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2014-15 NHL Season Preview: Three Big Questions Facing the New Jersey Devils

As part of the 2014-15 NHL season preview at SB Nation, I raised three significant questions about the New Jersey Devils heading into this season. The other writers of In Lou We Trust give their answers in this post.

Peter DeBoer is the subject of one of these questions. The forwards below are also the subject of another one.
Peter DeBoer is the subject of one of these questions. The forwards below are also the subject of another one.
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Regular season hockey will begin in over one week from today.  The New Jersey Devils are in the middle of preseason but will begin to make moves and the final cuts to their roster to be ready for the opener in Philly.  As 2014-15 season is closer, we will begin our week-long season preview at In Lou We Trust.  We will break down the team in more detail from the forwards to special teams and even the coaching aspect.  We will also have our own predictions for the season at the end of the week.

We begin with this extension of the SB Nation NHL Season Preview.   I wrote up the preview on the hub and identified three big questions facing the team heading into this season. These are not the only three big questions, but three I felt were significant enough to have a response.  I let the other writers have their say each of them.  This way you get an array of opinions for each:

1. Given their defensemen, can Devils continue to be among league leaders in shot prevention?

Ryan Stimson: According to 5-on-5 play from stats.hockeyanalysis for the last 5 season, the Devils allowed the fewest Corsi attempts for the last four seasons, and finished second in 2010. They'll be just fine.

Mike Stromberg: I would definitely expect the Devils to stay among the league leaders in shot prevention, even with some of the turnover on defense. Unsung hero Andy Greene has a shiny new contract extension and the Devils have no shortage of promising young D in Larsson, Merrill, and Gelinas. Fayne will be a bit of a loss and Volchenkov was still a serviceable defensive D, but I think the system has a lot to do with the team's success at limiting opportunities for opponents and their replacements are plenty capable of stepping up. If Bryce Salvador loses another step, he'll be standing still, but I think he and Zidlicky can manage as a pairing if they are sheltered. Even if there is a slight uptick in shots against, the team will remain among the league's best in that category.

Brian Franken: The Devils have been playing an abnormal game of hockey compared to the rest of the league in recent seasons. Positive in possesion but low event at both ends of the rink. Losing Fayne and Volchenkov could hurt their shots/corsi/fenwick against per 20 rates but the young D coming in like Larsson, Gelinas, and Merrill weren't too far behind Fayne and Volchenkov's rates over the past 3 years. I think the modified 1-2-2 the Devils play where the forwards force the opponents to move the puck towards the boards in the neutral zone so a Devils defenseman can challenge to break up the play, knowing another forward will cover his spot will help the Devils continue to be an excellent shot prevention team.

Gerard Lionetti: The Devils will absolutely still be among the league leaders in shot prevention; while a couple of names have departed (Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov), the majority of the Devils defense remains intact.  The same system from seasons past is also in place, so with very few, if any new names being added to the defense, New Jersey should see similar success to what they had last season.

CJ Turtoro: We had 9 different defensemen play over 25 games last year. Of them 2 are gone. The only possible detriment to the possession battle this year is the affect of Fayne's departure on Greene. WOWY stats show that they helped each other quite a bit although Greene helped Fayne more than vice-versa. Greene was still registering a 55% corsi before he was routinely being paired with Fayne, but whoever slides into that role will need to prove to be an elite possession defender to solidify the top pairing. For the most par though, our possession statistics seem to thrive independent from any individual play so I doubt a loss of someone like Fayne will matter too much in the end.

Alex Potts: Despite the changes in defense this year with the losses of Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov, my thought is that the New Jersey Devils can still excel in shot prevention, and I have a couple reasons for this response.  First is the system in which the team plays.  Peter DeBoer’s style of hockey is one where shots are suppressed, both for the Devils and against them.  While the Devils were tops in shot prevention a year ago with a league best 25.5 shots per game, they were also ranked 28th in shots generated per game, at 26.8.  In DeBoer’s system, the Devils do not always rush an extra man forward on the attack, which really benefits the defense and shot prevention.  No matter who is playing, three skaters will tend to suppress more shots than two on a counter-attack.

The other reason I have is that all three players mentioned have a decent amount of NHL experience already under their belts.  Larsson has played at least 26 games every season for New Jersey since he was drafted in 2011, which includes 65 games for the big club back in the 2011-2012 season.  Merrill and Gelinas did not see major time in the majors until this past season, but each played a significant amount of minutes.  Gelinas was in for 60 games last season, while Merrill was in for 52. While those aren’t mind blowing numbers that indicate veteran status, each has had a taste of what the NHL has to offer, and that can only help their causes this season.  Then you add into the mix veterans Andy Greene, Marek Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador, all of whom have been helping to suppress shots in New Jersey for years.  So while the Devils may not be tops in shot prevention again this season, I could easily see a top 5 finish in that category.

2. How hot is Peter DeBoer’s seat?

Ryan: If they have another slow start, sputtering offense, or any other negative superlative, DeBoer should be out the door. His personnel selection and in-game management have perplexed and frustrated the fan base. Whatever good will he had from the 2012 cup run has extinguished.

Mike: I think DeBoer's seat is somewhat warm, but I also think he makes it through this season, barring an outright disaster. If the team ends up missing the playoffs again, he'll probably be shown the door at season's end, though.

Brian: I actually don't think it is hot at all, despite missing the playoffs the past 2 seasons. My gut feeling is that Lou Lamoriello really believes in DeBoer and his system and that they were unfortunate to not make the playoffs last year. I think Lou Lamoriello realizes that the big upgrade in goal with Schneider finally being the #1 man, coupled with them due to get a few shootout wins this season, and DeBoer's strong possession system will make them a playoff team once again. The only way I see DeBoer's seat getting hot is if the team has some sort of John MacLean era sort of meltdown to start the year which is highly unlikely.

Gerard: If he can’t feel the fire underneath him yet, he certainly should start to feel it soon.  The last two seasons would have to be considered failures for the Devils, as they missed the postseason both times after advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals the campaign prior.  We all know Lou Lamoriello doesn’t like losing as he has fired not one, but two coaches while the team was performing poorly even though they had winning records.  If DeBoer and the Devils stumble out of the gate, one has to wonder just how long he has before Lou pulls the plug.

CJ: It's room temperature. A disaster would get him fired but if we narrowly miss the playoffs while posting great possession numbers again then I think he's safe. I mentioned in my article about excitement for this year how having a steady presence behind the bench is going to be important for this period of transition. If he makes it through 2 more years it'll be the longest head coaching stint the franchise has ever had.

Alex: After re-signing to remain with the New Jersey Devils as a head coach, Peter DeBoer’s seat is most likely hotter than it should be.  Entering his fourth season with the club, his overall record for the Devils is 102-76-34.  While those are not mind blowing numbers by any stretch of the imagination, they are serviceable considering the personnel that he has had to work with.  DeBoer took over a Devils team in 2011 that had just sustained its first losing season in two decades.  No one was predicting great things from this team due to age and a perceived lack of overall talent. Nonetheless, he immediately took them to within two games of winning the Stanley Cup.  That was impressive indeed.

Since then, his teams have not made the playoffs.  However, I am not quite sure that he deserves all that much blame.  In my eyes, he is doing what he can to maximize what talent he has, while simultaneously giving this team a chance to win on a nightly basis.  The system that he employs almost guarantees that the Devils are involved in nearly every single game they play.  Rarely are they embarrassed and run out of the building.  And this is despite sending out teams that have not been loaded with talent and superstars.  In the end, however, it is results that are needed, and a playoff berth this season is vital to his job security.  However, I have a feeling that many fans will demand his head even if New Jersey makes the playoffs, and I disagree with that.  This is why I say that while his seat certainly has some heat, it should not be as hot as it will most likely be.

3. Who leads this team on offense?

Ryan: It depends on the lineup, but I look to Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique to take hold of this team. They are capable players now and will be here for a large part of their future.

Mike: Amazingly, Jaromir Jagr, despite going on 43 years old in February, will be the player most relied on to create offense for the team. The slightly less aged Patrik Elias will also be a crucial playmaker and new arrival Mike Cammalleri will be asked to be the finisher this team has often lacked.

Brian: I know it's crazy to put the responsibilities on a 42 year old, but I'm going with Jaromir Jagr. He was a possession monster last year and made his teammates better when he was on the ice. He led the team in assists and points last year. While it's possible his play could decline sharply at his age, I still think he is the catalyst for this team offensively.

Gerard: An interesting question for sure, as the Devils found a couple of pairing last season that played pretty well together in Jaromir Jagr/Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique/Patrik Elias.  I’m going to say that the trio of Zajac, Jagr and Mike Cammalleri will lead the Devils this season; Jagr and Zajac were lacking a true left winger for almost the entire time they were together, sans the couple of weeks that Dainius Zubrus was hot.  If Cam produces similar to his totals from last season, the Devils could have a dangerous top line this season.

CJ: By any metric, our offensive production last year came from 3 guys: Jagr, Elias and Henrique.   They scored 2.60, 2.75, and 2.38 points per 60 minutes last year. Zajac was next at 1.89. While I expect Jagr's point output to increase from playing with Cammaleri, I think Henrique still leads this team in goals and if the pairing with Ryder looks anywhere close to how it did against the Rangers, and Jagr and Elias both miss time due to age, Henrique could definitely lead the team in points.

Alex: The Devils are one of the few teams in the NHL that ice something relating to a "star by committee."  There is no one real obvious superstar and it seems that each night, someone else needs to come up big and be that star.  The issue is that the committee approach does not always work.  Stars and leaders can be the backbone of a squad, and the Devils need one of those.  Who will it be though?  That is the million dollar question.  Since I am here to make a prediction, I will go with Adam Henrique.  I really want to say Travis Zajac here, as he is an excellent leader behind the scenes, and if he could only lead on the stat sheet as well, it would make this team into a serious contender.  However, barring a career year from him, I have to go all in on Henrique.

Entering his fourth full year with the big club, the time is his for a breakout season.  He is 24 years old, and therefore is still young enough to have a chance to show definitive improvement in his game.  His possession numbers are good for this team, and he can win some faceoffs when need be, although his overall percentages are not great. Last year he saw a nice jump to 25 goals, which is a very solid number.  If he can improve that even a little further and reach the 30 goal marker this season, he would almost definitely be a leader of this offense, a position he can hold for years to come.  And since I really do not see many other players having a 30 goal season for this team (Cammalleri maybe?), I have to throw my lot in with Henrique.  He is certainly a much better choice than the dreaded "star by committee."

Your Take

Now that you've read the answers from the other writers, I want to know how you would answer each question.  Can this defense still be one of the stingiest shot prevention teams in the league? Is there a real chance Peter DeBoer doesn't make it through the season behind the bench?  Who will end up leading the offense? Please leave your answers in the comments.  Thank you for reading.