The short offseason couldn't end soon enough for New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer.
"No one had a good taste in their mouth after last season with how it played out for us," DeBoer told NHL.com. "Everyone here is anxious to get back to work and prove that the team that lost Game 6 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final is not the same one that played the shortened schedule last year."
While that's certainly the hope, it wouldn't hurt if DeBoer’s team remained in relative good health for the entire season. The Devils failed to overcome injuries to Ilya Kovalchuk and Martin Brodeur last season and finished 11th in the Eastern Conference, seven points out of a Stanley Cup Playoff spot. It marked the second time in three seasons the Devils failed to reach the playoffs, even though they had a conference-best 8-1-3 start to 2012-13.
DeBoer said he really didn't anticipate any major challenges entering this year's training camp, rather, just getting familiar with the new people and personnel. There are plenty of new faces too, following the departure of David Clarkson via free agency and Kovalchuk to NHL retirement.
General manager Lou Lamoriello acquired goalie Cory Schneider from the Vancouver Canucks via trade at the 2013 NHL Draft, and would later sign free agent forwards Jaromir Jagr, Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder and Rostislav Olesz. There are also a few solid offensive prospects in the pipeline ready and willing to play full-time with the big club.
DeBoer acknowledged he was very excited upon hearing the news the Devils had signed Jagr to a one-year contract and anticipates working with him in what could be the wing's final season in the League.
"You're dealing with losing Kovalchuk and what he brought to our team and as a staff, you're trying to fill that hole," DeBoer said. "To go out at that point in the summer and have a guy like Jagr still available I think was great for our organization. In all the reports I've heard from other teams the last two or three years, he's kept himself in great shape."
Jagr posted a note on his official Facebook page on Aug. 20 stating he likely will hang up the skates at the conclusion of this season.
"It looks like it will be my last season, so I can't be too risky," Jagr wrote.
The 41-year-old ranks 34th all-time in games played (1,391), 10th in goals (681), 12th in assists (1,007) and eighth in points (1,688). DeBoer said he isn't too concerned with the fact this season could be Jagr's curtain call as an NHL player.
"In my mind, if he has the type of year that we think he's capable of having, maybe it won't be his last year," DeBoer said.
Lamoriello did plenty of tinkering on offense and between the pipes but little along the blue line because management and the coaching staff feel one of the organization's top prospects could fill a void on the back end if needed.
First and foremost, there isn't one player capable of replacing Kovalchuk in the lineup. So DeBoer and his staff must stress a complete commitment by his team in all three zones.
DeBoer acknowledged Kovalchuk's departure was a big loss. He had 11 goals, led the team with four shorthanded goals, was second on the team with 36 points, and he led NHL forwards in average ice time (24:44). He finished with 417 goals and 816 points in 816 regular-season NHL games and had his streak of nine-straight 30-goal seasons snapped in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
"When you lose a guy like that, it's disappointing just because of how dynamic he was and the type of player he was," Devils center Travis Zajac said. "There aren't too many players like that in the NHL. But this organization has always been about winning as a team. I don't think it's going to fall on one or two guys this year, it's going to fall on four lines, six defenders; we'll roll lines and wear teams down. That's what we've always been about and I don't see it changing this year."
Lamoriello added Jagr, Ryder, Clowe and Olesz in free agency to help alleviate the offensive burden, and there's a good chance one or more of the organization's top offensive prospects -- Stefan Matteau or Reid Boucher -- will spend considerable time in the NHL. Prior to Clowe's injury-riddled 2012-13 campaign with the San Jose Sharks and New York Rangers, he was good for 17-plus goals and 45-plus points over the four previous seasons. That's the type of production the Devils will need.
During training camp, DeBoer had Clowe alongside fellow Newfoundland native Ryder and Adam Henrique, who signed a new six-year contract worth a reported $24 million in August. The Devils need them and a few others to step up their game after the team averaged 2.29 goals per game to rank 28th in the League last season.
"We weren't able to give ourselves a chance to win [in 2012-13]; not making the playoffs is never fun and makes for a long summer, so you can tell the guys are excited to be back [at training camp]," Henrique said. "I think everybody on the team went through a dry spell and we dug ourselves a hole we couldn't get out of. Personally, I want to come out and have a great start to the year and be solid from start to finish."
The Devils will need their offensive catalysts to drive the team this year, which means Elias, Zajac, Henrique and the summer acquisitions must come through. Elias was re-signed to a three-year contract worth $16.5 million July 4.
"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."
It remains to be seen where Jagr, who is sidelined with soreness, will fit into the lineup. He skated with fellow Czech Elias and Zajac on the opening day of training camp. The chance to play with Jagr and Elias might help jump-start Zajac's offensive engine. Zajac finished with seven goals, 20 points and a minus-5 rating in 48 games last season; he begins the first year of a new eight-year contract worth $46 million this season.
"When you have a year like we had last year, there are guys who are disappointed in their own production," DeBoer said. "Travis was one of those players … he expects a lot of himself and he didn't have the type of year that he wanted or the type of year we need him to have. At the same time, he was coming off an Achilles injury during which he missed an entire year before returning for our playoff run [in 2011-12].
"I think he's hungry to get his game back to the level that we all know he can play at."
Zajac said, "The injury had nothing to do with it. Obviously it wasn't statistically the season I wanted, but I felt good on the ice and I think I improved in some areas. I had another full summer to work on things. Last season is in the past and I'm just excited to work on this year and to get going."
DeBoer didn't seem overly concerned when reminded of his team's offensive shortcomings in 2012-13 and was quick to point out the Devils allowed a League-low 23.1 shots per game despite the 19-19-10 record.
"I believe we're going to score this year," DeBoer said. "I don't think scoring will be an issue, and our priority and focus is going to be on making sure we lead the League again in shots against. With the goaltending we have and the system we play, that should give us a chance to win every night."
The Devils enter the season with basically the same defensive unit that yielded 2.54 goals a game to rank 13th in the League. That group includes captain Bryce Salvador,Andy Greene, Adam Larsson, Marek Zidlicky, Anton Volchenkov, Mark Fayne and Peter Harrold.
Veteran Henrik Tallinder was traded to the Buffalo Sabres on July 7 in exchange for a minor league forward, meaning either former University of Michigan standout Jon Merrill, Alexander Urbom or Eric Gelinas could be in position to earn a lineup spot out of training camp.
"I think all those names [Merrill, Urbom and Gelinas] are knocking on the door and there are one or two more with those guys," DeBoer said. "There's a heavy competition to separate themselves, and that's a good thing."
DeBoer told NHL.com that barring an injury, Brodeur is the opening night starter against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 3. With an NHL-leading 22 sets of back-to-back matchups scheduled this season, expect newly acquired Cory Schneider to get plenty of work.
"It's really important to have two reliable goalies today; not many guys in this League can play 70 games anymore," Schneider said. "There's travel, and every game is so important. The intensity is high, so a lot of teams have two goalies who are capable. Hopefully, for us, we can give each other a break on those back-to-backs to stay fresh. I think it'll pay off toward the end of the season."
Asked if Brodeur would see the bulk of the action this season, DeBoer wouldn't commit.
"I think that'll play itself out," DeBoer said. "Marty is our starter and is 12 months removed from leading us to a Stanley Cup Final. We have the luxury of a great goalie in Cory Schneider now in the organization and I think the goaltending situation will sort itself out during the season. We play the most back-to-backs of any team in the League and with the tight schedule with the Olympics, having the ability to throw two goalies out there on any given week or weekend is an advantage."
Don't be surprised if Schneider gets approximately 45 percent of the starts, or about 36 opportunities. The season the 27-year-old Massachusetts native made a career-high 33 appearances with the Vancouver Canucks in 2011-12, he finished with career bests in victories (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 because Brodeur is 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."
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Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer