New Jersey Devils Season Outlook: Looking To Return To Playoff Form

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 29: A healthy Zach Parise will be one of the keys for the New Jersey Devils this season. After missing the postseason a year ago, New Jersey will look to make it back to the playoffs. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The New Jersey Devils enter this season with more scrutiny than ever before.

After missing the postseason for the first time in 14 years, New Jersey seems like a team in transition. Gone is veteran Colin White, a defensive stalwart and one of the few remaining players who's won a Cup with the Devils. Brian Rolston (and his albatross contract) were shipped to Long Island. Jacques Lemaire, who brought the team to the brink of the playoffs, retired again. Their replacements aren't exactly home runs.

Adam Larsson, the team's fourth-overall pick, will start the season on the blue line. His preseason performance was impressive, but he's a young player in his first year of North American hockey. Mattias Tedenby and several of the rookies will have a chance to fill Rolston's hole on the third line. Finally, Peter DeBoer, who has a sub-.500 coaching record, takes over the team. An unusual hire, he faces immediate pressure to do something he's never done before - lead a team to the playoffs.

There's several question marks surrounding the Devils this season. Will they find themselves back in the playoffs, or will they once again sit on the outside looking in? Here's SB Nation New York's 2011-2012 season outlook:

Forwards

This group of Devils' forwards is one of the youngest in recent memory. The top six forwards match up well with other teams. Zach Parise looked healthy in camp, and having him will energize the top line. Will his production dip without his center, Travis Zajac? Zajac won't see the ice until December as he begins to rehab from a torn Achilles. In his place steps Patrik Elias. He played well as a second-line center last season, but he's weak in the faceoff dot. That could limit DeBoer during late game situations.

Ilya Kovalchuk will anchor the second line, looking to get off to a better start this season. Last year he struggled under John MacLean before flourishing under Lemaire. He'll play with a rookie center, possibly Jacob Josefson, so he'll do the heavy lifting.

The biggest story out of camp? The re-signing of Petr Sykora. The former Devil will probably play on the team's top line. He showed off his great shot during the preseason, collecting three goals. If Elias and Sykora can find their former chemistry, he'll be a great second option on that line.

The forwards round out with a mix of tough guys (Eric Boulton, Cam Jannsen) and rookies (Adam Henrique). Several second year guys also dot the roster, and feel-good story Brad Mills will get time on the bottom two lines.

Defense

This is year two of the defensive overhaul for Lou Lamoriello. Last year, he brought in Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder. This year, he added Larsson to the mix. The rookie beat out several other great prospects, including Alexander Urbom, and will get significant ice time. If he can develop quickly, he should be the best offensive option along the blueline.

Bryce Salvador, who missed all of last season with an inner-ear concussion, will bring added toughness and a veteran presence. He's looked good during the preseason, and his rebound made White expendable. 

Mark Fayne remains on the team's blueline, looking to build off a successful rookie season. He beat out promising sophomore Matt Taormina to keep his spot. He won't collect a ton of points, but he showed promise of being a good all-around defenseman.

Goalies

There's no question over the Devils starter. Everyone knows Martin Brodeur will start between the pipes. But his production is, for the first time in recent history, under scrutiny. Last year he posted his first sub-.500 season while playing through various injuries. He's not getting younger, but will insist to keep his workload the same. DeBoer needs to limit his games and work Johan Hedberg into the mix. Hedberg had a great season last year, and will give the Devils a chance to win in net.

Surprisingly, the two veterans weren't the talk of camp. Several rookies made great first impressions. Keith Kincaid and Maxime Clermont helped fans forget Jeff Frazee and shed some light on the solid organizational depth in net.

What Other People Are Saying About The Devils

The Sporting News picked the Devils to finish ninth in the Eastern Conference.

ESPN also predicts the Devils will miss the playoffs. Scott Burnside wrote:

"After missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996 this past spring, the Devils have brought in a new head coach (again) in Peter DeBoer, but face a season with a solid but offensively challenged blue line, little depth down the middle or on the wings, an aging all-world goalie and the prospect of having their best player bolt as a free agent at the end of the season."

Sports Illustrated writer Darren Eliot said the Devils should make the playoffs "if health is on their side."

Yahoo! Sports followed Burnside's take, and predicted the Devils will miss the playoffs (and finish fourth in the division).

The Hockey News brought the harshest criticism, picking the Devils to finish 11th in the conference. 

Our Prediction

The Devils are an interesting mix right now. They began a youth movement last season, and it continues this year. Many of the veterans are on the down swing. The injury to Zajac isn't something minor either. He's their top center, and losing him for three months (or more) will challenge a team desperate for offense.

That being said, last season was a bump in the road. It brought several problems to light, some the team still needs to address. But they won't be an 11th place team. Both health and a good start are the keys in the situation. Getting early wins under their belts will put any doubts away quickly. They may not win their division, but I'd expect the Devils to finish the season a playoff-bound team.

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