As any Devils fan who hasn't been in a coma for the last 15 months will tell you, New Jersey's roster has endured some pretty big shakeups in the past couple offseasons, particularly at the forward position. Departed are Petr Sykora, Zach Parise, David Clarkson, and Ilya Kovalchuk. In are new names like Andrei Loktionov, Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder, and Jaromir Jagr. The Devils are a team in flux to an extent and it's been a roller-coaster few seasons in Newark to say the least. So who will be guiding the Devils into their next era?
The 'core' of a team is probably somewhat of an overused term, but for lack of a better one, it describes the players a team can build success around. They're the ones who can hold the ship steady while the role players around them shuffle through the years. Some of the more recognizable recent cores around the NHL include groups like Toews/Kane/Keith in Chicago, Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh, the Sedins and Kesler in Vancouver, and the like. They can create an identity for a team beyond the laundry the players wear and the stability can help give fans a connection to a squad, even when the salary cap era forces so many shakeups.
Having a strong core signed long term helps because it means you can be more measured in your approach to free agents who will play roles on a team. Teams less desperate to make a splash are probably less likely to make a mistake. The offseason becomes much less stressful without a bunch of uncertainty regarding whether your team is going to disappear on you in the next few weeks. We've unfortunately dealt with a bit of that here in Devil-land over the past few years, so when a young guy like Henrique gets locked up through some of his UFA years, fans get understandably excited.
A core player (and this is all qualitative and subjective, obviously) is a guy who you likely expect to be around for a while and is good enough to be one of the faces of the franchise. So, with the Devils whirlwind offseason now over, they have 6 players signed through the 2015-16 season (Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Clowe, Henrique, Dainius Zubrus, and Anton Volchenkov) and 3 players signed beyond that (Zajac, Clowe, Henrique). I don't think anyone is mistaking Anton Volchenkov for a core contributor for the team at the moment, so we can probably leave him out of the equation. So that leaves five players to make up the Devils de facto core.
Zubrus is around for a bit, and has been here for a while, but he has more of the feel of a role player. He's certainly a guy who does a lot of things for the Devils, but he won't be relied on to carry the team or put up any particularly big numbers. Clowe has just arrived on the scene in NJ and will have to make some contributions before people think of him as one of the go-to players for the team. Elias is obviously a bit old, but he is probably the best skater on the Devils until further notice so I would probably include him. Zajac and Henrique are obviously guys who the Devils will be relying on for years to come. So that leaves Elias, Zajac, and Henrique as the players who most closely resemble what is thought of as a core group for an NHL team.
At first glance, that isn't the most terrifying 'big three' for a team to have around the NHL. Just two years ago, a much more formidable looking Elias-Parise-Kovalchuk trio was driving the bus for New Jersey. This new group may be a bit of a step back, and it certainly lacks the star power of some of the top forwards for other teams around the league, but while the new faces of the team may lack in the celebrity department, they certainly make up for it to a certain extent in two-way play. They more resemble the Blues' Backes-Oshie-Stewart group that has produced much of a solid St. Louis team's identity the past few years than they do a Pittsburgh or Washington with their talented scorers.
The bottom line is that even though the Devils lack a star studded head at the top, it's not the end of the world. Strong two-way play has long been a calling card for this team, and by the looks of it, it will have to continue to be if they want to return to contender status. Obviously much of the future rests on Cory Schneider and the development of the wave of defensive prospects. But up front the key is that without any real stars (besides perhaps Elias) to carry the the load in New Jersey, it will be important to make sure the teams built around the core are deep and capable of chipping in on the scoreboard top to bottom. Many have longed for the return of the days of the dominant "interchangeable parts" Devils teams of the early 2000s. If that is the future for this team, then perhaps the so-called core of forwards only has to be the standard bearers.