Let’s quickly recap the 2010/2011 season.  John MacLean finally gets a shot as head coach of the New Jersey Devils but calling the Devils awful would be a compliment. After a 9-22-2 start, Lou says “Yippee Ki Yay” to MacLean right before Christmas and old faithful Jaques Lemaire returns to a familiar position with the team. While the Devils would go on to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996, Lemaire was a much needed change, whipped a bunch of out of shape hockey players back into shape and led the Devils to a 28-17-3 record under his watch. At one point, we all believed they could sneak their way into the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference. So what will 2011/2012 bring to the table?

The Headlines Going Into the Season:

Is This Marty’s Last Dance? – He is in the final year of his contract so this could be it for the 39 year old goaltender.

Peter DeBoer Takes Over –  Can DeBoer end the annual summer hunt for a new head coach?

The Return of Zach Parise -  We missed him last season and as a guy heading towards the open market next summer, I expect a HUGE year from #9. It was announced this afternoon that Zach will be the Devils new captain.

Will Kovalchuk Be Better? – Last season, Kovalchuk posted his lowest single-season goals and points tallies since his rookie season. With a healthy Parise, he SHOULD do much better but I think Zajac is a huge part of that equation as well.

How Will Larsson Do? – After a disappointing season, the Devils wound up with the 4th pick overall in the draft and used it to draft D Adam Larsson. We expect great things out of this kid and after a strong preseason he’s made his way into the opening day lineup. Not a bad start for the kid!!

What We Think

Darren’s Thoughts on 2011/2012 – I’ve learned a valuable lesson in sports over the last year. It really does matter how well you do out of the gate. The Devils had a terrible start last season followed by an incredible run but in the end, it was that start that did them in. The Devils proved last season that they weren’t a bad team, just a team that got off to a bad start. I think the Devils organization believes that statement as well because there were no drastic changes made this summer. One thing is for certain, the Devils can’t afford to get off to the same kind of start this season. The biggest question I have for this team is the following: Can the Devils win without Jaques Lemaire?

The truth is, I think the Devils are the definition of a wild card this year. I don’t really know what to expect of this team. I would love to see Marty have one last great season and head for retirement but Marty is 39 and the defense corps that was once our identity isn’t there anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I like some of the guys on defense and Adam Larsson brings a new dimension to the blue line with with his mobility and puck skills but this is the one aspect of the New Jersey Devils that worries me.

I have a lot of question marks surrounding this team. I know Kovalchuk and Parise will shine but will it be enough to carry this team offensively? Does Elias have anything left in the tank? Arnott was brought in a year ago to reignite Elias and that didn’t seem to work so will having been reunited with Petr Sykora this season do the trick? How long will Zajac be out and how will that affect our start? The Devils appear to have a lot of youthful talent in the organization but can they consistently perform on the NHL level? Will the presence of Cam Janssen as the team enforcer allow David Clarkson to become the player we’ve all been expecting  for years?  Hopefully DeBoer has the answers and I hope the Devils can climb back into the playoff picture but there are A LOT of good teams in the Eastern Conference this season so I do expect a dog fight from Game 1 through Game 82.
So my prediction is that the Devils will somehow claw their way into a playoff position but I won’t give them home ice advantage, meaning they finish somewhere between 5th and 8th place in the East. I do believe this will be it for Marty Brodeur and I do believe the Devils find a way to keep Parise in NJ. Making him team captain is certainly a step in that direction.

Deb's Thoughts on 2011/2012 - If I could say one thing with certainty, it would be that the Devils’ actions (or, more appropriately, inactions) during the offseason demonstrate to me the organization’s belief that the debacle that was last season was a one-off, fluky occurrence that had very little to do with the talent of the players on the roster.  For a team who finished last season drastically below everyone’s expectations, surprisingly few changes had been made during the summer.  Sure, Pete DeBoer was hired as the new head coach…but in Jersey, the hiring of a new coach is practically an annual event anyway.  And, yes, the Devils acquired the number one defenseman in the 2011 entry draft with the 4th overall pick.  But perhaps the most important changes that were made were the ones that resulted in the Devils losing players.  The Devils were finally able to shed some dead weight – old, slow players that were crippling the Devils in terms of the salary cap.  The two most notable such players were Brian Rolston and Colin White with an almost $8 million combined annual salary cap hit.

So, here the Devils are - pretty much the same team as they were entering last season – but with yet another new coach, plus Adam Larsson and minus Rolston and White.  A few new role players have been added and disposed of, too, of course.  But the core of the team (minus the unimpressive Jamie Langenbrunner who was traded mid-season and equally unimpressive Jason Arnott who was traded at the trade deadline) consisting of:   Martin Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, Anton Volchenkov and Travis Zajac remains the same.  Travis Zajac will begin the season sidelined with an injury, but other than that, there really isn’t much change to the core of the team from last season.

I subscribe to the Devils’ line of thinking (typing with crossed fingers and toes)…that last season was a one-off disaster that never should have happened and probably will not happen again anytime in the near future.  So, assuming (and hoping) that we are correct, we can pretty much expect the same performance from the Devils this season as was expected from them last season.  And pretty much everyone expected great things from them.  Last year at this time, practically every sportswriter and analyst “in the know” predicted that the Devils would go far in the playoffs.  Ironically, that was the first time that many of them predicted the Devils to do so well.
There really isn’t much reason why the same predictions wouldn’t be made considering how little the team has changed.  The only hesitancy in making such predictions would be shaky confidence due to last season’s disappointment.  But, if like the Devils and me, you believe that last season’s lackluster performance was a one-time fluke then your confidence shouldn’t be too shaken.  Of course there are still uncertainties – the competency of DeBoer, whether or not Parise will get his groove back, how much the injury to Zajac will really impact this team, Brodeur’s age, etc. – but there are always uncertainties surrounding every team at the start of every season if not every game.  That’s what makes sports so exciting.
So, I predict this:  the Devils will make the playoffs.  If they don’t win the Atlantic Division, they will finish a very close second and be in one of the top 4 playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, as usual.  Barring any significant injuries, I will even go so far as to say that if the Devils can make it past the first round of playoffs, thereby shaking that monkey off their backs, they will play in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Obviously, only time will tell if my prediction will come true.  But, in the meantime, enjoy the season and …

In only one of the three seasons which lead to the Devils becoming Stanley Cup Champions did the Devils actually win the Atlantic Division.  That was in 2003 when they were ranked 2nd in the Eastern Conference.  They finished 2nd in the division in both 1995 and 2000 and were ranked 5th and 4th in the Eastern Conference, respectively.

Let us know what you think!!