By Steve Lichtenstein
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If all goes according to general manager Ray Shero’s plan, there’s a good chance Devils fans might find their favorite team unrecognizable when the puck drops for real next month.
Without its coach and two of its top players, New Jersey opened training camp on Thursday to commence the second year of Shero’s franchise makeover from figurative dinosaurs into a 21st century hockey team.
The Devils missed the playoffs in 2015-16 for a fourth consecutive season, thanks to their dead-last finish in many of the league’s offensive categories, including total goals and total shots on goal. It offset the wonderful season (2.15 goals-against average, .924 save percentage) produced by goalie Cory Schneider, who, along with wing Kyle Palmieri and coach John Hynes, will return to New Jersey sometime next week following the completion of their Team USA duties at the World Cup of Hockey.
Shero knew he had to be a bit bolder this offseason.
“We want to improve upon last year in terms of we’ve added some skill to our organization,” Shero said at Thursday’s media day at Prudential Center. “I think we’re well-positioned, asset-wise, in terms of draft picks moving forward, but what I’m going to talk to the players about today is that we lost some guys with work ethic and relentless play that we had last year, so that’s a challenge for us even though we have more skill.”
Gone are Jordin Tootoo, Tuomo Ruutu, Bobby Farnham and Stephen Gionta, gritty players who wasted precious ice time with negligible production. The slow, plodding forward corps has received multiple injections of speed and skill.
Taylor Hall, the 24-year-old left wing who scored 26 goals last season for Edmonton, was the most prolific of Shero’s alterations in the offseason.
Hall will be playing with a chip on his shoulder this season after what he perceives as a slight from his old club.
“Just the way things went down, I still hold a bitter resentment towards (the Oilers),” said Hall, who was shocked when he was traded to New Jersey on June 30. “But most of all, I’m just excited for what I can do here. I think it’s a great change of scenery.”
Hall’s acquisition cost the Devils Adam Larsson, but the free agency signing of Ben Lovejoy, a member of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins last season, could offset the loss of the top-pair defenseman. The intense Lovejoy is the early favorite to be paired with captain Andy Greene on the right side this season.
Shero and Hynes also came out of the Penguins organization, which made this is a fit in both directions.
“I’m excited to play for Hynes and (assistant coach Alain) Nasreddine,” said the 32-year-old Lovejoy. “Ray Shero and (Devils assistant general manager) Tom Fitzgerald ran the Penguins when I was there. They are guys that I trust. They are trying to build things here the right way.”
Though the Greene/Larsson tandem was mostly known for its shutdown role, Greene expects Hynes to experiment in the preseason to have him contribute more offensively, including on the power play.
“I’m prepared for anything, “said Greene, who has played in 311 consecutive games and turns 34 in October. “It never hurts to be involved in the offense a little bit more and get some minutes there. It will be an adjustment for sure, but at the same time you let your hockey instincts take over.”
The Devils’ power play was actually one rare offensive area which performed above the league norm last season. New Jersey ranked ninth by scoring on nearly 20 percent of its opportunities.
Palmieri and center Adam Henrique, who each registered 30 goals, combined for 18 power play snipes.
The Devils’ problem was scoring depth, especially five-on-five.
Hall and the return to health of wing Mike Cammalleri, who everyone forgets led the Devils in points before a wrist/hand injury shut him down for all but four games over the final four months last season, obviously make New Jersey a little more imposing.
However, what will make or break the Devils’ season is how much the young guns — players like 2015 first-round draft pick Pavel Zacha — can contribute to the attack. Someone as gifted as sophomore Joseph Blandisi looks a whole lot better as a depth winger than in a top-six role.
According to Shero, neither player is a lock to make the squad coming out of training camp. They will be battling for spots with underachieving forwards such as Reid Boucher and Jacob Josefson, both of whom were restricted free agents that were re-signed over the summer.
“You need depth, you need competition,” Shero said. “We’re getting there. Certainly the last couple of years in the drafts, the picks we’ve had are moving forward — that helps replenish your system and your talent.”
Shero also hasn’t ruled out a replenishment at the other end of the age spectrum.
Patrik Elias is still rehabilitating following right knee surgery in May. Though technically an unrestricted free agent, the 40-year-old forward has been working out at Prudential Center and even sat in on Shero’s team meeting to open camp on Thursday.
Veteran center Travis Zajac echoed many teammates when he said, “We’d love to see a guy like that back. Obviously his leadership and experiences are kind of priceless when you think about it.”
Well, there would be a price Shero would have to pay, though I can’t imagine it would be in the same neighborhood as the three-year, $16.5 million contract that expired last season.
In my view, I would rather have the Devils, who are currently about $12.5 million under the salary cap (even when you include the approximately $8.875 million aggregate charges for long-term injured reserve occupants Ryane Clowe and Marc Savard), put that money to better use.
Even though Shero said Elias appears to be in excellent shape, I think it’s more likely that he would slow the new-look Devils down. New Jersey already has sufficient leadership in the locker room with Schneider, Greene, and Zajac, among others.
Shero has done well to transition the Devils into a new era, one where they are now close to keeping up with the difficult competition in the Metropolitan Division. They may not make the playoffs in 2016-17, but Shero said “that’s not going to be what drives us every day.”
No matter the improvement in skill level, Shero said he wants his Devils to continue to own a lunch-pail philosophy.
“To me, the foundation of what we want to be about is work ethic and how we’re going to practice and play the games,” Shero said.
In the end, while some fans may take comfort knowing some stripes never change, it would also be nice to see the goal light shine more often this season.
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