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Off-Season Game Plan: New Jersey Devils

Scott Cullen
5/16/2014 11:38:10 AM
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The New Jersey Devils have managed to miss the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, defying the statistical odds in the process.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Devils team that is likely due for better results, and at least part of that is due to the impending departure of a future Hall of Famer.

This past season, the Devils ranked fifth in Fenwick Close (unblocked 5-on-5 shot attempts when the game is within a goal through two periods, or tied in the third), after they were ranked third the year before.

The most glaring reason for a team to not have success despite strong puck possession metrics is a bad run with percentages and that's been true with the Devils. This past season, the most obvious run of bad luck for New Jersey was a 0-13 record in shootouts, games that are being decided, effectively, by coin flips. For a team that finished five points out of a playoff spot, even getting 40% of those 13 points would have been enough.

The Devils were 2-7 in 2012-2013, too, running their two-year record to 2-20! This after going 12-4 in the shootout in 2011-2012. Those results fluctuate.

But, it's not just a bad run on shootout winning percentage that has come back to get the Devils. They've also had subpar goaltending. Over the past four years, the Devils' 5-on-5 save percentage ranks 28th.

In 2013-2014, the Devils' overall save percentage of .907 ranked 23rd in the league, a step up from being ranked 28th with an .890 save percentage, the year before. These percentages, combined with the bad run in shootouts serve to undermine what is, otherwise, a competitive hockey team. Not likely a Cup contender, their 2012 Cup Final appearance notwithstanding, but good enough to be a playoff team if the percentages aren't dramatically awful.

This goes back to the premise that the Devils may be looking better in that regard going forward, as it appears Martin Brodeur's run in New Jersey is coming to an end. A four-time Vezina Trophy winner who has won more games (688) and recorded more shutouts (124) than any other goaltender, Brodeur is 42-years-old and the numbers tell the story -- he's no longer a starting-calibre goaltender, so if the Devils move ahead with Cory Schneider handling a true starter's workload, that alone will already improve their chances of success.

This isn't to suggest that everything will be fine once Brodeur moves on, because that's not the case. The Devils' two best offensive players, Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias, are also getting on in years and there don't appear to be any heir apparents among New Jersey's prospects, so while the current Devils roster appears good enough to compete for a playoff spot, there is a ceiling on how good they can realistically expect to be.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.

GM/COACH
Lou Lamoriello/Peter DeBoer

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Jaromir Jagr 75.69 82 24 43 67 59.2% $3.5M
Patrik Elias 73.73 65 18 35 53 54.6% $5.5M
Travis Zajac 70.78 80 18 30 48 58.5% $5.75M
Adam Henrique 70.16 77 25 18 43 52.9% $4.0M
Ryane Clowe 68.64 43 7 19 26 51.8% $4.85M
Michael Ryder 65.92 82 18 16 34 53.3% $3.5M
Damien Brunner 63.77 60 11 14 25 53.3% $2.5M
Dainius Zubrus 63.37 82 13 13 26 54.1% $3.1M
Tuomo Ruutu 61.70 76 8 16 24 52.3% $3.8M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Ryan Carter 59.35 62 7 3 10 51.3% UFA $775K
Stephen Gionta 59.15 66 4 7 11 49.9% UFA $563K
Steve Bernier 58.43 78 3 9 12 53.0% UFA $775K
Jacob Josefson 55.66 27 1 2 3 50.0% RFA $725K

At 42-years-old, Jaromir Jagr scored his most points in the NHL since 2007-2008. He's lost a step, maybe two, but he's still a massive physical presence who can control the puck in the offensive zone. The Devils are also smart enough to utilize Jagr properly, focusing his attention on the offensive side of the game.

Consistency is the hallmark of Patrik Elias's game, even as he hits his late thirties. He's one of 10 players to have at least .70 points per game in every season since 2005-2006. Naturally, he's no longer at his peak but, at 38-years-old, Elias remains a reliable two-way player.

Further removed from his Achilles injury, Travis Zajac had a more productive offensive season, though he's tended towards being a stronger two-way player than a typical first-line scoring centre. Even so, he still rates pretty well in terms of goal differential, on for 56.0% of 5-on-5 goals over the past six seasons.

Not the most likely candidate to lead the Devils in goal-scoring last season, Adam Henrique doesn't generate that many shots. Among the 51 players to score at least 25 goals last season, two (Steven Stamkos and Valtteri Filppula) had fewer shots on goal than Henrique. The Devils have committed long-term to Zajac and Henrique down the middle and that's okay, but that pair might also come with a lower ceiling than other teams' top-two centres.

Power forward Ryane Clowe, signed last summer as an effective replacement for David Clarkson, has scored 10 goals in 83 games over the past two seasons, but he was still effective enough when healthy. The trouble is that health tends to go quickly for power forwards on the wrong side of 30, so health likely remains a risk going forward.

Michael Ryder has scored at least 18 goals in five of the past six seasons (scoring 16 in the lockout-shortened season), but last year's 34 points in 82 games represented the second-lowest scoring rate of his career. At 34, he's in decline, but has one year left on his contract, so it's not as though the Devils are invested long-term; they can still hope that Ryder has enough left to give them 20 goals next season.

Even after a decent rookie season, Damien Brunner had a bit of a hard time finding a contract last summer before ending up with the Devils. While he's counted on to provide complementary offence, two goals in his last 27 games didn't exactly fulfill that expectation. He's skilled enough to complement skilled players, but does not appear be strong enough to drive play in his own right.

35-year-old Dainius Zubrus is a trusted soldier, who was often tasked with difficult checking assignments last season. He's versatile enough to get moved around the lineup as needed.

Acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes, veteran Tuomo Ruutu was very effective in New Jersey. He had a modest eight points in 19 games, but was also on the ice for more than 58% of the shots during 5-on-5 play. Ruutu's body has taken a beating over the course of his career, and isn't too fleet afoot, but that seemed to work out all right while playing with Jagr, as they could use their power game to dominate possession.

There are enough returning forwards that the Devils could press ahead with that top nine and replace (or re-sign) fourth-line free agents, but it wouldn't hurt to add another quality forward to the mix. Maybe someone like Devin Setoguchi or a return of Brian Gionta could work.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Andy Greene 69.64 82 8 24 32 56.3% $3.0M
Anton Volchenkov 61.18 56 0 8 8 55.0% $4.25M
Jon Merrill 60.83 52 2 9 11 53.6% $840K
Peter Harrold 59.61 33 0 4 4 54.7% $800K
Bryce Salvador 58.14 40 1 3 4 50.4% $3.167M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Marek Zidlicky 70.26 81 12 30 42 53.3% UFA $3.0M
Eric Gelinas 68.09 60 7 22 29 53.1% RFA $660K
Mark Fayne 62.42 72 4 7 11 55.3% UFA $1.3M
Adam Larsson 59.75 26 1 2 3 55.5% RFA $925K

He's on the small side as defencemen go, but Andy Greene has played every game in the past two seasons, playing big minutes, and has been very effective under difficult circumstances. He's not a prototype No. 1 defenceman, but that's the role Greene fills for the Devils.

There was a time when Anton Volchenkov hurled his body in front of every shot attempt, consistently ranking among the league's blocked shot leaders -- topping out at 273 in 2006-2007 -- but those were days when he was playing 21 minutes per game, facing tough opposition. Now, Volchenkov is logging 16 minutes a game, facing relatively easy assignments. The question for the Devils to answer is whether or not it's worth taking a $4.25-million cap hit for the next two seasons on a defenceman who doesn't play very much.

A second-round pick in 2010, Jon Merrill didn't spent long in the AHL (27 games, scoring 18 points) before landing in New Jersey and he played well as a rookie. Not a standout, and not the kind of offensive contributions that he had in Albany or at the University of Michigan, but Merrill has the size and skating ability to find himself in a top-four role.

Peter Harrold is a utility man, filling in wherever he's needed and even providing solid possession stats, but he's played 86 NHL games over the past four seasons.

Bryce Salvador was a playoff hero in 2012 and while he continues to play 20 minutes a night, when healthy (he missed 42 games with injuries last season), he's been on the wrong end of the possession game. He's 38-years-old, so it would be reasonable to cut back on his playing time.

He can round out his game to earn the trust of the coaching staff, but there's no denying the impact that Eric Gelinas can have on the power play, as he scored 17 of his 29 points with the man advantage.

The fourth overall pick in 2011, Adam Larsson hasn't been able to secure a regular spot in the lineup, with his ice time decreasing over the course of his three pro seasons. If he's not going to be part of the Devils' plans next season, the 21-year-old is young enough that he would have value on the trade market.

While Mark Fayne is an underrated defender that the Devils may lose to free agency, there could also be some appeal for the Devils to go after a veteran defenceman like Dan Boyle, Anton Stralman or Tom Gilbert to stabilize their top four.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Cory Schneider 65.79 45 16 15 12 1.97 .921 $4.0M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Martin Brodeur 58.79 39 19 14 6 2.51 .901 UFA $4.5M

When Cory Schneider was acquired from Vancouver at last summer's draft, there may have been some expectation that he would be the Devils' starting goaltender, but he barely played more than Martin Brodeur, despite having a .921 save percentage compared to Brodeur's .901. Over the past five years, Schneider's .928 save percentage is near the best in the league and the Devils should probably see what he can do with 55-60 starts.

On the other hand, Brodeur's game has declined in recent seasons, as one might expect from a now 42-year-old goaltender. Brodeur seems to be inclined to play next season and, strange as it sounds, it may not be in New Jersey.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Damon Severson D Kelowna (WCHL) 15-46-61, +47, 64 GP
Steven Santini D Rochester (AHL) 3-8-11, +26, 35 GP
Reid Boucher LW Albany (AHL) 22-16-38, -3, 56 GP
Stefan Matteau C Albany (AHL) 13-13-26, +6, 67 GP
Keith Kinkaid G Albany (AHL) 2.29 GAA, .912 SV%, 43 GP
Reece Scarlett D Albany (AHL) 6-14-20, +11, 48 GP
Blake Coleman C Miami (NCHC) 19-9-28, +8, 27 GP
Ryan Kujawinski C Kingston (OHL) 423-18-41, +3, 45 GP
Graham Black C Swift Current (WHL) 34-63-97, +18, 69 GP
Blake Pietila LW Michigan Tech. (WCHA) 8-20-28, -4, 39 GP
Alexander Urbom D Albany (AHL) 1-10-11, -3, 35 GP

A defenceman with good size and mobility who was drafted in the second round of 2012, Damon Severson struggled early upon his return to the WHL, but got back on track, finishing the regular season with 30 points in his last 31 games before leading Kelowna in playoff scoring.

Picked in the second round last summer, Steve Santini is a rock-solid physical defenceman who had a strong freshman year at Boston College. Doesn't have the puck skills of some other New Jersey defence prospects.

Picked in the fourth round in 2011, Reid Boucher is a goal-scorer with a big shot and while he scored all right in the AHL, he managed two goals and seven points in 23 games with New Jersey in his first audition.

Powerfully-built Stefan Matteau, a first-round pick in 2012, seems a safe bet to develop into an NHL player, but hasn't scored enough to project him to fit into top half of the depth chart when he does reach the NHL for keeps.

Undrafted out of Union College, Keith Kinkaid has put in three seasons in the AHL, with last season the best of the three. While there might be an opportunity to step in as the backup to Schneider, it could require a leap of faith to pencil Kinkaid into that spot.

A sixth-round pick in 2011, Reece Scarlett had a solid first pro season, at least when he was healthy, but was limited to 48 games in his first pro season. A good showing next year could put Scarlett into consideration for New Jersey.

Texas native Blake Coleman didn't score much in his first two seasons at Miami-Ohio, but broke through for 19 goals and 28 points in 27 games as a junior. Surely the Devils would appreciate if he could build on that with a strong senior campaign.

Drafted in the third round last summer, Ryan Kujawinski has good size and can score, but missed time with hand and knee injuries last season. The 19-year-old should have a big year in the OHL next season.

A fifth-round pick in 2012, Graham Black had modest production in the WHL, until last season, when he burst through with 97 points in 69 games as an overager. Time for him to make the move to the AHL.

Picked in the fifth round in 2011, Blake Pietila has been a solid, if unspectacular collegiate player at Michigan Tech. The 21-year-old needs a strong senior campaign if he's going to be considered a serious prospect.

Alexander Urbom is huge and got into 20 games with the Washington Capitals, after he was claimed on waivers last season, but he returned to the Devils' organization, remaining a viable depth option on the blueline.

Devils advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
30th - Brendan Lemieux, David Pastrnak, Adrian Kempe, Nikolai Goldobin.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Devils have approximately $53.5M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 15 players.

Check out my possible Devils lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: One top nine forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender.

What I said the Devils needed last year: Four top nine forwards, two top four defencemen, goaltending

They added: Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder, Ryane Clowe, Damien Brunner, Rostislav Olesz, Cory Schneider.

TRADE MARKET
Damien Brunner, Michael Ryder, Anton Volchenkov, Bryce Salvador, Adam Larsson.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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