What a strange 36 months or so it has been for the New Jersey Devils.
After finishing first or second in their division 12 times in a 13-year span, the Devils have finished fourth or lower in each of the past three. Twice they've missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but once they accumulated 102 points in the NHL's best division and went on a run to the Cup Final.
Things haven't exactly been stable in northern New Jersey this offseason, but stability could be the end result moving forward.
The team's best player left for the second straight summer.
A year after Zach Parise went home to play for the Minnesota Wild, Ilya Kovalchuk went home to Russia and SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League, retiring from the NHL with 12 years and $77 million left on his contract. The Devils signed Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder shortly after free agency opened, then added Jaromir Jagr after Kovalchuk turned in his retirement papers.
Two other big moves could help bring about that stability. The Devils traded for Cory Schneider on the day they were host of the 2013 NHL Draft, providing a succession plan as Martin Brodeur nears retirement.
2013-14 FANTASY PREVIEW: DEVILS
Under-valued: Michael Ryder --
Ryder won't be able to replace Ilya Kovalchuk's production, but over the past two seasons the forward has proven to be a consistent scorer: 35 goals in 2011-12, 16 last season. Ryder should see plenty of power-play opportunities, but his plus/minus and penalty minutes won't help.
Over-valued: Martin Brodeur --
It's not that Brodeur can't be a solid goaltender, it's just that Cory Schneider should slowly emerge as the team's No. 1 throughout the season. At 41, it's time for Brodeur to pass the baton, and this means he shouldn't be viewed at as anything more than a No. 3 goalie on a fantasy roster.
Sleeper: Andrei Loktionov --
If he switches from center to wing, there's a chance Loktionov could skate among the team's top six, which would be a boost to his fantasy value. Regardless, his upside is worth the risk late in fantasy drafts after posting eight goals and 12 points in 28 games last season.
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On Aug. 15, the team was sold to Josh Harris, who owns the Philadelphia 76ers, and David Blitzer. With new ownership and a long-term option at goaltender in place -- and with more financial flexibility sans the Kovalchuk contract -- general manager Lou Lamoriello has the chance to return the Devils to their consistent playoff ways.
Whether or not New Jersey can get back to the postseason in 2013-14 could depend a lot on the veteran forward additions and if the two young Adams -- Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson -- can prove they are core-type players to build around.
Here is the projected 2013-14 lineup for the Devils:
Patrik Elias - Travis Zajac - Jaromir Jagr
Ryane Clowe - Adam Henrique - Michael Ryder
Andrei Loktionov - Dainius Zubrus - Rostislav Olesz
Ryan Carter - Stephen Gionta - Steve Bernier
Andy Greene - Adam Larsson
Bryce Salvador - Marek Zidlicky
Jon Merrill - Anton Volchenkov
Mark Fayne - Peter Harrold
NOTES: Let's get this out of the way: If both goaltenders are healthy, expect Brodeur to be given the start opening night. When there are back-to-backs, expect Brodeur to get the home portion.
That said, if both stay healthy all season, it says here Schneider will end up starting more games than the likely Hall of Fame member. It might be 42-40 or 45-37, but it will be more. Having two goalies remain healthy for 82 games is not a likely scenario, though, especially when one is Brodeur's age (41).
Up front, Jagr could slide into David Clarkson's spot on the top line. The Devils need a bounce-back season from Henrique, and having a pair of experienced wings with a track record of scoring goals could help him.
The team's fourth line has been together for a while now, so it is fair to expect them to stick together. Gionta won 35.1 percent of his 390 faceoffs last season, so Carter needs to take more draws or Gionta needs to improve significantly.
That leaves two wing spots on the third line, with a few other players -- Reid Boucher, Stefan Matteau, Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby -- chief among the candidates. A great camp by Loktionov, Boucher or Matteau could push Clowe to the third line.
The Devils need more from Larsson. He and Merrill are the future on the blue line, but New Jersey could use an impact season from each in the present. Someone has to take Kovalchuk's place on the point during power plays, and expect Merrill, Larsson and Harrold to have their chances.
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