This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the New Jersey Devils. It was expected the Devils, who were going into their first season without Lou Lamoriello as their General Manager since 1987, were going to be among the worst teams in the league as they searched for a new identity and built a new core through the draft. A couple months in, they’re one of the most surprising teams in the NHL, sitting just one point behind Boston for the second Wild Card position in the Eastern Conference.
Obviously this is hot start is simply smoke, mirrors, and Cory Schneider, so the Devils should stick to the rebuilding path and look to sell high on some of their veteran depth players when the trade deadline rolls around. A playoff run is exciting and all, but the Devils aren’t there yet, and the best thing they can do right now is load up on draft picks and prospects as they continue to rebuild their core.
The Devils are going to have a really, really busy offseason this summer. Among their active forwards, only Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, Ryane Clowe, Adam Henrique, and Stefan Matteau are signed beyond the end of this season. And of course, Ryane Clowe will more than likely never play another game in the NHL because of his concussion issues, so the Devils only really have four forwards signed into next season. Running up and down the list of impending free agents, it’s difficult to tell who New Jersey is going to be interested in bringing back who they’re going to let go. Kyle Palmeri, Sergey Kalinin, and Jacob Josefsen, all of whom are RFAs, will certainly be given new contracts, but after that, it’s anybody’s guess.
Like I said earlier, the Devils are a rebuilding team that’s having a hot start to the season. Obviously it’s tempting to push to accelerate the rebuild and contend for a playoff spot, but judging by the fact this team boasts a Corsi For percentage in the bottom third of the league, and has been riding a combination of unbelievable goaltending from Cory Schneider and scoring from the likes of Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak, straying away from the course would be ill advised. Right now, the Devils are better off capitalizing on the solid veteran depth they have by exploring the seller’s market than they are trying to make a push for the playoffs that’ll more than likely result in them on the outside looking in.
Guys like Stempniak and Tlusty, who both own cheap contracts and are free agents at the end of the season, will be attractive come trade deadline time for teams looking for veteran depth up front. Selling them to playoff contenders will net the Devils some mid-round draft picks, and it’ll also help them position themselves for a top pick in the draft come June. Obviously they shouldn’t scorch the earth and sell every single veteran asset they have, but capitalizing on a solid season from a journeyman is better than either letting them go for free in the summer or signing them to a horrific deal thanks to one good contract year.
DEFENCEMEN AND GOALTENDERS
Here’s the reason why this team is performing as well as it is. Cory Schneider. Through 19 games this season, Schneider has a 0.928 save percentage, a 2.03 goals against average, 6.92 goals saved above average, and 4.1 point shares. I don’t think I really need to go into much detail about how good Schneider is or how valuable he is to the Devils, but if it weren’t for him, we certainly wouldn’t be sitting here pretending the team has a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. He’s signed for seven more years at a very team friendly cap hit of $6 million, so hopefully the Devils can put something together and contend sooner rather than later.
The defence in front of Schneider is solid, but it isn’t anything to write home about. Andy Greene and Adam Larsson are signed for five and six more years respectively, which gives the Devils a calming, steady pairing that can play tough minutes and defensive zone assignments for years to come. Both Larsson and Greene don’t show much in terms of producing offensively, but both have managed pretty respectable possession numbers despite starting more than 70 per cent of their even strength shifts in the defensive zone. Of course, Larsson is only 22-years old, so I won’t completely write his potential offensive game off, but even if he doesn’t develop that element of his game, he’s still a valuable player with a reasonable $4.167 million cap hit.
Along with Larsson, the Devils also have a wealth of young defencemen that makes the future of this group exciting. John Moore, Eric Gelinas, and Jon Merrill are all solid defencemen under 25-years old age, but the most intriguing of the group is Damon Severson, who likely would have received serious attention for the Calder Trophy last year had it not been for an injury that ended his season after 51 games. As a 20-year old, Severson managed 17 points in 51 games with the Devils last season while also boasting a positive Corsi For percentage in relation to his teammates despite making decently heavy defensive zone starts. His entry-level deal comes to an end on July 1, 2017, and I suspect by that time the Devils are going to be looking to lock him up to a long-term contract.
The hot start is a nice sign that the Devils have themselves a solid core of players and a nice group of complimentary pieces that can be sold to a contending team for assets that can help their rebuild. Obviously they don’t want to go overboard and sell their entire team at the deadline and throw all of their young players into a pool of sharks, but guys like Jiri Tlusty, Lee Stempniak, and David Schlemko can certainly net them some mid-round draft picks, and they’re better off getting something for them than letting them walk in July for nothing.
The Devils certainly have a lot to be excited about. They have a good core of young players and one of the best goalies in the game, so I’m sure they’ll be contending for the playoffs sooner rather than later. Also, if there was ever an offseason to have a boatload of cap space, it’s this one. The 2016 free agent crop is going to be one of the best in recent memory, as household names like Steven Stamkos, Anze Kopitar, Milan Lucic, and David Backes among others could potentially be hitting the market. So yeah, the Devils may only have a few forwards signed right now, but they also have a boatload of space to make an offer to a potentially franchise-changing free agent this summer, which is yet another reason for Devils fans to get excited.