Kukla's Korner

Devil's Advocate

For New Jersey, a Devilishly interesting season

I am pleased to announce Phil Coffey will be taking over The Devils Advocate blog and will continue writing in Iced Coffey too. More on Phil at the bottom of this post. -Paul

By Phil Coffey

With one of the most tumultuous summers in franchise history now tucked away in the history book, how will the New Jersey Devils fare in 2013-14?

Let's be clear right from the top. Any team that loses Ilya Kovalchuk isn't going to be as good minus the scoring forward as with him, but in this case, the Devils were not presented with much of an option after Kovalchuk announced his NHL retirement and retreated to the KHL in Russia.

Now minus Kovalchuk, but augmented by a slew of new faces brought in by General Manager Lou Lamoriello, the Devils will test the waters in the newly reshuffled Eastern Conference, where grabbing one of the eight playoff spots is easier said than done.

Still, I'm not buying the Devils as Eastern bottom feeders just yet. Right now, the Devils are an amalgamation of new parts trying to mesh with the holdovers from the 2013 team that stumbled badly when injuries first sidelined goalie Martin Brodeur and then Kovalchuk, scuttling New Jersey's playoff hopes.

True, the Devils are going to need to get some breaks, most notably keeping a veteran lineup healthy, but that's a claim that can be made by just about every other NHL team at this time of the year, but based on an early look, the sky isn't necessairly falling.

So, what can reasonably be expected from the Devils this season? Let's break it down by position.

Goaltender -- For the first time in seemingly forever, the heir apparent to Martin Brodeur will no longer be a prospect buried in the minors or junior ranks. Cory Schneider is on board and based on his track record with the Vancouver Canucks, already is a No. 1 goalie. Things will be handled a tad more delicately here, but Schneider is in New Jersey to play and play a lot. 

So, what about Brodeur? Make no mistake, Brodeur is a savvy guy and smart enough to realize that Schneider's arrival should be very beneficial. A lighter workload should result in fewer injuries and may well give Brodeur another season with the team as Schneider takes on the majority of the ice time.

Brodeur was 13-9-7 last season, far removed from the great numbers of the past, but fewer games, coupled with having a legitimate, young goalie on board, should be a boon for Brodeur and the Devils.

Lamoriello's decision to swap the ninth selection of the 2013 Entry Draft to the Canucks for Schneider has the potential to be among his best trades. Schneider was 17-9-4 last season and seemed established as the Canucks' No. 1 goalie until efforts to deal Roberto Luongo proved problematic. When the Canucks decided that getting Schneider out of the Western Conference was the way to go, Lamoriello was right there to dangle a first-round pick in their direction. Great move.

Last season, goaltending was not a strength for the Devils. When Brodeur was injured, New Jersey struggled to win and even when he played the Devils couldn't close the deal as evidenced by Brodeur's seven overtime losses. In the past, those games didn't get away from the Devils.

Now, Schneider is the man, although he isn't likely to earn the full designation this season.

Defense -- This is the position that could see the most change during training camp as holdovers Bryce Salvador, Andy Greene, Mark Fayne, Anton Volchenkov, Peter Harrold, Adam Larsson and Marek Zidlicky try to hold off an emerging group of young defensemen who appear poised to challenge for a job. 

How many might crack through? Being defense is arguably the toughest position to learn while on the NHL level, the guess would be two out of a group that includes Jon Merrill, Alex Urbom, Eric Gelinas, Brandon Burlon and Reece Scarlett.

For argument's sake, let's stick with the traditional seven men on defense with the Devils making the correct decision to not keep a young player watching at the NHL level rather than playing in the American Hockey League or in junior. As captain, Salvador isn't likely to be moving on and Zidlicky has the demonstrated ability to run the power play and chip in on offense, something the Devils could use in a big way.

Larsson remains an elite prospect and a big jump in production should be expected of Larsson this season.

That's three. Harrold is a veteran and versatile. He has handled the role of being the seventh d-man in the past, so pencil him in, too. That would make Greene, Volchenkov and Fayne vulnerable to change on the New Jersey backline. If the kids indeed impress, Greene could be a good trade chip. Volchenkov is a gamer, but has been slowed by injures during his three seasons in New Jersey, so there may not be a great demand for him.

Fayne is just 26 and has been a regular for three seasons, but he was benched at points last season by coach Pete DeBoer, so his position could be rocky.

But the onus will be on the Merrills, Urboms and Gelinas to make the jump emphatically and productively.

Forwards -- This is where Lamoriello really went to work during the offseason, and with good reason. After losing Kovalchuk and Zach Parise the season before, the Devils' offense has taken two very big hits. This was never more evident than in the stretch drive of the regular season. With Kovalchuk out of the lineup, the Devils couldn't beg, borrow or steal a goal and as a result, there was no playoff berth for a team that went to the Stanley Cup Final the previous season.

So, Lamoriello jumped into the free-agent market in a big way, first signing Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder. The Devils then took a flier on Rostislav Olesz, a former first-round pick who played under DeBoer as a rookie with the Florida Panthers.

But Lamoriello wasn't done and added two more very interesting names late in the summer, first signing Jaromir Jagr and then bringing Damien Brunner to training camp on a tryout.

Jagr needs no introduction, of course. He is a Hall of Fame player in the twilight of his career, but he still is a smart, immensely talented player, even if he isn't as speedy or durable as he was in his dynamic past. Surely, Jagr isn't a long-term solution for the Devils, but for a team that needs some punch now, Jagr's signing represents a risk worth taking.

Ditto Brunner, who had a good rookie season with the Detroit Red Wings last season. But with the Wings overloaded with players, Brunner wasn't re-signed and his speed and smarts with the puck should make up for a lack of size.

With these five players added to the roster, almost half the forwards from last season's group will be different. Among the holdovers, New Jersey brought back Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus, two more veterans. Adam Henrique, a centerpiece for the future, also was signed to a multi-year contract.

The Devils really need center Travis Zajac to come back off a disappointing 2013 season with just seven goals and 13 assists in 48 games. Remember, the Devils committed seven years, a lot of cash, and a no-trade clause in Zajac's current deal, so he was considered a cornerstone by Lamoriello.

Outlook -- The Devils are a team forced into transition by Martin Brodeur's age and the losses of Kovalchuk and Parise. Schneider solidifies the net and there are plenty of young defensemen either ready to make the transition, or are pretty close. 

Up front is the potential trouble area. Already Jagr has been slowed by soreness, which is part and parcel of what happens with a lot of veterans. Still, Jagr and the other new faces should help the Devils make up for some of the goals lost by Kovalchuk's retirement and also should help keep the Devils competitive for this season at least.

About this blog -- Happy to help Paul out by revitalizing The Devils Advocate this season. During my newspaper career, I have enjoyed a long association with the Devils, having covered the meetings that brought the Colorado Rockies to New Jersey and then spent 15 seasons covering the team for a number of media outlets, so I always have been interested in what's going on with New Jersey's hockey team, even from afar. Here's hoping you enjoy the insight and opinions I plan to bring to this space this season.

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About Devil's Advocate

I am an all around NHL fan. I love to watch Atlantic Division, and root for the Philadelphia Flyers. Just because I cheer for the Flyers, doesn’t mean I don’t keep up with the other teams in the division, specifically the New Jersey Devils. Devils Advocate will provide you with the most important Devils news, filled with my opinion about the selected topic.

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Email: pavlakd@rider.edu