Hockey at this point in time is still over a month away; yes, even preseason hockey is still a month away, but I'm still excited. I know you're probably thinking that I've lost it since the New Jersey Devils haven't been a good team for the last few season, but I still think this should be an exciting, even if not fruitful, season. Why do I feel this way? Quite simply for the eight reasons that I will touch on below.
1.) Sink or Swim for the Young Defense
In some ways, it's a bit of a "now or never" type approach, but the Devils will finally ice a back end of mostly youngsters (and Andy Greene, who's young at heart) next season. The team has shed the contracts of some defenders that were not warmly received by the fans (Peter Harrold, Mark Fraser) and one defender (Bryce Salvador) will probably not be returning as well. The time has arrived to see if years of stockpiling talented, young defenders pays dividends for our team. Will there be some mistakes and growing pains? Absolutely, but now is the time to see what skills these players can contribute.
We've seen flashes of brilliance from Damon Severson and Adam Larsson; we've seen flashes of offensive excellence from Eric Gelinas; we've seen a stabilizing presence at times from Jon Merrill. The team also has Seth Helgeson, Raman Hrabarenka, Steve Santini, and the newly signed John Moore who will be competing for spots on the opening night roster; none of those players are even 25 yet. If five of those guys (plus Andy) can find some cohesion and consistency, the Devils could be headed in right direction sooner rather than later.
2.) We Will See Pavel Zacha in Some Capacity
Now that the ink is drying on his contract, Devils fans will get to see Pavel Zacha in action this year even if it is only in preseason games. Personally, I think he'll get the standard "nine games in the NHL then sent back to juniors" treatment; between those games and the preseason, we should get a good idea of what Zacha will be able to bring to the team when he finally joins the big club for good. From what I've seen of him at the team's development camp, I'm excited to see what he can do when flanked by NHL quality forwards.
I should note here that the last time I said I didn't see someone making the main roster quite yet, I wound up being wrong. Perhaps Zacha impresses the brass so much that he winds up sticking around; it's not as though there's a sufficient number of forwards blocking him from playing in the top 6
3.) Players Will Get Their Chance to Prove Their Value
I've already spent a bit of time covering the young defenders that will be getting their chance, but that notion also holds true for the forwards. Along with Zacha, Reid Boucher, Stefan Matteau, and even Jacob Josefson should see an increased role with the main squad this season. One of the biggest criticisms of former head coach Peter DeBoer was that he had a short leash for young players and would bench them for making mistakes, even if his veterans were making the same (or worse) mistakes. Without as many veterans this year, that shouldn't be a problem.
Along with those with NHL experience, youngsters such as Joseph Blandisi, Paul Thompson, John Quenneville, and Sergei Kalinin should get a chance to vie for some NHL games. While a couple of those names may be more "NHL ready" than others, there's always a chance that injuries strike (even before the season begins) and some of these names may be on the short list of players to fill those slots. At the very least, it appears we won't have to deal with the same "Tim Sestito call up" that we sadly had become accustomed to.
4.) Most of the "Dead-Weight" Is Gone
As I mentioned above when talking about the young defense, Peter Harrold is in St. Louis, Bryce Salvador seems unlikely to return and Mark Fraser thankfully appears to be nowhere close to rejoining this team. Additionally, Michael "Ghost" Ryder and Martin Havlat were not re-signed and Dainius Zubrus was even bought out. Ryane Clowe will more than likely be placed on LTIR or retire if he does not receive medical clearance. Scott Gomez and Steve Bernier also will not be returning, but for better or for worse remains to be seen with that pair.
Critics of the Devils have been saying for seasons that the team is "too old" and needed to rebuild their stock of youth through drafting. While the rebuild is questionable, the team has definitely gotten younger and now it's time to see what some of the above young names can do without the older players on the roster.
5.) A New System in Place
You can never rule out the possibility that some players will perform better in one coach's system compared to another. New Devils coach John Hynes will be instituting his own system for the team, and from all indications so far, it will be vastly different from systems of the past few seasons. This could be good news for players both older and younger alike, as Hynes' system may enable them to perform better. A new coaching system could also be seen as a...
6.) Chance For Some Players to Bounce Back
While the last few seasons have been rough to watch, 2014-15 sticks out like a sore thumb. As much as I love his defensive ability, Travis Zajac is the first name on the list of people who need to get it together, as he fell from 48 points to a mere 25; Zajac's shooting percentage wasn't bad, but his number of shots is way down from where it used to be. His ability to pile up more points may hinge on him shooting the puck on net more.
Patrik Elias also gets his name placed on this list as he had 34 points after recording 53 in fewer games the season prior. Father time is catching up to Patty, but who's to say he can't put together one more magical season in red and black?
One last player I would like to see "bounce back" is Jon Merrill; I do have to say he did not always have the most reliable partner on the ice with him last season, and his stats were an improvement over his rookie campaign. Jon just seemed much more comfortable in his first year, and to the naked eye, appeared to force the play a few times last season which led to some goals against. Hopefully we see him settle in a bit more this year as well as having a regular partner!
7.) Cory Freaking Schneider
Need I say more? I love watching Cory play and he really seemed to embrace being a #1 goaltender last season. Our team has been built from the net out as it always was; if the defense starts to gel, there's reason to believe that the Devils will be in the playoff hunt again sooner rather than later.
8.) It's Hockey Season!
I don't know about all of you, but hockey is by far my favorite sport. I can't wait for it to come back, even just to watch some preseason games. I know that right now the team is in flux, but I'm excited to see what can be done with some younger legs and a new system instituted by a new coach.
What are you, our fans, most looking forward to about the upcoming season? Does the concept of a new coaching staff and system have you excited? What about the young players getting more ice time? Perhaps the fact that we won't have to watch Michael Ryder dog it on defense anymore? Leave any and all comments/thoughts below and as always thank you for reading!