With the newest made-for-TV incarnation of the World Cup going on, it’s almost gone overlooked that all thirty NHL teams including the Devils are opening training camp this week. Of course in the Devils’ case it still feels a bit like the B team with coach John Hynes and franchise players Cory Schneider and Kyle Palmieri still in Toronto to help preside over team USA’s quick burial at the World Cup. All three will probably be back by the Devils’ first preseason game next Monday though. Admittedly I only had a passing interest in the World Cup in part because Cory and Palmieri were bit players at best, which some people were relieved about. In that vein, I’m not one of those fans that say ‘well I don’t want my guys playing in a meaningless tournament!’. What do hockey fans think preseason games are? You can just as easily suffer a serious injury in camp or during preseason than you can during this de facto All-Star competition.
It is nice to have the coach back for the beginning of camp though, especially since for the first time in a few years the Devils actually enter camp with a sense of optomism and without any dark clouds hanging over the franchise. It had gotten old since basically the end of 2010 wondering about ownership problems, key players leaving for home, a contreversial contract penalty, a lockout that didn’t do us any favors and last but not least cleaning out an entire generation of successful Devils hockey with the departures of franchise icons Lou Lamoriello, Martin Brodeur and many others. While last season’s Devils fell far short of the playoffs in the end, for a few months they showed flashes of what this new generation wants to become and the offseason trade for Taylor Hall and long-term extension for Jersey native Palmieri just makes the present and future that much brighter.
That’s not to say this team’s a Cup contender or anything like that. There are still flaws that need to be addressed. While acquiring Hall was much-needed for an offense that was particularly dreadful 5-on-5 last year, dealing Adam Larsson created a hole on a defense which wasn’t all that proven to begin with. Signing Ben Lovejoy from the Penguins helps but this team’s going to need a couple of Damon Severson, John Moore, Jon Merrill and rookie Steve Santini to step up and become top four defensemen, or GM Ray Shero‘s going to have to go outside the organization for camp/in-season help.
Offensively this team can’t be worse than it’s been the last few years, and along with Hall it’s almost certain 2015 first-rounder Pavel Zacha (above) will make the team, especially if he’s being tried as center, where the Devils could use another legit top nine player to go along with Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac. At wing the Devils should be fine – if healthy – which applies both to vet Mike Cammalleri who missed nearly half the season last year after leading the club in scoring early, and also to new acquisition Beau Bennett, another former first-rounder who was acquired from Shero’s old organization at the draft. Bennett will be competing with holdover Devante Smith-Pelly for a spot at RW2 in the top six. One name I haven’t mentioned is franchise icon Patrik Elias, still seemingly in limbo waiting to get healthy enough from surgery to try skating before officially coming back…or hanging them up after a brilliant career. Elias represents the last tangible link to the glory days, unless you count goaltender coach Chris Terreri or Albany assistant Sergei Brylin.
Although there’s no question about either the starting goaltender or about Schneider’s quality as a top player at his position, there is a question over who’s going to be the backup this year. Keith Kinkaid‘s filled that role for the most part over the last couple years but Scott Wedgewood came on last year in Albany and had a few nice starts up here late in the season, making it a legit competition for the backup job. Especially since the loser will have to clear waivers to get sent back down to Albany. Not only is there a question over who’ll be the backup but there’s a question how good the backup will be and whether the Devils will have to upgrade that area. Kinkaid after a nice rookie season fell off dramatically last year, and Wedgewood’s still almost totally unproven at the NHL level. If the Devils are going to contend for their first playoff spot since the 2012 lockout, games played by backup(s) could prove decisive in the end.
One of the changes the last couple years I do like is the Devils participating in a prospects challenge with the Sabres and Bruins last weekend, essentially giving many of their key younger players a couple of additional games, against players who have similar age and talent. Extra evaluation time and practice at game speed is always a good thing for inexperienced players. Our preseason’s also seven games this year as opposed to six, including an additional game with the Panthers at West Point, NY five days before the same two teams open their respective regular seasons in Florida on the 13th.
Not that I’ve completely bought in to being excited about the opening of camp yet, in fact this blog is the most I’ve thought about hockey in months. Perhaps that’s the price of being a multi-sport fan. I don’t have the same excitement over camp opening in hockey, football camps opening or Spring Training that fans with undivided attention will. Take this month for instance. While hockey fans all across North America are breathlessly awaiting camp updates and who’s playing on what line in the first practice, I’m watching my Mets try to hold onto a Wild Card spot in an exciting race despite a pitching staff held together with spit and duct tape, and also watching the beginning of the NFL season with the Jets having a talented team run up against a horrendous early schedule.
If it wasn’t for football or baseball I no doubt would be more breathlessly anticipating Devils camp. Maybe to a degree the older you get the more jaded you get about preseason and you just want the season to get underway too. Don’t get me wrong it is nice to finally have something to start anticipating after basically a five-month offseason. Amazingly I have been to Newark three times since the season ended though, a couple of times for season ticket holder Q/A’s (one with coach Hynes and first-rounder Michael McLeod, another with new acquistion Hall) and once for a development camp scrimmage in July. By the time I go to the home opener on October 18 though, it’ll be more than six months since actually being at the Rock for a game itself.
Of course due to three lockouts in two decades, all hockey fans have become conditioned to long waits when neccesary (thanks again Gary). And as a Devil fan I’m starting to become too accustomed to long offseasons that start before the actual end of the previous season.