Last year, New Jersey Devils fans had every reason to look forward to the 2010-11 season. They made big splashes in free agency, the team promoted John MacLean to a head coaching position, and the squad had every reason to march back into the playoffs and finally get past the first round along with the talent.
That didn't happen. Instead, the team got pounded with every kind of malady that can cause a team to fail. Injuries? You bet, ranging from minor ones to major ones, such as Zach Parise being held out for a majority of the season. Poor coaching? The players didn't buy into what MacLean was instructing and he never made the right adjustments when games went bad. Poor leadership? Captain Jamie Langenbrunner became the first Devil to waive a no trade clause and was shipped out to Dallas in early January. Bad luck? Just look at the shooting percentages and wince. Leaving the goalie out to dry? That happened way too many times for any Devil fans' liking. Lack of cap flexibility? Of course, the Devils were up against it until Langenbrunner (and later, Arnott) got shipped out. Sure, the team addressed these situations in time. The percentages got a little better as time went on; some non-Parise players got healthy, the defense sharpened up; Jacques Lemaire came in and actually showed what a coach can do; and Langenbrunner was dumped mid-season which seemingly killed any internal strife. The team turned it around from January 15, 2011 and onward; but the first three or so months of the season doomed the squad to missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
One the main lessons that I took from the 2010-11 season was that the regular season matters. Now that it's September 2011, with a new season looming in the distance, I feel there's a second lesson that's as appropriate then as it is now. Don't take anything for granted. Read on to find out why as well as our predictions for the upcoming season.
Sure, I'd love to believe that this season has to be different from last season. The Devils won't be undercut by injuries as they were last season again, right (Travis Zajac excepted)? Peter DeBoer cannot possibly fall on his face like John MacLean, right? The new captain won't be a repeat-excuser like Langenbrunner was last season, right? The team can't shoot that badly again, right? The goaltenders - both Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg - won't be seemingly constant victims of poor play in front of their own net, right? New Jersey won't be right up against the cap, hindering their in-season flexibility, right? Well, the last one is a definitely true, at least.
My point is that, yes, it's reasonable to think that the Devils will get back to where we want them to be. I certainly hope so, at least. Yet, what has really changed? For all that we have seen in 2010, the team's strengths and weaknesses mostly remain the same. The Devils have been and are expected to be a strong possession team. The Devils' strength on the blueline is their defensive abilities. Goaltending is expected to be fine, and the team is strong at left wing. Yet, the power play remains a big question mark with Adam Oates still in charge; center depth is an issue now that Zajac is out for a few months; the right wing positions are up in the air; and there's not much reason to believe the defense will provide a lot of offense. Sure, the team is trying to address these weaknesses in camp; but unless someone makes a breakthrough, they're likely to persist. Given all that in mind, we cannot assume the team will be different, much less better or worse. If nothing else, the old sports cliché truly applies to this team: we got to take it one game at a time.
Anyway, since we cannot assume what the 2011-12 New Jersey Devils will do, we can only make predictions. Here are the various predictions by the ILWT writing staff. Given how last year's predictions stacked up with what actually happened last season, would take the following with some grains of salt.
Tom Stivali: What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time we were finally done with the Kovalsaga in the summer and looking forward to a deep playoff run with new ‘Devil for Life' Ilya Kovalchuk. It was not meant to be. Injuries, locker room discontent, and a rookie coach led to a season that quickly ended before it started. That's all in the past though. From the ashes of last season came new blood in the form of Josefson, Tedenby, Palmieri, and Fayne. The Devils added a franchise defenseman in Adam Larsson who is poised to make his mark on the NHL this year and saw the return of one of the top scorers in the league in Zach Parise. If Parise stays healthy and the younger forwards develop, this will be a much more potent offense than last year. The defense returns the steady Tallinder, Volchenkov, Greene, and the injury-free Masterson Award Salvador. A healthy mix of competition with the bottom defense pairing will only help put the best team on the ice. The goaltending is a year older (preview cliché alert!!) but unless both Brodeur and Hedberg go down, goaltending should be fine.
This is a good team. I think Jacob Josefson takes a big step this year, becomes a solid top 6 forward and he helps provide the spark to make this team a playoff team. They are no means out of the running for a division title in an Atlantic Division in which each team has major question marks coming into the year. I believe they make the playoffs, with a 4-7 seed and win a round in the playoffs. Tough to see them go through the conference semi-finals, so I will predict a quarterfinal series victory and then a loss in the following series.
Kevin Sellathamby: I've seen many a publication count out the Devils this season when it comes to making the playoffs. Pythagorean expectation expects the Devils to be battling with the Sens and Oilers for the first overall pick. I really don't feel the same way. Peter DeBoer (or more or less, any coach) is infinitely more competent than John MacLean; and the added hijinx caused by Kovalchuk getting thrown around and Jamie Langenbrunner and his diva attitude. This year, the Devils have a coach who knows what he's doing and a more focused Ilya Kovalchuk who was able to train rather than worry about legalities and all that stuff. The Eastern Conference is getting tougher, but the Devils do have a good roster which can compete with the rest of the Eastern Conference. They're probably not going to win the Division, but they will be able to make the playoffs.
Matthew Ventolo: It's tough to predict a team like this between everything that has happened in the last year - who knows what type of Devils team we'll see? But you know what, maybe last season will be a blessing in disguise. The Devils will simplify their goal this season instead of thinking ahead - just get into the playoffs. They brought up homegrown youth and potential with lots of speed and a heavier defensive core with plenty of players capable of getting NHL time. Parise and Kovalchuk are going to play their games in separate lines, but skate together on the powerplay - which is where I feel the biggest difference will be compared to past seasons. Now regulars like Josefson, Tedenby, and Palmieri have to contribute on both sides for this team to excel since their roles will be clear and more involved once the season starts. Adam Larsson will make the team, get quality minutes and contribute well as the season goes along. Marty and Moose will hold the last line of defense with a more mature defense in front of them. Peter DeBoer's system is clear and plays to the strengths of this team. With only one game under their table, it's obvious the players are sold on his system and do the things he wants them to do. The Devils may not win the Atlantic Division (which is yet again stacked this season), but they'll get a playoff spot. Maybe second or third in the division, fourth to seventh in the conference standings. A playoff spot is a playoff spot and if they make it, I feel they'll make some noise with a first round upset.
Matt Evans: Marty will play 60+ games, Kovalchuk will thrive under DeBoer, Parise will not do well until late November, our defense will not be as good as some suspect, but Adam Larsson will adjust and be a top four defenseman by playoffs. Did I say playoffs? Given the assumptions I've made above, the Devils will exit in game 7 of the second round. An acceptable season after last season's debacle.
C.J. Richey: The Devils 2010-2011 season was disappointing. They went into the season with high expectations and weren't even close to living up to them. Jacques Lemaire did come in midseason and show that they could have been a winning team under the right direction. The question now is can Pete DeBoer get out of his players what Lemaire did or fail like John MacLean. I believe that he can and that the Devils will make a return to the playoffs this year. My prediction is the Devils will finish 3rd in the Atlantic and 6th in the Eastern Conference. I don't think that they can manage a deep playoff run though but wouldn't be surprised if they pulled off a first round upset.
Josh Weinstein: It's obvious that last year was a disaster, but I don't think we will see anything like that in the near future for the Devils. If they can lock Parise up this year long term, then the outlook could be bright for them. I think this year's team has a decent shot of making the playoffs if they can play consistent hockey all season long. I can't see them advancing deep into the playoffs if they do make it however.
John Fischer: I have to agree with Matthew Ventolo, the main goal for this team should be to make the playoffs. I know that seems like setting the bar too low; but when a team misses the playoffs, the first step is to get back into it. While a little over half of the NHL makes it into the postseason, it is not at all easy. Do I think this team can do that? After all of these caveats, questions, and concerns, I do think they not only can get into the playoffs but they won't just sneak in as the eighth seed. I don't think they'll get home ice; but I think the Devils will get into the first round of the playoffs and give their opponent fits. Will it be enough to win it? We'll see.
This concludes our week-long preview of the 2011-12 New Jersey Devils. In case you missed it, here are the other four, more-specific posts to prepare for the season:
Please leave your predictions for the New Jersey Devils' 2011-12 season and your thoughts on this preview and our predictions in the comments. We're hoping the Devils make it back into the playoffs, we think they will, but again, nothing is for granted. Thank you for reading.