A new era begins in New Jersey, this after the New Jersey Devils were led by arguably one of the greatest goalies in history in Martin Brodeur. Brodeur toiled for 21 seasons for the Devils and for many years, often carried a goal-impaired organization on his shoulders, until Brodeur was surrounded by a better supporting cast and a defensive-centric system was implemented, the result of which were three Stanley Cup titles during his illustrious career. But, all good things eventually come to an end, and Brodeur, the possessor of most of the NHL goaltending records, including career wins and career shutouts and 40 and 30-win seasons, saw his usually superb performance wane during the last four years of his career. During the last off-season, Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello made a startling trade, acquiring former Vancouver Canucks backup netminder Cory Schneider in exchange for the 9th overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft, Bo Horvath.
Whether intended or not, a competition to be the starting goalie for the Devils began, last season as the two split time evenly throughout the 2013-14 regular season. Interestingly, although Schneider posted far superior Goals Against Average (GAA – 1.97) and Save Percentage (Save% – .921) to Brodeur’s (GAA – 2.51; Save% – .901), Brodeur actually posted a better starting record, 19-14-6 to 16-15-12 for Schneider. However, it was imminent that the Devils organization was willing to move on from Brodeur and it elected not to offer Brodeur a contract extension for this season. So it’s now the ‘Cory Schneider Era’ in New Jersey; however, the supporting cast remained generally the same and that’s not exactly a great thing.
Be it years of ‘The Future is Now’ approach – a continued insistence of relying on aging veterans versus building their development system with an infusion of youth or any changes in its system to adapt to the changing landscape of the NHL – of the Devils, along with the remnants of the Ilya Kovalchuck contract and eventual defection to the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) have had a systematic and descending effect on the Devils. Although the Devils narrowly missed the playoffs, looking deeper into the statistics and overall makeup of the squad is quite revealing. The Devils continued to display a lack of scoring prowess and overall skill. This was evidenced by their 0-13 record in shootouts, last season. Merely a few shootout wins could have easily led to qualifying for the playoffs, but it’s a troubling sign and a regressing trend that the 2012 Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup finalists find themselves in.
In looking at their offense, it starts with Jaromir Jagr. Jagr, the ageless wonder who, at 41 years of age, shows no signs of slowing down, paced the Devils scoring with 67 points to lead their offensive attack. Jagr has finally received some offensive support in the person of off-season acquisition Mike Cammalleri who should provide about 25 goals per season which, for the Devils, would have tied him with Adam Henrique in most Devils goals scored, last season and a large part as to why they finished the regular season rankings at 27th in goals scored per game. This lack of offensive firepower was the primary reason the Devils were the only team ranked in the NHL’s top 13 in fewest goals allowed per game that didn’t make the playoffs (6th). The majority of their forwards are of the two-way play variety but it would help their goal-scoring cause, in addition to Cammalleri to see forward Michael Ryder return to form in finding the back of the net.
Their defensive unit is solid with its top defensive pairing of Andy Greener and Marek Zidlicky and boasts a trio of solid young defensemen in Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas and Adam Larsson. Gelinas possesses a blistering shot from the point and scored 7 goals and 22 assists in 60 games played, last season the majority of which were on the man advantage.
Schneider is considered one of the top, young goalies in the NHL and the uncertainty of assuming the reigns impinged both his development and that of the Devils organization. Now, it is his job to keep and that should create some stability for both Schneider and the Devils. Rookie Keith Kincaid and veteran backup Scott Clemmensen will vie for the backup duties but Schneider is expected to be the workhorse goalie, much like Brodeur did for so many seasons.
As for the prospects, particularly one their forward lines, beyond Stefan Matteau, there are no young prospects in the Devils developmental pipeline who are slated to be brought up the parent squad within the next few seasons, so, once again, it will rely on the aging veterans to try to return to the post-season.
If the Devils can ‘get the band back together’, offensively to some extent, one more time, it’s possible that the Devils can surprise but that’s asking for a lot to fall into place, including for Schneider to have a Vezina-winning campaign in net. It’s more probable that this season could mark the beginning of a descent for the Devils, or a signal for Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, to either begin the rebuild or risk being on the ‘hot seat’ to retain his job, especially with a new ownership group that’s not afraid to spend the money to make the Devils competitive.