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Cullen: Bounceback season for the Devils not automatic

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Scott Cullen
9/16/2011 3:40:58 PM
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The New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 1995-1996, so there are expectations that they will return to their previous levels of success, but that won't come automatically. Bounceback or breakthrough seasons will be needed to get the Devils back to the postseason.

The best hope for the Devils turning around their fortunes is the return of Zach Parise, the dynamic scorer who missed all but 13 games last season with a knee injury. Prior to last season, Parise had missed a total of three games in five NHL seasons, so he's been durable, and had four consecutive 30-goal seasons. If he's healthy, he'll go a long way towards providing offensive balance for the Devils.

The challenge for Parise may lie in the fact that his usual centre, Travis Zajac, is out long-term following an Achilles injury suffered this summer. Zajac has been a reliable complement to Parise, providing sound two-way play, so it will be a matter of Parise meshing with another centre if he's going to return to his elite production.

It's hard to imagine a worse follow-up season to a monster free agent contract than the one Ilya Kovalchuk provided in 2010-2011, scoring 29 points and going minus-29 in 48 games prior to the All-Star break before rallying down the stretch to score 31 points (with a plus-3 rating) in 33 games. Before last season, Kovalchuk had reeled off six straight seasons with at least 40 goals, so a return to that level would go a long way towards providing the Devils bang for their considerable bucks.

For years, goaltender Martin Brodeur would play 70-plus games, winning at least 40, which made him a sure thing in terms of fantasy value. Now 39, he's missed time in two of the last three seasons due to injuries and last year's .903 save percentage was his lowest since 1994-1995. To his credit, Brodeur recovered from a brutal start to the season (5-18-1, 3.04 GAA, .876 SV% through December) to finish strong (18-8-2, 1.96 GAA, .920 SV%), so he might still have a great season left in him, but it seems advisable to be conservative with expectations now.

Patrik Elias has been a consistent performer for a long time, scoring at least 20 goals in nine of the last 11 seasons and at least 50 points in 10 of the last 12 seasons and, it's worth noting, that the two seasons in which he missed those thresholds he was injured, playing 58 and 38 games, respectively. Now 35, and coming off the first minus season of his career, it's fair to modify expectations for Elias, but he's not done yet.

With Zajac out, there is a huge opportunity for Jacob Josefson, the 20-year-old centre who chipped in 10 points in 28 games, while playing 13:14 per game, as a rookie last year. It might be too soon to place offensive expectations on Josefson, but the Devils may have little choice but to thrust him into the fire.

As underwhelming as Dainius Zubrus has been in the last four seasons with the Devils, never scoring more than 40 points in a season, he could be an important contributor, particularly in Zajac's absence.

After a couple of promising seasons, winger David Clarkson took a step back last season, but he's shown an ability to contribute offensively as well as with fisticuffs. 20 goals and 150 penalty minutes isn't out of the question if he finds chemistry with the right linemates, but it's tough to expect that breakthrough following the worst season of his career.

Looking for some breakthrough performances, the Devils could use more from young wingers Nick Palmieri and Mattias Tedenby and both showed flashes last season, but it's asking a lot for them to become primary contributors.

While Devils first rounder Adam Larsson might improve the defence immediately, his production in the Swedish Elite League (26 points in 86 games over the last two seasons) doesn't suggest that he's ready to make an offensive impact as a rookie. That could mean that Andy Greene wuold get a shot to anchor the New Jersey power play. Greene had 15 power play points a couple of years ago before falling off to six last year.

The Devils have enough high-end talent to remain interesting, but the loss of Zajac, coupled with a lineup comprised of too many players that are either a) hitting the downside of their careers or b) just getting started in their careers makes it a daunting task for the Devils to reclaim their place in the postseason dance.

NHL Depth Chart - New Jersey Devils

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 Sports on Facebook.

Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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