Devils’ 2015-16 preview: Youth and change

Will new Devils GM Ray Shero (background) and coach John Hynes (foreground) be able to turn the Devils around in 2015-16?

I admit it’s been hard for me to find a way to get into the hockey season.  Even though a handful of the preseason games were on TV or streamed after the fact, I only really watched half of the one I went to against the Rangers.  And even that game my attention span was in and out.  I haven’t even gotten into hockey enough to prepare a lick for my fantasy draft on Monday night.  Maybe the older I get the harder it is to get wrapped up in preseason production – not even so much wins or losses but production itself can also be meaningless once the games start for real.  Or maybe it’s just that I can’t get into hockey with my Mets on their way to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade while my Jets started 2-0 and have a huge game in (cough) London against the Fins tomorrow morning.

However, with the Mets having a long break between tomorrow afternoon and their first playoff game Friday (also the eve of the Devils opener, more on THAT later) and the Jets also having a bye following tomorrow morning’s game, it’ll be easier to get into hockey starting tomorrow afternoon.  Heck, I might as well start a little now with the Devils preview since the roster’s taking shape as we speak.  Right now the Devils are down to twenty-four healthy players with a ‘team bonding’ trip to Vermont for the next couple days on the docket so it would seem only one more cut remains.  With fourteen forwards and eight defensemen on the roster, odds are it’ll be a d-man to go but you never know.  We have little to go off of with this new management team which is part of what makes this season fascinating.  Of course there’s always the possibility of a last-minute camp trade or even waiver pickup but at this point I think the team pretty much is what it is with the 5 PM roster deadline on Tuesday.

So far, the worst news of camp was the absence of Patrik Elias for the duration of the preseason due to a knee issue that’s also going to land him on IR for the start of the regular season as well.  It’s sobering to come to the realization with this the last year on Patty’s deal this could be the last season for #26 in the NHL, or even just his last in red and white.  Not only could this team have used a bounceback season from Patty but they also need him to be a mentor toward the next generation of Devils.  For a team that was by far the NHL’s oldest last season they have undergone a near-total facelift in a short time, on and off the ice.  Perhaps the most striking example of just how different things are on the ice: Last year the Devils started the season with no fewer than nine players older than 33 on the roster, this year with Patty on IR they’ll start the season with none.  Ironically, PTO signee Lee Stempniak (one year, 850k deal) is one of the oldest players that’ll skate onto the ice for the team’s opener in Newark against Winnipeg on Friday.

Of course older isn’t always better, but with the NHL having even more of an emphasis on speed and skill in recent years it’s good that new management is starting to address those concerns.  Even if this is far from a finished product…Mike Cammalleri’s the only proven 30-goal scorer on the roster (not counting Patty who’s last 30-goal season was in 2008-09) and he’s the oldest healthy player on it.  Trading for NJ native Kyle Palmeri at the draft was a nice start both toward getting younger and bringing in more offensive talent but more work still needs to be done, as evidenced by top pick Pavel Zacha.  It’s likely the 18-year old Zacha will be on the roster to start the season at this point, even though by most accounts he’s still pretty raw and didn’t really dominate the competition either this summer or at camp.  Still, there’s not much harm in getting him the nine-game tryout period and seeing what happens when the bright lights come on, especially with Patty likely to miss time.

Up front, the questions aren’t just about the imports like Zacha, Palmeri, Stempniak, pre-camp signing Jiri Tlusty or offseason signing Sergey Kalinin and what they can bring.  Can Travis Zajac bounce back from a career-worst 27-point season and anchor one of the top two lines the way he did in the PZL days?  Will Elias and Cammalleri be able to stay healthy and productive?  And can kids like Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau finally solidify everyday lineup spots and be contributors?  Perhaps the biggest surprise of camp up front is the play of center Jacob Josefson – the former first-round pick’s career has been marred by injuries and inconsistency so far, but judging by his play so far in camp maybe this’ll be a year he finally becomes a legit top nine player and contributes more than shootout goals.   Also capable of contributing before season’s end is 21-year old Joseph Blandisi, a FA signing last year that may have been one of the best players in camp but got caught in a numbers game and sent down, where he’s already gotten off to a fast start with the Rats as well.  At least it’ll be nice to go down to Albany and not automatically see Tim Sestito or Cam Janssen on the incoming bus this year, and picking forwards like Zacha and Blake Speers in the 2015 draft show the organization knows that skill and forward depth needed to be addressed at all levels of the organization, although there’s still work to be done before this offense can really turn things around up front.

On defense, so much is known and yet unknown.  Even though Seth Helgeson remains in camp, he’s the only one of the eight defensemen in camp that isn’t on a one-way contract so more than likely he’ll be sent back down to Albany before Tuesday’s deadline – unless the Devils decide to send a forward out and go with two spare defensemen which is unlikely…or unless they make a move with one of the other seven defensemen on the roster.  Of those seven, only Andy Greene would qualify as a veteran presence although by all accounts former #4 overall pick Adam Larsson has maintained his strong play from the second half of last year and even stepped it up a notch in camp this fall.  Continued development from Larsson, sophomore Damon Severson and third-year defensemen Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas is vital to this team’s success in both the short and long-term.  GM Ray Shero rounded out the nucleus of Greene and the young guns with FA signings John Moore (three year, $1,6 million per) and David Schlemko, who’ll probably open as the #7 defenseman even though he’s the second oldest D on the roster and the only one other than Greene who’s <24 years old.  With the young guns already on the roster and other highly touted prospects like Boston College’s Steve Santini and the OHL’s Josh Jacobs, the future’s bullish on the blueline.

Perhaps the best thing the D’s got going for them is what’s behind them in net.  Both workhorse Cory Schneider (2.26 GAA, .925 save percentage in 68 starts) and second-year backup Keith Kinkaid (2.59 GAA, .915 save percentage in 13 starts) gave the Devils strong goaltending and despite problems all around them, usually still gave last year’s team a chance to win most nights.  Schneider at least was able to show he could maintain his strong play in his first full 82-game season as a starter, and proved a worthy successor to the recently retired Martin Brodeur.  With Schneider’s six-year extension kicking in at the start of this season, and Kinkaid signing a two-year deal just after last season ending, the Devils should be well taken care of net for the forseeable future.  Even with that strength in net, the Devils still used a high pick on 18-year old Mackenzie Blackwood in this year’s draft, and Blackwood’s already gotten off to a strong start in the OHL.  For all the talk about change and what’s new with the Devils it’s nice to see at least one of the tenets of the organization remain – building from the net out.

In an offseason of change, the biggest changes have been off the ice.  None bigger than the fact Lou Lamoriello’s not a part of the Devils organization for the first time since 1987.  Bringing in Ray Shero as Lou’s replacement, the organization opted for arguably the most qualified person available, since Shero was a GM for eight years in Pittsburgh and won a Stanley Cup.  It’ll take all that Shero learned in his first GM stop and then some to turn around a Devils organization that fell on hard times since the most recent lockout, on and off the ice.  Shero began his first offseason in charge making sweeping changes, replacing longtime scouting director David Conte with Paul Castron from the Blue Jackets’ organization, installing ex-NHL’er Tom Fitzgerald as his assistant/Albany GM to replace Chris Lamoriello, and bringing in former colleague John Hynes to be the head coach.  Shero and Hynes also replaced most of the coaching staff, including franchise legend Scott Stevens – though they did retain alum Chris Terreri as goaltending coach (why mess with the only thing that worked on last year’s team, after all?).

Hynes certainly has earned his change at the NHL level judging by his track record in the AHL without the most talented rosters in Wilkes-Barre.  For all the talk about the organization’s new buzzwords – being fast, attacking and supportive as well as relentless, Hynes’ teams in the AHL were also very strong defensively and hopefully that’ll translate to the NHL level as well.  Sure, we’re still in the honeymoon stage with Hynes – and Shero as well – since he hasn’t lost a game yet, but from what little I’ve seen of him so far (YouTube clips and interviews) Hynes certainly seems like a confident, dynamic presence.  Among other things, I like the decision for the organization to have a two-day bonding camp in Vermont…why not take advantage of the fact there’s a full week between the last preseason game and the first regular season game?  If it’s good enough for NFL teams, why not try it ourselves?  Particuarly with a lot of new faces that need to get to know each other.  Maybe it’s optomism or hope talking but personally, Hynes is the head coaching hire I’m most looking forward to since the late Pat Burns came aboard before the team’s third Stanley Cup in 2003.

While much has been made of the change in leadership off the ice, on the ice who’s going to lead this new group is still TBD.  As of now the captaincy is still vacated after Bryce Salvador’s off-season retirement.  If anyone’s going to step forward as a leader it could very well be Adam Henrique, who’s not only been the face of the new offseason social media campaign but also seems to be embracing more responsibility on the ice as well judging by what I saw of the one preseason game I was at.  Henrique wouldn’t be a bad choice really – he plays the game the right way, is young and signed long-term, and is one of the last links to even 2012 let alone the glory days of the late ’90’s/early ’00’s.  Perhaps the organization just goes with three A’s this year, wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world I suppose.  The question probably will not come up of who would get the Cup first this year anyway (giggle giggle chuckle chuckle).

Off the ice, you can also see differences between the way things used to be and now, both subtle and not-so-subtle.  Among the more positive touches is having many of the key players (Elias, Schneider, Palmeri, Greene and Henrique) greet ticket holders on their way into the Rock before the team’s first home preseason game.  There’ll also be a red carpet entrance and outdoor intros before the actual home opener on Friday, albeit too early – 4:15 – for me to attend but still a nice touch as well.  And yes the Twitter ban for Devils players is a thing of the past…even if I’m not sure whether that’s a positive or not, as well as the facial hair policy and the embargo on certain uniform numbers.  Of course some changes haven’t been welcomed.  There’s yet another new goal song (this one Gaslight Anthem’s Howl), another increase in ticket prices and now no more preseason STH meet/greet and barbeque, which was a nice touch the last few years and a way to get to meet almost everyone informally, albeit they replaced it with an open practice but still.

I admit it’s probably going to be a struggle for me to get through what on paper should be a rebuilding year, although I’ve been through it plenty with my other sports teams it’s never been as a full season ticket holder, although the organization’s talking positively and citing last year’s Flames as an example which they should – each season is full of teams that make a jump forward (and a jump backward) they’re not supposed to make.  Having season ticket prices go from $22 per game to $32.50 per game in a three-year span isn’t exactly ideal, particularly last year’s jump from $27 to $32.50….though try telling that to Ranger or even Isle fans, both would kill for those prices and my seats behind the defending net in 120.  I do plan on attending my usual 25-27 games, and really even a rebuilding season can’t be worse than the boring slogfest last year’s campaign was.  I probably won’t be able to sell most tickets for half of face value, but the Devils do at least offer a five-game buyback where you can trade in five games’ worth of tickets for a credit applied to next year’s season tickets – last year it was three games’ worth and I got about $150 worth of credit on a $2800 bill, well something’s better than nothing and this year it’ll be more for five games’ worth.

I did also like the revamping of the sth rewards system to a degree, although some things were overpriced in terms of points and apart from suite tickets there wasn’t much else I really wanted.  One of the things I did like is whereas in the past you could pick whatever you wanted and hope you were high enough on the tenure scale to get it, now you can just use points to pick something presuming it’s still available and most rewards you can even pick a date.  So with a few points to spare still, I got tickets to a suite with desserts for March 25 and tickets to a catered suite for the home finale on April 9, also my birthday and ironically Lou’s return to the Rock as the new GM of the Maple Leafs.  You can also buy extra tickets for sth price this year, whereas the past couple years extra tickets were priced in between sth cost and box office cost.

On the other hand, it didn’t take long for something to annoy me when I realized the home opener was going to be on the same night as the Mets’ first playoff game in nine years.  Obviously that’s nobody’s fault, crossovers will happen – but man with the Mets and maybe Yankees playing playoff games as well, it might be a ghost town, especially with the low expectations surrounding the Devils.  At least I’ll get to see most of the sth’s I know on Opening Night.  Hopefully the team will be able to get off to a good start at least and build some excitement.  Every team in every sport always wants to get off to a good start but it’s probably more imperative for the Devils with low expectations and a segment of the fanbase that only knows success under Lou acting displaced with all the changes.  As if every organization in every sport doesn’t change over at some point.  Memo to other Devils fans: Be lucky you had it as good as you did for 25 years.  My Jets, Mets and every other organization changes regimes constantly.  Of course when you have one regime in place for nearly three decades it’s going to be a total culture shock when it’s gone and people will react differently.  I just hope most of the fanbase gives the new regime a fair chance and I certainly hope the new regime knows what they’re doing.  This market and fanbase can ill-afford having a prolonged period of darkness a la the Isles from the mid-90’s till the last couple years, they may already be losing part of a generation of fans to the Rangers/Isles.

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