Finally, the 2012 hockey season is here.
The New Jersey Devils have waited a long time to shake off the disappointing end to their 2011-12 season. After many experts picking them to finish outside the playoff picture, New Jersey finished sixth in the Eastern Conference, one of just four teams to finish the season with 100 or more points. First year coach Pete DeBoer led the team to playoff wins over the Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers and top seeded New York Rangers, bringing the surprising Devils into their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 2003.
But it all came to a crashing end against the Los Angeles Kings. New Jersey lost the first three games of the series, a mountain that proved too tall to climb. New Jersey won two games to make it interesting, but a Steve Bernier boarding penalty in Game 6 opened the floodgates, leading to a 6-1 series-clinching win for Los Angeles.
This season, the cards are once against stacked against the Devils. Zach Parise bolted for the Minnesota Wild, taking with him 69 points (31g, 38a). Adam Henrique, the breakout rookie star, will miss the first few weeks of a season recovering from a thumb injury. The teams around them made significant changes, including the Rangers, who added Rich Nash to an already stacked lineup.
Getting back to the playoffs isn’t a guarantee for New Jersey. Here now are five burning questions facing the Devils this season.
1. How Can They Replace Zach Parise?
Parise became yet another Devils star to leave for a bigger payday with another team. Like Scott Gomez before him, Parise earned a cool $1.5 million raise with the Wild, and left a gaping hole on the Devils top line. New Jersey won’t be able to replace his production with one player. Instead, the Devils will need key players to have repeat performances. David Clarkson was a breakout star last year, collecting 46 points (30g, 16a). Dainius Zubrus broke the 40-point plateau (17g, 27a) for the first time since the 2008-09 season. DeBoer will need those guys to continue putting up points. You can’t simply replace a player like Parise, but getting better scoring throughout the lineup will certainly help shrink that loss.
2. Will Brodeur’s Playoff Success Carry Over To The Regular Season?
Brodeur had an average regular season last year. The numbers weren’t bad – 31-21-4, 2.41 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. It was, however, the second straight year Brodeur recorded a sub-.910 save percentage and a GAA higher than 2.40. It looked like it would be yet another disappointing playoffs when Brodeur was pulled in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quartfinals. But he rebounded after that, turning back the clock and reminding everyone what has made him a surefire Hall of Famer. He finished the postseason with a meager 2.12 GAA and a .917 save percentage.
Questions abound again about how Brodeur will perform in this shortened season. At 40 years old, and playing a condensed schedule, there may be fewer starts to keep him fresh.
3. How Will Kovalchuk Deal With Added Pressure?
The departure of Parise cleared the way for Ilya Kovalchuk to become the Devils best offensive player. Opponents will see that, and clamp down on the Russian winger. With no safety valve in Parise to keep the heat off him, Kovalchuk will need to prove he can handle the burden. It shouldn’t be difficult – he was routinely the best player on the ice in his days with the Atlanta Thrashers. The team will need his production again (37g, 46a) both offensively and defensively, where Kovalchuk logged significant minutes on the penalty kill.
4. Will Larsson Take The Next Step?
New Jersey has incredible depth along the blue line, with eight players vying to be in the starting lineup every night. One of them is Adam Larsson, the fourth overall pick from last year’s draft. He showed plenty of promise last season, but was plagued by inconsistent play. Despite averaging 20:37 of ice time last season, he managed just 18 points (2g, 16a) and finished with a minus-7. He found himself a healthy scratch for most of the postseason, skating in just five contests. Larsson, a healthy scratch for tonight’s opener, will have to find a way to improve those numbers and make himself a permanent fixture on the blueline.
5. How Will The Loss of Parise Impact Zajac?
DeBoer and the Devils are thrilled to have their number one center back healthy for the start of the season. Travis Zajac played just 15 games during the regular season in 2011-12, battling through a torn Achilles injury suffered during offseason workouts. When healthy, he can be one of the top scorers on the team. But he’s always had Parise skating on his line. Having someone that skilled will obviously inflate the offensive numbers, and they did – the Devils center has 225 career points, including 164 assists. He’ll need to develop better chemistry with Kovalchuk, and take on more of the scoring burden, in order to make up for Parise’s loss. Zajac and the Devils agreed to an eight-year, $46 million deal this week. It’s an investment in one of the team’s best players, and one that will need to produce after losing one of his most consistent linemates.