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NHL Season Preview: Three Big Questions Facing the New Jersey Devils

As part of the NHL season preview by SB Nation, three significant questions about the New Jersey Devils are asked and answered here at In Lou We Trust.

Cory Schneider sparkled in preseason.  Will he get the majority of starts in 2013-14?  I think he should.
Cory Schneider sparkled in preseason. Will he get the majority of starts in 2013-14? I think he should.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2013-14 regular season beginning in less than a week, everyone from the most casual of fans to the hardest of the hardcore are getting excited. Hopes are higher than ever, concerns are raised, expectations have been made, and predictions are given. Interest is not just in one's favorite team but other people have other questions about other teams. As part of SB Nation's NHL 2013-14 season preview, I answer three significant questions that most, fans and non-fans alike, face the Devils heading into the coming season.

Note: And if you're new to ILWT, welcome! Here's our five-part season preview specifically focused on the Devils: Part 1: Forwards; Part 2: Defensemen; Part 3: Goaltenders; Part 4: Special Teams; Part 5: Predictions. We think better of this team than the "experts" who flung the Devils from sixth to eighth in the division (except Tyler, of course).

Where will the goals come from?

Fantastic question. It was a big question after the Devils failed to score many goals in 2013 heading into the offseason. After an active day of free agency on July 5, it remained as a question. Mike Stromberg took a methodical approach to figuring out how much the Devils may score a few days after free agency. Then, Ilya Kovalchuk - the superlative offensive weapon the Devils had - decided to quit on the team to take gigantic sums of money to play in a weaker hockey league. Needless to say, this question only became bigger with murkier answers. I'm not even sure how it's all going to work out. So let's start with what we do know and work it from there.

Last season, the team as a whole just shot poorly. According to Behind the Net, they had the fourth lowest shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play at 6.7% and tied for the sixth lowest in 5-on-4 play at 10.9%. The low rates aren't new to the team; the Devils have been low in 5-on-5 shooting percentage for several years now. A crude combination of poor luck and looking for volume shooters. The impact of the low percentage at 5-on-5 from 2013 was increased by the fact that the Devils also didn't shoot the puck a whole lot relative to the rest of the league. They averaged only 26.9 shots per 60 minutes, the eighth lowest rate in the league, in 5-on-5 play. If you're not shooting a lot and you're rate of scoring is low, then it's obvious that you're simply not going to score a lot. On the power play, their shooting rate was pretty good but that was helped out by all of the not scoring they did with a man advantage. As such, the Devils had a conversion rate in the bottom third of the league.

From a personnel standpoint, there were plenty of changes but two departures really stick out: David Clarkson and Kovalchuk. For all of their issues, both were big volume shooters and were very productive in the last two seasons. A team that was already lacking for shots on net loses two high-volume shooters and one would think that Kovalchuk, a career 14% shooter in the NHL, was going bounce back from shooting at 8.3%. The Devils won't get to know if that will happen now.

In fact, Kovalchuk's low rate really sums up the individual lack of scoring that killed the team last season. These guys were just cold after the first few weeks in the 2013 season. Only three Devils who played regularly last season broke double-digits in shooting percentage in all situations and only one produced consistently: Patrik Elias. Now, the all-time franchise scorer remains as their sole ace, for lack of a better term, at forward. There's plenty to like about the other forwards but the only one who's been a superlative scorer is Elias and he's going to need all the help he can get from his fellow forwards. And I do mean forwards as the Devils' blueline has lacked offense for several seasons. Just look at the numbers from who's returning to the organization:


At first glance, this makes the Devils' additions at forward much more appealing. Jaromir Jagr is not getting any younger but his production screams that he's got something left to give. Michael Ryder scored quite a bit in both Dallas and Montreal. Damien Brunner had good first season in the NHL. The only one that sticks out poorly on paper is Ryane Clowe and even he came close to twenty points. To put that in perspective, that total would have placed him tied for fifth on the 2013 Devils in points.

However, a closer look makes it clear that the new forwards aren't all diamonds. Ryder had a very high shooting percentage. His career shooting percentage is 12.8% and he's only cracked 14% three times - twice in the last two seasons. It's not unreasonable to think that's going to dip in 2013-14. Jagr has been hurt through training camp and preseason so it remains to be seen how he'll fit into the lineup. Even if he does get healthy, how long can his body hold up for 82 games, with over half in back-to-back sets this season? Moreover, will he provide production closer to his time in Dallas, when he was hot, or his time in Boston, when his shooting percentage went south? Damien Brunner did have a good first year but it remains to be seen whether he can repeat it, especially away from Henrik Zetterberg. Ryane Clowe should bounce back from a season where he scored a mere three goals. Unlike the other three, it's reasonable to think he can only do more. But his recent history with concussions makes one question whether he'll last a whole season. All four of these additions shoot the puck at a decent level but nothing at the level Clarkson or Kovalchuk provided. So the Devils got four guys that could each put up 20 goals or so in an 82-game season but that may be a really optimistic case.

Ultimately, this is a team that must score by committee. They only have one guy who could possibly crack 70 points and that only happens if everyone else productive around Patrik Elias. This is not a team with a traditional top line with secondary scoring to support them. This is a team whose scoring is driven by "secondary scorers" throughout their first three lines. If the team gets some better puck luck and the team's shooting percentage is closer to league average, then everyone will benefit. There could be several 20+ goal scorers (a few maybe getting near 30) and 40-60 point players, making the team threaten with three lines and pundits wonder who's really the. It may even lead to a power play that threatens more than occasionally. Whatever the fourth liners, young players, and the defensemen can chip in would be added bonuses and pleasant surprises. Of course, if the team's shooting percentage is still in the hole like it was in 2013 and 2010-11, then everyone will struggle and we could see many more frustrating games where the team plays well but doesn't score enough to win.

Essentially, it'll take a team effort to score the goals, more so than any one player or one line to make it all happen. Even then, it'll take a lot of fortune for the team finish around the league median in goals scored.

How do Cory Schneider and Martin Brodeur split the crease?

Peter DeBoer has been pretty clear in his words that he still sees Martin Brodeur as the top goalie and that Cory Schneider is the "Number 1A" goalie, per the linked reports from Tom Gulitti. However, Schneider has been fantastic in net (and I mean only in net) in preseason whereas Brodeur hasn't been so hot. Granted, Brodeur's had some tougher situations but this is a results-oriented business and it's been pretty clear that he's not what he once was. He did put up an even strength save percentage that was about league median but he got that in only 22 appearances, it still paled to his last good season (2009-10, 2012 playoffs notwithstanding), and his overall save percentage wasn't very good. The percentage of soft goals he's given up in 2013 has increased over previous years. Even his legendary reliability has suffered as Brodeur has missed significant time in four of the last five seasons due to injury. He's been declining and that should be surprising to absolutely no one if only because Brodeur is 41. Only 22 goalies have played beyond the age of 39 in the NHL according to Hockey-Reference and their post age-39 stats aren't exactly glorious. Just playing at all at that age is a feat, but no one has been great at the position at such an advanced age.

Schneider was the starter for Vancouver last season, put up an overall save percentage of 92.7% in 2013, and put up that exact percentage over all 98 of his regular season appearances. While he's relatively inexperienced as a starter, it's doubtful he'll start playing like Brodeur, or worse, Hedberg in 2013. Just acquiring Schneider improves the Devils' goaltending situation but all evidence points to the reality that he should get most of the starts. This isn't to say that Brodeur won't play at all. The team has 22 back-to-back sets of games this season, so both goalies will get plenty of minutes as to not unnecessarily burn one or the other out. The split will come outside of these sets, assuming the Devils split the majority of them right down the middle.

The only ways Brodeur could get more starts than Schneider are if Schneider is injured for a significant part of the season or the team is too emotionally tied to Brodeur. I can't say the former can't happen but I'm doubtful about the latter. It's not unheard of for sentimentality to I think the organization will handle this in a professional manner and focus on the facts. There have been two tells Head coach Peter DeBoer had no qualms about pulling Brodeur in a big game as warranted as evidence and general manager Lou Lamoriello saw it fit to trade a high first round pick to get Cory Schneider instead of getting a cheap backup to solely replace Johan Hedberg or even bring back the Moose. Martin Brodeur has described himself as a "company man" and I don't believe he'll suddenly defy the company when it's clear that Schneider is the better goaltender. Therefore, I think the Devils will give the majority of starts to Schneider, something around 52 to Brodeur's 30 starts.

How much Lou Lamoriello magic do the 2013-14 Devils need?

One of the reasons why the New Jersey Devils cannot be fully discounted as a competitive team has been the work of Louis Lamoriello. He'll turn 71 and only a few general managers have a list of accomplishments as comparable as what he's done in New Jersey. He also stays active with deals and free agency while letting very little leak out before it happens. The Cory Schneider trade, for example, was a total surprise. Last season, Lou made several understandable moves to bring in forwards in the hopes of supplanting the roster and providing a spark. By dealing only a few low draft picks, the Devils acquired Andrei Loktionov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt D'Agostini, and Steve Sullivan. Unfortunately, only Loktionov made any real impact. Ponikarovsky wasn't nearly as useful as he was in 2011-12 when the Devils picked him up and suddenly had a viable third line. D'Agostini showed flashes of speed and very little else. Sullivan was a shot in the dark that the veteran can provide a little help on power plays when Kovalchuk got injured; and very little was what he provided. Like the Devils' puck luck, the moves didn't work nearly as well as one would hope. The point is that he is not going to sit about and do nothing if the team doesn't play as well as planned if he can do something. It's expected he would do the same if it comes to that in 2013-14.

This isn't to say that Lou is perfect. Believe it or not, we don't think he's infallible despite the name of this very blog. He's still prone to giving out an awful contract (e.g. Ryane Clowe's $24.25 million over five years) and keeping a useless goon on the roster. But he does swing some smart deals and despite the loss of two significant forwards, the team isn't likely going to be utterly awful because of it. The Devils currently don't have a ton of room to work with under the cap after a busy 2013 offseason, so future moves may be tricky, though not impossible. As of now, it appears all five of the new forwards will contribute in some significant manner, he improved the goaltending position at the cost of what could have been a top prospect, and the defense could be stingy. That's not magic. That takes an solid understanding of the team, their strengths and limits, and insight into other players and teams to determine what could be available. It also takes a willingness to make some tough decisions. Lou's been doing this since the 1987-88 season, there's no reason to expect anything different in 2013-14.

Your Take

These are the answers I put together for the three big questions. What do you think? Do you generally agree or disagree with them? Are there any additional points to be made for any of them? How would you answer them if you answered them? Are these even the three big questions facing the Devils, or are there others? (e.g. I suspect Devils fans are questioning the power play.) Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these answers to the provided questions. Thank you for reading, please stick around for Devils opinion and analysis at In Lou We Trust all season long.