The road to the Stanley Cup Playoffs hasn't been an easy one for Peter DeBoer since he led the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year as their coach three seasons ago.
That was a time when DeBoer had the services of All-Star forwards Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, who combined for 68 regular-season goals and 16 playoff goals during that run to the 2012 Cup Final against the Los Angeles Kings. The Devils scored 146 even-strength goals in 2011-12.
They've failed to qualify for the playoffs since then, and, not surprisingly, have struggled offensively. The Devils scored 110 regular-season goals in the 48-game 2012-13 season, 67 at even strength. Last season, the Devils scored 197 goals, 136 at even strength.
Will the upward trend continue with the depth general manager Lou Lamoriello has incorporated in DeBoer's fourth season?
"It's lip service until you actually do it, but I believe we've gone through a couple of transition years here," DeBoer said. "After the loss of some key guys it hasn't been easy, but I think [Lamoriello] has done a great job of trying to fill the voids. Now, on the coaching level, we've got to find a way to put the mix together.
"But I like the group we've assembled and I think we'll be very competitive."
DeBoer is glad much of the core group remained intact this offseason, and is excited to have free-agent forwards Mike Cammalleri and Marty Havlat on board to bolster the offense. He's happy with the look of his forward lines, including what is shaping up to be a very productive top nine.
"When you look at the teams that were there in the end last season, I think there's a common theme of being strong down the middle," DeBoer said. "I like the idea of [Travis] Zajac, [Patrik] Elias and [Adam] Henrique down the middle for us; I think that gives us a center ice that's comparable to anybody in the League.
"I think we can create three scoring lines that are dangerous every night. We weren't a very good 5-on-5 scoring team last year, and that was probably the biggest thing we wanted to fix."
The Devils had two 20-goal scorers last season, Jaromir Jagr and Henrique, but they could have more this season with Cammalleri and Havlat, who scored at least 20 goals in six of his 13 seasons in the League, most recently in 2010-11 with the Minnesota Wild when he played 78 games and had 62 points.
Defensively, the Devils lost Anton Volchenkov and Mark Fayne, but DeBoer is confident Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill will enter training camp on a mission to prove themselves worthy of full-time roles.
"I like the fact our back end is going to have the ability to move pucks better than maybe we have in the past," DeBoer said. "The key for us is being able to move pucks and create more offense from our back end without jeopardizing our foundation, which has always been our defensive game."
The foundation supporting that will be goaltender Cory Schneider, who signed a seven-year contract extension in July reportedly worth $42 million. It will mark the first time in his seven seasons in the League that he enters a training camp (his second with the Devils) knowing he will be the No. 1 goalie. In five seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, he was behind Roberto Luongo. In his first with the Devils last season, it was Martin Brodeur.
"I may have to create a controversy on my own just to feel comfortable," Schneider told TSN Radio, tongue in cheek. "Seriously though, I'm flattered that Lou chose me to carry on the legacy that Marty established; that couldn't have been an easy decision for him.
"The thing is, I won't be Marty Brodeur because he's a unique player, but he's created a tradition of excellence in goal in New Jersey and that's the tradition I want to continue."
DeBoer acknowledged two areas he isn't concerned with entering 2014-15. The first is Schneider taking the reins as the starter for the Devils, and the second is Jagr having another productive season. The 42-year-old was re-signed to a one-year contract in April after playing all 82 games in 2013-14. He had 24 goals, 67 points and a plus-16 rating.
"There's not a day that goes by in the summer that I wonder whether we have a starting goalie or not; that's so far down my list of things I'm worried about that I can't even see it from here," DeBoer said. "Prior to signing Jagr last summer, I had some doubts as to how much this guy had left. But after working with him and seeing his passion for the game and how he worked, I don't have any doubts about it anymore."OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
2013-14 record: 35-29-18, 88 points; 6th in Metropolitan Division, 10th in Eastern Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify
Additions: F Mike Cammalleri, F Marty Havlat, G Scott Clemmensen
Subtractions: D Anton Volchenkov, D Mark Fayne
Pending free agents: F Ryan Carter (UFA), G Martin Brodeur (UFA)
Promotion candidates: G Keith Kinkaid, F Reid Boucher, F Stefan Matteau, F Joe Whitney
Top 2014 NHL Draft picks: C John Quenneville (No. 30), D Josh Jacobs (No. 41)