It is easy to doubt this year’s edition of the New Jersey Devils, which looks like a far less talented and complete squad than many others crafted by general manager Lou Lamoriello. There are an abundance of explosive wingers led by point-per-gamer Ilya Kovalchuk, but there are few genuine offensive threats otherwise. Last year’s rookie sensation, Adam Henrique, is missing a sizable portion of the season due to injury, David Clarkson is effective but will never replace the contributions of Zach Parise, and the only New Jersey defenseman who possesses any talent going forward is Marek Zidlicky. Meanwhile, great iconic players like Patrik Elias and Martin Brodeur have become old enough that it is no longer unfair to doubt how much longer they can keep it up.
This is largely the same Devils team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, though, and I do not believe their perceived weaknesses will hold them back in a significant way. The lack of veteran scoring threats at forward will certainly hurt, but two players who did not play most of last year in New Jersey will help them score at a reasonable rate. The return of Travis Zajac, who missed most of last year due to injury, but might have been New Jersey’s best player not named Kovalchuk during the playoffs, can only mean good things, and it will be enormously beneficial to have Marek “quarterback of the power play” Zidlicky playing for a full year.
The offense might still fall off at times, but that should never overshadow the surplus of solid Devils defensemen who will be helping Brodeur add to his career shutout record. Zidlicky’s defense is questionable, but studs like Andy Greene and Mark Fayne, not to mention 19-year-old superprospect Adam Larsson waiting in the wings for a guy like Henrik Tallinder to falter, make this the deepest, best blue line New Jersey has had in a long time. There are a lot of good individual players here that have bought into the New Jersey system. It helps that the lack of roster turnover on defense translates into added chemistry, which might factor into regular season success more than ever thanks to the absence of a preseason. Through 64 games, scoring has been up from 2.68 goals per game last year to 2.88, yet the Devils have conceded less than two per game. That number will look less spectacular come season’s end, thanks to the law of averages. But the Devils’ ability to play as a unit will surely limit their goals against average.
Most convincing, though, is the argument that this is the Devils. Let’s be honest — they’re always good, aside from a 2010 year in which a young coach bit off more than he could chew. Talent is a little thin this year, but given the history of the team and their penchant for overachieving, Eastern Conference rivals should look past the Devils as viable contenders at their own risk.