controlling the puck in the offensive zone as well as setting teammates up with the pass.
4) The Devils will miss the hell out of Travis Zajac. Travis will likely be out until after the new year, and his presence will be missed in a variety of ways. Aside from simply being a well-rounded hockey player, Zajac has been the Devils’ most reliable faceoff man since he started his career and has been a major boost to the success of the power play. Many consider him one of the most underrated players in the NHL, and his absence will surely be noticed. Between Adam Henrique, Jacob Josefson, and Dainus Zubrus, someone has to step up their game. Of those three, my money is on Josefson.
Overall Record Prediction: 43-32-7, 93 points, 7th place in the Eastern Conference.
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