Ilya Kovalchuk was the team's top scorer in 2011-12. Given the Devils' forwards going into 2013, he very well may have to carry more weight on his back. - Paul Bereswill
Since there will be a 2013 season, the New Jersey Devils must be looked as they are heading into a shortened season. This post focuses on the Devils' forwards, which looks strong at center yet thin at wing and offensive production.
With a tentative agreement on a contract bargaining agreement, nothing short of an absolute disaster is going to prevent a NHL season some sort from happening this year. In other words, we will get to see the New Jersey Devils very soon. Therefore, we've put together a 2013 season preview for the Devils similar to the last one we did back in 2011. We don't know how long the season will be or who it will be against, but we do have a good understanding of who is available to develop some idea on what to expect. The preview itself will be split up into five parts, finishing with a summary and a set of predictions from each writer. The first part of this preview focuses solely on the forwards.
What's Changed Since Last Season
The biggest development for the New Jersey Devils in the 2012 offseason was the departure of Zach Parise. Love him or loathe him for taking the money to Minnesota, he was a fantastic player for the Devils. He played in all situations, he was very productive, and he racked up the shots while getting stops in his own end. Players like him are worth an incredible amount of money (to some point) and they are incredibly difficult to replace and it doesn't appear the Devils have done that. One of the big challenges for the Devils for their upcoming short training camp and this short season is figuring out just who's going to fill the minutes he leaves behind, much less who's going to make up his goals and assists. Actually, I think we can answer the latter, it appears to be nobody at this point.
The departures did not end there. Alexei Ponikarovsky, a shrewd mid-season pick up in 2012, signed with Winnipeg for a reasonable deal. Ponikarovsky was acquired to fill in the third line left wing role and strengthen the team's depth at forward. He turned about to be a good rental, and so he signed elsewhere in July. While his loss is not as large as Parise's, it's still a loss. I think the decision to sign the Ottawa-bought-out Bobby Butler addresses the depth concern. Yet, third line left wing remains as a question mark. The Devils also decided to part ways with Eric Boulton by buying out his final year of his contract. Boulton was absolutely terrible. For example, he finished 678th in on-ice Corsi rate out of 680 NHL players who played at least 20 games according to Behind the Net. He will not be missed. The Devils did fill the open spot for a goon with signing Krys Barch, though I'd argue they didn't need to do that since Cam Janssen still takes up an active roster spot.
There's one other player from last season who isn't signed: Petr Sykora. However, I can't say he's gone because he's still unsigned. Sykora was a very pleasant surprise last season with 21 goals and 23 assists while playing against tough competition. However, he faded badly down the stretch and found himself as a healthy scratch in a deep playoff run. While a with-or-without-you chart shows he wasn't just riding Elias' coattails, if he's not getting shots, then he's not providing much on ice. The biggest tell to how he's regarded is that nobody picked him up before the last CBA ended despite a productive season. Once the new CBA is ratified, he can sign with whoever he wants, but that's assuming somebody wants him. I'm not confident in Sykora doing much in 2013, I can't ignore the possibility that he may return.
New Jersey did retain the surprisingly hot fourth line from the playoffs. Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta, and Steve Bernier all got new deals to keep them in New Jersey. The trio got pounded in possession in the postseason, but they're worlds better than any unit that included Janssen or Boulton that we kept seeing last season. They won't do a lot, but it's a fourth line that can actually chip in to the offense from time to time. That's perfectly acceptable for a fourth line. Moreover, as we saw for a few times last season, Carter and Bernier can be moved up to a third line role in a pinch.
Everyone else from last season returns. Leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk has been tearing up the KHL; thus, he'll be in great shape right away. Patrik Elias remains a top player, though he's not getting younger. It's good news Travis Zajac should be healthy, which will strengthen the team at center and he can act as an all-situations guy. Unfortunately, Adam Henrique had to get surgery to re-attach a ligament in his thumb while playing in Albany. Tom Gulitti reported last week at Fire & Ice that while the cast is now off, he'll need about four weeks of rehab before he can come back. I believe he will play a significant portion of this shortened 2013 season, but he won't be there at the start.
What The Current Devils Forwards Did in the NHL Regular Season in 2011-12
In order to put the Devils' current forward situation in perspective, I've put together two charts of the forwards who are now Devils of their stats from last season. The first is their basic stats from NHL.com and the second is their advanced stats at even strength from Behind the Net. I've included Sykora and Mattias Tedenby's numbers since they did play for New Jersey last season, they are two players fans think of in terms of current roster, and it's entirely possible we may see some of either in 2013.
Without Parise and Ponikarovsky, the Devils had exactly six forwards who outscored defenseman scoring leader Adam Larsson and his 18 points. While one can reasonably expect Zajac to be a productive player, the Devils got very little outside of their top six other than David Clarkson and last season. Mattias Tedenby lost his spot in the lineup, and the various attempts by Tim Sestito and Steven Zalewski fell flat on their face. Enough such that I didn't include them in these charts. The fourth line yielded just about nothing; Carter got his meager points away from them in that early part of 2011-12 on the third line. hat's why Lou went out and got Ponikarovsky, why Lou signed Bernier during the season, and why the fourth line was a revelation of sorts in the postseason. The depth needed to be stronger. Even so, the production was top-heavy among the forwards last season and it still is even without Parise.
Even among those forwards who cracked 18 regular season points, there's plenty of cause for concern. As great as Clarkson's 30 goals were, a closer review of each doesn't make me confident that he can score at the same rate for a second straight season. Henrique had a very good rookie season and a good playoffs, but the second NHL season for rookies can be all over the place. He may not build on it as much as we may like. The fact he'll have to come in the middle of this season off an injury will just make 2013 even tougher for him. We can't expect too much from him, which disappointing since the Devils need all the offense they can get. Even if the Devils do sign Sykora, there's no guarantee he'll be able to score as he did last season. That's big because if he can't shoot and score, then there's not much else he's bringing to the table. While he would play less games overall, the schedule itself may be more condensed, which could be disadvantageous for his already questionable effectivity.
In general, I'd like to see a lot more shots. Only four forwards on this team averaged two shots per game last season: Kovalchuk, Clarkson, Sykora, and Elias (at exactly two shots per game). Parise was one of the league's most prolific shooters, so his departure should mean more opportunities from others in theory. But will the others be more aggressive in his absence? This is something to keep an eye on since puck luck is what it is, but shots are repeatable. Since the goal production is likely going to be carried mainly by Kovalchuk, it's going to be up to everyone else to ease the load. They can help out by getting shots, shots, and more shots. That would also require more possession, which should be their goal anyway. A shortened season will keep the total lows, but the rates are what matter.
It's not all completely bad news. There's no reason to believe Kovalchuk won't be a beast given how legit his goals, primary, and secondary assists were in 2011-12 plus what he's done for SKA already. We can count him to lead the team in scoring. Provided he still has same gas left in the tank, Elias will definitely continue to be a strong playmaker. I feel confident in that based on my review of his primary and secondary assists last season. Zajac has proven to be a solid 50-60 point player in a 82 game season in the past, so I think it's reasonable to think he can help out now. Dainius Zubrus has never been all that productive, but he could continue at a 30-40 point pace while doing a bit of everything. It's not much, but he'll do more than just chip the a point here and there. The Devils won't be totally offensively-challenged, but there's reason to be concerned.
Looking at the advanced statistics from Behind the Net, it becomes a bit clearer as far as who can do what at even strength. (Note: Rank refers to their team. For example, Kovalchuk's on-ice Corsi rate was eighth out of the twenty forwards who played for New Jersey last season.)
Last season, the line of Elias, Sykora, and Zubrus went up against the other team's top opposition. Peter DeBoer used them as a power line and it worked quite well. Henrique, Parise, and Kovalchuk didn't see the toughs as often at even strength, but they did well in their own right. Beyond them and Clarkson's decent possession stats, things got messier and messier. Don't worry about Zajac's poor on-ice Corsi rate as he did only play 15 games last season. He's proven he can hold his own in terms of possession back in 2010-11. I wouldn't be surprised if the plan is to keep Elias as the center of a line for tough minutes so Kovalchuk can be more free to attack weaker opponents. Perhaps the Devils consider signing Sykora if only to bring back last season's unit, something DeBoer is already familiar with?
A chart like this demonstrates why I expect Butler to be in New Jersey as opposed to Tedenby beyond position. While he wasn't well regarded in Ottawa, he did well against his opposition. He did enjoy great offensive zone starts and great on-ice luck through PDO; but he was also a positive possession player and chipped in 16 points at even strength. Tedenby faced slightly tougher relative competition, got beat at evens, and didn't even produce all that much. Butler may have had it easier, but he did more with it than Tedenby's situation. That's why I think we should be more confident Butler plays in the NHL while Tedenby does not. Of course, their current performances in Albany would make the same case. Butler has become Albany's top scorer with 15 goals, 7 assists, and averaging three shots per game in 30 appearances. Tedenby has 7 goals, 7 assists, and is averaging under two shots per game in 28 appearances. It's clear who has been quite good and who has been underwhelming.
The advanced numbers also provide further confidence that Jacob Josefson showed signs of being a good possession player against fairly weak competition. That level of competition is right in line with a third line role and I think that spot would be great for him. Even though Henrique remains on the shelf, the Devils will be more than fine with a center group of Elias, Zajac, and Josefson with either Carter or Gionta on the fourth line. His solid performance in Albany so far in 2012-13 - he's second in team scoring - should help his cause for a third line center role. If he can stay healthy, then we'll get a better idea of what he can do for New Jersey.
Lastly, should DeBoer have to play a goon, one really has to question why. Most fourth line caliber players are not good in possession against weak competition. However, Janssen and Barch were absolutely awful in possession. Sure, Barch actually provided some points last season and played a little bit more; but the advanced stats don't lie. Both faced the softest of minutes at even strength and both were absolutely pounded. Oppositions loved playing against them. Neither were on an astonishingly horrible level as Boulton, but that's not really a compliment. We most likely won't see them together in a game since there's little reason to play two useless goons. However, I'm not going to get my wish of seeing either sparingly.
What The Devils Can Do with their Forwards
Let's start sketching out the possible forward lines for 2013. This is where it gets a bit confusing, so please bear with me. The most pressing issue at forward is the team's winger situation. Again, this team is quite strong down the middle with Zajac, Elias, and Josefson as the first, second, and third line centers. Elias can go against the toughs, Zajac is strong both-ways, and Josefson can handle the third line at even strength. The problem is that the Devils only have three sure-fire top nine wingers in Kovalchuk, Zubrus, and Clarkson. Kovalchuk and Zubrus are definitely top-six caliber players and it helps they can play on the left and the right. It's unknown whether Clarkson can keep firing a lot of pucks against stiffer competition. It may not be a great idea, but the DeBoer may have to at least try it given the current situation. When Henrique returns, he can really help out at left wing (and bump Clarkson down). Alas the team will have to make do without him to start 2013.
Given that Bobby Butler has caught on fire at Albany in recent weeks, he would be a good candidate to try out in the top six. We know from 2010-11 that a line of Kovalchuk, Zajac, and Nick Palmieri worked out well enough for some time. Palmieri didn't turn out to be a good player, but he served his simple role (e.g. go to net, don't attempt difficult passes) for a bit to some success under the Lemaire part of that lost season. I'd like to believe that Butler is probably better than Palmieri. Besides, in a shortened season, a hot streak could make a bigger impact, so the team might as well give a shot to someone who has been quite productive recently. Basically, I wouldn't mind seeing Kovalchuk, Zajac, and Butler at least experimented with in training camp. Should it work, the Devils at least addressed that issue up top. It won't be as good as Kovalchuk, Henrique, and Parise, but it can be good enough for this season. If not, then they may want to see if Clarkson can handle a tougher level of competition and play on a line where he won't be the featured shooter.
Should DeBoer want to use the Elias-Zubrus combination against tough competition, then the other winger position is going to be a problem of sorts. It's tempting to call for Elias to move back to left wing, but that just moves the hole around. The center position requires the player to be more responsible defensively. Elias is one of the best forwards on the team, if not the best, at defending. I would love to see Henrique be that left winger on that line, since he's showed some defensive skills among his production last season. Since he's still recovering from injury that can't happen just yet. I doubt Clarkson could move up and handle tough competition; and if we see this combination (Zubrus would slide to the left), then it would signal to me that it's not going to be a dedicated tough-minutes unit. Of course, I could be proven wrong and Elias and Zubrus can drag Clarkson along. I suppose Josefson could be placed at left wing up there for the time being. However, that creates a dearth at the third line. I don't know if I want to see Carter there again as last season showed he was really a fourth liner.
Speaking of the third line, I really have no idea who will be playing left wing there. This is essentially why I included Tedenby in my charts. While he hasn't been developing as we want, he may get a look in camp for that reason alone. Alternatively, DeBoer could just push up a fourth liner like Carter to be their left winger (he can play left wing) and stick someone else (Barch? Janssen? Harri Pesonen?) permanently on the fourth line. DeBoer could also go with seven defensemen - he does have eight NHL defensemen to choose from - and take out a forward hole that way by just double-shifting Kovalchuk for the handful of shifts the tenth and eleventh forwards would get. All of these could keep Clarkson on the third line where he can just keep bombing pucks on net and not get wrecked in the possession game. It would be very similar to last season's team prior to the Ponikarovsky trade. That's not very good, but there's only so much that can be done at this point. Henrique's injury makes a tricky situation even more complicated for the first few weeks of the 2013 season.
So here's what I'm thinking prior to training camp and what other moves are being made. I admit I have very little confidence in Mattias Tedenby, but I would (slightly) prefer trying him yet again on the third line as opposed to pushing up Carter and bringing someone else (again: Pesonen, Janssen, seventh defenseman, etc.) on the fourth.
Kovalchuk - Zajac - Butler
Zubrus - Elias - Clarkson
Tedenby/Carter - Josefson - Bernier
Carter/someone else - Gionta - Barch
Admittedly, I can't say I'm pleased with this on paper. I can only do so much with who's currently available on the roster. But the Devils may be able to do something about it.
What the Devils Can Do in the Future with their Forward Situation
The easy option is to sign Sykora to a cheap, one-year deal. No one else has been interested, Sykora presumably wants to play, and the Devils know him exactly. While I'm not all that hopeful that Sykora can contribute right away, he would fill a positional hole. DeBoer would know what to do with a Sykora-Elias-Zubrus line as he used them all last season. If he doesn't want to use that combination, he can drop him a line and see if he does better against weaker competition. Sykora still has his shot, so if he can keep getting into spots to use it, then he can help alleviate some of the offense from the top guys. And if it doesn't work out, it will be a short-term risk. I'm not a big fan of the idea, but it's a justifiable move and it's something I think the Devils can do right after the CBA is ratified.
The more interesting option is to acquire a second or third line caliber winger in a trade. The Devils have eight NHL defensemen on the books as well as plenty of defenseman prospects. They are also well under the cap ceiling for 2013. Whether it's a package deal or just a straight-up one-for-one trade, the Devils have options and a glut of players they could move. The forward issue could be dealt with in this manner. The price will obviously depending on who they want to acquire. Whether it'll be a smart decision will also depend on who they should go after. Given that the Devils have quite a few expiring contracts and with more stable ownership, I'd like to think they can take on a decently sized contract if it comes to that. Should Lou decide to explore a trade, then I wouldn't expect it right away. Remember that it took more than half of last season before the organization realized they needed someone like Ponikarovsky. While it's a shorter season, the Devils may decide to see what they have play out before making any moves. Lou's never been above a mid-season deal so don't be surprised if he makes one.
In terms of a longer view, keep a close eye on Elias, Zubrus, Clarkson, Henrique (when he returns), Josefson, Butler, Tedenby, and Janssen. All of them will be free agents of some sort this summer. The Devils could look very different at forward for next season. It would behoove some of them to have a relatively big 2013, if not only for their own negotiations but also to take more of the load off Kovalchuk.
What the Bottom Line Looks Like
After all of these words, the following is quite clear. Kovalchuk has been a proven scorer here and abroad; thus, he'll be required to keep scoring to lead the forwards and the team on offense. Elias has been very important to the team at both ends for the last decade; and he'll be required to keep doing what he has been even as he gets older. Zajac has been very effective when he was healthy and while he's not a point machine, he has been an offensive contributor in the past except for his injury-shortened 2011-12. Beyond those three, there's reason to be concerned about the forwards' offense. I expect Clarkson to dip in goal scoring rate after his big 2011-12; Henrique has a rookie season to follow up and an injury to return from; and Zubrus has never been all that productive of a player. The rest of the group haven't been producers in recent memory; and the team has done nothing to show it can replace even a big part of what Parise produced. I don't know how far Kovalchuk, Elias, and Zajac can carry them to be honest; so we need to hope some answers can be found. Surely, someone else has to contribute. But who?
With Henrique out, Parise and Ponikarovsky gone, and Sykora in limbo, the team looks strong in the middle but they're thin at wing. That opens the door for Butler and possibly Tedenby, but the challenge of effectively filling in the minutes at forward remains daunting. Last season, no one was really exceptional in terms of possession, only a few current Devils shot quite a bit, and/or scored more than 18 points. That doesn't inspire much confidence. Further injuries and/or slumps to certain players could doom the Devils. On the other hand, if a few guys get hot, then the concerns should be allayed. This group is not set in stone and there are some things the Devils can do about this situation. I expect they'll do something about it; but they don't have a lot of time to act - especially with a short season on the horizon.
After all of these thoughts, I want to know yours about this section of the roster. Are you feeling optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between about the Devils' current group of forwards? What do you think the Devils need to do with their forwards? Can Kovalchuk really carry all of them? Who else do you think will step up to share the load, if anyone? Will we see Sykora back, and do we really want him to return? What do you expect from the forwards in 2013? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' forwards for this coming season in the comments. Thank you for reading.