Parker Michaels continues his NHL Season Preview series in reverse to first order according to his projected standings. Be sure to bookmark our Season Previews home base here where links to all 31 teams will appear as they’re posted. Today at No. 23, the New Jersey Devils.
“New Jersey Devils vs. Everybody”
It was the rallying call that showed up in the locker room before one February game in the form of printed t-shirts but had been the motto of the team since training camp.
After finishing 2016-17 last in the Eastern Conference, many experts and prognosticators had the Devils finishing near the bottom of the standings again last season and the players say they were well aware. Playing with a chip on their shoulder from the start, the Devils held a playoff position after game one and never fell out of the top eight in the East at any point of the season.
Led by a new core of young players including Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, Will Butcher and No.1 overall draft pick Nico Hischier, the Devils used speed and motivation to wildly exceed expectations, but it was the play of former Edmonton Oiler Taylor Hall who single-handedly played the role of a one-man wrecking ball and carried the team on his shoulders to New Jersey’s first playoff appearance in six years.
Hall’s performance earned him the NHL’s Hart Trophy for the Most Valuable Player with 93 points in 76 games – 41 more points than the team’s second leading scorer, Hischier.
Head coach John Hynes implemented a solid system which worked with his young lineup, but I am sure even the most earnest of Devils fans would admit the team overachieved. With experts again calling for the Devils to miss the playoffs, the question is, can they do it again?
Record: 44-29-9 (97 points), 5th in Metropolitan Division, 15th Overall
Playoffs: First Round loss to Tampa Bay Lightning (4-1)
The Devils had a lot of things go right last season as would be expected for a team who jumped 27 points in the standings over the previous year, but they also had their share of difficulties ranging from a first line winger missing a quarter of the season with multiple injuries, a second line winger out the majority of the season, a third line center missing the first month of the season and a starting goaltender who played all season with a bothersome hip and a separate groin injury which kept him out for over a month. The fact they still exceeded expectations is a testament to how well everyone else played as a team.
General Manager Ray Shero also deserves credit for going out and adding key pieces the team needed to ensure they remained in a playoff spot. Early in the season, it became apparent Hischier would be able to hold down a top-six center spot which gave them a trade chip in long-time Devil, Adam Henrique. Shero pulled the trigger in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks to acquire a much-needed top-four defenseman in Sami Vatanen at the end of November.
After a pair of four game losing streaks in January and February, the team began to slip from a comfortable spot near the top of the Metropolitan Division so prior to the trade deadline, Shero added veteran forwards Pat Maroon and Michael Grabner in separate deals. Grabner struggled with just five points in 21 games but Maroon thrived with 13 in 17 and helped the Devils close the regular season with a 10-3-1 record to hold off the surging Florida Panthers by one point for the second Wild Card spot.
New Jersey finished the season just above average in scoring with 248 total goals (3.02 per game) but were a top-heavy team led by a top line which contributed a third of that total, including Hall’s team leading 39 goals. Secondary scoring was a major issue with no player in the bottom-nine able to crack the 20-goal mark.
Defensively, the team was league average allowing 244 goals (2.98 per game) but other than an outstanding breakout season from rookie Will Butcher, were underwhelming in most regards. Starting goaltender Cory Schneider had hoped for a bounce back year but struggled with injuries throughout the season and it was only thanks to a step up in performance from backup Keith Kinkaid which allowed the Devils to hold off the Panthers late in the season.
After a very successful and surprising season, a quick five game exit in the first round of the playoffs to the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning was a disappointing end. With the team being as young as they were, the hope was they at least gained some valuable experience to use down the road.
The Devils entered the June draft with just one pick in the first three rounds but made good on it when they selected left-shot defenseman Ty Smith No.17 overall. Smith is undersized yet skillful and projects to be a future top-four defenseman with excellent offensive skills.
The rest of Shero’s summer was quiet considering the team had an abundance of salary cap space. Depth players Kurtis Gabriel and Eric Gryba were signed on July 1 but are most likely to suit up in the AHL. Later in July 29-year old AHL forward Eric Tangradi was signed and in September, veteran Drew Stafford was invited back to training camp on a PTO after the Devils chose not to re-sign him upon the conclusion of the season. The only other outside addition was soon-to-be 27-year old defenseman Egor Yakovlev who spent the past six seasons playing in the KHL.
Leaving the Devils this summer were forward Brian Gibbons and defenseman John Moore who the team chose not to re-sign along with deadline rentals Maroon and Grabner who signed elsewhere.
For a team looking to build on last year’s results, success will have to come from internal growth of their young players and any new prospects.
Stanley Cup: +5000 (Bookmaker)
Eastern Conference: +2525 (Bookmaker)
Metropolitan Division: +1573 (Bookmaker)
Regular Season Points: 91.5 (-110) (BetOnline), 91.5 (-110, -120) (Bovada), 90.5 (-111, -109) (Bookmaker)
Make Playoffs: YES -150, NO +120 (BetOnline)
Current odds as of September 12, 2018
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
*Predicting depth charts is often called a fool’s errand and can be as difficult as predicting where a team will finish in the standings. Nonetheless, I decided to undertake this impossible task and am confident (as one can be doing this task, anyway) with the below information heading into training camp. All attempts will be made to update these charts once camp is underway and head coaches change their mind a thousand times.
*Individual Player Ratings involve the base formula created by Justin Kubatko at hockey-reference.com. An explanation of how I use his methods can be found here with a more detailed methodology by Kubatko himself, here.
*Salaries in green denote entry-level contract
NHL RANK: T-26
The Devils main weakness up front is still their depth down the middle and it is what really holds them back from the contenders in the Eastern Conference. Their main pieces are still very young though and with another promising prospect expected to join the mix this year, this weakness could be a real strength of the team in a couple of years.
Nico Hischier entered the season as an 18-year old rookie looking to break into the top-six and contribute in some way. Not only did Hischier contribute, he proved to be an effective No.1 center scoring 20 goals and 32 assists with positive shot differentials and tied for 3rd overall in rookie even-strength points. Not bad considering he also played the entire season with a chronic wrist injury which forced him to miss the World Championships and required immobilization for a few weeks in May. Hischier did not require surgery though and healed in time to go through his summer training where he spent a lot of time working on his shot. With improved conditioning and an increase in ice-time over the 16:18 he averaged last year, Hischier could improve on his point totals.
The second spot will see Pavel Zacha look to take on a bigger role this season. Zacha saw time on both the second and third line last year but only averaged 14:22 of ice time per game. His play was solid in most areas, but his offensive game needs to improve this year for him to remain in the top-six. Zacha is just 21-years old so still has a lot of room to grow.
If Zacha does not show enough improvement, veteran Travis Zajac will take over the role but will slot in on the third line to start. Zajac missed the first month of last season recovering from a torn pectoral muscle and was upset with how long it took himself to get going once he returned. For the season, Zajac put up just 26 points in 63 games but ended the season with 19 in 32 games after the All-Star break which is a slightly higher points per game pace than he registered the two prior seasons.
Brian Boyle does his job as a fourth line center and served his role well last year even after missing the first month when he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia during September’s training camp. Boyle put up 23 points and was a positive possession player relative to his teammates but may give way to prospect Michael McLeod at times this year if he has a strong camp and cracks the roster.
McLeod can flat out fly up and down the ice and is rated as one of the fastest skaters among all prospects in hockey. The fact he also has size at 6’2 means defenders are going to have a nightmare of a time when he is on the ice. McLeod is a solid two-way player, but his main drawback is his lack of creativity and hockey sense.
NHL RANK: 1
Yes, you read that right. New Jersey currently has the No.1 rated combination of left wingers in the NHL. Of course, having the league MVP atop the depth chart sure helps.
Taylor Hall enjoyed the calendar flipping to January more than any player in the league, scoring 38 points over an amazing 26-game point streak from January 2 to March 6 to catapult himself into the top ten of league scoring and the conversation for the Hart Trophy. Hall put the exclamation mark on the regular season with another 17 points over the final ten games to finish sixth in the scoring race with 93 points.
Hall is completely recovered from offseason surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left hand. The injury occurred at the end of December but did not cause him to miss any time and he said it did not have much impact on how he played. Hall has had his regular summer training schedule and is fully healed and ready to go.
Marcus Johansson was not so lucky with his injuries as the veteran winger was limited to just 29 games due to two concussions and a serious ankle bruise. Johansson returned to the lineup for Game 3 of their playoff series against the Lightning but was unable to get on the scoreboard. He has averaged more than 20 goals a season over the past three years and will be an important secondary scorer this season.
The third line duties belong to Blake Coleman who had a breakout performance in his first full season. Coleman finished strong offensively with seven goals over his final 16 games, but it was his defensive play which really stood out. The Coleman-Zajac-Noesen line became the Devils most effective shutdown line last season.
The fourth spot has Miles Wood penciled in right now but his 19 goals and 32 points in very limited ice time (12:28 average TOI) should warrant him a higher place in the lineup. The only problem is where else he could fit. Unless Johansson is struck with another injury, the left side is set and Noesen’s chemistry as part of a shutdown third line only leaves the top two spots on the right side. Palmieri is going to be locked into one of those spots which just leaves Bratt’s spot and that is expected to be the battle to watch during camp. Both players are deserving to be in the top-six but as things stand right now, one will get the top-six spot with the other sliding to the fourth line. It is a nice problem to have for John Hynes.
Drew Stafford is now a veteran at 32-years of age and has seen his game slip over the past couple of seasons. He registered just eight goals and 15 points over 59 games last season and the Devils chose to let him enter free agency. After going the summer unsigned, Shero decided to offer him a PTO and he will enter camp looking for a spot as an extra forward and should unless an unexpected prospect breaks through with an over-the-top camp.
NHL RANK: T-18
Kyle Palmieri set career highs in goals per game and points per game despite missing 20 games due to three separate injuries over the first half of the season. Palmieri mostly played on the top line when he was healthy and is expected to start here again this year although it is not set in stone.
A sixth-round draft pick in 2016, Jesper Bratt had a big first half in Palmieri’s absence on the top line but struggled over the second half when moved away from Hall and Hischier down to the second line. It might be best for Bratt to take the top spot and Palmieri the second to get the most from Bratt and better balance the top-six. Or, maybe the best scenario, move Bratt down to a more complimentary spot on the fourth line and bump Miles Wood up.
Stefan Noesen found a home with the Devils after struggling for playing time in the Anaheim Ducks organization. Noesen was very effective on the defensive end as part of the Devils best shutdown line but also proved to be a strong two-way forward contributing 13 goals and 27 points.
About the only lineup slot open for a prospect to crack through looks like one of the wings on the fourth line. John Quenneville is the closest to being NHL-ready and his defensive acumen should give him the edge here. Joey Anderson will also push hard for a spot but will need an impressive camp. Management is optimistic for Anderson and believe he has the skill to slide into a top-six role once he settles into NHL life. If Hynes decides to keep Palmieri on the top line, Wood, Quenneville or Anderson could jump onto the second line with Bratt falling to a fourth line wing.
Nick Lappin and Blake Speers will also be looking for a spot in camp but look for two of McLeod, Quenneville and Anderson to earn roster spots.
NHL RANK: 24
The Devils defense is a collectively weak unit and the biggest reason for holding the team back as a bubble playoff team instead of a top three contender in the Metropolitan Division. Andy Greene saw his game fall off a cliff last season with the worst relative shot differential numbers of anyone on the team not named Steven Santini. Unfortunately, Santini spent parts of 35 games and over 400 minutes with Greene last year, almost 17% of Greene’s total ice time. Greene was better once Sami Vatanen arrived, but that duo was still a negative possession pair. Greene will be 36-years old at the end of October and this could just be who he is now as a declining defender on the wrong side of the age curve.
Unfortunately, the team does not have any one else capable of handling a top pair role on the left side, but sophomore Will Butcher is hopeful to see an increased role in the top-four. Butcher was sheltered last year mostly on the third pair behind Greene and the departed John Moore but had a brilliant season with 44 points, setting a Devils rookie record for points by a defenseman. If Butcher can handle more defensive responsibility this year it would allow Greene to hopefully have a better season.
Mirco Mueller is another hopeful this year after a very successful run with Switzerland at the World Championships in May. Mueller was named one of the Swiss’ best three players in the tournament and helped them to a surprising silver medal. Mueller only saw action in 28 games with New Jersey due to a broken clavicle which held him out from November through February but he is a strong skater with size and hopes to see more responsibility on the third pair this season and may be given a shot in the top-four if Butcher regresses in a big way.
The wild card entering camp is left-shot Egor Yakovlev who the Devils had scouted for three years and signed a 1-year entry-level contract after playing the past six seasons in the KHL. He won a gold medal with Russia at the Olympics and has won a World Championship and Gargarin Cup earlier in his career. Yakovlev is a solid puck-mover with better defensive skills over his offensive game and may be able to help on the backend.
NHL RANK: 20
New Jersey received a needed boost with the trade acquisition of Sami Vatanen last year. Vatanen added a lot of pop to the powerplay and a steady presence on the top pair although his defensive game could still use some work. He would ideally be better suited as a second pair defender, but the Devils do not currently have that luxury. Vatanen suffered a concussion and facial cuts during Game 4 of the playoffs after a big hit from Nikita Kucherov and was forced to miss Game 5, the final game of the Devils season. He has had the summer to recover but it is somewhat of a concern moving forward.
Damon Severson is coming off a most interesting season. The 24-year old looked great at times last year scoring a career-high nine goals with positive relative shot differentials overall but his game fell off at the end and he would up a healthy scratch for multiple games down the stretch, including Game 1 of their playoff series. He is still young enough to develop his game and the Devils will need him to become a more consistent player this year. Severson’s regular partner last year was Moore who he spent 60% of his minutes with so he will need to develop chemistry with a new partner. Butcher spent the second most time with him at 18% and the pair put up positive possession numbers although they were outscored by a considerable 16-8 edge.
Veteran Ben Lovejoy saw his minutes drastically reduced last year and it had a very positive effect on his game. Lovejoy posted some of his best shot and goal differentials of his career and was a strong plus relative to his teammates.
Steven Santini will likely slot in as the seventh defender and hopefully no more for the Devils. Santini brings the heat on the physical end but held the distinction of being the worst player in the league in shot differentials with at least 400 minutes played. Eric Gryba, who spent split time last season between the Edmonton Oilers and Bakersfield in the AHL, will be a nice depth piece in the wake of injuries, but with Santini signing a new one-way deal and three-year extension this summer, Gryba is most likely to start in Binghamton.
NHL RANK: 26
(Starter – 24, Backup – t-39)
Cory Schneider lost his starter’s job for a time last season but is expected to be the No.1 guy again once he is healthy enough to play. Schneider underwent offseason surgery May 1 to repair torn cartilage in his left hip, something which had been bothering him for about a season and a half. Schneider said it was troublesome throughout the season but unrelated to the more than five weeks he missed with a groin pull in January and February. His recovery timeline was around five months which would put his return around the first of October.
Schneider has already been skating with teammates in Newark and is expected to join the team for training camp later this week but there is still a chance he may not be quite ready for the start of the season. The Devils open their season October 6 in Gothenburg, Sweden against the Oilers as part of the NHL Global Series so it would not be surprising if he stayed behind to finish the last of his recovery.
Backup Keith Kinkaid had an up-and-down season but really saved the Devils down the stretch when it appeared they would lose grasp of the final playoff spot. Kinkaid finished the season on a 7-0-1 run with a .931 save percentage, earning himself the starter’s job entering the playoffs. After two shaky games against Tampa Bay, Schneider took over and finished the series with a .950 save percentage, despite winning just one of three games. Overall, Kinkaid’s season was statistically stronger the year prior in 2016-17 but only appeared in 26 games compared to 41 this season.
With Schneider’s status in question to begin the season, the Devils will turn to veteran Eddie Lack to backup Kinkaid if Schneider cannot travel to Sweden. Lack signed a one-way 1-year contract over the summer. It is unlikely he would be claimed through waivers, so Lack is expected to play in Binghamton this season once Schneider is fully ready and would be the first call-up if needed.
New Jersey will need a few things to go their way again this season if they want to remain a playoff team. Secondary scoring will be important to assist Taylor Hall and the blueline will have to show some shred of decency but arguably the most critical aspect of this season’s success will come down to the play of Cory Schneider.
The Devils roared out to a fast start last season and Schneider was as responsible as anyone compiling a .923 save percentage to go along with his 11-5-3 record over the first two months. Then his hip flared up again and his game began to deteriorate. Schneider went just 6-6-3 over the next 15 games leading into the All-Star break with a .899 save percentage.
A groin injury sidelined him from then until March and upon his return, results were no better, going 0-5-0 with a .850 save percentage to end the regular season and an official demotion to backup entering the playoffs. Overall, Schneider ended the regular season on a 0-10-2 streak dating back to the end of December with an ugly .863 save percentage.
It was clear Schneider was not the same goalie who just two seasons prior had posted a .924 save percentage and finished sixth in Vezina voting. A year prior, a .925 save percentage.
Schneider mentioned he began noticing problems with his hip about a season and a half ago which happens to coincide with around the time his play went downhill. Schneider started the 2016-17 season in fine form as well, going 7-3-2 with a .929 save percentage over the first six weeks of the season. His play gradually tailed off after that and he ended the ’16-17 season similar as last year, on a 1-10-3 run and .891 save percentage.
With Schneider finally opting to take the required time for surgery and recovery, one must believe it is possible a healthy Schneider could revert to his pre-hip injury numbers from 2-3 seasons ago as the goaltender is still just 32-years old. Schneider was once an elite-level netminder and still owns a career save percentage of .920 overall, even with the last two seasons being poor.
Kinkaid showed well as a starter for a short spurt but also had several short periods last year where he would go 5-6 games with an under .900 save percentage overall. He has proven a capable backup, but the Devils will need Schneider to bear the load and return to his pre-injury form if they have any hope to compete within the division and that is why he is the Devils biggest x-factor this season.
The Devils took a big step last year and have better depth now than they get credit for, but it is disappointing to see Shero not make any significant additions this summer. To be fair, Shero was involved in the James van Riemsdyk sweepstakes but was not interested in overpaying and allowed Philadelphia to swoop in. He also made Maroon a very good offer – better than the one St. Louis tendered – but Maroon wanted to return to his birthplace and took the discount. Credit to Shero for not abandoning his long-term plan and making any bad deals this summer which would be worse than doing nothing at all.
That returns a lot of pressure on Taylor Hall to again produce at an MVP level but healthier seasons from Palmieri and Johansson would go a long way. The lack of secondary scoring was a major culprit last year, but this is a very young forward group and players like Hischier, Bratt, Zacha and Wood should make another positive leap in their development. A bounce back season from a finally healthy Schneider is also a strong possibility as I discussed above and why this projection could be a little low.
I currently have New Jersey projected for 89.4 points which is a significant jump over the team below them, the Chicago Blackhawks. As I mentioned in the Hawks preview, they completed the first group of teams I felt were too far below the playoff bubble and would compete as the eight worst teams in the league. With the Devils, they are the first team in a group of 12-13 teams I expect to be in the hunt for a playoff spot and could finish anywhere from just outside the playoff bubble to earning a Wild Card or third divisional spot (with the final 10-11 teams being the true contenders, in my opinion).
My 89.4 point projection is slightly below the 91.5 currently offered at BetOnline and Bovada and the 90.5 at Bookmaker with the consensus being the Devils will not be as good as last year’s 97-point effort.
Looking at Stanley Cup Futures, the Devils are currently listed on average from 19th – 22nd overall, just ahead of my projection at 23rd which seems fair.
One interesting note in the Futures listed above is the Devils odds to make the playoffs which BetOnline recently released. They have New Jersey listed as a -150 favorite with the “no” at +120. This looks like one of the stronger bets on the board under this category and something I would consider locking in now.
In the end, I think the offense will be fine and scoring options outside the top line will emerge while the defense is what it is and that is just not very good. However, they were not very good last year either, so it is not like they could fall much further. Ultimately, which side of the playoff bubble they fall on this season will hinge on Schneider and whether his hip surgery solves the reason for his poor numbers the past couple of years.
Salary numbers from capfriendly.com, stats from hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com