Originally Published: September 24, 2013

New Jersey Devils: It's going to be rough

By Katie Strang | ESPN.com

Just one year after a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2012, an injury-ravaged New Jersey Devils team missed the playoffs last spring for the second time in three years. Looking to bounce back this season, the Devils must surmount the challenge that is losing their two biggest stars in consecutive offseasons.

One summer after franchise winger Zach Parise signed a monster, $98 million deal with his hometown Minnesota Wild, Ilya Kovalchuk also opted to return home. The star sniper bolted for his native Russia to play in the Kontinental Hockey League. You can't ever underestimate general manager Lou Lamoriello, one of the most well-respected executives in the league, but one can only do so much in the wake of losing two superstars of that caliber.

Future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur is back for his 21st season with the Devils -- and possibly his last, with a successor now firmly in place. Lamoriello acquired goaltender Cory Schneider in a stunning draft-day trade, presumably with the intention of grooming him to take over in net once Brodeur is done.

Meanwhile, the Devils have resolved what had become a rather tenuous ownership situation with the sale of the team to Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris in August, providing the club the type of financial security missing in recent years.

The acquisition of Schneider was the headliner of several notable offseason additions for the Devils. The former Canuck, who was mired in a never-ending goaltending saga with Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, is regarded as one of the league's top netminders, though he has never shouldered the responsibility of being the clear-cut No. 1 guy. That may be in the cards eventually, but not until Brodeur has decided to hang up the skates, as coach Pete DeBoer has named Brodeur the team's opening-day starter.

Lamoriello also made a splash with the signing of free-agent forward Ryane Clowe to a five-year, $24.25 million deal. The 30-year-old Clowe, who was traded to the Rangers at the deadline by San Jose, was limited to just 12 games in New York because of two concussions. Clowe now has a clean bill of health and will add some size and sandpaper to the Devils' lineup.

To further address the team's anticipated scoring woes, Lamoriello added Jaromir Jagr, though the veteran star sustained a lower-body injury on the first day of training camp and has not practiced with the team since. A late addition to camp was Swiss forward Damien Brunner. The 27-year-old was signed to a professional tryout contract Sept. 16 and has been skating with veterans Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus. Lamoriello said he gave Brunner "no promises," but the former Red Wing will likely have a good chance of cracking the roster and earning a contract.

Although it would be easy to point out the various holes throughout the Devils' lineup, leadership is not one of them. The team is led by a group of savvy veterans in Bryce Salvador, Andy Greene, Elias and Brodeur.

The decision to trade for Schneider also bolstered the team's stability in net. With age and durability a growing concern with the 41-year-old Brodeur, Schneider provides a backup who can assume the starting role if needed. Johan Hedberg was a beloved teammate and reliable No. 2 guy behind Brodeur the past three seasons, but the 40-year-old Swede struggled when asked to shoulder a heavy workload. Schneider already made a strong first impression in his Devils debut when he turned away all 22 shots faced in the team's 2-1 win over the Rangers in the first preseason game.

The Devils have some promising young defensemen who could have an impact in Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill, Alexander Urbom and Eric Gelinas, who has an impressive shot that could prove valuable on the power play.

Not to beat a dead horse, but what are the Devils going to do to fill the gaping void left by Kovalchuk? It was enough of a challenge to address the departure of Parise last season; now the Devils must contend with the loss of their other offensive dynamo. In his first two full seasons with the Devils, Kovalchuk notched 68 goals. The 30-year-old winger finished second on the team in scoring last season with 11 goals and 31 points despite missing 11 games due to injury. Kovalchuk was a big body whose speed and skill gave opponents fits and often opened up areas of the ice for his teammates. He logged heavy minutes and added a special dimension to the power play with his strong shot and ability to get the puck to the net.

Oh, and did I mention that the Devils also lost their leading goal scorer to free agency? Yup, David Clarkson cashed in on another terrific season by inking a seven-year deal with Toronto this summer. That loss could leave the Devils reeling, as Clarkson added grit and offense with 15 goals and nine assists in 48 games last year.

So who needs to step up? Adam Henrique, who signed a six-year, $24 million contract this summer, needs to recover from his sophomore slump and get back to the type of player that was so clutch in the 2012 playoffs. Travis Zajac must also live up to his eight-year, $46 million deal. The 28-year-old Zajac, who hasn't played a full season since 2010-11, still has to prove that he's capable of serving as a first-line center.

Depth at the forward position is actually a strength of this squad, but the lack of star power remains a concern. If Elias and Jagr can remain healthy and produce, that would give the Devils a huge boost.

With tough teams in the Metropolitan Division like the Rangers, Penguins and Capitals, a wild card might be the Devils' best shot at a playoff berth.

Strang: The drop-off in offense without Kovalchuk and Clarkson in the lineup will be too big of an obstacle for New Jersey to surmount. Expect the Devils to finish sixth in the Metropolitan Division and miss the playoffs for the second straight season.

Burnside: Eighth in the Metropolitan Division.

Custance: Seventh in the Metropolitan Division.

LeBrun: Eighth in the Metropolitan Division.

Melrose: Seventh in the Metropolitan Division.

Katie Strang covers the Detroit Tigers for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.


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