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Can the Top Line Dominate and Lead the Devils Back to the Postseason?

With the arrival of Mike Cammalleri, a first line that was already great with Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr stands to get even better. Will it be the key to a trip back to the playoffs?

Zajac, during the faceoff, presumably explains to Cammalleri how nice New Jersey is this time of year.
Zajac, during the faceoff, presumably explains to Cammalleri how nice New Jersey is this time of year.
Bruce Bennett

The Devils are a team that, heading into this season, many people around the NHL are trying to get a handle on. They fell short of last season's playoffs, but looking at their strong underlying numbers and dismal shootout record in 2013-14, some like them as a bounceback candidate heading into this season. Others remain skeptical that the team will find the goal scoring they need to get over the hump and it's easy to see why: looking up and down the Devils' roster, they are very short on top-end offensive players or sexy names. Their best forward last season was 42 years of age, their only other scorer to crack 50 points was 37, and the perception is that the team lacks a player who can take over a game and push them to victory. It may be true that the Devils lack a singularly dominant player on their roster, but that doesn't mean the Devils will lack an elite forward unit.

Heading into last season, the Devils' lineup was difficult to figure after the shocking departure of Ilya Kovalchuk in the offseason. The Devils brought in several capable forwards over the 2013 offseason, with players like Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder, Damien Brunner, and, of course, Jaromir Jagr coming into the fold, but there didn't seem to be any obvious top line and that bared itself out over the course of a disastrous October. Different line combos were plugged in, and a number of players spun their tires, with Travis Zajac being chief among them, averaging less than a point/60 in all situations. There was no line that could be consistently called upon to make good things happen for New Jersey, and the team suffered because of it (among other factors, of course).

The search for that top line - or at least two thirds of it - more or less ended when Zajac and Jagr were put together in mid-November in a 5-0 drubbing of the Nashville Predators. Once the Zajac/Jagr line was created, the Devils established a leading pair that could run with any center-wing duo in the entire league. They were on the ice for 60% of the shot attempts and 60% of the goals when they were together last season, and that was with Dainius Zubrus or assorted call-ups/stopgaps riding shotgun for a majority of the time.

The creation of that top line gave the team an identity, and while struggles with depth and in goal kept the team from ever getting on a real roll, the steady, often suffocating presence of the Zajac/Jagr line allowed the team to look the part of a playoff team on most nights. As a matter of fact, if you go back and look at the Devils season, they played at a 93-point pace (31-22-13) after Zajac and Jagr were put together on November 12th, which, for those keeping score at home, was the number that snagged both wild cards in the Eastern Conference last season. And that is with a shootout record of 0-9 over that span, to boot.

So with the 2014-15 season approaching, the Devils have a clearer picture of who their top line should be and will try to improve upon it with the arrival of Mike Cammalleri. Cammalleri was the Devils big free agent pickup this offseason and the coaches look to be setting him to up join Jagr and Zajac, at least from what we've seen so far in camp. Comparing Cammaleri, one of the leading even-strength goal scorers in the NHL last season, to what the Devils were typically running out at 1LW last season is enough to think that a line that was already a powerhouse could become a complete nightmare for opposing teams in the upcoming season. Adding a player with the scoring touch of Cammalleri to a possession meat-grinder like the Jagr/Zajac duo has many fans, myself definitely included, excited to see what they have in store for this year.

There are potential snags for this group along the way, of course. Jagr is another year older and, though he showed no signs of slowing down towards the end of last season, it's hard not to be weary of a possible slip in play from a player turning 43 in February. Cammalleri has been hounded by a litany of injuries over past several years, and while he hasn't played less than 60 games in any full season in the NHL, it has also been a while since he played over 70. And Zajac, while injuries and other circumstances have played a part, hasn't broke 50 points since the heyday of the ZZ-Pops line in 2009-10, so there are doubts there as well.

Even considering those factors, though, the line appears poised to do serious damage as long as everyone stays mostly healthy over the course of the season. Jagr may be old, but at this point, you have to put him in the "freak of nature" category and expect strong play until he shows otherwise. Zajac has had issues putting up numbers over the years, but he is a rock-solid possession player. Plus, between Zach Parise's 2010 knee injury, his 2011 Achilles injury,  and the 2012 departure of Parise, Zajac hasn't been book-ended with legitimate scoring talent on both wings over a season since he was putting up those 60-point seasons with Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner. Cammalleri's injury concerns are legitimate as well, but they mostly seem like isolated incidents and don't carry the same lingering concern as something like Clowe's concussions. And given that he has produced many of his points on a host of crummy teams over the years, it's hard not to get excited to see how he can perform with Jagr and Zajac keeping teams buried in their own end so often.

So, barring some unforeseen chemistry issue or a serious injury, the Devils appear to be set with a potentially dominating first line heading into this season. If Cammalleri meshes well with Zajac and Jagr, it's not outlandish to say they could end up being one of the best units in the league. This October should feature less of the total upheaval we saw in 2013-14, when it was difficult to figure out who among the forwards would take the lead in Kovalchuk's absence. Having a rock of a first line makes filling in the gaps further down the lineup a much easier proposition. Between the underlying stats and the projected lineup, the Devils seem to have it together on paper right now. It's just a matter of whether we finally see it translate to the ice again this season.