The New Jersey Devils started the lockout shortened 2012-13 season on fire. Following a home-and-home sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in February, New Jersey sat atop of the Eastern Conference. Then the injuries started to take their toll. Without key contributors like Dainius Zubrus, Martin Brodeur and Ilya Kovalchuk, the team tumbled down the standings. An inability to score, combined with some terrible luck down the stretch, kept New Jersey out of the playoffs for a second time in three years.
With the Devils hosting the 2013 NHL Draft at the Prudential Center, General Manager Lou Lamoriello announced he will keep the team's first round draft pick. Thus, the organization will be forced to surrender their 2014 first round pick as a penalty for the Ilya Kovalchuk contract signed in 2010, which was viewed by the NHL as an attempt to circumvent the salary cap.
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Lamoriello has some work to do this summer. He has to decide which veterans to bring back that are unrestricted free agents. That list includes forwards Patrick Elias, Zubrus, David Clarkson, defenseman Marek Zidlicky, and other experienced players. Qualifying offers need to be made to Adam Henrique, Jacob Josefson, Andrei Loktionov, and Matt D'Agostini. Another RFA is former first-round pick Mattias Tedenby, who has not developed the offensive consistency the team is looking for.
The main task by the Devils general manager is to find a top six winger to fill the hole left by Zach Parise. The void affected all four lines because head coach Peter DeBoer was forced to juggle his personnel to find an offensive spark. Management tried to solve the issue by trading for veteran, low risk players, but that failed. Steve Sullivan could not find his scoring touch with the club that drafted him. D'Agostini created chances but not goals. Alexei Ponikarovsky had a bad second stint with former team. Tom Kostopolous was more of a role player. Of the additions, only Loktionov showed a knack for finding the back of the net. Loktionov displayed some chemistry with Kovalchuk when they were together on the top line.
Defense was never an issue except for who was going to play. With eight defensemen vying for time, it became a congested blue line. Adam Larsson, the Devils fourth overall pick in 2011, was in and out of the lineup along with Peter Harold. Veterans Bryce Salvador, Zidlicky, Andy Greene, Henrik Tallinder, and Anton Volchenkov were the normal grunts on a nightly basis, while Mark Fayne continued to solidify his role with the team.
In goal, Brodeur and backup Johan Hedberg enter the final years of their contracts. This could be the last season Brodeur plays in a Devils uniform, though he has hinted at possibly playing another year. Both goaltenders will look to bounce back in 2013-14.
New Jersey has a deep stock of skilled defensemen waiting in the wings. The system includes a variety of offensive and defensive prospects from top to bottom. From the physical Alexander Urbom, to the shot blocking Curtis Gedig, to offensive minded Eric Gelinas, as well as the short and stocky Joe Faust. All of them have potential to crack the NHL roster.
The team also features a large amount of pro level prospects. That number will increase with the additions of Jon Merrill, Reid Boucher, Seth Helgeson and others on entry-level contracts starting next season. All three of New Jersey's goaltender prospects are also playing at the pro level.
Speaking of goaltenders, Scott Wedgewood, Maxime Clermont, and Keith Kinkaid earned the majority of starts between the pipes on their respective teams. They also got a taste of the next level and played pretty well. With Brodeur and Hedberg signed on for one more year, the competition to the heir of the Devils crease may come sooner than later.
Other than Boucher, New Jersey lacks potential top-six forwards. In fact, Lamoriello admitted recently that his staff will be focusing on adding more skill up front in this year's draft. Currently, their centermen are more defensive oriented, while their right wing position is non-existent. The only player listed is free agent signee Mike Sislo. Their other left wingers, Artur Gavrus and Harri Pesonen, are boom or bust prospects. With the ninth overall pick, New Jersey will have a choice of quality forwards to choose from. Also, their goaltending prospects are good, but none are currently expected to develop into elite puck stoppers.
The Devils enter this summer's draft with the 9th, 39th, 100th, and 160th picks. Their third round pick was sent to Minnesota last year in the Zidlicky trade, while their fifth was used to acquire Loktionov from Los Angeles, and the seventh round pick used to re-acquire Ponikarovsky.
Lou Lamoriello has used 10 of his last 24 draft picks over the past four NHL drafts on defensemen. Once barren of blue line talent, the team is about to reap the benefits of its strong defensive corp. Last year, the Devils used four of their six selections on centers (Stefan Matteau can play center and wing). The Devils have focused on one position at a time to strengthen their depth. Look for the team to continue to stockpile on forwards.
The Devils have shown a willingness to draft European players. Three of their last four first-round picks have been out of Sweden and, with a deep pool of European players available in the 2013 draft, it would not be a surprise for New Jersey to select at least one player from overseas.
Another tradition Devils fans have come to expect is seeing at least one American player taken, usually in the later rounds. They typically aim for players from the USHL or the US National Development Team Program. Still, the organization balances their selections through all the junior leagues.
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It is no secret the Devils need more goal-scoring as well as star power in their prospect pool. There is a good amount of quality forwards available, but by selecting Shinkaruk, New Jersey would add one of the best pure goal scorers in the 2013 draft to their organization.
The left-handed forward contains all the assets to succeed as a goal-scorer: speed, stickhandling, an excellent shot, good hockey sense, and a passion to get better. Shinkaruk also forechecks hard and likes to fight in the physical areas for the puck. He must get stronger to not only survive the pros, but continue playing his style. He projects to be a top-six forward who can provide a spark, something the Devils need badly.
John Iadevaia wrote this article.