To all those that picked New Jersey to finish their season within two wins of the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup, please rise. Bueller? Bueller? Anyone? Thought so.
Some of the Devils' most die-hard fans probably didn't envision a playoff run like the one that New Jersey strung together last season, a playoff march that saw the squad exorcise 18-year old demons with a six-game victory over the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals. New Jersey established themselves as an uptempo squad with an aggressive forecheck that forced the opposition to make turnovers, as evidenced by the team's thumping of Philadelphia in the second round before bowing out in six to Los Angeles one month later.
Netminder Martin Brodeur showed he still had a semblance of his old self in guiding the team to the Cup finals, as he put together a strong second-half season before the playoffs. There was little doubt that Brodeur would re-sign with the Devils come July 1, and he will finish out his career in Newark after inking a two-year deal. Brodeur is no longer the ultra-reliable first-round pick he was in league several years ago, but he could be a solid depth addition to most team's goaltending corps. The Devils also ensured they would have the oldest goaltending tandem in the NHL when they re-signed Johan Hedberg to a two-year deal as well. Hedberg has cultivated a reputation as one of the league's more reliable backup goalies, in both real life and the fantasy hockey world. Odds are Moose will see a few more starts this season, making him worth more than a Brodeur handcuff in most leagues.
Goaltending isn't the issue for New Jersey heading into the season though, as the Devils will look to adapt to life without Zach Parise. Parise followed his heart and a $98-million contract back home to Minnesota, leaving the Devils a hole on their top line that might not be as bad as most believe it to be. Parise's leadership and work ethic is what will be missed, as his numbers could have been stronger last season (31-38-69). The lack of Parise on the Devils will not affect Ilya Kovalchuk much, as Kovalchuk found his stride and grew into an outstanding two-way player while notching 83 points in 77 games last year.
As for who will replace Parise, the Devils have a budding star in center Adam Henrique. The former Windsor Spitfire grabbed 51 points as a rookie despite seeing his numbers grind to a painstakingly slow crawl late in the season. Henrique has 25-goal, 60-point potential and showed the ability to produce in big games, as he fired home two series-clinching overtime goals last Spring. The Devils will also have a full season of their underrated pivot Travis Zajac, who missed all but 15 games last year while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. Zajac was one of the team's top scorers in the playoffs, snagging 14 points in 24 games and should settle in nicely on the team's top line, making him a savvy pick come the later rounds of drafts.
Outside of Kovalchuk's early-round status, the Devils offer several steady options for poolies, although most don't have tremendous upside. Henrique boasts the most keeper-league potential for owners while Adam Larsson is expected to take another step forward in his development.
The Big Guns
Ilya Kovalchuk (LW/RW): Ilya Kovalchuk put his disappointing first season in New Jersey behind him and reminded the NHL of the type of player he's capable of being, finishing fifth in the league with 83 points in 77 games. Surprisingly, Kovalchuk also developed into a formidable two-way player, notching three shorthanded goals. Was his production a product of Zach Parise? We think not. We think he can have a similar impact this season while being the team's lone elite scoring threat, especially when you remember that Parise's numbers were a little down last season.. Keep in mind that Kovalchuk still had several productive seasons in Atlanta after the team jettisoned Marian Hossa to Pittsburgh in 2008, so he's used to going at it alone. Bump Kovalchuk up a few spots in leagues that count shots on goal, but expecting 30 goals and close to 80 points are not out of the question. He finished last season with a herniated disk in his lower back, so be certain to monitor his health during training camp.
David Clarkson (RW): Clarkson established himself as one of New Jersey's leaders last season while handsomely rewarding those poolies who snagged him on waivers or with one of their last picks. Clarkson finished the season with 30 goals, 46 points and 138 penalty minutes, putting him alongside Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell and Anaheim's Corey Perry as the only players in the NHL to score 30 goals and accrue 100-plus penalty minutes. Unlike Perry and Hartnell, Clarkson does not have nearly as much value in leagues that do not reward penalty minutes. Do not to overpay for Clarkson's numbers from last season, but those in leagues that count penalty minutes will definitely want to have him on their radar come draft day. Around 25 goals with a boatload of penalty minutes is reasonable for the Toronto native, but he won't be the value he was last year.
Martin Brodeur (G): Questions abounded heading into October of last year as to whether the 2011-12 season would be Martin Brodeur's last in the NHL. In June of 2012, after Brodeur had led the Devils within two games of the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup, there was little question Marty would once more be back in New Jersey. Brodeur inked a two-year contract with the Devils in July and enters the season as the team's 40-year-old starting netminder. He is no longer the elite talent he was several years ago and logic would suggest that he will share more time with Johan Hedberg than he has in previous seasons. Marty finished the season much stronger than he began it, posting a goals-against average of 1.86 in the season's final three months with all three of his shutouts coming over that span. You could do worse than adding Brodeur as one of your netminders, but don't draft him at the expense of a younger player with more upside.
Patrik Elias (C/LW): The crafty winger-turned-center posted one of his strongest seasons in recent years during the 2011-2012 campaign, notching 78 points in 81 games. He was rather quiet in the team's run to the Stanley Cup Finals with just eight points in 24 games, but Elias was the team's most consistent offensive player during the regular season, rarely going more than two games without a point. His 56 assists were tops on the team and he notched 29 points on the power play. At 36, he doesn't have much upside left, but he's a skilled playmaker that can be a solid source of secondary scoring. Just don't overpay for last season's numbers as some regression could be reasonably expected.
On The Rise
Adam Henrique (C): Henrique followed his solid 18-goal, 51-point rookie campaign with a solid playoff performance, notching two series-winning overtime goals in New Jersey's run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Henrique established himself as one of the top young players in the NHL last year and has even higher value in keeper leagues. Despite his solid numbers, Henrique finished the season with just three goals after the All-Star break and played most of the season between Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Henrique, a proven performer in his junior days, enters the season as one of New Jersey's top centers and should challenge 60 points even without Mr. Parise riding shotgun. Bump him up a few spots in keeper leagues.
Adam Larsson (D): Much hype surrounded Adam Larsson after being the fourth-overall pick of the 2011 draft, as he drew comparisons to everyone from Nicklas Lidstrom and Devils' assistant coach Scott Stevens. Larsson turned 19 during last season and he definitely experienced a learning curve coming from the Swedish Elite League. Larsson finished the season with 18 points and a minus-7 rating while seeing himself in and out of the lineup at times, playing in 65 games, but he played in just five of New Jersey's 24 playoff games this past spring. Larsson remains a developing talent with great potential, but expect him to continue to experience a few bumps this season. Still, he should challenge the 20-25 point mark, provided he can shore up his defensive-zone play.
Alexander Urbom (D): Urbom played a mere five games with New Jersey this past season after eight as a 19-year old in 2010. The 6-4 Swede has talent and will be looking for a regular role with the big club on a crowded blue line. Urbom notched 12 points in 50 AHL games last season and will certainly get a long look during training camp. Remember his name in keeper leagues.
Travis Zajac (C): After suffering a torn Achilles tendon last summer, Zajac missed all but 15 games this past season, attempting a comeback around Christmas that was short-lived before he got back on the ice for the season's final seven games. He was solid in the playoffs with 14 points in 24 games, but the Devils will be eager to have their steady pivot for a full season. Depending on whom Zajac skates alongside, he should challenge 50-55 points and 20 goals; the sight of Ilya Kovalchuk on his wing for a full season is certainly intriguing to fantasy owners, as Zajac could be a good value come the middle rounds of your draft.
Marek Zidlicky (D): Formerly one of the league's most consistent scoring defensemen, Zidlicky had a horrific start to last year with Minnesota before being traded to New Jersey prior to the deadline. The Devils had a glaring need for a power-play quarterback, but Zidlicky didn't light up the scoresheet upon arriving in Newark, notching eight points in 22 games with New Jersey. He's never been a big goal scorer in his career, but the Devils are hoping he can feed Ilya Kovalchuk consistently on the power play and make a great outlet pass to start the attack. Be cautious about the 35-year old Zidlicky, but he's just a season removed from notching 43 points and he can still dish the puck. Expect him to make a run at 30 points, but the Devils' power play will funnel itself through Kovalchuk.
Ones To Avoid
Jacob Josefson (C): After missing all but 28 games in his rookie season two years ago, Josefson had last season cut in half thanks to a broken collarbone followed by a hand injury suffered shortly after he returned. The young Swede will be 22 in March and has good hockey sense to go with a solid two-way game for a young player. He had nine points in 41 games last year and the Devils are eager to see what he can do should he stay healthy for a whole season. Josefson does have some value in keeper leagues, but keep in mind he's more of a two-way player than a pure scorer.
Dainius Zubrus (W): Zubrus posted his best offensive season with New Jersey, clocking in at 44 points with a plus-7 rating last year. The versatile forward is used in all situations and plays center and wing on the team's top three lines. Zubrus is more valuable to New Jersey than to fantasy leagues as he plays in checking roles as often as he receives top-6 minutes. Expecting anything more than 40-45 points from Zubrus at this point in his career is asking too much.