The New Jersey Devils made major strides in their rebuild last season despite falling short of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Coach John Hynes said the biggest improvement from the opening day of training camp until the end of the season was his players' belief they could compete with anyone in the NHL. He wants the Devils to not only be competitive, but tough to play against, and coaches and players all had a part in implementing that philosophy to achieve a six-point improvement from the 2014-15 season.
The biggest offseason move by general manager Ray Shero was acquiring left wing Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers for defenseman Adam Larsson. The Devils also signed several key free agents and expect a few young prospects each to make their mark.
Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:
1. Cory Schneider as the last line of defense
Schneider has been the backbone of the Devils the past two seasons. The 30-year-old goaltender won 26 games with a 2.26 goals-against average and .925 save percentage in his first season as starter in 2014-15 before going 27-25-6 with a 2.15 GAA and .924 save percentage last season.
Schneider gives the Devils a chance to win every night, but he wants that individual success to generate more team success.
"It's frustrating not making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, period," he said. "I've always said I'd trade numbers for wins. ... We're a defensive team, and guys buy into the system. I think that helps me in my job."
2. The addition of Taylor Hall
Hall has scored more than 20 goals four times in six NHL seasons, all with the Oilers. He had 65 points (26 goals, 39 assists) in 82 games to lead Edmonton last season.
He's not only a fabulous offensive player, but a determined one.
"I do take this as an indictment on me as a hockey player," Hall said after being traded by the Oilers. "I don't think there's any other way to treat it."
Hall has 328 points (132 goals, 196 assists) in 381 career NHL games.
"I definitely wasn't looking to trade Adam Larsson, but I may never get a chance again to get Taylor Hall," Shero said. "It's tough to pass up the opportunity of adding a player like Hall. He was a right fit for us."
3. A more experienced John Hynes
Hynes said he learned a lot in his first season as an NHL coach, helping the Devils go 38-36-8 after they went 32-36-14 in 2014-15, and those lessons will be put to good use this season, when he looks to get New Jersey back into the playoffs.
"The demand of the NHL season is something you can't understand until you go through it," Hynes said. "Whether it's the time, travel or amount of games, you really try to keep things concise for the players. You have to have them energized when they come to the rink, energized for the games, but you must strike a balance between preparation and those areas.
"You have to sustain that effort, concentration and passion throughout the year. I think I learned some lessons on how to deal with those things last year that will help this year."
4. Greater depth on offense
Shero did his best to build a deeper, four-line team in order to provide more secondary scoring and reinforcements in the case of injury.
The Devils acquired forwards Hall and Beau Bennett through trades and added forward Vernon Fiddler and defenseman Ben Lovejoy in free agency. Additionally, top forward prospect Pavel Zacha and defense prospect Steven Santini each is expected to challenge for a roster spot out of training camp.
Here are three key questions facing the Devils:
1. Who will play with Taylor Hall?
One possibility is Hynes could put Hall with center Adam Henrique and Devante Smith-Pelly to begin the season.
Hall was teammates with Henrique in Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League and won back-to-back Memorial Cup titles, in 2009 and 2010; the two combined for 183 points (78 goals, 105 assists) in 2009-10 and had 60 points (37 goals, 23 assists) in 19 OHL playoff games. Smith-Pelly, who signed a two-year contract on July 1, is a gritty, hardworking wing capable of retrieving pucks and finding the open man. He could open up space for Hall and Henrique.
"Right now, we're not necessarily talking about lineups and where people fit," Hynes said. "I want to spend more time with Taylor this summer and find out what type of guys he feels good with. As we get closer to camp, we'll put some combinations together.
"As always, where a player fits is directly based on how he performs."
2. Who will replace defenseman Adam Larsson?
Larsson led the Devils in hits (163), ranked second in average ice time per game (22:31) and blocked shots (148), and provided a solid right-handed point shot last season.
The acquisition of Lovejoy was a key move in helping maintain some measure of consistency along the blue line. Damon Severson and Jon Merrill are expected to become more impactful this season, and right-handed prospect Steven Santini could be ready for full-time duty.
"You never try and replace a player," Hynes said, "but you try to form your defensive corps by adding players and their personalities you think will complement your team moving forward. We feel we were able to do that with the addition of Lovejoy and some of our other guys with some similar qualities."
3. Will the Devils qualify for the playoffs?
The Devils appear to be a better team this season. They improved offensively and, despite the loss of Larsson, appear to have enough along the blue line to give Schneider the support he needs. A healthy Michael Cammalleri could go a long way this season; the left wing missed the final 32 games last season because of an inflamed tendon in his right hand. Schneider also missed 12 games late in the season because of a right-knee injury before returning April 2. There is a good chance the Devils will qualify for the playoffs for the first time since reaching the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.