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Core Values: Devils long on experience with veteran nucleus

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

It's Cory Schneider's turn to grab the spotlight in New Jersey. (USATSI)
It's Cory Schneider's turn to grab the spotlight in New Jersey. (USATSI)

In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

The New Jersey Devils missed out on the playoffs last year, but they're going to have a good shot at a bounce-back season in 2014-15 thanks to a veteran group and expected strong goaltending. Without the Martin Brodeur farewell tour hanging over the team this year, they can focus on moving forward and have already been aggressive in doing so.

With Cory Schneider finally being given the No. 1 job that is his and his alone, something he's probably deserved for three years, there should be stability in net in the absence of the future Hall of Famer Brodeur. The team also went out and got some scoring help in the offseason in the form of Mike Cammalleri, extended Jaromir Jagr for another year, brought in Martin Havlat on a low-risk deal and even jumped into analytics by hiring former pro poker player and hockey advanced stats pioneer Sunny Mehta.

There are still holes, like the defense looking a little thinner without Mark Fayne and even with the addition of Cammalleri the scoring could wane like it did last year. Some of that may be sorted out yet over the course of the season, but it would appear that giving Schneider 60-plus games this year is going to help a lot.

The Devils are going to continue to rely on a fairly seasoned group and will have one of the older cores in the league, but with what they have right now and the way the Metropolitan Division has been shaking out this offseason makes it seem as though New Jersey has a shot at being a strong entry in the East.

Core Values: New Jersey Devils

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): G Cory Schneider (29, 8 years), RW Jaromir Jagr (42, 1 year), LW Patrik Elias (38, 2 years), C Travis Zajac (28, 7 years), D Andy Greene (31, 6 years), C Adam Henrique (24, 5 years), C/W Mike Cammalleri (32, 5 years)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $30,750,000 (44.5% of salary cap consumed by seven players)

Average age: 32

Total point production in 2013-14: 93 goals, 150 assists, 243 points (45% of team's total point production)

About the core

Cory Schneider: After years of waiting, Schneider will finally have the net to himself and the Devils finally have an heir to the lofty throne built by Martin Brodeur. Schneider found himself sharing more than he probably should have last year as Brodeur made 39 appearances to Schneider's 45. That sharing came despite the fact that Schneider had a .921 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average. Imagine 20 more appearances with those numbers? Additionally, Schneider was playing behind one of the worst scoring teams in the league and couldn't manage to win a shootout either. When the club gave him a seven-year extension, it sent the message that Schneider's been waiting to receive. The statistic that should excited Devils fans is that over the last four years, Schneider has the best save percentage (.928) in the NHL among goaltenders with at least 100 appearances. The next closest goalie on that list is Tuukka Rask who has only 13 more appearances than Schneider over that span is widely considered one of the league's best netminders. Schneider's not being a No. 1 yet in his career prevents him from a similar distinction, but now he'll have a chance to prove he belongs in the conversation. How he was acquired: Traded from the Vancouver Canucks for a first-round draft pick on June30, 2013

This year may be the end of the road for Jaromir Jagr's brilliant career. (USATSI)
This year may be the end of the road for Jaromir Jagr's brilliant career. (USATSI)

Jaromir Jagr: He may not be long for the team or the league, but Jagr showed that even at 41 years old last year, he can produce. He led the Devils with 67 points, which included a team-best 43 assists. Additionally, Jagr was a dominant possession player with a Corsi for percentage of 58.6. One of the greatest players ever to hit the ice in the NHL, Jagr has embraced his new team and pretty much put them on his shoulders last season. Since returning to the league in 2011-12 after a three-year absence, Jagr has 156 points. Another season like he had last year will go a long way towards getting the Devils back to the playoffs, assuming they can get more scoring from others including new addition Mike Cammalleri. If the season goes well enough, perhaps Jagr will be ready for another go-around, but the Devils should just be glad to have No. 68 on their side for at least one more kick at the can. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 23, 2013

Patrik Elias: Though limited to 65 games last season due to injuries, Elias had a strong year with 53 points to finish second on the team. That came despite the veteran forward and career Devil posting one of the lowest average ice time figures in his career since the number has been tracked. The 2014-15 campaign will represent the 19th season in which Elias has played for the Devils. He has 1,155 games in a New Jersey uniform and has rewarded the franchise with 983 points. He should score his 400th career goal this upcoming season and will likely still play an important role on this veteran-laden team. A strong two-way player, Elias has long been a possession machine for one of the best possession teams in the league. Last year, he posted a 54.5 Corsi for percentage and if he can manage to stay healthy this year, that number may go up. With just two years left on his contract, will this be the last two years of Elias in the NHL? He'll turn 40 in the last year of his contract in 2015-16, but at least for now remains an effective player for this club. How he was acquired: 1994 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 51st overall

Travis Zajac: Only Cory Schneider is under contract for longer with the Devils than Zajac who has seven years remaining on his current deal. The team put a lot of faith in Zajac after Zach Parise bolted in free agency and it's not hard to understand why. Zajac has given the Devils some great years, but they'll undoubtedly be looking for even more production than the 48 points he contributed last season. The two-time 20-plus goal scorer set a career high of 67 points in the 2009-10 season. Expecting that might be overly optimistic, but he's proven he can produce. Last year was right around his career average points-per-game at 0.60. Either way, Zajac is a strong center who does have good skills to bring some more offensive production. The Devils need more goals and he'll be a guy that needs to score more himself. He's proven it in the past and now has two healthy seasons under his belt after managing just 15 games in 2011-12. With improved depth up front, perhaps the numbers will follow for Zajac. How he was acquired: 2004 NHL Entry Draft: 2004 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 20th overall

Andy Greene: After being handed a five-year extension earlier this summer with one year left on his current deal, there's never been better proof that Greene has complete faith from his organization as their No. 1 defenseman. Not among the stars of the league, the relatively unflashy Greene has been a strong NHL defenseman since joining the team as an undrafted free agent. Now that Mark Fayne is gone, there's even more on Greene to be a strong go-to defender for the Devils. He averaged a career-high 24:35 per game last year and scored a career-best eight goals. A strong puck-mover, Greene also had 32 assists last season. Ability to contribute at both ends of the ice will be important especially after the team came out a year where it simply struggled to score. Considering how he is utilized, Greene's possession numbers were exceptional last year with a Corsi for percentage of nearly 56%. More of that from him should bode well even as he enters his age 32 season. How he was acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent on April 4, 2006

Adam Henrique: Having led the team in goals last season, Henrique will be looked to for more offense this season. He's also the youngest core player the team has currently at 24. Last year, Henrique scored a career-best 25 goals and finished the year with 43 points. He is one of the most heavily-utilized forwards the team has as well. With only three full seasons under his belt, Henrique may still be finding his way in the league, but as he matures, consistency should follow. He has the faith of his team and also comes with an extremely affordable contract over the next five years. If the Devils are going to have success, it's going to come with Henrique taking another step forward in his NHL career. More will be expected, but there's reason to believe he hasn't even touched his full potential yet, which is great news for the Devils. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, third round, 82nd overall

Mike Cammalleri: An expensive offseason addition, Cammalleri is going to be looked to for goals. Anything less than 25-plus goals out of the former Calgary Flames sniper will likely be viewed as not enough. Last year, Cammalleri put up 26 goals in 63 games. His scoring rates actually were up overall while with Calgary. So what will happen when he gets to New Jersey? The good news is that he might be a little bit more insulated in their lineup with a better top-six forward group overall. If he can somehow reproduce the 0.41 goals-per-game average he had with Calgary, the Devils are going to be looking pretty good with the offensive group they have up front. But again, he's an expensive addition and now 32 years old. How long will he be able to score? The Devils are committed to finding out over the next five years now. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014

Who's next in line

Eric Gelinas is one of three young defenseman who could step up for the Devils. (USATSI)
Eric Gelinas is one of three young defenseman who could step up for the Devils. (USATSI)

The Devils do have some youth in their current lineup, but not a whole heck of a lot. There are also some players at the minor league level and below that could one day contribute to this team as older guys move on.

The main area of focus for the Devils at the NHL level should be the defense. The club has long been waiting for Adam Larsson to turn the corner from prospect to everyday NHLer. The former fourth-overall pick has struggled over his first three NHL seasons and has had a tough time sticking with the big club. He has one year remaining on his deal and still appears to have some potential to reach for.

There's a tad more optimism around Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas on the back end.

Merrill looked solid in 52 games as a rookie last season and at age 22 should be ready for more responsibility next year. He had 11 points while averaging over 19 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Gelinas has shown great promise with 29 points in 60 games last year. More of an offensive threat on the blue line, he could sneak in some top-four time at age 23 this year.

Though he's not necessarily young by NHL standards at age 28, Damien Brunner is young in his NHL career. His production was too light last season with 26 points in 60 games. With one year remaining on his current contract, Brunner will have a chance to bounce back, though he's going to have to fight for some ice time with new additions on the roster.

The team can also start looking for a bigger contribution from former first-rounder Jacob Josefson, who appeared in 27 games last year. He has been up and down a lot, but the team has him under contract for two more years and at 23 years old, he still has time to find his way. It looks like it may be as a more defensive-minded depth forward, but the Devils have had success with those players in the past.

Additionally, 2012 first-rounder Stefan Matteau is coming out of his first full professional season having spent all year in the AHL. He had 26 points and still looks poised to grow into a power-forward presence with some grit and scoring prowess. Reid Boucher also looks like an interesting player for the team's future. The former fourth-round pick once scored 62 goals in the OHL and put up seven points in a 23-game stint with the Devils last year.

Other prospects the team can look forward to include gifted defensive defenseman and current Boston College sophomore Steven Santini and most recent first-round pick John Quenneville who will remain in the WHL next season.

Overview

With a team packed with aging veteran players, the Devils have to be in win-now mode. Head coach Peter DeBoer has a unique system that allows his team to often dominate in the possession game, but unlike other teams, New Jersey hasn't been able to convert that to scoring more and winning. That can change this year with more from the forward group.

In addition to Cammalleri, the club added veteran Martin Havlat on a low-risk, cheap one-year deal. If he can stay healthy and contribute in the lineup, that's just another player that's going to bring scoring depth.

The Devils also added Tuomo Ruutu in a trade last season and will be looking from more from free agent signing of a year ago, Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe.

The fact that the Devils are a pretty old team as far as the roster is concerned makes it extremely difficult to project for the future. There hasn't been much of an emphasis on injecting youth into the lineup, but the team will be forced to go younger on the blue line with guys like Merrill, Gelinas and hopefully Larsson being able to make a bigger impact.

Up front, things appear to be pretty well set, with the possibility of re-signing Ryan Carter still apparently part of the offseason plans, though that hasn't happened yet.

A lot of the success this team does or doesn't have next year is going to hinge on how Schneider handles the most reps of his career. He had a career-high 45 appearances last year. Will he be able to manage the transition to more work? Considering he's 28 and has so much experience even if as a backup or tandem-mate, he should be able to manage. It will be interesting to see what his numbers look like later in the season, though.

The Devils are a really tough team to gauge because of the age factor, the playing style and the realtive unpredictability of the Metropolitan Division next year. Playoffs look possible, perhaps even likely for the Devils next season. Beyond that, it's tougher to see what the future holds, but in New Jersey it's almost always about the “now.”

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