The New Jersey Devils have missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, but they caught a break, winning the NHL Draft Lottery.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Devils team that will have the top pick in this year’s draft and, even if it’s not expected to bring them a superstar, it should be a nice building block for a team that could be competitive quickly.
The question for the Devils is to decide whether they are intent on being competitive quickly, or whether they see a broader horizon. On one hand, there are rumours that Ilya Kovalchuk wants to return to the NHL (although not necessarily with the Devils) and after adding Taylor Hall from Edmonton last summer, the Devils could put together a competent attack.
The blueline needs some work too, and goaltender Cory Schneider would have to return to more typical form, but if that all fell into place, it wouldn’t be a stretch to picture the Devils competing for a playoff spot.
On the other hand, would it make more sense to target younger players, so that the core would be built around the first overall pick this year, 2015 first-rounder Pavel Zacha, 2016 first-rounder Michael McLeod and 2012 second-round pick Damon Severson?
That may not be a big enough core, but if that’s the approach, then the Devils could also deal the likes of Kovalchuk and Schneider in an effort to bring in more young talent. It’s not that they aren’t good players; it’s more that they are in their thirties and the team may not be really good for a few years.
The direction they choose may depend on how much frustration has built up in five seasons outside the playoffs. If they have the appetite to take a longer-term approach, the Devils may at least be able to sell hope for the future.
Taylor Hall – 53 points tied for the team lead, even though he missed 10 games due to injuries, and his possession stats were outstanding, as usual.
Damon Severson – The 22-year-old stepped into a bigger role following the departure of Adam Larsson.
Travis Zajac – The veteran centre continues to provide strong two-way play while taking on tough matchups.
Devante Smith-Pelly – Certainly no one was expecting Smith-Pelly to duplicate his strong 2015-2016 finish with New Jersey, when he scored eight goals in 18 games, but he had four goals in 53 games with terrible possession stats to boot.
Ben Lovejoy – This isn’t so much an issue with Lovejoy, but he forced to play too much and the results weren’t ideal.
Cory Schneider – In his previous six seasons, Schneider never had a save percentage below .921. Last year it was .908.
Ray Shero/John Hynes
FREE AGENT FORWARDS
Critics will note that Taylor Hall managed a modest 53 points in his first season with the Devils, but that doesn't tell the whole story of Hall's contributions. As usual, Hall drove play effectively and averaged more than 3.3 shots on goal per game, but he was hindered by a career-low 6.5% on-ice shooting percentage. He also suffered a knee injury early in the season, but the puck moves the right way with Hall on the ice, and the chances he creates will lead to more goals when he’s not dealing with horrid percentages.
Since coming over from Anaheim, where he was stuck in a supporting role, Kyle Palmieri has produced 56 goals in two seasons, taking advantage of the bigger opportunity afforded to him in New Jersey. He can fire the puck and is a rare scorer on a team lacking finish.
Veteran centre Travis Zajac continues to play a big role for the Devils; 2016-2017 was the fifth straight season in which he averaged more than 19 minutes of ice time per game, and his 45 points was his second-highest total since 2009-2010. He’s defensively responsible, and that holds some real value. Maybe not enough to justify his price tag, but he’s still a valuable contributor overall.
Adam Henrique went from 30 goals in 2015-2016 to 20 goals last season, but if he's going to maintain his role as a scorer, he will need to generate more shots on goal – he had just 1.73 per game last season. Fortunately, he’s been a 15.4% shooter in his career, and he remains a solid part of the supporting cast.
35-year-old left winger Mike Cammalleri shot a career-low 7.0% on his way to scoring 10 goals and 31 points. He can still be a scorer when healthy, but injuries are an annual occurrence and he's seeing his role reduced - last season's 17:21 of ice time per game was his lowest since 2005-2006. At this stage of his career, Cammalleri could benefit from sliding down the depth chart and feasting on more favourable matchups, in addition to a regular power play role.
Pavel Zacha, a 20-year-old who has size and skill, made some progress during his rookie season and should be looking at a more significant role next year that, ideally, will help him to create more offensively.
Though Miles Wood skates like he has rockets on his feet, and that gives him a way to put pressure on the opposition, but he got beat down rather handily when it came to shot and goal differentials during his rookie season. His speed can be a difference-maker, though, if he’s used in the right role.
After a brilliant finish in 2015-2016, during which he scored eight goals and 13 points in 18 games after arriving from Montreal, Devante Smith-Pelly had a miserable first full season in New Jersey. He managed just four goals and nine points in 53 games, had terrible possession numbers, and was frequently a healthy scratch.
Beau Bennett played a career-high 65 games (seriously) and while his career-high 19 points was hardly earth-shattering, he had superb possession stats that indicate he could hold his own in a top-nine role, at least when healthy.
2011 first-round pick Stefan Noesen has battled injuries, making his path to the NHL a little indirect, but the Devils gave him a shot after he was claimed on waivers from Anaheim. He was serviceable in half a season with New Jersey, which gives him a chance to stick next season, but he’s in a familiar spot on the roster bubble.
26-year-old centre Jacob Josefson has consistently played a solid game, but he’s also scored a total of 18 goals in 276 games. That offensive limitation should limit him to a fourt-line role, but he could still hold that role effectively.
Joseph Blandisi and Blake Coleman saw a little action with New Jersey last season. They're fringe NHLers, though Blandisi has shown more potential, contributing 26 points in 68 career games.
New Jersey’s forwards could be looking at some significant upgrades this summer. Having won the draft lottery, the Devils will have their choice between Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier with the first pick. While expectations are that they won’t necessarily have the kind of impact of the last couple of No. 1 picks (Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid), that’s a pretty high bar. At the same time, adding the top pick will upgrade the Devils’ skill up front and, for a team that has been the league’s lowest scoring at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons, any and all skill upgrades are welcome.
Speaking of skill upgrades, the hot rumour now is that Ilya Kovalchuk is exploring a return to the NHL. The 34-year-old had a strong season for St. Petersburg in the KHL, putting up 78 points in 60 games, and he could very easily help the Devils immediately. However, Kovalchuk’s initial preferences seem to suggest that the New York area or Florida would be his preferred landing spots.
Considering the makeup of the Devils’ current roster, investing any kind of term in a mid-30s Kovalchuk is a suspect play, but if the Devils could move Kovalchuk for younger assets, then that might work. The trouble, though, is that if Kovalchuk has a tiny list of acceptable destinations that could make it difficult for New Jersey to recoup significant value. So, maybe it will work out that Kovalchuk comes back to the Devils after spending four-and-a-half years in Russia. At the very least, his desire to return to the NHL ought to be an asset for the Devils.
FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN
Veteran blueliner Andy Greene has been tasked with doing the heavy lifting on the New Jersey blueline for quite some time and it’s possible that he’s being asked to handle too much on a thin defence corps. The 34-year-old could probably use a little more help.
A veteran who has a past with Devils GM Ray Shero from when both were in Pittsburgh, 33-year-old Ben Lovejoy was thrust into a bigger role than he ever had before, averaging a career-high 20:46 of ice time per game last season and, perhaps not surprisingly, he got crushed in terms of possession. For the Devils to have success, Lovejoy likely can’t be playing 20-plus minutes per game.
26-year-old John Moore has bounced around a bit to this point in his career (the Devils are his fourth team), and while he’s still not the most reliable, he did put up a career-high 12 goals and 22 points last season. He’s a bona fide NHL defenceman, but there’s likely not much upside at this stage of his career.
Tough guy blueliner Dalton Prout was acquired from Columbus in a deadline deal for Kyle Quincey. Prout isn’t very mobile and doesn’t handle the puck much, he is a physically strong depth defenceman who is a right shot. As a seventh defenceman, that’s okay; more than that and it could get a little dicey.
Maybe 25-year-old Jon Merrill hasn’t taken a big step forward in his career, but he’s also made some progress in a part-time role through his first four seasons in the league. Enough progress that he’s worth considering in a regular role with the Devils. The concern for New Jersey should be that if Merrill isn’t protected, that he ends up on the Vegas Golden Knight instead.
The future on the Devils’ defence right now is 22-year-old Damon Severson, a right shot defenceman who has put up solid possession stats, but he also hasn’t played as much (on a per-game basis) as he did during his rookie season, 2014-2015, when he averaged 21:58 per game. His defensive game still has room to improve, but considering the other options in New Jersey, they have to have high hopes for Severson’s development.
How will the Devils fill out the rest of their defence corps? Hard-hitting Steven Santini played half of a season as a rookie pro for New Jersey last year. Can the 22-year-old earn a more significant role?
27-year-old Yohann Auvitu, a rare NHLer born in France, didn’t play for New Jersey after January 7, but in his limited time in the league, he had some very promising results. If that doesn’t draw further interest from the Devils, it would make sense for any team looking for puck-moving defensive help to see if Auvitu is available.
The Devils have signed free agents Yaroslav Dyblenko, from the KHL, and Michael Kapla, from UMass-Lowell, so either of those might have a shot to stick, but it’s hard to put immediate expectations on them going into next season.
As for external options, there aren’t a lot of great free agent options beyond Kevin Shattenkirk. Maybe the Devils could lure Shattenkirk, but if not, then New Jersey could look for trades as teams start to shake up rosters heading towards the expansion draft.
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2017-18 CAP|
FREE AGENT GOALTENDER
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2016-17 CAP||STATUS|
One way for the Devils to get significant better next season would be for goaltender Cory Schneider to return to form. Last season’s .908 save percentage was a career low, and while his even-strength save percentage (.921) was down from previous seasons, his power play and shorthanded percentages were more dramatically off, and those small samples could, quite reasonably, bounce back.
The bigger question for the Devils, when it comes to Schneider, is whether they want to keep pushing forward with 31-year-old Schneider, or would rather move him to a team with more immediate expectations as a contender. A Schneider deal, if it would bring back significant assets, has to be considered.
Presuming that Schneider hangs around, the Devils still might need to find a new backup goaltender, as Keith Kinkaid is headed for unrestricted free agency. Someone like Jhonas Enroth, who had a .931 save percentage in 21 AHL games after he was banished from the NHL early last season, could be an inexpensive option to play 20-25 games behind Schneider.
Jon Merrill – Decent results and an inexpensive price tag could make him an easy addition for Vegas, who should be drafting quite a few extra blueliners, just to have assets to flip.
Beau Bennett – The oft-injured winger doesn’t have much of a track record, because he’s been hurt so much, but his play last season was solid.
Mike Cammalleri – He’s expensive and gets hurt quite a bit, but Vegas is likely to have a hard time scoring goals, so maybe they’d be willing to take on the last two years on the contract of the seven-time 20-goal scorer.
|Michael McLeod||C||57||27||46||73||+28||Mississauga (OHL)|
|John Quenneville||C||58||14||32||46||-19||Albany (AHL)|
|Blake Speers||RW||30||15||19||34||+16||Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)|
|Joey Anderson||RW||39||12||25||37||+11||Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC)|
|Alexander Kerfoot||C||36||16||29||45||+20||Harvard (ECAC)|
|Mackenzie Blackwood||G||36||.907||Albany (AHL)|
|Joe Blandisi||LW||31||8||17||25||-2||Albany (AHL)|
|Michael Kapla||D||41||3||27||30||+5||UMass-Lowell (HE)|
|Brandon Gignac||C||59||23||39||62||+23||Shawinigan (QMJHL)|
|Yegor Rykov||D||47||0||9||9||+9||St. Petersburg (KHL)|
|Nathan Bastian||RW||58||16||29||45||+13||Mississauga (OHL)|
|Yaroslav Dyblenko||D||51||4||7||11||-6||Moscow Spartak (KHL)|
|Nick Lappin||RW||35||14||15||29||+1||Albany (AHL)|
|Blake Pietila||LW||49||17||16||33||-2||Albany (AHL)|
|Scott Wedgewood||G||10||.912||Albany (AHL)|
The Devils aren’t loaded with blue-chip prospects, and could use an upgrade on the blueline, but have some quality in the pipeline. Michael McLeod and John Quenneville appear to be on the right path and Blake Speers got into three games for the Devils at the start of last season before going back to junior. 2012 fifth-rounder Alexander Kerfoot just wrapped up his senior season at Harvard but remains unsigned, so he could elect free agency in August.
1st – Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier
The Devils have approximately $52.6M committed to the 2017-2018 salary cap for 16 players.
One top-line forward, one top-nine forward, one top-pair and one top-four defenceman, backup goaltender
WHAT I SAID THE DEVILS NEEDED LAST YEAR
Two top-six forwards, three defencemen
Taylor Hall, P.A. Parenteau, Pavel Zacha, Beau Bennett, Nick Lappin, Kyle Quincey, Ben Lovejoy, Yohann Auvitu
Ilya Kovalchuk, Adam Henrique, Jon Merrill, Yohann Auvitu, Cory Schneider
MY PROJECTED DEVILS DEPTH CHART - 2017-2018
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Taylor Hall||Travis Zajac||Kyle Palmieri|
|Ilya Kovalchuk *||Pavel Zacha||Adam Henrique|
|Mike Cammalleri||Nolan Patrick||Beau Bennett|
|Miles Wood||Jacob Josefson||Devante Smith-Pelly|
|Joe Blandisi||John Quenneville||Stefan Noesen|
|Nick Lappin||Michael McLeod||Blake Speers|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Andy Greene||Damon Severson||Cory Schneider|
|Michael Del Zotto *||Ben Lovejoy||Jhonas Enroth *|
|John Moore||Steven Santini||Mackenzie Blackwood|
|Yohann Auvitu||Dalton Prout|
|Michael Kapla||Yaroslav Dyblenko|
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org