As camp begins, the team is starting to take shape. Still, many questions remain about the roster and who will be a contributor this year. Here are five of the biggest questions coming into the season.
1. Can the defense begin to rebound?
Last season was a tough campaign for the Devils defense. Players like Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov struggled mightily at times. There's no doubt that this is going to be an offensively-challenged team this season, so the impetus will be on the defense to step up their game. Salvador, who is 37, must be better this season. He's going to be expected to log major minutes, and he has to carry the load. As the captain, there's even more pressure on him to play well. Number 24 was so good in the 2011-2012 playoffs, that maybe the frantic 2102-2013 season was just a blip on the radar for him.
As far as Volchenkov goes, the Russian d-man had a challenging 2012-13 campaign. For a player that has made a career of blocking vulcanized rubber with all parts of his body, it seems like the rigors of his physical play have finally caught up to him. Volchenkov looked extremely slow, and that lack of speed resulted in poor positioning and many bad penalties.
It's certainly not out of the question that one, or both of these defensemen can turn back the clock and provide a steady presence on the blue line this season. For both, there will be pressure to perform or else they'll both end up sitting. With seven defensemen on the roster, and the glut of young, talented prospects, Salvador and Volchenkov will be under pressure to perform right away.
2. Speaking of defensive prospects, which young blueliner has the best chance of making the club out of camp?
It's still very early, so a lot can change over the course of camp and the preseason, but Eric Gelinas seems to be in the lead out of the gate. The 6'4'' 205 lbs prospect has played in Albany for the last two seasons, with a good amount of success. In 2011-2012, Gelinas had 16 goals and 21 assists in 75 games, and last season he chipped in with six goals and 16 assists in 2012-2013.
Gelinas has an exceptional shot, and he would be able to add offense, especially on the power play. Considering that the Devils have struggled to get points out of their defensemen, his presence in the lineup could be a huge boost. With the absence of Ilya Kovalchuk, Gelinas can fill the void with his powerful shot.
Jon Merrill will also get a good look in camp. He's a slick-passing two-way player that can also be a spark on the man-advantage. The former Michigan Wolverine played with Albany after finishing his college season last year. Merrill had some off-ice issues while at Michigan, so it might make sense to keep him down in Albany and let him mature, at least to start.
When it comes down to it, unless Merrill, or even someone like Alexander Urbom of Damon Severson absolutely wows the coaching staff, Gelinas has a leg up because he's played the last two seasons in Albany. It's still a completely open competition, and a few solid weeks of practice could land any of those players in New Jersey.
3. The one big hole in the lineup seems to be third line wing. Who will grab that spot?
This is the definition of a camp battle, if there ever was one. With the top two lines basically set, and the fourth line players still firmly entrenched in their role, the one spot that seems open for the taking is one of the wing spots on a line that may feature Andrei Loktionov and Dainius Zubrus. There are quite a few players vying for this last spot. Mattias Tedenby, Rostislav Olesz, Stefan Matteau and even to an extent, Reid Boucher are all in the mix.
For Tedenby, this is his last chance at proving he can contribute at the NHL level. He's coming off a gruesome face injury, but he still has the speed and stick handling that had the Devils so high on him when they picked him 24th overall in the 2008 entry draft. He has been wildly inconsistent, and always seems to fall out of favor quickly. Is this the year he finally turns it around?
Olesz came into the league as a top-10 pick of the Florida Panthers. He posted some decent numbers early on in his career, but he never lived up to his potential. The Czech winger will be in a familiar setting, playing with three fellow countrymen (Patrik Elias, Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky) and his former coach in Florida, Pete DeBoer. If Olesz is ever able to make a name for himself, this seems like a great spot for him to do so.
Stefan Matteau had some time in New Jersey last year, but he seemed raw. He went back to his junior team, The Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, before his unceremonious release from that club. With a full offseason to prepare, Matteau will come in with every chance to impress the coaches. Hes a big, physical forward, who would fit well in the Devils system, should he be able to prove he can be consistent.
Though everyone is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Reid Boucher, it's a long shot for him to make the roster. We know Boucher can score, but it's the two-way aspect of his game that needs work, which is why the plan seems to be to put Boucher in Albany. With that being said, if Boucher comes out and wows the coaches, and pots a few goals in the preseason, they may quickly rethink this strategy.
4. Does Jaromir Jagr have anything left in the tank?
After a season where the future hall-of-famer played in Europe, then went through the condensed NHL season on his way to the Stanley Cup finals with Boston, it's only right to question if Jagr has anything left.
The forty one-year-old winger comes to New Jersey for what seems like one last hurrah in his decorated career. No one is expecting Jagr to put up 80 points this season, but he will be counted on to be a productive part of the lineup, especially on the power play. No doubt, Jagr has slowed down, but he's still a rock on the puck, and his shot is still there.
To look at it optimistically, Petr Sykora came back to the team in 2011-2012 and put up 20 goals. Though Jagr is older, he's certainly more talented than Skyora. Adversely, another full 82-game season just might be too much for him to handle.
5. Will the starting goalie competition heat up, even before the regular season?
Barring injury, Martin Brodeur should get the start on opening night in Pittsburgh. After that? It's could be up in the air. Cory Schneider will get some starts early on, especially with the road trip to start the season. If he comes out of the gate outplaying Brodeur, even during the preaseason, he might begin to get the majority of the starts.
Certainly, Brodeur's play will have a say in that, and with Schneider breathing down the neck of the Devils' future hall-of-fame netminder, the competition should only raise the play of both goaltenders.
Though the team is most likely expecting Brodeur to be the starter, the fact is, that this team is going to put forth the best team they can field every night. If Schneider is the better option, then I think he'll get more starts.
The Devils play the most sets of back-to-back games in the league, so there will be plenty of opportunities for both to get playing time, regardless of who emerges as the number one. The most interesting development is to see who the team begins to lean on as the playoffs approach. Eventually, someone is going to wrestle away the starting role, but it could be a while before that becomes clear.