After failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in three years, it was an adventurous offseason for the New Jersey Devils.
All the additions and subtractions have left many wondering what will happen in 2013-14. Does the team have the right mix of veterans and young players capable of not only leading the club to a playoff berth, but sustaining a long run once it gets there? Did the NHL retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk set the team back a few years?
A year ago at this time, questions surfaced about how the Devils would survive without Zach Parise, who left via free agency. This summer, it's Kovalchuk.
Here are six questions the Devils face heading into the 2013-14 season:
1. How do the Devils compensate for the loss of Ilya Kovalchuk? -- There isn't a player on the roster capable of doing what Kovalchuk was able to on a nightly basis. Kovalchuk, 30, had 417 goals and 816 points in 816 regular-season NHL games and had his streak of nine-straight 30-goal seasons snapped by the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
Lamoriello added forwards Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder, Ryane Clowe and Rostislav Olesz during free agency to alleviate the offensive burden. There's also a very good chance one or more of the organization's top prospects -- Stefan Matteau, Harri Pesonen or Reid Boucher -- will spend considerable time in the NHL.
"We're hoping for surprises and hoping there's a young guy who can step in and grab a job and not let it go and contribute all year," coach Pete DeBoer said. "It's a big jump and there's no rushing that development, so I think we're all taking the approach that there is an opportunity here on this team. With [Kovalchuk's] departure and some of the turnover, we'll see who steps forward and tries to grab a job."
DeBoer acknowledged that Kovalchuk leaving was a big loss. He had 11 goals and was second on the team with 36 points last season, and his average ice time of 24:44 per game topped NHL forwards.
2. How does Pete DeBoer intend to use Martin Brodeur and Cory Schneider? -- Brodeur is the team's starting goalie, and barring injury will be between the pipes opening night, Oct. 3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. There's no question, however, Schneider will receive his fair share of minutes throughout the season.
"Marty is still the No. 1 goalie; there's no question," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said after the trade with the Vancouver Canucks to acquire Schneider on June 30. "Cory is a goaltender not only for the present, but the future."
The Devils didn't trade away the ninth pick of the 2013 NHL Draft for Schneider to play only a handful of games.
Don't be surprised if Schneider gets as much as 45 percent of the starts, or about 36 games. When the 27-year-old Massachusetts native played a career-high 33 games with the Vancouver Canucks in 2011-12, he finished with career bests in wins (20), goals-against average (1.96) and save percentage (.937). The realization is that Schneider knows he's going to be the man in short order; Brodeur is 41 and signed only through this season.
"I think it's a situation that every coach wants," DeBoer said. "You have two great goalies. The bottom line for everybody is we're going to put the best lineup out there to help us win games. That will be the final decision-maker."
3. Is this the year Adam Larsson earns a regular role in the lineup? -- DeBoer has been very patient with the 20-year-old defenseman during his first two seasons in the League. The coach has allowed Larsson to play alongside many of the veterans, including Andy Greene, and at times opted to have him watch from the stands as a healthy scratch. The fact Lamoriello traded veteran Henrik Tallinder means DeBoer might be willing to loosen the reins a little bit.
There were several moments last season when Larsson exhibited the ability scouts were drooling over prior to the 2011 NHL Draft, when he was the No. 4 pick. He was using his body effectively, was able to make smart decisions at the point, and was generating some quality chances. He averaged 18:06 of ice time and saw more action in penalty-killing situations than on the power play, something that could change in 2013-14.
The expectation is that Larsson establishes career highs across the board as a regular in the lineup this season. As a rookie in 2011-12, he had two goals and 18 points in 65 games. He had six assists and a plus-4 rating in 37 games in 2012-13.
4. How much does Jaromir Jagr have left in the tank? -- Jagr has been able to contribute in each of his stops since returning to the NHL for the 2011-12 season, so there's no reason to think it will change now that he's with the Devils.
The Devils were 28th in the NHL in goals scored and 21st in power-play percentage in 2012-13, so even at 41, the likely Hall of Fame right wing should be able to contribute in some fashion.
He played 34 games for HC Kladno in the Czech Republic during the work stoppage, then played 45 with the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins, scoring 16 goals and 35 points. He had 10 assists in 22 playoff games with the Bruins.
Jagr was a big influence on many of the young players with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011-12, his first season back in the NHL after three in Europe, when he had 19 goals and 54 points. He was equally valuable to the Stars and Bruins.
"I was pleasantly surprised not only by looking at him, but listening to him about what he does to train during the season," Lamoriello said of Jagr. "We're pleased we were able to sign Jaromir. He's acquired plenty of leadership the last several years."
5. Where will the offense come from? -- The Devils struggled when Kovalchuk sustained his shoulder injury against the Florida Panthers on March 23. The team lost 10 of the 11 games he missed (1-6-4) to fall out of a playoff position. During his absence, the Devils scored 19 goals, and Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique and David Clarkson mustered one apiece.
Though there is a bit more of burden placed on the shoulders of that next tier of offensive players, there's no question the Devils need a collaborative effort, something that didn't happen when Kovalchuk was out of the lineup.
The Devils will need their offensive catalysts to drive the team this year, which means Elias, Zajac and Henrique must step up, and newcomers Jagr, Ryder and Clowe must come through. Prior to Clowe's injury-riddled 2012-13 season with the San Jose Sharks and New York Rangers, he was good for 17-plus goals and 45-plus points during the four previous seasons.
"We're going to have to play more of a team game," DeBoer said. "We need five-man units and the systems have to be airtight. Special teams has to be better. There will be an emphasis on all those areas."
6. Will the Devils return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs? -- Lamoriello certainly expects the Devils to return to the postseason and challenge for the Cup.
"You know my boss [Lamoriello] … there's no taking your foot off the gas because some of these [changes] happen," DeBoer said. "This organization has dealt with this type of thing for the last decade, dating back to [Brian] Rafalski [in 2007] and [Scott] Niedermayer [in 2005] and on and on. You have to find a way."
New Jersey will compete in the new Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference, along with the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. The top three finishers in the division are assured a playoff berth, and though that presents a challenge, Lamoriello said he is happy with the roster he built for 2013-14.
"Our goaltending is solidified for quite a while," Lamoriello said. "I don't know if you can ask any two better goalies working together, with their abilities and personalities. We're happy with our defense, and what we tried to do was fill some needs [on offense]. We believe we've done that."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mikemorrealeNHL
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