Cory Schneider hopes the Devils' young defense continues to take strides this season. (Photo: Getty Images)
NEWARK, N.J. --
It's no secret the New Jersey Devils are going to thrive or dive this season with their young group of defensemen wrapped around veteran leader Andy Greene
and new additions John Moore
and David Schlemko
That's all well and good with goalie Cory Schneider as long as Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas and Damon Severson realize how important they are to the team, act like it, and grow into impact players because of it.
Schneider, 29, is banking on that happening, because he's not banking on having another losing season, regardless of what the outside expectations are for the team.
"We're going to find out a lot about them," Schneider told NHL.com. "You don't expect it in Year One or Two maybe, but some of these guys are in their third or fourth season so we expect them to be as good as their talent shows. It's one thing to say, 'I'm a young guy, I'm a rookie,' because you sort of let them off the hook when it's like that. But I think they want that expectation, that pressure, to feel like, 'OK, I'm not a rookie anymore, I've got to step up, fulfill my potential and become an impact player.' It's going to be interesting to see this year who steps up and becomes that guy that takes it to the next level. There are three or four guys there that if any number of them step up it'll be a big plus for us."
Schneider is specifically targeting Larsson, Merrill and Gelinas as defensemen who need to take their games to the next level this season.
Larsson, who is entering his fifth season, started to do that last season, shortly after former coach Peter DeBoer was fired and replaced on the bench by former general manager Lou Lamoriello.
He led all Devils' defensemen with 21 assists and 24 points in 64 games, including 20 points in 46 games after DeBoer was fired. He played 20 or more minutes in 41 of his last 43 games. He exceeded 20 minutes in only two of his first 21 games.
"Last year, playing with Andy [Greene] helped me a lot," Larsson said. "He taught me a lot. The team result wasn't very good last year, but I felt I took a couple of steps after Christmas and it was fun playing."
Merrill and Gelinas were up and down with their production and consistency for most of the season. Gelinas was put up front as a forward at times, just so he could be a threat on the power play because of his powerful shot. His numbers dipped from 29 points in 60 games as a rookie in 2013-14 to 19 points in 61 games last season.
"We're young but I think we have a little bit of experience and we know what it's like to play in the League," Gelinas said. "It's a good year, with a new coaching staff and everything, to take the next step. We'll push each other and challenge each other. It's a good way to have success."
Schneider said Severson still deserves more time to develop because he's 21, only entering his second season, and his rookie season was shortened to 51 games because he missed 31 with a fractured ankle.
However, Severson, a second-round pick (No. 60) in 2012, may be the best of the lot. He showed poise befitting a veteran and production to match it (17 points in 51 games) last season, impressing Schneider and most everyone around the Devils.
Schneider said Severson has the ability to slow the game down, a trait typically found in elite defensemen.
"His hockey IQ is very high, just the way he sees the ice and sees plays developing," Schneider said. "His confidence in handling the puck and carrying it up the ice is impressive for a 21-year-old. He'll be a key contributor on the back end."
He has to be. They all have to be if the Devils want to even sniff a shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012.
"I've seen it from all of them, those nights when they make plays, skate kind of like a Duncan Keith, get up the ice, get back, have their head up," Schneider said. "I've seen them all do it; it's just a matter of doing it consistently and as a group. What you get with experience is consistency, and I think we'll get there."