2013 may go down as one of the most challenging years in the history of the New Jersey Devils. To recap some of the events:
- There was the season that started not in late 2012, but 2013, after the NHL lockout. The Devils did so without their captain from the previous season, after Zach Parise departed for Minnesota. The 48-game slate was none to kind to the Devils, as they failed to reach the playoffs just one season after making the Stanley Cup Finals.
- Then, the shocking "retirement" of Ilya Kovalchuk shook the franchise as they were tasked with quickly rebuilding in the wake of losing their best player.
- David Clarkson also left, signing a big contact with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
- While hosting the draft, the Devils made a major trade that may shape the franchise for years to come, when they acquired Cory Schneider from the Vancouver Canucks in front of a shocked Prudential Center crowd.
- In the wake of those major departures, Lou Lamoriello was tasked with rebuilding the roster. In came Michael Ryder, Damien Brunner, Ryane Clowe and Jaromir Jagr. All three have proven to be integral aspects of the team. Jagr has been an ageless wonder so far and his leadership on and off the ice has been a valuable asset. While Brunner hit a lull after starting fast, up until his knee injury, he was playing some of his best hockey. Michael Ryder had his struggles as well, but as the calender turns, he sits only one goal behind Jagr for the team lead in goals scored. As for Clowe, he's finally starting to find his way after missing substantial time with a concussion.
- 2013 also saw the introduction of some promising rookies. Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill look like they may be a big part of the future on the blue line. Reid Boucher has shown glimpses of what he may become as well. Not to be forgotten is the stellar season that Keith Kinkaid is having for Albany, giving the Devils another option in goal for the future, or a trade asset.
With the tumultuous times of 2013 in the past, it now turns to 2014, where the Devils have a chance to make a shot at a playoff spot in an exceedingly crowded and quite pedestrian Metropolitan Division.
The New Year's Eve win over the Penguins was an excellent final chapter to 2013, but it also serves as an excellent measuring point for this team. There is one thing that we have learned from this season, it's that this team has the ability to play with some of the NHL's best. Fittingly, their first game of the 2014 portion of the season comes against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, who beat the Devils 5-2 in Chicago.
Predicting a playoff birth or anything along those lines is foolish, but at the exact midpoint of their schedule, the Devils are above NHL .500 at 17-16-8. The only sort of prediction you'll get out of me is this: The third through sixth spots in the Metropolitan may be separated by nothing more than six points when all is said and done. Translation: every divisional game is crucially important.
Moving forward, the Devils will need to continue to lean on players like Jagr for production. Still, players like Michael Ryder and Adam Henrique continuing to stay hot and giving the Devils a strong second line that will be the key to consistent scoring.
The defense has been the cornerstone of this club for much of the season and that will need to continue in 2014. The Devils average the lowest amount of shots against per game at 24.9 shots. That's more than a whole shot lower than St. Louis, who sits in second with 26.0 shots against per game.
The recipe for success is there. With the defense limiting opportunities and both goaltenders playing well, As long as the scoring is able to come, they will be in every game they play.
The 2014 chapter will be written and in time, this team will prove if it has the mettle to produce some big wins and find their way into the playoffs.