It's been a long summer for the New Jersey Devils.
For fourteen straight years, the organization qualified for the postseason, collecting three Stanley Cup championships in four appearances. Last season, that streak came to an end. The team spent the first half of the season mired near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, hitting their low point on December 22. That day, with the team at 9-22-2, Devils' president and general manager Lou Lamoriello fired head coach John MacLean. Jacques Lemaire replaced him, and the season immediately turned around.
All of a sudden, the Devils began stringing wins together. The team played itself into contention, ultimately missing the postseason by 12 points. Luck would be on their side, as the organization won the draft lottery and moved from eighth to fourth. The team addressed it's glaring need for an offensive defenseman, selecting Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson.
The draft marked the beginning of a busy offseason for New Jersey. Lemaire, who led the second-half comeback, decided to retire. Searching for a head coach took most of the summer, but finally found one in Peter Deboer. The former Florida Panthers coach, who never reached the postseason, will be under pressure to win now with an aging roster.
Zach Parise cast his shadow over the organization this summer as well. The restricted free agent, who missed all but 13 games last season with a torn meniscus, entered the summer looking for a long-term contract. The team and player dragged out the negotiations until the end of July, when they agreed to a one-year deal. His contract status will continue to loom over the team during the season.
There weren't many player changes, but the Devils enter next season a changed team. DeBoer will bring in yet another system, and the team will need to adjust quickly. With other teams in the conference making significant upgrades, including a certain team across the Hudson River, can the Devils still contend in the Eastern Conference next season?
The Devils didn't make any significant moves offensively this season, but will be without one of their biggest playmakers. Travis Zajac, the team's number one center, tore his Achilles tendon during offseason workouts and will miss between two and four months. Zajac, who set the franchise record last season for consecutive games played, centered Ilya Kovalchuk and Nick Palmieri last season. DeBoer can slide Patrik Elias to center on the top line or move Dainius Zubrus to the top spot. Jacob Josefson, who had a solid rookie debut, could also see time with the top unit.
New Jersey still needs to figure out their logjam at left wing. A healthy Parise will come back into the fold, leaving DeBoer the unenviable task of finding somewhere to put him. He could bump Ilya Kovalchuk back down to the second line. DeBoer could also put the two together, an experiment that met mixed results during MacLean's tenure.
Kovalchuk draws the most attention among the group. His first half stats were absolutely miserable (14 goals, 15 assists, minus-29 rating), and he routinely found himself booed off the ice. Kovalchuk improved with the team during the second half, recording 31 points and six game-winning goals. DeBoer will need to find the right combination for him, a challenge that both MacLean and Lemaire faced with varying degrees of success.
Mattias Tedenby and Nick Palmieri, both rookies last season, will look to take a step forward. Tedenby recorded just 22 points in 58 games, but showed several flashes of his offensive potential. Palmieri earned significant time with the first-line, collecting 17 points in 43 games.
Several rookies will fill out the Devils' bottom two lines. Adam Henrique headlines that group. He will get an opportunity to make the roster, either as a center or left-winger.
The defense underwent the most change this offseason. The team bought out longtime Devil Colin White, who promptly signed with the San Jose Sharks. Lamoriello re-upped Andy Greene to a four-year, $12 million contract. His production fell below expectations last season, but he represents one of the best offensive options on the blueline.
It'll be year two for both Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder. Both players went through peaks and valleys last season, but improved as the season went on. Tallinder completely turned it around, going from a minus-20 player in the first half to a plus-14 player during the team's second-half run.
Mark Fayne will need another strong preseason to hold his roster spot. A rookie last season, Fayne became one of the more dependable defenseman on an underperforming unit. He won't put up huge numbers, but his 14 points were a nice addition to the defense.
Several rookies will fight for spots along the blueline. The clear leader is Larsson, who signed an entry-level contract to avoid playing in Sweden this year. The trade of White frees up a roster spot for the talented Swede, but he may not make an immediate impact. This will be his first year playing North American hockey, and may need some AHL seasoning before making the jump to the NHL.
Alexander Urbom will also push for a roster spot. He scored one goal last season and looked comfortable after a late-season call-up.
Martin Brodeur heads into the season in the final year of his contract. He battled through injuries to his knee and elbow last season, and couldn't find his groove during the first half of the year. Last year, he finished 23-26-3, his first ever sub-.500 season. It was the second time in the past two seasons Brodeur dealt with injuries, and could be a sign of the eventual wear and tear that happens to all players. Retirement whispers continue to grow louder for the future Hall-of-Famer as he looks to have a bounce back season.
Lamoriello brought back fan favorite Johan Hedberg this offseason, solidifying one of the better goalie tandems in the league. In 34 games last season, Hedberg went 15-12-2, with a .922 save percentage. His 2.38 goals-against average was 11th best among goalies. The Moose can be streaky, but last season was his third straight above .500 season.
DeBoer was a unique hire for Lamoriello. The Devils' general manager usually follows a pattern with his hires, picking coaches who have ties to the Montreal Canadiens or the organization. With DeBoer, he took a chance on someone outside of "the family." Don't think that will afford him much rope. Lamoriello will have DeBoer on a short leash this season. Missing the playoffs was a disappointment for this team, and another slow start could mean a quick trigger pull. The Panthers finished just one season above .500, but never had the talent that New Jersey has on their roster. He doesn't have an All-Star squad, but DeBoer has a possible playoff contender.
Larry Robinson, Chris Terreri, Adam Oates and David Barr round out the coaching staff. The Devils powerplay didn't improve under Oates, an area he was in charge of last season. He'll look to get that unit going this season, but will need some help from the Robinson's defenseman to improve those numbers.
Training camp always brings out the optimism in organizations. It's a fresh start, and a chance for teams to dream of postseason glory. For the Devils, the playoffs aren't a hopeful goal - they're expected. There are several aging veterans on this team, and the old core is giving way to younger players. Entering training camp, the Devils have one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. If the teams finds consistency and adheres to DeBoer's system, they should make a return trip to the postseason. If not, it'll be yet another long offseason in New Jersey.