Will Ilya Kovalchuk stay in the KHL or return to the Devils?
After missing the playoffs in 2011, the Devils bounced back last season with a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals. The 2012 Eastern Conference champions will be facing an uphill battle to replicate that success this season, however, due to the loss of superstar forward Zach Parise, who signed with Minnesota.
1. Ilya's year?
Ilya Kovalchuk averaged more than a point per game while playing in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), keeping his skills sharp during the lengthy work stoppage. The question is: Will he return? Rumors were rampant on Tuesday that he was considering staying with his club, SKA St. Petersburg, despite the agreement between the NHL and KHL that all NHL players shall return once the lockout is lifted. The Devils could void his whopper of a 15-year, $100 million deal should he choose to stay, but conventional wisdom is that he will return to avoid any international sanction. Assuming he returns, Kovalchuk is by far the Devils' most potent offensive threat. He led the Devils in scoring with 87 points (37 goals and 46 assists) last season and will now get the opportunity to play his natural position on the left wing. Kovalchuk was moved to the right wing for a good chunk of the year to play on a line with Parise and, although he still thrived there, he may feel more comfortable switching back. Will Kovalchuk's numbers increase as the No. 1 guy or will Parise's absence have an adverse effect on him? And more importantly, will he come back at all?
2. No more Zach
The New Jersey Devils didn't fare well the last time they were without Parise for a significant chunk of time -- the superstar winger missed all but 13 games in 2010-11 because of a knee injury -- and this time his absence is permanent. The dynamic forward signed with his hometown Minnesota Wild this July, and the Devils will need to account for the void all over the ice. One of the premier, do-it-all, hard-working, abundantly skilled players in the game, Parise can't be replaced. But they'll have to hope for an ensemble effort that helps to fill the void. Parise's departure also requires the Devils to designate a new captain for the second time in two seasons.
3. Aging goaltenders
After briefly flirting with free agency this summer, Martin Brodeur inked a two-year, $9 million deal this summer to remain with the team that drafted him more than 22 years ago. Even at 40, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer was superb in helping the Devils reach the Stanley Cup Finals, but he and the team will be dogged by questions about how long he's able to hold up. The Devils have one of the most reliable -- certainly one of the most beloved -- backups in Johan Hedberg, but he's no spring chicken either at 39. Whether those two can keep the fountain of youth flowing for another season will be a concern, as will the physical effect of a lockout-shortened season on older players.
4. Key injury
Without Parise, the Devils would like to lean heavily on young center Adam Henrique, who had a breakout rookie season and tremendous postseason. Unfortunately, the 22-year-old Calder Trophy finalist is coming off hand surgery that is expected to sideline him for another month. The injury leaves the Devils with some depth issues down the middle, meaning the club will have to get big contributions from fellow pivots Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson. Both missed big chunks of last season with injuries, so they are looking to have bounce-back performances.
5. Defensive depth
Perhaps the most underrated move by Devils GM Lou Lamoriello last season was nabbing offensive-minded defenseman Marek Zidlicky in a deal with Minnesota leading up to the trade deadline. Zidlicky, who publicly clashed with Wild coach Mike Yeo, added a veteran presence and a weapon to the Devils' power play, but the Devils still lack depth on their blue line. Veteran Andy Greene is a steadying force on the blue line, but New Jersey could use someone with the size and snarl of Scott Stevens or the skating ability of Scott Niedermayer. Rookie Adam Larsson showed promising flashes but was inconsistent in his first professional season. The Devils will have to hope he takes a major step forward in his development -- he'll have to do so without the tutelage of former assistant coach Larry Robinson -- and the rest of the defensive corps can stay healthy. Mark Fayne is an underrated blueliner that quietly had a strong year for the Devils. His play could factor in huge to the team's success.
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