A new season will begin for the New Jersey Devils on October 3, followed by their home opened on October 4. Preseason will conclude this week and the Devils will set their 23-man roster by the end of it. Now is as good as time as any to take a step back and consider what the team looks like going into the 2013-14 season. As earlier this year and the year before, we at In Lou We Trust will provide you an in-depth season preview across this week. Today, we will begin with the position that has the most concerns: the forwards.
What's Changed Since Last Season
A lot. Lou saw the 2013 Devils and determined they needed additional forward help. Through several minor deals, the Devils added Andrei Loktionov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt D`Agostini, and Steve Sullivan. Among those four, only Loktionov's services were retained. The Devils were quite active on July 5, the first day of free agency in this past summer. After already re-signing Dainius Zubrus and Patrik Elias, the Devils added Ryane Clowe to a large deal, winger Michael Ryder to a much more sensible contract, and Rostislav Olesz as a low-risk reclamation project, for lack of a better term. On that same day, one of the team's leading shooters and goal scorers over the past two seasons, David Clarkson, signed a huge deal with Toronto. One could surmise this helped lead Lou to go out and get Clowe and Ryder to help fill the gap. Still, the Devils had their lineup pretty much set at forward. Jacob Josefson was a restricted free agent and got re-signed. Mattias Tedenby got one more chance with a new deal. Adam Henrique was a restricted free agent and had no arbitration rights, so while he was unsigned, he couldn't go elsewhere. He did ink a new six-year deal before September. Even with the new additions, scoring remained as a concern as Mike explained a few days after Free Agency Frenzy. Still, it was arguable that Clowe, Ryder, and Olesz would be upgrades over the guys added during 2013 and with some better puck luck, the Devils forwards could do more in 2013-14.
Then Ilya Kovalchuk announced his retirement. In a word: What. While this was apparently brought up between Lou and him a bit earlier, the news came out of the blue and smacked all of the Devils in the face. The commitment, the big shot, the second gear used to charge up the ice, and his role as a key contributor for shots and points was gone. All gone. Needless to say, I was shocked and unhappy about the news and I suspect many of the fans are still sore about it. I don't blame those still mad about Kovy quitting one bit; I'm still peeved about it. In the long run, this may not be so bad. For this coming season, the question of "Who's going to score on this team?" became a bigger concern. As it should be when two of the most prolific shooters and scorers from the past two seasons leave the team in the same month.
In response, the Devils did sign Jaromir Jagr to a one year contract in the hopes that he still has something left in the tank. He was productive in 2013 so it's not entirely out of the question that he could contribute in 2013-14. He remains as one of the few Devils to have not played in a preseason game so far and hasn't practiced much with the team due to a lower body injury of sorts. As long as he's fine for the start of the season, it's not that big of an issue but it is noteworthy. Just when one would think the Devils would be done at this position, they could add one more forward. Just after preseason began, the Devils brought in Damien Brunner on a professional try out contract. The Devils expressed interest in Brunner earlier in the summer but that didn't pan out at the time. Brunner was not able to agree to terms with another team. Since he still wants to be in the NHL, he's agreed to the try out and has been a part of two preseason games where he was in the top six. The Devils could very well sign him soon and make him the fifth forward added to the organization before the 2013-14 season. A very busy offseason for the Devils forwards and the coaches now have to figure out how to organize them all into twelve active roster spots and two extra roster spots (assume the third is going to one of the seven defensemen they have signed).
What The Current Devils Forwards Did in the NHL Regular Season in 2013
In order to get an idea of what to expect going into this season, we must look back at what happened last season for perspective. It was a lockout-shortened 48-game season but games were still played, minutes were still logged, shots were still taken, and points were still awarded. The Devils struggled throughout 2013 to score goals. For the entire team, the Devils shot at 8.1% - the league average was 8.8%. In 5-on-5 play, the Devils had one of the lowest shooting percentages in the league. The same followed in 5-on-4 play, where they shot at 10.8%. While those percentages include the defensemen, the point remains: the pucks weren't dropping in nearly as much as other teams. As a result, their counting numbers don't look so good.
(Note: Rostislav Olesz played in the AHL all of last season so he's not in this chart.)
The departures of Clarkson and Kovalchuk really stand out when one takes a look at the production of the Devils' forwards. Patrik Elias did lead last season in scoring but there was a considerable drop off in points after him and the departed duo. He was also the only forward to put up over 100 shots to return. Only Adam Henrique and Andrei Loktionov shot over 10%. For the former, that was helped out by a hot start. For the latter, I highly doubt Loktionov can sustain such a high percentage. In addition to points and shots lost, Clarkson and Kovalchuk makes two more spots for minutes open up. Only Elias, Henrique, Travis Zajac, and Zubrus averaged over fifteen minutes per game among the current group of forwards who were Devils last season. Those four did play in all situations and they'll be expected to do so again. Plenty of players who got limited minutes only for a limited number of games return this season. They all won't make the team but they could be called up later on. Among them, none of them stick out for their production either in points or shots.
In this way, the team's additions make quite a bit of sense. The Devils lost productive forwards who played a significant number of minutes. They went out and got some forwards who were productive in 2013 and each played a significant number of minutes for their respective teams. Even Clowe, who only scored three goals last season and all of them after he was traded to New York, would have finished third in scoring on the Devils in 2013. Ryder and Jagr brought points with them after Dallas traded them, and Brunner made an impact alongside Henrik Zetterberg in his first NHL season with Detroit. All four got power play time, which can fill in the ice time gap left from Clarkson and Kovalchuk; and they can hang in a top six on even strength. There are two questions that arise from this. First, can they keep it up going into 2013-14? Ryder had a high shooting percentage that I don't know whether he can sustain it; Jagr was also pretty high at over 13%; and what can Brunner do? At least Clowe should be far luckier than he was last season. Second, can this combination plus the potential of Olesz, add enough shots to replace? The Devils only averaged 28.1 shots per game in 2013, which is below league median. Clarkson and Kovalchuk were significant in the Devils getting that many and, again, they're gone. If the team's shooting percentage is better but the team doesn't shoot more, then the forwards may not be that much more productive than last season - which would be a disappointment.
Delving into the 5-on-5 analytics presented at Behind the Net, the Devils forwards were strong in terms of possession (on-ice Corsi, or on-ice Shooting Attempts). Only two Devil forwards fell below zero, meaning the opposition out-attempted them while they were on the ice, over the season and they were two players who played in limited roles for a really small part of the season: Cam Janssen and Mattias Tedenby. Even Krystofer Barch, who is not much more than a goon, broke even. The Devils were very strong in terms of possession in 2013 and the forwards led the way. The problem, again, was that the possession didn't yield goals and so results in games were frustratingly hard to come by.
Now, not all positive on-ice Corsi values are equal. Zone starts, indicated here by way of OZS% or Offensive Zone Starts percentage out of offensive and defensive zone starts, tend to skew matters. Someone with a positive on ice Corsi value that has a sub-50% OZS% is more impressive than someone with over 50%. It means that player started off more often in their own end of the rink and the team still out-attempted their opposition in the long run. Adam Henrique, Ryan Carter, and Jacob Josefson achieved this feat to various degress and it's more valuable than, say, Andrei Loktionov. Even with zone starts taken into account, Elias and Zajac drove the play forward quite a bit and should be expected to do the same. Among the returning Devils, Stephen Gionta really sticks out like a sore thumb. He mostly played with Carter and Bernier and he somehow ended up with an on-ice Corsi rate just ahead of zero and way below his CBGB linemates. It suggests he's the weak link from a possession standpoint. This also explains why some wonder whether Olesz' arrival means the end of Gionta's spot as opposed to anyone else's.
As for the incoming Devils, all four look good on the surface. Positive rates mean at the minimum that they weren't dragging their respective teams down. That said, I'd be a little bit conscious about expecting them to lead the way forward. Jagr ended up on a strong possession team in Boston, Clowe went from a strong possession team in San Jose to a little better one in New York, and Detroit has emphasized possession in the past so Brunner benefitted. I would expect Clowe, Jagr, Ryder, and Brunner to be complementary players in this regard. If they can show they drive events in the right direction, then great. Olesz is a wild card since he hasn't been in the NHL for some time but if he's truly competing with Gionta, it may not be a large hurdle to clear. Anyway, the four incoming forwards that were in the NHL produced and pushed the play forward against at least a decent level of competition. That theoretically could give the Devils more options in terms of match-ups.
One more thing, the incoming Devils were far luckier at 5-on-5 on the ice than the returning Devils. PDO, which isn't an abbreviation just the handle of the guy who came up with this, is a quick rule-of-thumb reference for a player's general luck. It's the summation of the team's shooting percentage and save percentage when the player is on the ice. In the long run, really low values will move upward and really high values will regress. A lot of Devils finished below the 1000 baseline (8% shooting, 92% save percentage in 5-on-5, for example). As noted earlier, the team's shooting percentage was low and it affected everyone's production. The goaltending wasn't so hot either. Only Brunner fell a bit below the baseline but it still would have ranked highly on last year's team. The other three didn't have very high values so there's some reason to hope that their percentages won't go completely awry. Of course, it's largely out of their control so I wouldn't put too much stock into it. Again, it's a quick reference but it highlights how unfortunate the 2013 team was.
What the Devils May Do at Forward
After taking last season's numbers into account for both returning and incoming forwards, how each will be used is the immediate challenge for Peter DeBoer and the rest of his staff. The Devils didn't make good minor signings for depth and they don't have any prospects who could step in right away with Stefan Matteau as the lone exception. Even he would benefit from a full season in the AHL. Injuries really can take a toll if the team is forced to go deep into Albany's roster. While they lack in vertical depth, they have plenty of horizontal depth. That may be a preferable problem for coaches. Many of these forwards can play wing or center: Elias, Zajac, Henrique, Josefson, Carter, Gionta, and Zubrus. This is useful for match-ups, filling in a roster, or just getting a different look on the ice.
The potential addition of Brunner gives the Devils the possibility of actually having three scoring lines instead of a top-six that will carry the load and a bottom-six that will chip in what they can like last season. Should he be signed, he would be an eighth lock to make the Devils roster on opening night. The other seven are who you would expect since they were either re-signed or acquired by the team this summer: Elias, Zajac (his extension begins now), Zubrus, Jagr, Clowe, Ryder, and Henrique. Considering that Loktionov has shown flashes of offense and Josefson has shown he can be more aggressive and stronger on the puck in preseason, either could be the ninth forward for a potential line that could attack. Even without that consideration and assuming Brunner, they are plenty of pieces to try and put together. How it's done could make a huge difference in how effective the entire group could be.
The fourth line remains an open conversation. CBGB went through the whole 2013 season together for the most part. I get the sense that DeBoer likes them as a unit. They did get hot in the 2012 playoffs, which I think added to the romantic thought that they are an effective group. But in 2013, the results were more mixed. By analytics, Gionta stands out in a bad way. By production, he was more even with the unit. Among the three, I think Bernier may be the safest as he can be used on a power play, he can fill in a larger role in spot duty, he plays right wing, and he's a good shooter of the puck. Among a group of Olesz, Carter, Gionta, Josefson, or even Tedenby (not likely, but here we are), who remains? Barch will likely be the designated "enforcer" so he's likely to be on the roster in some way. The next few preseason games may bear that out.
In terms of special teams, the Devils certainly added more options. With Kovalchuk gone, the Devils had a huge hole on the power play and lost a penalty killer. For the PK, the Devils can still use Elias, Henrique, Zajac, and Zubrus to lead the way. I don't know whether Mike Foligno will follow Dave Barr's preference for a third set of forwards. Last season saw Josefson and Gionta, which didn't work quite so well. Josefson may improve and Olesz may be able to do this in theory. As for the power play, I'll leave the bigger question of who takes up the points among others for Part 4. But Jagr, Ryder, Clowe, and Brunner should all be able to play on the power play. The thought of Jagr along the half-boards along with Ryder's shooting and Clowe taking up space down low are tantalizing thoughts. The team at least added tools; but like the forwards in general, how they'll be used will make a big difference.
If I were Peter DeBoer, then I would push to have Barch sent down and this way I can keep both Gionta and Olesz in rotation for a fourth line spot. If I have Brunner, then I've got more offense to play around with. I would think a set of lines like the following may be good to start, though I would adjust as the games go during the season:
Zubrus - Elias - Jagr
Henrique - Zajac - Brunner
Clowe - Josefson - Ryder
Carter - Loktionov - Bernier
Jagr, Ryder, and Brunner aren't particularly good on defense, so this group would have them with someone who knows a thing or two about defending in their own end. Possession could be quite good for the top six, the bottom six just has to be decent. Each unit save for Zajac's has one forward who could hold his own down low and along the boards. Zajac and Henrique certainly are unafraid to get to those spots so it could work. I'd put Loktionov down on the fourth line as a truer "energy" line. Carter and Bernier can bang, while Loktionov can swarm where he'd like while playing the position he prefers. These twelve also give me options for special teams. Should a game come up where there needs to be more grit or someone needs to be spelled, Olesz or Gionta could step in. The likelihood of this being the actual forward lines for opening night are slim to none. But there's enough pieces for one to move around and put together units that could work.
Still, there are concerns that will remain about the forwards regardless of utilization and tactics. Speed could still be an issue even with the addition of Brunner. There's not a lot of fast guys up front. Health could be an issue as Jagr is 41 and has suffered something just in training camp. Clowe is coming off three concussions and his physical style may not benefit his body. Zubrus has been known to get banged up as well. The Devils will play a lot of back-to-backs in this coming season and so wear and tear will mount over the 82-game season. Depth may have to go beyond 14 forwards and history shows that they probably will in 2013-14.
The biggest one remains with respect to production. Elias pretty much needs to be Elias again. Based on what little he's played in preseason, this can happen. After him though, a lot of pressure is on Zajac and Henrique to return to more productive forms. The remainder of the retained Devils will all need to chip in as they are a mix of not-all-the-productive players and some potential. That's pretty much the long and short of it and it's a lot of hope. What about the incoming forwards? Jagr, Clowe, Ryder, and Brunner were productive last season but it remains to be seen whether they can do it again. Jagr is a stop-gap solution where the team's hoping he's got enough left in the proverbial tank to produce. Clowe should bounce back but that presumes he remains on the ice and fits in well down-low. Brunner did well in his first NHL season but without Zetterberg and heading into a second season, it remains to be seen whether he can repeat it. Ryder shot at a high rate and one suspects how useful he is when he's not scoring. Do the Devils have six 20+ goal scorers to make up for not having an ace? Maybe? I hope, but I'm not fully confident until I see it.
The group of Jagr, Clowe, Ryder, and Brunner (plus Olesz chipping in a bit, though he's never been a very productive player) combined might make up some of what has been lost in terms of shots, but who knows whether the Devils returning from last season can improve their shooting rates. It seems likely that the Devils won't be a high-shooting team. Therefore, if the shooting percentage doesn't improve or doesn't improve much, then this team isn't going to be scoring that many goals even if they remain a strong possession team. And then we're back to one of the key reasons why the team didn't make the postseason. Some Devils fans may appreciate the fact that there isn't an offensive star or standouts like some past Cup winning teams; but if the committee doesn't light enough lamps, few will appreciate the "team approach."
The Devils most certainly tried to make the most of their situation at forward in the summer and signing Brunner - which I think they should - can make the group better on paper. With or without him, I expect the forwards should remain solid as a unit on defense and strong in possession if only because the main players who did that last season are still here. But it remains to be seen if they actually will be more effective on offense even with this summer's signings.
Do you think the forwards will be better on offense? Will the signings of Clowe, Olesz, Ryder, and Jagr work out for the best? Can Zajac and Henrique turn it up to improve the core? Will the Devils sign Brunner and can he provide a needed boost? Who would you line up at forward to start the 2013-14 season and who would be your extra skaters? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on the Devils' forwards going into this season in the comments. Thank you for reading, Part 2 will continue with the defensemen tomorrow.